Should You Accept An “Ugly Duckling” Project?

Swans or Ugly DucklingsIn the world of children’s fairy tales the ugly duckling was the bird that none of the other ducks wanted to have anything to do with because it was different.

Similarly, some projects are “ugly ducklings” – they are projects that most freelancers don’t want to deal with because they are different.

In the fairy tales, the story of the ugly duckling has a happy ending – it turns out that the ugly duckling was different because it was not a duckling at all. Instead, it was a beautiful swan. Likewise, taking on an “ugly duckling” freelancing project may prove to have an unexpectedly happy ending for some freelancers.

This post will help you identify “ugly duckling” freelance projects and decide whether or not you should accept an unpopular project.

Is The Project An “Ugly Duckling?”

If you are looking into a project that many other freelancers don’t seem to want to handle, then it’s possible that the project is an “ugly duckling.”

Here are five possible characteristics of “ugly duckling” freelance projects:

  • The project is too big. Some projects are so large that most freelancers are afraid to tackle them. Other freelancers may not have the project management skills that it takes to work on a large project.
  • The project requires specific knowledge or skills. The skill set and knowledge required for some projects is too technical or too specific for most freelancers.
  • The client requires some handholding. If you’ve freelanced for a while, then you know it’s true. Some clients require more handholding than others. Many freelancers choose not to work with this type of client.
  • The work is boring. Some projects are more interesting than others to work on. Some freelancers choose not to work on projects that are dull or uninteresting.
  • The work is not clearly defined. Many freelancers only take work when the client’s expectations are clearly outlined. However, some clients do not know what they want (or they may know, but not be able to express it).

Five Reasons to Take On An “Ugly Duckling” Project

Should you accept an “ugly duckling” project that other freelancers have turned down?

Such projects are often ripe with opportunity and can provide your freelancing business with unparalleled opportunities despite the fact that other freelancers don’t want these projects.

Here are five reasons that you may want to consider accepting an “ugly duckling” project:

  • Customer gratitude and loyalty. If the client is having trouble finding a freelancer to do the work and you complete it successfully, then you may have gained a loyal client. (This can be especially true if other freelancers have already let the client down.)
  • Your Chance to Shine. Sure, the project requires specific skills and knowledge – but it just so happens that you have those very skills that the project requires (or you know of someone who can be a subcontractor that has them). If so, then this project is your chance to shine.
  • You’re a People Person and You Know It. A little handholding doesn’t bother you because you know it is just part of providing excellent customer service. You’ll use your excellent people skills to deal with the challenging customer and they’ll never even realize how difficult they were being.
  • Job Security. A large project that will take many weeks or even months to complete can provide your freelancing business with job security. (Be sure to specify that you will receive periodic payments upon completion of specific milestones so that you don’t have to wait until the end of the project to get paid.)
  • Problems May Be Exaggerated. You should always conduct your own investigation of a client and project. Just because other freelancers report having difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have trouble too.

Five Reasons to Turn Down an “Ugly Duckling” Project

On the other hand, sometimes other freelancers stay away from a project for a good reason.

There are some definite reasons that you should turn down an “ugly duckling” freelance project. I’ve listed a few reasons not to take unpopular projects here (you can probably come up with some additional reasons of your own):

  • Compensation is Inadequate. If the pay being offered doesn’t equal the effort that the work requires, then taking on an ugly duckling project just may not be worth your time and effort.
  • Your Schedule is Already Too Full. If your project schedule is too full, then starting a particularly challenging project is probably not a good idea. You won’t have the extra time to give it the attention that it needs.
  • You Don’t Have the Skills. When a project requires unusual skills or training, a client often has trouble finding a freelancer who can do the work. If you know that you don’t have the required skills, then you shouldn’t try to “fake” it.
  • You Know Your Limits. You may be a people person, but you know what you can take and what you can’t and you know that you can’t take the challenges that this client poses. It may be better to turn down the project than to generate a bad reference.
  • You Have From a Good Source That The Project Is Impossible. While many “ugly duckling” projects may be diamonds in the rough, many more are not. If you’ve heard from a source that you trust that the project is not worth taking, then you’re certainly entitled to heed that advice

Have You Taken On An “Ugly Duckling” Project?

If so, how did it turn out? Did your “ugly duckling” turn out to be a swan in disguise? Or, was the project just as ugly as it first seemed to be?


About the author: Laura Spencer is a freelance writer from North Central Texas with over 18 years of professional business writing experience. If you liked this post, then you may also enjoy Laura’s blog about her freelance writing experiences, WritingThoughts.


Image in this post by simpologist


  1. says

    Oh yeah. Mine was for a national tourism body. It was an ugly duckling because it was huge and the client was known by everyone to be extremely difficult.

    What I found was that even projects that should be turned down (this was falls under “impossible”) also give you a chance to shine.

    So mine never ended up turning into a swan but I still count it as a positive:

    Now the wider industry knows that I am willing to stick through to completion on very large projects that have scared off publicly listed media companies. It’s done wonders for my professional reputation.

  2. Lois K says

    This is very good advice and has some wonderful tips for us to all watch for. I have taken on several “ugly ducklings” and they turned out to be great projects and I ended up with long term clients. Thanks for thingking of us “ugly ducklings”.

