Ten Signs You Need To Refuse That Project

dont-take-that-projectYou’ve worked hard looking for a freelance project. Finally, it looks like all of your hard work is about to pay off. Someone offers you a freelancing gig. Now it’s time to breathe a huge sigh of relief and dig into the project. Right?

Well, maybe not… Unfortunately, not all freelance opportunities are created equal. It’s best to be cautious when accepting new work. Taking the wrong freelancing job can set you up for failure, or worse, damage your professional reputation.

In this post, we’ll show you what to do if you need more information about a freelancing project before deciding whether to take it. We’ll also identify some project types that you should avoid.

How to Pick Good Projects

In the past, we’ve taken a semi-humorous look at identifying good clients and bad clients. Now, we’ll take a more serious look at identifying good projects and bad projects.

The key to picking good freelancing projects is getting the right information. To get the right information about a project, I always follow the steps below:

  • Check the client’s reputation — Find out if the client has a website and take a look at it. While a professional website doesn’t mean that a company is legitimate (anyone can create a website), when combined with other positive factors it can be a good sign. Type the client’s name into a search engine to find out what people are saying about them. Also, if you are friends with freelancers who have worked for this client in the past you can ask whether they liked the experience.
  • Clarify the requirements — Ask questions until you are sure that you understand what the client wants. Remember, it is easier to do a project correctly from the start than it is to correct a project that has taken a wrong turn. Most clients would rather have you ask a few questions than guess at what they want.
  • Negotiate a better deal — If you feel that a project has unreasonable requirements, you can often negotiate your way to better terms before the project begins. Areas that are often open to negotiation include: scope of project, due date, and payment. If you are dissatisfied with what the client proposes in any one of these areas, suggest an alternative to the client.
  • Get an agreement — Before beginning a project always get a written agreement from the client. If you don’t have a written contract, at least make sure that you have an email from the client that outlines the terms of the project clearly. Never accept a project based solely on an oral agreement between you and the client.

In these tough economic times, a few freelancers may be tempted to take every single job offer that they receive. Having bills to pay and mouths to feed can certainly create pressure for a freelancer to take an undesirable opportunity.

The pressure to accept any and every project is perfectly understandable, but it is also a bit dangerous. Some projects are not what they appear to be. Accepting the wrong job may harm your finances, your reputation, or both.

10 Projects You Should Not Accept

There are some projects that you are better off turning down than accepting.

Here is a list of ten signs that you should turn down a freelance project:

  1. You have absolutely no idea what the client wants — Despite your best efforts to get the client to explain what they need, you are still unsure of the project requirements. Your attempts to ask questions and get more information are ignored or answered in such a way that you still can’t tell what this client wants.
  2. The client has a reputation as a scammer — There are many work from home scams targeted to freelancers. Even seasoned freelancers occasionally get taken in by one of these phony offers. If a job doesn’t seem quite right to you, there’s a good chance that it’s not. A good source of information about work at home job scams is available through the FTC.
  3. The project involves you doing something unethical or illegal — Sadly, from time to time you may encounter a client who will ask you to do something unethical or illegal. When faced with such a decision, you should always say “no.” Not only could your reputation be damaged, you could face very real legal problems for accepting such a project. Even if you were never caught, you would still have to live with the knowledge that you did something wrong.
  4. You are already overloaded and don’t have time for a project — While you may think that you are doing a client a favor by squeezing him or her into your schedule when you already have more work than you can handle, this favor could backfire. If you put less than your best effort into a project you may wind up with a very upset client. Worse yet, taking on too many projects could jeopardize all of them.
  5. The client is asking you to work for free — With very few exceptions, you should never work for free. Most “clients” who ask you to work for free never intend to pay you for work anyway. Also, taking on too much free work can keep you too busy to accept better opportunities when they arrive.
  6. The client is asking for too much for too little money — You’ve probably already experienced a client who takes up most of your time, but only provides a fraction of your income. If you know that a client will need all kinds of extra handholding during the course of the project, but isn’t willing to pay for the extra time that such handholding takes, you may be better off saying “no” to the project.
  7. You can’t agree on the project terms — Never start a project unless you and the client have come to an agreement. If you’ve done everything in your power to try to negotiate more favorable terms and have failed, then you should walk away from the project rather than start to work without an agreement.
  8. The work is completely outside of your field of expertise — As a freelance writer, I don’t do web design. If a writing client approaches me with a web design project, I refer them to another freelancer rather than attempt to do the project myself. That’s because I know that I don’t have the knowledge or experience that it takes to be a successful web designer. If a client approaches you with work you know that you can’t do, you should refer him or her to someone else who can do the work.
  9. You know that what the client is asking you to do won’t work — Occasionally you may find that a client insists that you do a project in a manner that you know just won’t work. (I’m not talking about aesthetic differences here, but rather, practical differences.) If you can’t work out the differences between you, you may be better off turning the project down than setting yourself up for a failure.
  10. The client behaves in a rude or hostile manner towards you — Just as a client should expect you to behave courteously and professionally, you should also expect courteous and professional behavior from your clients. You should avoid accepting work from a client who cusses at you, calls you names, or otherwise communicates with you in an unprofessional manner.

