freelance marketing business

Freelancers: Know When to Say “No”

Determining when to accept and decline freelance marketing jobs

Three years and ten days ago, I created a little, one-man shop called Teach to Fish1. When I first started, I took on a fair amount of projects, rarely turning potential clients away. As the primary objective of the business at that early stage was unmitigated survival, I said “yes” all the time2. As many freelancers and small business owners know, this can be both a good problem and a risky proposition.

Agreeing to nearly every opportunity that comes your way can bring positive outcomes. It allows you to meet and work with new people to expand your network. The “yes” answer can help you garner additional experience in previously unfamiliar industries. My billing department/spouse also seems to nod in approval when a new project surfaces. For many of us, saying “yes” is simply easier than the alternative. However, there are some perilous aspects to accepting an unusually high percentage of inbound prospects. As I have witnessed other freelancers, regardless of field, struggle with the “should I accept or pass” decision, I have created the short list of reasons to say “no” below. These notes will no doubt serve as an ongoing reminder for myself as well.

When You Can’t Do It Alone

marketing swiss army knifeI can’t very well create a project called “Teach to Fish Digital” and only provide training or service in one or two areas (i.e. it’s not called “teach to fish analytics” for a reason). I personally pride myself on having above average knowledge in several digital marketing disciplines. This is my blessing; this is my curse. Despite having been called a Swiss Army Knife, I am still only one person. Some projects call for more that I can provide alone. Say “no” when your best will not suffice. Whether you choose to partner or refer business to a more capable freelancer or agency, pass on being the sole provider of services if you simply do not have the skills and experience to “wow” the client on your lonesome.

When Your Plate is Full

Do you try to take on more work than your time allows? Are your eyes bigger than your stomach? This is probably the biggest mistake made by freelancers. Your focus should not be on making as much money as possible. Concentrate on doing great work and building a stellar reputation. A good name will always outlive a few bucks. If your current workload doesn’t allow for a new project, consider the opportunity cost and walk away. Say “no” when you cannot fully commit yourself. Both your prospects and existing clients will thank you for it.

freelance marketing jobs

When You Aren’t in Control of You

Retainer engagements typically call for your willingness and ability to give of yourself when your client needs you. That is the price you pay for a steady income. Those projects that do not fall in the scope of a retainer are different. If a partner or client attempts to unfairly manage your schedule, your deliverables or your rates, say “no.” Both your professional and personal lives are too short to let someone else control them. You are a freelancer. Be free. You have final say over your own business.

When You Can’t Cure Crazy

We have all had them3. Relationships in our lives with individuals who refuse to subscribe to the concept of other people. People whose expectations are not just unfair and unrealistic, but just flat out warped. People who move through emotions faster than an iPod on shuffle rotates through songs. As a freelancer, you are often called on to impart knowledge, set a client’s mind at ease and bring a certain level of calm to a project. That is a crucial and extremely valuable part of the job. But unless you are a freelance therapist, you can’t provide a solution to insanity. If your client/prospect is 100% focused on receiving and 0% committed to giving, politely say “no.”

Sometimes It Is Just Best to Wait

A friend once told me that if a prospective employer or client wants you now, chances are that they always will. The timing for a new project might not be right just now, but that doesn’t mean that you have to say “no” forever. If you can respectfully decline new work now and justify the reasons why, the demand for your services will likely increase. Above all, choose to employ humility and grace if the need to say “no” arises. You can always convey a sense of class without coming off as elusive and “above” a potential project.

Have you found yourself in similar situations where you have had to say “no?” What other reasons do you have for declining new business?


1. At the time, I wrote a post saying “thanks” to many of the people that had helped me to launch this project. Every single one of those people have continued to be a positive influence over the past 1,106 days.
2. This decision was likely motivated by both fear and the desire to make everyone happy – both serious weaknesses.
3. If you are a current client, please know that I’m obviously not talking about you.