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It would otherwise become difficult to give your best efforts for both companies at the same time.
Some companies that do marketing only take on 3 of any one realated contract. Last night I got a call from a potential lead that said a guy is going to take on 8 different websites for all the same terms. Well if he is any good he might get the top 8, you can only get so many at a time. Well my company, now I have the contract, has dominated the category for 3 years so I dont think anything will change.
As to exact the same level of merchandise, well, take any sporting event and any supplier, eg. those making bicycles or race cars or whatever - they simply try to supply the best equipment, their customers compete.
First, what you are expected to do for each client's web site? Are you doing active site development for the first site -- or just some maintenence on a monthly fee basis? Does the first client pay you per hour for specific task, like link getting and page authoring?
If so, why couldn't you sell some hours to one client and some hours to another client, as long as you didn't charge the second client for the same work you did for the first client that's specific to the first client's site? The other points below bear on this one, of course. Lawyers figuring out how many hours to bill their clients, please disregard this paragraph for the sake of your career. ;-)
Second, how much do the two client's unique selling proposition or differencial advantages overlap? This should point to the nature, focus and content of each site...and thus shed light on your answer.
Third, what are the legal factors? Do you have a no-compete contract (or verbal promise) with *either* client? Who owns copyright on what you did for the first client...or any client for that matter based on your engagement contract or agreement? Bet this paragraph will bring to mind a couple of worthwhile points to include in one's standard contract for service for site work.
Fourth, what will you feel OK with conscience wise? It's important (at least to me) to feel good about oneself and what one does. I wouldn't want to feel like I was being a schmuck by what I was doing for money every morning when I look in the mirror to shave. Nor would most want to rob themselves of the creative energy and satisfaction that comes from being enthusiastic and proud about the work one does.
In short, the ethics depends on the specifics of the situation of course -- which are determined in part on how a service provider presents themselves and what they are and are not offering and promising to a client for the fee received. I think client "education" and "expectations management" come into play here, and are often easy to forgo; a mistake, IMO.
Indeed, lots of folks are "givers" and benefit greatly by keeping this last point in mind lest they give away too many "intangibles" just to be a good person or be nice and helpful to someone. After all, where would Bill Gates be today if, during his negotiations with IBM to provide them with an operating system for their yet to be released IBM PC, he hadn't reserved the right to also sell the OS he promised to provide to IBM to others, too? Probably not at the top of the Forbes 400, that's for sure.
I would advise explaining to the first client your situation and offering them the chance to buy your loyalty. If they decline, then offer your loyalty to the other. If they both decline, then work for them both.......
My 10 centimos ;)
<edit>bad speling :)</edit>
not a business one.
Or is it?
business wise it appears clearly that one should try to get all the clients one can.
ethics wise, well it is clear there is at least a certain amount of grey rather than black or white.
But my personal opinion is that you stay away from the second until the first is a satified and ex client. Good ethical pratise will lead to a good reputacion. Thats what I do anyways, and its working for me.
Until then.....provide the tool...how well each customer utilizes it shouldn't really be a concern of yours. You should be the tool provider, the customers need to fight it out between themselves IMHO.
Google and Overture encourage competition for competitive advertising of websites......they make $$$$ based upon that bidding process. No reason why you need to bring any greater level of loyality into this equation.
If you are successful it is only natural for your current client's competitors to want a piece of the pie....and unless you have signed exclusivity contracts then allowing them to share should not be an issue for you.
In discussing the intricacies of your shared plans for the website of company1 you may well learn (should learn I think) intimate details about their business, pricing, profitability on various items, target customers, sales models / methods target keywords ideal customer profiles etc.
When client1's site is running you will almost certainly then be party to much more confidential detail about their business and in particular its effectiveness on the net.
When / if you started to work for client2 who is a direct competitor would you be still able to enter into discussions with them without discloding any of the inside information that you learnt from client1?
Would you even let client1 know that you were to start working with client2? Do you expect that they would still discuss their intimate strategy with you if they knew that you were off to see their competitor 2 days later for the same sort of heart to heart.
My thinking balinor is that if they are direct competitors after the same customers with the same products / offerings you cannot take them both unless you have two seperate teams one on each and they each sign suitable confidentiality agreements.
BTW I am talking about you being a web developer and ongoing internet marketer for each company. In this role you will be party to lots of inside confidential information.
The situation is very different if you were to develop a software product optimised for their industry which they manage and which you then went about selling to them.
If you have a skill, use it. Client A cannot possibly object if Client B also recognises your skills and wishes to enlist your services.
In my own case I work with a lot of holiday apartment blocks and resorts. It is a very competitive field, the websites are not significantly different from each other and in some cases my clients are across the road from each other.
I have never ever heard any comment passed about client loyalty issues.... there is a total acceptance that the marketplace is free to choose whichever service provider it desires and will make up its own mind on the calibre and integrity of the completed product.
I make a distinction between selling a product which it is often the objective to sell to all and providing a detailed service including confidential business consultancy.
I just think these are different things.
If two clients came to you asking for building designs, with clear specs of what they wanted for the buildings form and function, would there be a conflict? Why should there be a conflict with the construction of two websites? While the function may be the same, the form will not necessarily be duplicated.