Dear potential client,
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.
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.
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:
- Giving back to a collective: By setting up or joining a collective, we can redirect projects to a network of freelancers. Easy to join, valuable in the long term but no financial upside.
- Delegating work: Hiring someone else to delegate the extra work we're not excited about is possible too. This isn't easy because our reputation is still on the line and we have to manage someone else. It's pretty common to see successful freelancers turn into mini agencies, just taking a percentage % for all projects and delegating to their own constellation of freelancer friends. That's the hard and risky option with high financial upside.
- Productizing our offer: Offering a fixed package in a fixed time scope instead. See my Creative Helpline offer as an example: two hours long consulting calls. When the call is over, my worries are too. That's one of the best option as we retain some of the benefits of consulting while living our professional life in our own terms.
- Redirecting to courses: When the clients wants the fish, explaining that learning how to fish is more better and actually possible with our own course, then that's a win-win situation. That does entail creating an educational product or course beforehand. But I can tell you from experience, it's awesome to turn a potential client into a student.
- Just saying no: The fastest option. Saying no to new client work takes courage: courage to face financial pressure, client dissatisfaction and believing in a better future. Upfront, quick and warm answers to potential clients might be the best thing for us and for them.
Baby, it's not you, it's me.
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.