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How to politely say ‘No thanks, I’m not having any of your shit today’ and totally feel good about it


A really annoying thing about the term ‘freelancer’ that never fails to astonish me is that, even at this technologically advanced age where digital nomads are already common components in a corporate ecosystem (even for non-tech industries), there’s still a disturbingly high number of people who have the notion that freelancing rates (doesn’t matter if you’re producing agency-level work) should ‘by right’ cost dirt-cheap, along the lines of next-to-free.

There’s the common, benign-level, asinine behaviour where would-be clients –painfully trying too hard to project themselves as big players– would post cringe-worthy projects at popular freelance job boards. Here are a few examples:


Example of low-balling clients

Example of low-balling clients

Stuff like these don’t bother me anymore, as I’ve already mastered the art of filtered searches. Though once in a while, I still feel obligated to mark some of them as ‘SPAM’ or ‘Client asking for free work’.

Moving on, there’s the Jedi-level f*ckery. Where a client would feign genuine interest with the intention of roping you in to a project, to hold hands with you through the project brief from the initial discussions to the fine details of the art direction, only to relentlessly low-ball you after you send in the quote and proposed timeline for the project.

How About No?
I actually find it difficult to give an outright ‘no’. For me, it always comes down to contemplating with a flurry of contradictions such as; weighing in on the Pros and Cons of taking the project; Does the contract price justify the amount of work and stress that the project comes with? Is it something that I really want to do and be a part of? Will I still have a soul after the project? When do I put my foot down and say ‘Kindly take your shit somewhere else’?

To help me make a more ‘logical’ decision other than flipping a coin, subjective as it is,  I use the simple three-tier flowchart below as a guide to whether I should take a project or not:

A Rough Guide to Accepting Projects

A Rough Guide to Accepting Projects

Burn Bridges, Shall I Not?
If a certain client is blatantly abusive or generally difficult to work with, common sense would often tell you to part ways with the client and just stop taking projects from them. But often, the opportunity cost of doing so always seem to dull out common sense in favour of profitability. In cases like these, here are a few workarounds that you may consider:

  1. Introduce a “Jerk Fee”. Of course you’d want to be more subtle than itemizing this as it is in your invoice (unless you’re openly sadist). It’s basically adding a certain amount (or percentage) to the price of the project’s quotation that should happily compensate you for the part of your soul that the client/project would  be sucking dry. It follows the very simple rule of “You have to pay me this much for me to consider doing something that I would normally wouldn’t want to.”
  2. Delegate it to your minion/s. If you have the luxury of having employed junior designers to do your bidding, then this might work for you. Endorse a minion to your client as their ‘go-to guy’ whom you’ve delegated the project to, and assure them that you’ll always be on there to oversee, manage and sign-off on each milestone.
  3. Turn-over the gig to a friend(or better yet… to people you hate), for a referral fee. Build relationships with other designers within your network and bask in the gloriousness of magnanimity by giving someone else a freelance gig. Sounds good right? I actually know a few people who makes a living out of acting as a middle man between designers and clients. Tell your client that you are totally swamped with projects that require you to watch cute puppy videos in YouTube 16 hours a day and that you can only start working on their project when BigMacs can already be downloaded from the interwebs. Then offer to refer them to your trusted peer who’s available to take over the project. Cut a deal with your friend and violà! Case closed.

It’s always great when you get an opportunity to work on a project and be a part of something potentially great. But there will be a time when you’ll encounter a project or a client that, for whatever divine reason, is just not meant for you and your best course of action is to turn it down and just say no. The key is to make it clear why you can’t take the project; let them know if you’re too busy with other stuff, or their project is just aligned with your professional goals, or if simply just find it too difficult to work their team, and whether you you can be persuaded otherwise to reconsider taking the project for a certain amount of compensation or additional stipulations (examples: You’ll consider taking the job if your client signs to an agreement that the project ends with the client forfeiting refund for any upfront payments made if you get subjected to verbal abuse form any personnel form their team; or The client agrees to compensate you $XXX.00 amount of money as retainer fee for each day the project gets extended beyond the agreed deadline — specially handy for clients who are way too indecisive and for those who takes forever to make decisions); and sometimes you just have to make it simple and let them know that you don’t want to do anything with them. Not in million years. Not if your life depended on it. Not even for the cure for cancer. For f*ck’s sake, no. Never. Ever. No.

Other Options…
I’m quite positive that there exists other, perhaps more civil, options in accepting/declining projects. As for me, I revel in the simplicity of having three manageable options. How about you guys, do you have a tried and tested equation in accepting or declining projects? Perhaps your own flowchart or guide? I would love to hear more about them, feel free to add your take on this topic in the comments section of this post.

Rockstar for hire.
I help businesses create memorable branding experiences for their customers.

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