Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Three?

Three is better than two.

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Around 7 minutes to read

The common wisdom in project work is that you have two choices between three options: a project can be good, fast, or cheap. It can never be all three.

A Venn diagram of three circles: Good, Fast, and Cheap. The combination of Good and Fast is Expensive. The combination of Good and Cheap is Slow. The combination of Cheap and Fast is Low Quality. The combination of all three is You Wish.

Each combination of two can be a viable business model. Let’s look at a few examples.

Good + Fast

A Venn diagram of two circles: Good and Fast. The combination is Expensive.

Doing good and fast work is the typical standard of excellence for most businesses, because it’s the most straightforward and understood path to making good money. This is true across most industries. When you hire a plumber, if they do good work fast, that’s usually considered a good hire. The same is true for agencies and freelancers.

From a customer perspective, knowing who sells this combo is tricky. Portfolios can cue you into whether or not work is good. But how can you tell whether the person or team works fast? Very few people include the timeframes of their projects in their portfolios (though I’d love to see more of that). And, even if they did, it’d be pretty easy to lie about. This explains why a lot of happy customers find their service providers through word of mouth.

Types of services you can provide if you want to have a reputation for being a good and fast (and, subsequently, expensive) designer/firm:

Good + Cheap

A Venn diagram of two circles: Good and Cheap. The combination is Slow.

If a customer wants good work but wants it to be cheap, they can probably expect it to be slow. Conceivably, good service providers are busy with many customers, and the most common way to incentivize them to work with you is to pay a lot. Those not willing to pay a lot are usually relegated to waiting.

In Philly where I live, one of my favorite restaurants is Dim Sum Garden. Their specialty is delicious soup dumplings, and they’re very reasonably priced. They don’t take reservations, so almost every time I go, there’s a line out the door. I once waited 2 hours to be seated, and it was worth every minute.

Fast + Cheap

A Venn diagram of two circles: Fast and Cheap. The combination is Low Quality.

When I ran SuperFriendly, we were sometimes more expensive than clients wanted to pay, so some would ask if we could staff a team of junior people or even supervised apprentices for them in return for pay less than they would for a more senior team.

The assumption here was that the work would be “lower quality” but they’d get fast and cheap. We usually turned down this option, because we knew it would often mean slow and cheap, which is hard to deliver even if the client asked for it.

So how can this version be viable? The key here is not to be low quality, but lower quality. Lower than what? Many think it’s to be lower than the industry standard, but that’s usually unacceptable to customers. What many have figured out is that you can have a secondary service offering that’s faster and cheaper than your main service offering, which allows you to deliver an acceptable “lower quality” to a customer. Rather than thinking about is as “low quality,” it’s helped me to reframe it as “good enough.”

Fast food is a perfect example. I play basketball once or twice each week for 2-3 hours, often burning up to 2,000 calories. My typical recovery meal is a plate of rice, salmon, and broccoli or green beans; it has the carbs to replenish glycogen stores and the protein to repair broken-down muscle. But sometimes I play basketball an hour away from home. I can't wait an hour to get home to eat. So I go to McDonald’s or Taco Bell. It’s not my preferred meal, but it’s fast, cheap, and good enough.

Good, Fast, and Cheap: You Wish

A Venn diagram of three circles: Good, Fast, and Cheap. The combination is You Wish.

The general expectation—one that’s led to this iron triangle concept—is that you just can’t have good, fast, and cheap. That’s why people are rightly skeptical about anything that promises it, despite how alluring it is.

That explains the pushback against the growing popularity of design subscription agencies, because they seem to promise good, fast, and cheap:

That’s just one example of why the common mantra here is that you can only pick two.

But there’s a big assumption here: that the only three desirable qualities are “good,” “fast,” and “cheap.” If we reframe all of the qualities as desirable, there are a few more combinations that really do allow you to pick three.

Good + Expensive + Slow

A circle encompassing Good, Expensive, and Slow

My favorite restaurant in the world is Royal Sushi in Philly. The food is astonishingly delicious, it’s super expensive, and it took me 3 years to get a reservation. Almost everyone that eats there has the same experience. Chef Jesse Ito has been running it for years and is booked long into the future. Sounds like a great business to me.

Could you run a freelance practice or an agency that puts out the highest quality work, charges premium prices, and has a line of clients waiting years to work with you? Many people have.

Fast + Expensive + Low Quality

A circle encompassing Fast, Expensive, and Low Quality

I’ve done a few projects like this over the years. A founder typically gets in touch with some kind of emergency:

I usually offer something like, “I can give you a day of work. No guarantee about what I can finish, but I’ll do my best.” Usually, the customer trusts me enough to believe that whatever I produce will be better than what they currently have and/or me not doing it. I charge an astronomical price for the rush, they wire the money same-day, and we’re off to the races. It’s never my best work, but they (hopefully) never expected it to be.

The common factor is a short deadline. It’s not that they want it fast; they actually need it fast.

Cheap + Low Quality + Slow

A circle encompassing Cheap, Low Quality, and Slow

I think this is the most difficult version to sell, but who says you have to sell it? This model fits the “free“ part of “full price or free.”

Which model should you pick?

I recommend you pick on a project-by-project basis, rather than choosing one to base an entire business around. I’ve done all of these versions in my career and business! Some examples:

Do you have a favorite model? How do you use one or more of these in your work? Reply and let me know.

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