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Setting Guidelines for Turning Down Freelance Work
By Samuel Ryan     Freelance Lessons     Comments

Finding constant work is key aspect for most freelancers, often causing them to accept work that is not necessarily profitable or within their talent scope. This is not always a bad thing since such work is sometimes necessary (or at least instructive) during the initial growth of a freelance career. But hopefully, as your freelance business grows, you will begin to elicit more requests than you have time to attend to. So it helps to set some loose guidelines in determing what freelance work you will turn down. Such predetermined guidelines are necessary because people will naturally say yes to most if not all freelance requests, even if the work may negatively affect the freelancer or the client. So let's look at a few aspects of freelance work and see why certain work should sometimes be avoided.

 

 

Money Matters

 Kindness can be a two-edged sword -- it's great to be excited about helping others who need a website but it's not so great to have you or your family's income suffer as a result. Unfortunately, many small businesses don't assign much value to websites, and believe that a few hundred dollars is more than enough to pay for an entire website. Furthermore, I've often heard individuals outside the industry express surprise when they find out our hourly rates or learn that some websites or print designs can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. But from a full-time freelancer's perspective, even if every one of your jobs net you a few thousand dollars, you still need to book and complete 20+ projects a year to compete with a salary in the corporate world.

Every freelancer should know what kind of jobs are profitable enough. Figure out how much you hope to make in a given time span and let that number guide your decisions about project acceptances. Furthermore, figure out a billing structure that allows you to keep up with living expenses and be wary of projects that deviate greatly from your structure. I personally use a simple 1/2 at start, 1/2 at finish payment structure for smaller projects. For larger projects, I'll break up payments into thirds with the second payment coming after a middle milestone. Ongoing hourly maintenance work is billed monthly. Rarely will I start a project without an invoice (and never for new clients). So if a potential project is too low in value or cannot meet cash flow requirements, I'll pass.

 

Excellence First

 The creative industry, which includes everything from branding to print to websites, is a very big world, and both the freelancer and client should be aware of this fact. As much as I enjoy photography and print design, I have realized I cannot compete in quality or fees with most of the excellent workers in these fields. Even as a freelancer who focuses on websites, there is still a wide range of subjects to cover, and there are certain technologies I am much weaker in than others. Such realization of your limitations is good, and should admonish you to focus on what you can be excellent at. If I receive a request for work that uses a technology that I cannot adequately utilize well, I will tell the potential client up front. Of course, you can always use outsourcing to complete jobs that you have no expertise in, but in general, I try not to accept work that I can't be excellent in.

 

Looking Forward

 Building a sustainable freelancing career takes patience and wise decisions. It's not always about taking a profitable job. When looking at any project, you should consider two aspects.

I try and see if the client has the potential to send me recurring work in the future. Acquiring new work is a costly endeavour and anytime I can generate business from loyal clients, I am doing well. But if a project is low-income and a "one time deal," I will often pass.

Secondly, I consider whether the type of work is the kind I can build on and maintain moving forward. I've used little PHP and Java in my work, and although I can complete projects that require these, I'm not sure I want to be their go-to guy in the future since it's not my bread-and-butter.



At the end of the day, every freelancer has to live with his decision about the jobs he will turn down. There may be additional factors affecting such decisions such as stress potential or schedule flexibility. Just remember that knowing when to pass on a project is as important as knowing when to accept one.


Community Comments
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1
Adam
Great post, very true.

I also consider the following.

1. Is the client likely to contact you out-of-hours unnecessarily?

2. Is the client pleasant to work with?

3. Do you have or ever likely to get a clear spec of what needs to be done before starting the project?


2
George
This is great advice. Our two-man company is just exiting our first year, and we're slowly learning about how much we need to be charging for our work. We've been drastically undercharging, and then end result is bad for both the client and ourselves.

The mistake we've made is not so much accepting jobs which pay too little, but being too concerned with landing the job and consequently underestimating the cost. We've yet to have a client turn down an estimate based on the cost, which is a clear sign that we're not charging enough.

The end result has been that we end up underpaid, stressed out, and it becomes hard to put in the 110% needed to make sure the site is perfect. The dumbest part is that this is completely self-imposed.

We've found that when we charge what the job is actually worth the end result is of a higher quality, the customer is more satisfied, and we enjoy the work. Undercharging leads to missed deadlines, an unhappy work environment, and ultimately a less satisfied customer.

The best method is to put in the time to spec out the project and be honest with yourself about how long its going to take. Programmers are always too optimistic, thinking anything can be completed in an afternoon, so its good to allot yourself some buffer time. If the estimate you deliver the client is too high, ask them what feature they would like to cut out, but don't back off your estimate.

If the client isn't willing to pay you what you're worth, let them try to outsource to India - they'll be back.


3
Tim B.
The worst is finding the best way to tell a client that it's not going to work out after trying to work with them for a year +. That can be really difficult. Typically these are people who underpay and want you to bend over backwards.


4
Bryan A. McCarty
Great advice. I truly believe prospecting clients is a art form hard to master. And I agree with the last bit about "Looking Forward" - One thing I always think about before taking a new client is this: Does the client bring longevity to the table? Meaning, is this a one-time job, or are there opportunities to bring on more and more work by accepting this job?

Something to keep in mind...

Much thanks!

