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Signing NDAs?

Signing NDAs?

As a professional presentation designer I deal with highly confidential information in almost every presentation I work on. Let's look at NDAs (non disclosure agreements) from different perspectives.

As a founder, inventor, entrepreneur, you have every incentive to get people to sign an NDA before sharing confidential information. You have this fragile idea that anyone could just steal and replicate. Also, NDAs are important when applying for patents. If someone can prove that your idea was "out in the open" without NDA protection, you could lose your claim as its inventor.

Investors see thousands and thousands of deals in a year. Signing an NDA for each single one of them creates some practical problems. You would have to thoroughly check 4 pages of dense legal text for each one of them, you need to keep track of all the agreements over time in order not to forget the thousands of legal obligations you entered into over the course of 20 years. That is the reason most investors won't sign an NDA.

Since investors hold the check book, they are in a pretty strong negotiation position versus the inventor. What to do? In most cases it is possible to explain an idea without signing an NDA. Simply leave the very specific bits out of the pitch. When the due diligence process advances, you might have a chance to get the investor to sign later on, as the probability of making an investment increases.

Even if the investor had bad intentions, it is pretty hard to copy a startup idea after glancing through an investor deck. You need to have the required technical know-how, the team, etc. etc. to make it happen. And even if you have all that, you need to put in the sweat to make it actually happen.

The only investors I would watch out for are those who invested in a complete, direct competitor of your product. Although most investors probably have the ethics to try to keep things separate, it is hard to "unsee" a strategy slide in a deck of a competitor when you are about to make big decisions in the Board meeting of your portfolio company. (There is a broader issue here though, whether this investor is actually a good investor for you in general).

What about designers? Like investors, I tend not to sign NDAs in the early phases of a project discussion. There are so many draft decks coming in, that it is not worth entering a legal agreement just to scope a project. I ask the potential client to send me materials that can be shared without an NDA to make a project quote.

If we end up working with each other, I do sign NDAs (unlike investors), but usually with 2 conditions: they should be capped in time, so that whatever I sign, I know that the obligation will go away at some stage in time and I won't be burdened with legal obligations that I will have forgotten about in 10 years from now. Watch out with the legal language in these contracts. One clause can say that the agreement runs for let's say 3 years, but then another one later on can state that the obligations of the contract last forever (I have seen ones where my children would have been legally bound as well). The second condition is not to include non-competes. They are very hard to define, easy to forget.

Having said that, many of my clients trust me enough that they email me the most sensitive data without any NDA (for example detailed portfolio return data of VC funds). This is usually the case when we have a lot connections in common, and/or, the other party understand that the key asset of an independent designer is reputation, I will go out of business and suffer a major personal blow the second after I spill confidential information, and that might be the best insurance of your confidential data.

 

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Business document production workflows

Business document production workflows

Production of documents and reports inside corporations is a hugely inefficient process, because of a number of reasons:

  • Using the face-to-face meeting format to discuss small text edits
  • Do zero preparation for such a meeting, and start reading analyzing the text with the junior analyst in front of you
  • Because of this lack of preparation, completely upend the start of the presentation because critical bits are missing, without reading things to the end
  • Having too many people involved: lots of captains on the ship giving contradicting input
  • Refusal of senior managers to make tiny text edits directly into the text themselves

I remember this from my early days as a junior analyst at McKinsey. Fight 1 hour of traffic to drive to a meeting with a senior client and/or partner. Listen to small talk, get send out to make paper copies, multiple people making edits to slides with pens, make copies again, back into the car, in the office at your desk failing to read the hand writing, going back and forth via fax machines until you get it right. Technology has moved on a bit, but document editing is still pretty much the same today.

When I start to work with a new client there is usually a small adjustment process, especially when we are on different continents. Am I a junior analyst who needs paragraph by paragraph instructions? He is 7 hours ahead, but hey, I am the client and get to set the meetings. Better schedule frequent update calls to make sure he stays motivated to press on. 

After a while, clients discover the luxury of an overseas design partner. Make small text edits yourself, jot down broader comments in a box on the slide, hit send before leaving the office, and hey, all is done when you come in the next morning. Sometimes not being in the same physical location makes life easier for everyone involved.

