Ben Issen

No, thank you

When freelancers care less to earn more

No, thank you. I can't work with you on your project. I prefer to dedicate my time on my own creative projects. Not that I don't find your project interesting, I know that focusing on my own business will make me happier in the long term. So I'm not taking any new clients. I would suggest you talk to my competent friends X or Y. I can set up an intro if you want.
I wish you the best,

- A courageous freelancer

The opportunity costs calculations at play in this message: a missed short term gain but a rewarding long term choice.

The two years mark

If someone is still freelancing after two years, they've passed a filter: they're good enough for new clients to come naturally, they like it enough to keep going, haven't burned out and they charge enough to make a living. In my experience, two years also marks a change of mindset: freelancers start refusing new work.

When to say yes

Not so fast, cowboy. There are many reasons why getting new client work is a smart decision. It pays well. You build up a portfolio. You expand and accrue the benefits of a larger network. You practice what you learn. You gain authority. And you find more problems that you can solve through education or products (see the hyper freelance model).

Earning more because you care less

Here's the counterintuitive (and frankly irritating) thing that happens after the two years mark: someone pitches you a new project but you're not really interested.
So you increase your prices.
But the client accepts.
Wait. What?
People are willing to pay that price?
So you keep on charging more again. And that's how many freelancers stumble into the wonderful world of high prices™️, myself included. The less you want a new client, the more attractive you'll be, the higher you'll get paid.

Saying no formula

The less you care, the more you're paid. When we let this idea suck in, it becomes in our best interest to diversify our businesses, create optionality and practice saying no more often.

When to say no

Given the inherent inconsistency and variability of client work, accepting new projects is reassuring. But choosing to say yes or no to a new client is working with many unknowns: if they will pay, if they'll like the work, if you'll like working with them, if you have the right skills, if they'll come back...

Accepting new clients is accumulating worries. It's deliberately accepting new weight on your cognitive load, highjacking your mental space. More emails to answer, documents to prepare, relationships to nurture. And at some point, the marginal mental cost of accepting a new client gets bigger than the financial benefit.

David C. Baker says it best in his book The Business of Expertise, saying no is how we position ourselves. It's how we double down on what we want. So if we want to become successful freelancers, saying no is a requirement.

It comes down to trading time to financial freedom. There's a point where trading time for money becomes sub-optimal. Since we have to start over for every new client, this doesn't look like wealth compounding to me, right Naval?

How to say no

Once we've reached the "No" threshold, we can still benefit from our reputation. Here are some options:

Creative Helpline Supercreative

COVID wakeup call

The worldwide pandemic shattered a lot of client contracts. Get too attached to a big profitable client and we might in fact weaken our business (if you like that idea, read Antifragile). For many freelancers, this might have been the wakeup call. Not to blindly accept new work, but rather to consider new revenue streams. I know it was mine: I stopped taking clients and redirected all proposals to my Creative Helpline.

For my French compatriots, this article was inspired by Cyrano. Here's the English translation.

This is the curse of freelancing: we're free to accept the clients whom we'll be slave to afterward. We need to carefully and regularly look after and nurture our freelance freedom.
We're just a client away from captivity.

No, thank you.

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Last edit: 
Jul 15, 2021
Special thanks for feedback: 
Dan Lardizabal
Image credits: 
Ben Issen

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