  3. says

    Just like to share my opinion on “You Know Your Limits.”. I will leverage on other people’s expertise and resource to form a team. A team means “Together, Everyone Achieves Miracle” What was once impossible is now possible.

  4. says

    A lot of projects are ugly ducklings simply because of the boss on the job – nobody wants to deal with that guy. I’ve usually found those worth taking, because the pay is good and I’m a pretty good people person. When the project is a wee bit out of my league, I’ll go for it, but if it’s something only an expert should try, I stay far clear. The best lies are close to truth. If me saying, “Yeah, I can do that,” has not a smidgen of truth in it, the client is going to know. They will sniff you out. It’s horrible when that happens. Sniffing clients.

  5. says

    i haven’t really worked on projects that started out as an ugly duckling, but had plenty that turned into one!! :)

    good article.

  6. says

    I love the website, this kind of tips that seem so simply are always just the exact things i have been through lots of times and didnt realize. Keep the good work!

  7. says

    Isn’t the ugly duckling turning into a swan in the end? A true professional sees the potential in every project and works for its success. What appears insignificant today could be “huge” tomorrow. So my answer is yes, I would accept an ugly duckling project. Greatness comes with great challenges. :)

  8. Greg says

    I’ll swim upstream here. Every time we think we should pass on a client/project and don’t, we always regret it. Hand holding and scope creep cost money and if you really pay attention to it, a lot of money and always more than you can forecast.

    We have the Outlook plugin Xobni and it kind of ranks your relationship with a contact based on the amount and level of communication- guess what dominates our Top-10- PITAs!

    If it smells bad, don’t eat it.

  9. says

    Before I started reading this post, I thought it might make mention of those projects that look undesirable from the standpoint of being too small, or for a company/industry/website that looks “ugly” (or has an ugly reputation). Could this be another definition of “ugly” to which other freelancers can relate?

    How about seemingly innocuous projects that start out well, then turn just plain “ugly”?

  10. says

    There’s a lot of varying opinions here – which is good.

    I think that there’s a special talent that goes into determining which “ugly duckling” project is actually a diamond-in-the-rough and which is just plain ugly.

    I certainly understand someone not wanting to take on a challenging project, but for those who are willing the rewards can be great.

  11. says

    Over the years, when it’s come to such projects, I’ve usually decided with one or two criteria in mind. One, of course, is cost in time versus revenue project can generate.

    But more often then not, I’ll based my decisions on relationship. If there’s a synergy with the person, I’ll often at least make a proposal on the project. I’ve found that if the relationship is good, then there’s a greater possibility that it can stem into other things.

    Along those lines, often you can become a ‘superstar’ in the eyes of your client if you help them solve something that’s be an albatross around their neck. And being a superstar can lead to quite a bit of word-of-mouth and referral marketing. Just a thought.

  12. says

    I think all of us have taken on that Uglyduckling project at one time or another, and more than likely will do it again. But with each UD, hopefully you will learn a bit more, and hopefully come out on the other side for the better.

  13. Trevor says

    The one thing I’ve learned about ugly ducklings, is that it’s almost always in your best interest to let some other sucker deal with them.

    There’s too many great clients and projects out there to even bother with the shitty ones. If you’re not finding the great clients and projects, then look harder, or try to figure out why you’re attracting the ugly ducklings to begin with.

  14. ruben says

    I have one ugly project and it is also my first one. The person for who I do this doesn’t have a marketing plan so I had to make one myself to set a clear goal for myself. He liked the report I sent him but when I want to change thinks or give advice he don’t take me 100% serious. Besides that he is paying way to late which frustrates me. And because some circumstances with him I had to stop working untill he is ready with what he is doing. So this is definitely a very ugly project.


    This was my first “freelance” project and I have learned much, how I will handle with this the next time and this guy also recommended me by a client from him so I have also a second project waiting on me which I am grateful for. But still he did not pay me the most “recent” bill which is from at last 2 months ago and around 5 mails and a couple calls further. So I have to consider stopping with this, it may be better for me and for him because why hire somebody if you don’t let him do his job properly?

  15. says

    I recently took on a PHP web-based RPG project and I am unsure if I made the right choice in taking on this project. For one – I AM a Web Programmer, not a Game Programmer. And mixing the two.. well I’m just not sure how that fits in as well ;). But I must say it is an interesting experience – different than most projects I have done. I do not have to handle any of the game formulas (damage, etc.) so that is a big plus, as I do not believe I would be able to do so.

    One thing about this project, though, is that I find myself procrastinating more often then on others. This is very bad, and I need to stop! And it really does not help that the client is open in the deadline area hehe.

    I am pretty sure this one is going to end nicely, I just need to get past the first stages of development on this RPG.


  1. [...] If you’re new here, I just want to say how much I appreciate your dropping by! Oh, and you may want to subscribe to my feed. Thanks, and a tip o’ the hat to ya!Would you willingly take on a project that had all the signs of being a real pain in the tookus? That’s the question fellow Texan and business blogger Laura Spencer asked not long ago in her post, Should You Accept an “Ugly Duckling” Project? [...]

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