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"Do something basic, it does not have to be great"

"Do something basic, it does not have to be great"

"I know you are busy, but this is really urgent, I we are on a very tight budget: do something really quick, it does not have to be great, pretty, beautiful"

A warning to all freelance designers don't fall into this trap.:

  • Your client says it does not want quality, but will for sure be disappointed when she receives the work. Secretly she hoped that you would not stick to the bargain and put in the extra hours to come up with a decent product
  • Your basic, not so good, quick work, will still go out there, it will be passed on, other people will see it, and the poor quality will boomerang back to you.
  • You have crossed the "I am a quick fixer for hire" mental threshold. The mindset of the freelancer should always be, how can I be more valuable, and as a result charge more for my work, rather than less. It should be a one-way door, never go back.
  • If you accept this short term work,  you might have to drop a potentially interesting client a few days later because of it. Opportunity cost of time.
  • Clients who are willing to compromise quality are probably not the best clients to work for.

Another often used argument is "we will do the design, you just focus on the story". Things go quiet when you actually send over a deck full of boxes and placeholders that is ready to go into the design process.

The only real reason I find it hard to say "no" is not cash, it is admitting that I cannot help everyone with raising money or getting that crucial client. But I learned from the few times when I said "yes" and should not have.


Image via WikiPedia

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Ethics and the freelancer

Ethics and the freelancer

Many of my clients are concerned about confidentiality when we start working for the first time together. Especially after I ask them for the company financials, cap table, and product development timeline, all essential ingredients for an investor presentation.

Some clients require signing an NDA. Unlike VCs, I sign them if they are capped in time, and do not contain non-competes. But many clients, actually don't bother. Here is why your secrets might be safer with a 1-person freelance organization than a larger company:

  • The cost of a data breach is much higher. Even the slightest hint of an ethical issue will put me out of business. For big companies, it is a legal issue that can be dealt with in dollars. But, this is hardly ever going to be an existential issue.
  • One person firms are better at controlling information flow than large companies with lots of different departments, with lots of different subcontractors in lots of different locations.
  • Good freelancers probably have a 100% full work pipeline, and select work based on the interest or creative challenge rather than a need to fill the empty capacity of a bank of designers waiting for work downstairs. As soon as a prospective client really gets interested (wink, wink) in knowing more about the specifics of the work you did for a competitor, it is a good sign to walk out of the room.
  • A free lancer works directly with the client, so the eye-to-eye handshake is a personal contract signed with your consciousness. You are not wondering whether you violate a contract, but whether you are breaking someone's trust.

Image by We are Neo on Flickr

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All the slide templates you will ever need

All the slide templates you will ever need

With my presentation app SlideMagic I aim to change the communication culture in corporates. People spend too much time preparing slides. They produce documents that are unattractive to look at, and spend far too much time falling asleep in conference rooms.

The solution: splitting the communication tools: Excel and PowerPoint for logging the analysis, and a new tool 100% focused at communicating an idea and getting to a decision. A super simple visual language does not allow you to get lost in crafting complicated slides, or worse - give up all together and just use bullet points on every chart.

In a business presentation you need very few visual concepts:

  • Listing and organizing stuff (yes, the dreaded bullet points)
  • Comparing, contrasting, things
  • Showing growth, trends, forecasting
  • Showcasing things (products, people, clients)
  • Linking one thing to another, impact, cause/effect, from-to

When you hit "insert" in SlideMagic, you get presentation with this list of slide templates. In my opinion they can cover 99% of your business presentation needs. Think about what you want to do (listing, comparing, forecasting, showcasing, linking), pick a template and adjust row/column counts and you are done.

If you want, you clone this entire slide deck in your own SlideMagic account via this link. Let me know which concepts that I have left out you cannot live without. Maybe processes, timelines?

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Corporate speak

Corporate speak

Professions tend to have their own language. Academia, doctors, lawyers, politicians. You need to master the language in order to be part of the club. Once you are part of it, you filter the language and extract what it actually means.

Managers in corporations have such a language as well, it is called the presentation. The key messages are hidden in bullet points, consulting frameworks, and buzzwords. Junior managers learn the craft by spending hours creating the deck and iterating them, senior managers know how to read in between the lines and get to the issue that matters quickly (the 2nd part of the proposed budget on page 35).

We got rid of formal letters and replaced them with informal emails and messages. It is time make those presentations more to the point as well.

Part of the solution is more visual slides (imagers, less text). But the most important change is a cultural one: saying what we want to achieve in a short and to the point matter.

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