What Types of Projects Do You Turn Down?

Being cautious about the freelancing work that you accept is a good policy.

We’ve explained how to pick good projects. We’ve also identified ten types of projects that you should probably avoid.

Now we’re inviting you to share your experiences. What sorts of projects do you avoid?

Share your answers in the comments.


  1. says

    The first project killer is “no pay”. If you want a nice piece for your reel, create your own project and save it for a future “paying” client.

    I have taken projects that payed too little, but I always negotiate overage charges for changes that go beyond the original scope of the project. This insures that you won’t be taken advantage of. One such client has come back about 6 times over a 6 month period, making tweeks and has paid me for each change.

    If a project entails something that is beyond the scope of my expertise, I will call another artist to work with me on the project. If the entire project is out of my range, I will offer to find an artist for the client (if I know of one that can do what they are asking for). This makes you a valuable resource to the client and the other artist will think of you the next time they need help with one of their projects.

  2. says

    We’ve chosen to walk away from quite a few projects over the years, mainly because of Point #9. If I don’t believe that the project will address the client’s issue or be a waste of the client’s time and money, even after explaining it to them, then I feel a sense of professional responsibility to refuse the project.

    I often like to quote one of McKinsey’s key practices: “Engagements should only be taken when the value to the client exceeds the fee to the firm.”

  3. says

    In the last five months I have had more deadbeat clients than in my past twenty-seven years as a designer. I’ve come to realize a change in how I should approach these idiots – first I added a “attention” box above my design inquiry form to discourage possible deadbeats…

    “Please do not contact me unless you are serious about your design project. If you are not 100% committed to following this process through to the end then I respectfully request that you do not contact me. Thank you.”

    And secondly I now mention my charges right up front with anyone who inquires of design work. I find that nine times out of ten if you mention your charges right up front you can weed out a possible deadbeat before you waste any of your time with them.

  4. says

    I learned the hard way with 2 projects for ‘friends of friends’. They wanted real world web sites, but for both of the 2 sour projects, I was never given the information needed to actually complete it. Things like web copy, images they wanted, or even complete specs on how they wanted it. It became a game of ‘just make it and lets see’, and of course, for ‘friends of friends’, you don’t want to disappoint. Long story short, no more of those types of projects for me. Either come ready with what you know you want, or I turn you down on the spot. – Steve

  5. Gareth says

    I worked for a client, who was my very first as a freelance agent, seemed so nice and a general happy chappy. Communication was excellent, until nearing the end of completion.

    It actually turned out, that D ( I will call him this to save face) had a very very nasty temper after a few drinks, had rung me up and began spouting abuse down the phone. After threatening me with court and other such quality comments, he told me that the job was off, which to be fair, at the time, I was very grateful for.

    Unfortunately I didn’t have a written contract (First timer) but he did ring back up a week or so later, apologised and I finished the site.

    Had I not needed the money or the actual design for portfolio use I would have probably thrown the job in his face and warned every freelancer near and far, what a jekyll and hyde character he was.

  6. says

    I try to advise freelancers to never take “free” work or very little paying work – it devalues our industry when we already have enough “clients” who think they shouldn’t pay for our work.

  7. says

    Great points! I like the idea of getting a signed agreement, as I try to do that with the vast majority of my clients, but it can be a bit of a hassle.
    I’m fairly young and just getting into the field so I don’t use fax machines, yet that seems to be the best way to have someone sign a contract. I suppose the other option is to scan it in, but as I’ve noticed already, quite a few people either don’t have a scanner or don’t know how to work it.
    Do you guys have any tips on that?


  8. says

    Refusing clients is always a tough thing to do especially for businesses that are cutting it close on profitability but it is a necessary thing so in the future you will have a great reputation with almost all clients and don’t have to put up with needy clients. I have found out that clients that negotiate a lot to get your price down and want extra things added will usually be a pain throughout the entire contract.

  9. Rick says

    @Carson Shold – A signed agreement (also with good Terms and Conditions) is the foundation of a project.

    For my company, I make two copies of the agreement (one for them and one for me). With our Terms and Conditions and extra stamped addressed envelope, I send it by post to the client.

    They must sign one copy of the agreement and send it (in the stamped addressed envelope) back to me. So they don’t have to pay for sending and you’re taking lots of work out of their hands.

    If I receive the signed agreement the project will start, if else it will not.

    Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle. But with a signed agreement you can start the project with confidence. Legaly you’re good and the client shows he is serious with the project.

    Hope it helps for you!


  10. tvdudefl says

    I have worked for this client for years already giving them a discounted rate for my services but now they come asking me to sign a contract for the project and in the contract they indicate the new rate they wan to pay without any previous agreement . I had to say thank you but no thank you, remember you get what you pay for and when you paid me well you got my best.

  11. says

    I have one more Tip: If a client consistently does not provide the necessary information to complete the task(s), cut them a loose.

    I had a client who required legal assistant work, but the proper documents were never uploaded to virtual office. No matter how much I asked for them, I was always backtracking on task that practically managed themselves. When you start backtracking on 7 or 8 projects you can’t catch up. Especially if new projects are coming in every other day. Before you know it, your uncompleted task load has doubled. You can’t manage projects if the proper information is not supplied by in-house staff.

    I was grateful for the work, but I had to learn to walk by faith and not by sight. The client severed our relationship because quiet frankly, my quitters never win attitude was beating me up. I was glad we broke it off. (sounds like a love affair!)

    Always follow your gut. People try to take advantage of Virtual Assistants because of the current economy.Stand your ground and negotiate your worth. You can use the frustration time to court someone who respects your skills and talents.

  12. says

    I pretty much follow the tips that you listed above when deciding what projects to take. The only problem is that I think about these things AFTER I’ve agreed to do the project. It’s usually harder to refuse it then, but I still do it… somehow.

  13. says

    Great list. I just finished (with a tragic and exhausting conclusion) work on a project that broke rules #6, 7 and in the end, 10. It’s easy to accept a job thinking you can prove yourself or your worth while educating the client as to what exactly they’re in the market for but in reality, some people don’t want to or simply will not learn.

    I knew it was too little money for the work from the outset, but thought there was an understanding that expectations should be in kind. I was wrong. I did everything I could to move us towards a “mutually beneficial” arrangement within the stated limits (alternative payment plans, perks, trade, etc.), trying to be accommodating and provide above-and-beyond service all the while.

    As for #7, there was a signed agreement but when the chips were down, the client refused to admit he agreed to what he had signed! When I attempted to hold him to the terms, he grew insulting and combative, and found ways to criticize or otherwise make me look like I hadn’t done enough. He mocked my contract and insisted I was ripping him off (avg rate over 4 months worked out to about $12/hr!) He called mutual friends and asked “what was wrong with me.” He claimed I was difficult to work with all along (although kept hiring me back?) and now I worry he’ll bad mouth me around town as he is far better connected than I am.

    I eventually just let him go — it was hardly worth going to court over — and got out with most of my dignity intact and am only short a few hundred dollars in the end.

    Lesson 1: Affording people professional courtesy does not mean letting yourself become a doormat.
    Lesson 2: Contracts PLUS deposits work best. If a client won’t put money up front they’re not really dedicated to the project and its the designer at risk.
    Lesson 3: If you’ve already been burned, don’t let it eat you up inside or waste time going to court unless it’s really worth it. Use your time constructively to build new relationships rather than make yourself crazy cataloging emails to win a few bucks.

  14. says

    There’s nothing more than that low-blow when you are in massive discussions with a client, getting really deep and they seem very interested, then you give them a fair price and they try and pay nothing or as little as possible.

    I recently had a client whose prospects seemed quite good. It was another website designer who was going to be giving me consistent work, but from the off he was a little dodgy. First of all, I did the first project for him at a massively discounted rate, making him agree with me that it was a one-off. Then, he comes back the day after with changes that the client wanted – moving and changing the sizes of most of the components. When I told him the price, which would’ve been a further four hours work because of graphics design and coding, he basically laughed at me and told me to get lost.

    Still, the sites he was providing me with weren’t aesthetically great so I don’t think I’d want my name on them completely anyway. I don’t think he was a professional, he certainly didn’t act like it.

  15. says

    Believe it or not I had this client that would always try to quote me so low it wasn’t even funny. He would basically try to act like he could do everything I could do in a fraction of the time. He would even expect ultimate revisions. If you came up with a concept he didn’t like he would tell you a 5 year old could do better, then he would follow it by stating “Do you want me to get my little nephew to do it for me?”

    Also, he would try to manipulate you by once you completed a project that you were so over payed for the project. Aside from that he would go into the web page a screw everything up and then expect you to fix it for free. I basically handled it this way. When he would tell me this very low price I would tell him, well maybe you should have someone else work on it. He would always make up some lame excuse why he couldn’t get a hold of his normal guy.

    After I kept seeing a pattern I just told him I was busy and after awhile he stopped calling me ;)

    Whether you are doing freelance work or doing telecommute jobs from home there are lot of different things you should look out for. However, there are a lot of really good resources for finding telecommute jobs and freelance work.