Bryan


5
Tess McCabe
"...the client has the potential to send you recurring work in the future [or] consider whether the type of work is the kind you can build on, whether it be for your portfolio or skillset."

Great points. Even though 2008 is the first year I've relied on freelancing for all my income, I do believe in these guidelines.

It's hard when starting out and will be harder when work seems scarce, but in order to make my business sustainable I want to dedicate time & energy to the bigger budget/recurring client who could contact me tomorrow.

But I think it's important to have ethical guidelines too...


6
Sonali Agrawal
Hats off to another wonderful Article.

My experience has always been that to get more clients and more work, sometimes its OK to go with the low paying projects, though depending on the completion of the work in a week or two, the pay comes out to be not too low.

Since, I am just starting up, and usually worked for non-profit organizations for free. I have just done two projects which were paid ones, and one is going on. I am still building up my portfolio and learning new stuff every now and then, I might definitely say NO in the future when I am filled up with good amount of projects for projects that are of low budget.

But seriously, these are very good pointers that I would always keep handy in my diary. Thank You!!


7
dianewb
Because this started out as a part-time gig for me, I was necessarily selective about the clients I took on. Even though I didn't consciously make the decsion to do so, I was automatically employing the strategies you talked about. Namely, I focused on clients that would bring me more business or referrals, and I only did what I knew I could do well. In a little over a year, I was able to move to freelancing full-time because those strategies helped me build my business.

Even now, I'm selective about which clients I take on because time spent on a difficult client who wants to underpay, or on a project that will not likely contribute to more business, takes away time from the great clients and projects, or even from the precious time I schedule with myself to learn something new.


8
Henry
I like this post, but it leaves out an important part. Namely, what's the most professional way to turn down client work?

For example, a potential client contacted me for a project that was, as the blog calls it, "both low income and a one-time deal." I didn't want to tell him that his job is too small time for me. That seems rude. But I can't tell him that I don't do that type of work. From my website, it's clear that I do do that type of work.


9
Jack
Henry asked: "...what's the most professional way to turn down client work?"

When I run across this situation, Henry, I typically tell these kinds of clients that I can't take on any more work at the moment -- my calendar's booked, sorry!

If they persist, tell them you can do the work, but, since you'll be working in excess of your typical schedule, you'll have to charge higher fees (and don't be shy about doubling/tripling your fees at this point to discourage them.)

Your time is valuable. Stick to your guns as much as you can, and trust your instincts when it comes to accepting work.


10
Claudia
A great article!
Best advise seems to be to politely pass the low budget one time project.
Another kind of project I seem to reject more frequently is the client that obviously shops for the lowest price rather than quality.
And the category of clients who do not honor the most basic form of email etiquette.

Thanks
Claudia


11
Dean Loh
Thanks for the great advice!

I came here to look for nicer ways to turn down a job, Jack's reply to Henry was what I need.

Just to share my share of experience (have been a full time freelancer for 3 years now and going strong ;)): I ever come across prospect who asked if I can build a "simple online store just like Amazon" for 500 bucks. Then another one who wondered if I can build for him something better than Friendster but on a budget...

Nevertheless I still love my job, and I bet you folks do too! :)


12
web site design and seo
very nice article. My only concern as a freelance designer is that: Is the client easy to work with?; It the client a slavedriver type?; Does the client consider holidays? And of course, does the client care for his designers?


13
Web Design Long Beach
Yes! Money does matter. I had to turn down a job recently because the money was not enough.


14
chronis
hello friends
i have come up with new site which can be option for this all this is combination of job site and freelancing site.
MarketRaise Corp. is an American based company that employs a large number of High Skilled IT staff that are ready to work for you. We offer a wide range of hourly rates which allow you to pick a pricing structure within your budget range. We provide the user with a project chart that allows you to track your employee and or project daily with a breakdown of hourly and daily work that has been completed. Click below to find out which package best fits your needs and requirements.
Why choose MarketRaise compared to ordinary job sites and freelance / bidding sites?
Choose a pricing structure that best fits your budget
Have total control over your employee(s)
Feel secure that a NY, American Based company will be handling your work
Feel secure that a company not a freelancer is taking care of your work.
You can always pick up the phone and call us toll free.
Monitor and track your worker and or project with our daily tracking and reporting system.


15
chronis
hello
this is combination of job site and freelancing site
MarketRaise Corp. is an American based company that employs a large number of High Skilled IT staff that are ready to work for you. We offer a wide range of hourly rates which allow you to pick a pricing structure within your budget range. We provide the user with a project chart that allows you to track your employee and or project daily with a breakdown of hourly and daily work that has been completed. Click below to find out which package best fits your needs and requirements.
Why choose MarketRaise compared to ordinary job sites and freelance / bidding sites?
Choose a pricing structure that best fits your budget
Have total control over your employee(s)
Feel secure that a NY, American Based company will be handling your work
Feel secure that a company not a freelancer is taking care of your work.
You can always pick up the phone and call us toll free.
Monitor and track your worker and or project with our daily tracking and reporting system.


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Sunny Days & Rain
What is all this?
My name is Samuel Ryan and I make websites. Sometimes, I write about it. I disappeared from this blog for a couple years, but I'm jumping back in now -- even began using my twitter account. If you care to know more, go here.