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The Big Lie of "Good, Fast, Cheap"

One of them is never optional, and sometimes you can't even pick two.

Surely you’ve heard it before. The iron triangle of service: good, fast, cheap — pick two. You can never have all three, as the saying goes.

Cheap + Fast = low quality
Good + Cheap = too slow
Fast + Good = expensive

I have so many problems with this popular triangle of choice. It’s built on a foundation of fallacies. One of the choices is pointless, and another doesn’t even exist.

“Good” shouldn’t be optional

Whether you’re developing a product, hiring an accountant, or just fixing your kitchen plumbing, who would intentionally choose “low quality”?

Good is the only side of this triangle that should never be sacrificed because a quality result is always expected when something is worth doing at all.

If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
— Proverb

If you like shitty work, you’re spoilt for choice. Fast + Cheap is very desirable if you don’t care about the quality of the result. But who puts in the time, effort, and expense of doing anything without caring about the outcome?

Good work is enduring, while cheap work performs worse and must be re-done more frequently. Good work is less costly in the long run.

This means the only real choice is between Good + Fast (expensive) or Good + Cheap (slow). And I would argue that one of those options is more of a dream than a reality.

Is it possible to have “good” and ”cheap”?

Good work takes time. It means considering all the possibilities and never cutting corners with the details. It often means using more expensive materials or tools. It requires more training and experience. So it’s rightly expected that good work is expensive.

Where did we get the idea that you can have “good” and “cheap” at the same time?

Yes, you can slow down the pace of the work so that you get the same result in a longer duration, but that doesn’t reduce the overall cost. It only spreads the payment out over more time. It may help cashflow, but doesn’t change the bottom line.

Some people justify Good + Cheap as the “do it yourself” method. If you spend a lot of your own time slowly learning and refining you can eventually reach a “good” outcome with very little money spent on external services. This is a common mistake by cash-strapped startup founders. Success this way is the exception, not the norm, because:

  1. You’re likely not an expert at what you’re attempting to do. Bumbling along with trial and error isn’t usually going to achieve the “good” professional result you’re expecting. You often realise this too late and then have to hire someone expensive to redo it.
  2. Even if you do achieve the high-quality result you’re after, you haven’t really saved cost. You’ve invested a massive amount of your own time — often 2x-5x more time than an expert would have taken. You may have saved cash but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t costly to your business.
  3. Good work sometimes only has value when delivered in a timely fashion. If it takes too long to complete, it may have missed its window of opportunity. Then all you’re left with is both slow and worthless.

My verdict:
Good + Cheap really means Good + Slow, but still expensive. Or worse case, so slow it’s no longer good.

Good + Fast is the only choice

It may appear that there are two other combinations to choose from. There aren’t. Those are false choices. One is simply stupid, and the other is a lie.

Here’s the reality that none of the other diagrams will tell you:

Cheap + Fast = a stupid, pointless waste of time and money
Good + Cheap = doesn’t exist; slower doesn’t mean cheaper
Fast + Good = the only thing worth striving for

You could settle for Good + Slow as a fallback, but only if you realise it won’t include “cheap”. The best service providers are in high demand — you often have to wait for them to be available. It’s always better to work with the right person and be flexible about timing than to choose a poor result just to fit a pre-defined schedule.

As a freelance designer, I aim to work in the realm of good, fast, and expensive. This requires being trusted as an expert in my field and consistently delivering creative work that lives up to that expectation. There are no sustainable careers built off the back of providing low-quality service, no matter how fast it’s delivered.

When I look to hire other services, I always pick someone in the top half of my price quotes — because I know those are the ones who will deliver quality work. Anyone competing on price is sacrificing quality (and likely also speed), guaranteed. That’s the nature of a race to the bottom.

If they’re promising otherwise, they are lying. They’re perpetuating the myth of this stupid triangle of false options, waiting for more gullible customers who think they actually have a choice.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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