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A Sandwich, A Wallet, and Elizabeth Taylor's Cousin

Poor, poor Sebastian

Being a Parable for the Edification of Independents Seeking Independence


THE OSTENSIBLE CUSTOMER enters a deli and saunters up to the counter. The deli is tended by its rakishly handsome owner, THE SANDWICH GUY.

"Hi," says The Sandwich Guy. "What looks good to you today?"

"Slow down," says The Ostensible Customer, as THE LUNCH RUSH starts trickling in. "Lots of delis want my business, so, first I need to really understand what you can do for me."

"Well," says The Sandwich Guy, "I guess I can try to do what I do for everybody here and make you a customized version of any of the 15 awesome sandwiches you see on my menu. What're you hungry for?"

"Easy, easy, Ricky Roma! Before I make any decisions here I'm going to need to know a lot more about my options. Why are you so obsessed with 'what I want?'"

"Okay, sorry," says The Sandwich Guy, uneasily eyeing the growing queue of The Lunch Rush now piling up behind The Ostensible Customer. "What else can I do to help here?"

"That's better," says The Ostensible Customer. "Let's start by sitting down for a couple hours and going over all the ingredients you have back there."

The Sandwich Guy laughs congenially and hands The Ostensible Customer a menu. "Friend, I can make you whatever you want, but, if it helps, the 15 sandwiches listed here show all the ingredients--right there between the name and the price..."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! The price?!? Already you're reaching for my wallet? Jeez, I barely just arrived."

The Lunch Rush is getting restless and grumbling audibly.

"Well. You know. I do sell sandwiches for a living," says The Sandwich Guy. "Did you have a certain budget in mind for your lunch?"

"Oh, God, no. I'm nowhere near that point yet. I still need to learn a lot more about how you work, and so, obviously, I have no idea what I want to pay. Obviously."

"Okay," says The Sandwich Guy, "but...I can't do much for you here without knowing either what you want to eat or how much money you want to spend. You get that, right?"

The Ostensible Customer is miffed.

"Listen, here. What I 'get,' so-called Sandwich Guy, is that you're not going to rush me into some tricky lifetime sandwich commitment until I understand precisely who I'm working with. And, so far, I do not like what I see. Still. I intend to find out more. So, meet me in Canada tomorrow to talk about this for an hour."

The Lunch Rush begins waving their wallets as they lob their completed order forms at The Sandwich Guy's face.

"Sorry," says The Sandwich Guy. "I can't do that. How about I just make you a Reuben. It's really good, it's our most popular sandwich, and it only costs eight bucks."

"WHAT! EIGHT DOLLARS! 'Dollars' with a 'd?' That's way too much!"

"I thought you didn't have a budget," says The Sandwich Guy.

"Well, I don't. And, besides, I don't really 'need' a sandwich at all. Now, kindly fly to Canada."

"That's not going to happen, sir."

"Also," says The Ostensible Customer, "if I do decide to get a sandwich from you--and it's looking increasingly less likely that I will--I'll absolutely expect your deeply discounted price to reflect the fact that I'm not particularly hungry right now."

The Lunch Rush begins lighting torches and chanting a guttural chant, not unlike the haunting overtone singing of Tuvan herdsmen.

"Look," sighs The Sandwich Guy, "it sounds like you need a little more time. Here's a free Coke and a complimentary bowl of pickles. Please have a seat, take all the time you need, then just come on up whenever you're ready to order, okay?"

"‘READY?!?’ TO...‘ORDER?!?’ Are you out of your mind?"


Presently, The Ostensible Customer turns beet-red.

"This is an outrage! I can't even imagine how you stay in business when you treat your customers like this."

The Lunch Rush grows silent as The Sandwich Guy slowly leans over the counter and smiles--his nose one slice of corned beef from The Ostensible Customer's nose.

"Sir. First off: you aren't my customer yet. Right now, you're just some dude holding a bowl of free pickles."

"Buh?" fumbled The Ostensible Customer.

"And, second, the way I 'stay in business' is by making great sandwiches and having as few conversations like the one we're having as possible," The Sandwich Guy coos.

"Because, the truth is, my real customers are actually all those nice people standing behind you. They're the people who buy my sandwiches with real money over and over again. I really like them, and so I give them almost all of my attention."

The Sandwich Guy waves at The Lunch Rush. The Lunch Rush waves back. The Ostensible Customer looks stunned.

"Sir," says The Sandwich Guy "enjoy your Coke and your pickles with my compliments. But, please step aside. Because right now, there's a whole bunch of hungry people trying to buy sandwiches that won't require me flying to Canada. Next, please!"

The Lunch Rush roars approval. The Ostensible Customer is still stunned. Which is unfortunate.

Because, several men from the back of the line spontaneously rush forward to drag The Ostensible Customer, screaming and grasping, onto the busy sidewalk outside, where they proceed to devour his flesh like those street urchins who eat Elizabeth Taylor's cousin in Suddenly, Last Summer.

Meanwhile, The Sandwich Guy goes back to making sandwiches. And, The Lunch Rush goes back to eating them.


  1. The Sandwich Guy can't do much for you until you're hungry enough to really want a sandwich.
  2. Once you're hungry enough, you still have to pay money for the sandwich. This won't not come up.
  3. Few people become "a good customer" without understanding both 1 and 2.
  4. Few companies become "a smart business" without understanding 1, 2, and 3.
  5. Basing his business on an understanding of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 doesn't make The Sandwich Guy a dick; it makes him a smart business.
  6. If you vacation with Elizabeth Taylor? Seriously. Avoid provoking the cannibalistic rent boys.


Me? I just very much hope it takes you far less than 15 years to see and accept these sorts of things. Both as a customer and as a business.

Guys, avoid working for anyone who's not hungry enough to compensate you for your sandwich. It literally doesn't pay.


Tell them nicely that your price is a sucky $200K. The key here is to do so candidly, like you’re sitting on their side of the table and have to approve the budget with them. Admit that you’re way over the mark, and essentially apologize for it. I’ve said, “If you want to tell us to get lost, we understand”.

All those variables can change except your worth. That can’t change. It’s an undeniable fact beyond subjectivity and beyond the reality-bending rhetoric of your client-to-be. You are worth what you are worth and unless you’re feeling charitable something else has to give.

Within the first few minutes of contact — in my effort to be as open and detailed on how I work as possible — the client counteracted by lying about not having a budget to clearly having a budget.

Unspoken expectations unmet lead to seething unspoken frustration which ultimately bursts forth in an ugly mess when you’ve run out of budget.

Remember that client who said that we were “pretty expensive” for them? A qualifying question in the first phone call could have saved us many hours of working on this deal. If you decide that the deal is unqualified, you just save it under another bucket: the unqualified deals bucket.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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