When to Say NO in Your Creative Business

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When I first started my web design business, I said yes to EVERY project that came my way. Nightmare clients, projects beyond my development capabilities, things that really didn’t interest me…I took it all on. After months of this, I felt burned out, frustrated, and seriously wondering why I wanted to run my own business in the first place.

This issue comes up long after the start-up phase, as well. Business owners I work with in brand strategy sessions frequently show me a long list of products or services they feel like they “should” create in the near future, simply because they can, the opportunity is there, or because they see a need to be filled.

Flexing your “say no” muscles before taking on the wrong projects is an important part of being a successful business owner. Here’s when you’ll want to put those muscles to the test:

When You Can’t Do It Well

You have an idea for the PERFECT physical product for your audience. And you have the perfect opportunity to sell it at an event coming up in just 3 weeks. And you REALLY want to go for it…

Stop for a second. Take a deep breath beyond the excitement, and ask yourself honestly if you really can not only pull this off, but can you do it well? Will this product look great, feel good in the hands of your customer, be worth the price you are charging, and deliver on every sales promise you will be making in your marketing campaign? While trying to be perfect can cause paralysis, being short-sited about the standard of quality you want to be known for can be equally damaging. After all, this product will be a physical reminder of your brand to those who purchase it- make sure it speaks well for you.

(Oh, and this goes beyond physical products, of course. This applies to taking on services you aren’t 100% sure you can deliver on, or extra clients when you’re aleady super busy as well!)

The Grey Area: If this is a project you desperately want to be a part of but you don’t have experience with this area, be honest with yourself. Can you learn on the job? Can you deliver what the client is paying for while doing so? Saying yes to something new is a fantastic way to learn (we do it all the time with our retainer clients!) but being honest with the client about your experience level from the get-go is a MUST.


When Your Prospect Is A Red Flag-Throwing Machine

A paying client is a paying client, right? WRONG. Taking on the wrong clients can be a draining and potentially expensive mistake that can leave everyone involved feeling bitter and short-changed. To avoid this, take a look back over your clients who you’ve most enjoyed, who have allowed you to do your very best work, and who have benefitted from your skills the most. What essential qualities did they show up to the project with? Start making those “must haves” on your qualifications for potential clients. (I also recommend creating a “Please Don’t Hire Me List”  so you can clearly define who you do NOT want to work with.)


When The Opportunity Moves You In The Wrong Direction

Speaking gigs, prestigious craft fairs, sponsoring events, a joint venture with a business owner you admire….when great opportunities present themselves, it can be awfully hard to say no. Especially when they feel like they’d be great for business growth or exposure.

The key here is to get clarity on what it most important to be working towards in your business in this particular moment. (My mentor Tara Gentile calls it your Chief Initiative ) and only take on projects and opportunities that move you closer to that goal. (And yes, this can mean turing down lucrative client deals when you are being asked to do services you don’t actually want to be doing anymore!)


When FOMO is Dictating Your Decision

When it seems like EVERYONE else is signing up for a certain training, or selling a certain service, or attending a certain event, the dreaded Fear of Missing Out can kick in big time. Ask yourself honestly if FOMO is the main driver here, or if saying yes will actually return your investment of time and money and grow your brand in the ways you are most excited about. (Check back in with that Chief Initiative here!)

A hint from me: When I’m faced with a big business investment, I only feel a “Heck yes, let’s do this” about 5% of the time. The other 95% of the time I immediately say no, then walk away. If I find myself still thinking about the possible investment days later, then I will take some time to do some research and projecting of how I would want this to pay off for me and on what timeline. Only then do I consider changing my answer to a YES. This cuts down on lots of buyers remorse and investing in programs or services I don’t actually need.


Share in the comments! What has been your hardest “no” in business? What do you love to say no to?

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  • Kellie January 20, 2016, 6:01 pm

    When I first started blogging seriously I tried to ‘hang around’ other serious bloggers and many had V.A. and the like. It was hard to separate the principles they were sharing without comparing or feeling like you were just not serious enough. I asked a couple of bloggers I knew who were honest to come right out and tell me the truth. So thankful that happened.
    I am a Sommelier and my thing is simple, easy to follow food & wine pairings. I joined a food blogger forum and there is a FOMO element there but I’ve been doing some research in to some of the bloggers who are doing ’round-up’ etc… and they don’t really have the traffic to make contributing to their efforts worth while for me. Most things I’m in that 5% category like you. I’m glad I read this article because your advice is very practical and the way you’ve written your article makes it really easy to follow and relate. I’m here from DCW – not sure how long you’ve been in the group but I seem to be noticing you a lot lately – from your great photo and the title of your blog. It’s great to see what you are up to.
    Kellie from Princess and The Yard Ape.

  • Kimberly January 21, 2016, 10:56 am

    I’ve been guilty of all of these – and they never worked out well. Great post and great advice!

  • VK the VA January 21, 2016, 11:11 am

    Fantastic advice! It’s so easy to be attracted to EVERY opportunity or client that comes along, but you have to CHECK yourself before you go down a path that doesn’t make the most sense for your goals.

  • Lindsey January 21, 2016, 11:24 am

    This is one of my New Years resolutions – saying NO to things I either do not have the capability for, capacity for, or just am not excited about. Thanks for sharing!

  • Angela J. Ford January 21, 2016, 11:35 am

    I love this! When I first started freelancing 3 years ago I said yes to everything, even projects I knew I would not enjoy. But once I started saying no and raising my prices, I started getting more work I actually enjoyed and entrepreneurs I LOVED working with! It’s amazing what the change in mindset can do for you.

  • Anna Long January 21, 2016, 12:26 pm

    “when opportunity moves you in the wrong direction” – Love this! This happens more and more the longer I’ve been in business. And honestly, I HATE to disappoint. But as I’ve become increasingly aware of protecting my energy, I’ve gotten batter about saying “no” (even if I sorta wanna say “yes”!)

  • Megan January 21, 2016, 12:37 pm

    This is such a hard lesson to learn and to stay consistent with! There are so many other reasons (besides really really wanting to) to feel like you “should” say yes to a project like you mentioned. And FOMO is always a big killer! I guess it all comes down to priorities and keeping firm with saying no to things you shouldn’t or don’t to be doing in your business. Such a great reminder at the beginning of the year!

  • Jessica January 21, 2016, 12:40 pm

    For me, it’s so hard to see ALL of the red flags in prospective clients. Sometimes, yes, it’s very obvious that this person is just totally wrong… but I just had to fire a client who I thought, originally, was going to be great. Six months later and so many wasted hours, I realized I never should have said yes. I’m much better about saying no now than I was a few years ago, though! :)

  • Kyla Roma January 21, 2016, 4:45 pm

    I love this list, Suzi! Especially how you recognize the grey areas and add your hints. The ther thing I try to keep in mind is that the faster you can say no to people who aren’t right for you, the faster they can find someone who’s perfect for them!
    And your 95% rule is something I’m implementing for myself now too. If you haven’t read Essentialism, you would love it! That’s where I came across the idea :)

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