Use Work Boundaries to Build a Sustainable Business

Many freelancers struggle to say “no” to clients.

Do you?

I’ve found that freelancing full-time has demanded clearer boundaries — and a stronger commitment to saying “no” — than did freelancing on the side.

Here are the main things I say “no” to.

Working weird hours

Recently I was taking a brief from a client who had a really tight deadline. “We’ll get the information to you as soon as we can,” she said. Then, she smiled knowingly. “But you’re a freelancer, so I imagine you arrange your time” — she waved her hand — “to suit.”

No, I told her, I don’t. I run a freelance business, and I work business hours. I make this clear to clients who think that freelance means “always on.” Otherwise, I’d be working day and night, at the whim of clients.

Working for less

When I started freelancing full-time I took any job I could get my hands on, but I soon realized this was unsustainable. I needed to focus on better-paid work, which, coincidentally, was the kind of work I enjoyed the most.

Sometimes clients will ask for a discount; sometimes they’ll just tell you they don’t have the budget you’re quoting; sometimes they’ll try to squeeze more into the job once its started. Sometimes I can negotiate these issues, but I prefer not to work for less. I just haven’t found it helpful in developing a sustainable business.

Working against the agreement

When I start a job, I discuss up-front with the client exactly how the workflow will function — who can expect what, when, how much time everyone will have to do their bits, and so on.

Often, these arrangements slip and change as the job progresses. That’s fine, so long as those changeable clients don’t expect me to hold up my end of that initial agreement.

If the client works in a way that goes against that initial agreement, I consider all best to be off, and work negotiate more appropriate terms instead. For me, this applies particularly to the timely provision of client-supplied items, approvals and amendments. If the client’s late on these things, then I need to renegotiate the turnaround time with them.

These three “rules” may seem modest, but I use them every single day to keep my business not just on track, but growing.

What do you say “no” to? Tell us in the comments.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user Ambrozjo.

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  • BladedThoth

    I’ve started saying ‘No’ to small jobs. Now let me explain this.

    I am a small-town (Read: Really small town) print shop. I’ve sat down and looked at how many small jobs I take on, how much of my time they take compared to their profit. I took all the small jobs at first (Down to $20 jobs), and these kept growing. I was hoping that these small jobs would bring these customers back as a big job here and there. Well, based on my numbers, they haven’t. Now, I can’t claim how much of those jobs have really created referrals, but as for those people walking back in, I don’t see a dime come back in; At best, it’s a few short jobs that roll in. Sure, I’m geared towards short-run, but there’s a limit.

    At first, I raised my prices considerably on short runs, but in the end, I never could feel like I could charge enough to make these jobs worthwhile, and a certain point it starts becoming a matter of ethics to me.

    Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind doing a small job here and there for established customers who do input some cash. They appreciate a quick job, and the amount of effort is usually drastically reduced because they know the workflow already and there are assets already in place.

    In my opinion, unless you have enough work to warrant hiring a minimum wage jockey to do it for you, it’s not worth the effort. Hang onto these nickel and dime jobs, and it’ll nickel and dime your business into the grave.

  • http://webdesignbusinessbuilder.com Heath Howard

    Excellent advice. Saying NO is the only way to stay sane. Say no to adding work that wasn’t agreed upon in the price. Say no to the client waiting 3 weeks to give you needed information to meet a 4 week deadline. Say no to working weekends and evenings. Say no to interrupting time with your family for someones website. Say no to constant changes to verbiage that they provided.

    Providing world class service doesn’t mean that your client has rights to change their end of the bargain whenever they want. Although it may feel like it at times your client is not Darth Vader. “Pray I don’t alter the deal any further…eehhh-huuuu, eehhh-huuuu”.

  • http://www.itmitica.com/en/ IT Mitică

    “That’s fine, so long as those changeable clients don’t expect me to hold up my end of that initial agreement.”

    My favorite part right there. If the customer is fully aware of the addendum implications, he’ll be less inclined to alter the initial agreement terms.

    Now it’s only a matter of having less-to-none gray areas in those agreements. That’s the most difficult part.

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments :) Some great advice here.

    IT Mitică, you make a good point about agreements — leaving things unsaid in an agreement can be really bad news. By the same token, I think it’s fair to expect that things won’t always go to plan, and the client may need to alter the arrangement you had as the project progresses.

    To that end it’s a good idea to preempt that in the initial agreement by agreeing on the way you will, together, manage changes to the initial plan. Formally making room for negotiation can be a good way to avoid having the gray areas sneak up on you and throw the project off the rails.

  • http://www.jeremyhutchings.com Jeremy Hutchings

    Being flexible is always going to be required; though to a point. What I believe the essence of what is being talked about here, is abuse of a relationships, and mismanaged expectation.

    Both parties enter it for what they need/can get out of it, it’s how any relationship works. What is typically missed out by a great many people thinking “good will” will protect them is clear and concise communication and management of expectation.

    It’s much the same as interviewing for a job : http://www.jeremyhutchings.com/2010/11/interviewing-dating-for-techie-playing.html

    Here is a good video about it (with a view from the legal side) but all the same core messages, communicate clearly, charge what you are worth, and manage the process going in cleanly, not coming out in a mess.

    Mike Monteiro | F*ck You. Pay Me.
    http://vimeo.com/22053820

  • George Langley

    Only thing I say “No” to are jobs that I know I can’t handle (technically or time-wise). Keep your reputation up as a person who can deliver. Even the small jobs from a client who will never give you a big one can still lead to a good recommendation to send to a potential client with a big one.
    AFA weird hours, I will say “Yes” to working an evening. That way I can then take an afternoon off to see my kid’s recital. Isn’t “flexible hours” one of the appeals of freelancing? :-{)] But, be clear and upfront with your client(s) beforehand, so they don’t ask why you were unavailable that afternoon.

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      Thanks for your thoughts, George. I agree, flexibility is key with freelancing; to clarify, what I try to avoid is encouraging clients to expect I’ll work around the clock for them. I may do their work in the evening; I don’t want them getting me that work at 5pm and expecting it back by 9 the next morning :)