  16. says

    Halfway through excellent negotiations with a very promising client, she asked if a “friend” of hers could sit in on our next meeting. The “friend” proceeded to take the lead and answer her questions for her. By the next meeting it was obvious that this “friend” was actually a business partner. At our final meeting, I was supposed to get paid the deposit, and she was quite suprised that her “friend” had not brought the chequebook. If that wasn’t a huge red flag, I don’t know what it is: she’s literally handed the chequebook over to someone else who is making independent decisions about her business.

    True, it is none of your business how your clients choose to run their businesses, as long as you get paid. But in a situation where the client’s company politics (or personal dramas – it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began) are going to dominate the project, listen to your gut. As it is, the “friend” phoned me the following morning before I had even gotten out of my bed (!) to say that they “had to think about a few things.” Have never heard from either of them again, despite several courtesy emails, phonecalls and texts.

  17. Aurora says

    Ah, the ‘friends’… If there’s one thing I did learn, is don’t do a project with a friend, unless you KNOW that he/she will pay you. A contract is definitely a good idea. One example: I did a calendar design for a friend, and she agreed to pay me a certain amount (which was waay under my rates – first warning bell). After the initial design (working on it for 2 days), sending the work files, etc, she decided that she’s not going to use the designs, so she pays me half! So, needless to say, that didn’t work out…

    This is a great article, thanks!

  18. says

    A big warning sign for me is when a project has too many people working on it. I once did web site content for a client who would, after I turned in a draft, cc it to everyone in their office. I’d get a number of contradictory responses and feedback, only to have it be changed by the client. So it’s important to know who you’ll be working with directly, and that they have a real sense of what direction the project is going to take. Oftentimes the client might look to me for input and direction, which is fine, too, but then they should place a certain amount of trust in the person that they’ve hired.

  19. says

    The infamous “if you can do it for free that’s great because there will be more projects thrown your way” cracks me up. It’s a sure way to make sure I’ll turn the project down. I can’t guarantee that I’ll treat the project as a priority if my client obviously doesn’t.

    Thanks for the list!

  20. says

    Some great advice in there. Sometimes you have to learn to say “no” and I truly believe that it is important to only say “yes” to your predefined ideal or target client. Otherwise it can sometimes be more trouble that it is worth in one way or another!

  21. says

    You’re going to feel the full excitement as if you have everything you want and it will be gone it a sudden. I have my own personal experience of expanding my own outsourcing business, thinking that i could be able to handle all my clients. Step by step, your productivity is becoming lesser and end up with losing them. The best thing to cover this thing up is, don’t crave too much for something.

  22. says

    Wow! Everyone has shared such rich experiences… Thanks so much for your feedback on this topic.

    Hopefully this post, and now these comments, will help other freelancers avoid accepting bad projects.

  23. says

    The only point I disagree with is waiting on the client to provide the agreement. YOU the freelancer should provide a Master Services Agreement that define the structure how you and the client work together (including what happens if someone is in breach). Use separate proposals and statements of work to define the deliverables.

    Bottom line is this: If its your agreement you’ll protect yourself better in the long run because you can be sure to retain rights that your clients agreement would omit or deny. If a client gets too nitpicky during contract negotiation I will walk away … not because I’m trying to take advantage to them, but because I’m trying to avoid being taken advantage of. My contracts are short, fair, and written in plain English (and lawyer approved) – but also ensure that I can use the composite work in my portfolio, and retain the right to release components I code under the GPL.

  24. says

    I just read the full blog post and every ones commits. The thing that scares me the most is @Carson Shold. Please, Please do not do any more work with out a contract. If i was you. I would stop all work and get contracts on everything before you do any thing more.

    How we work at Easily Amused, Inc. is we have a master services agreement. This is about 8 pages. This is the same stuff that would be in each and every contract but we pull out all the project stuff and pricing for a project. We do state our hourly rate but does not tie them down to anything but they fully understand how we work and all the basics.

    Then we will create a project proposal. The project proposal is a height level doc that out lines the goals, tasks, time lines and Money. very simple. A task might be create a page that has this this and this. We do not outline all the small details.

    If a client wants all the small details then need to pay for our time to find out what all the small details are. We call this a development sprint.

    Getting back to the project proposal, this now turns into a work order. and every time the client wants something new, create a new proposal. They will never have to sign a big 15 page contract again. They will love you for this and it will make your life so much easier.

    We also work by the hour. You can but 30 hours of our time for $2500.00. This is pure coding and designing. This dose not count for phone calles or e-mails or IM’s ( it dose but we give them 5 hours)

    Look you guys are the experts. that is it. Dont let someone else tell you how to run your business. If they do tell them to get lose.

    I can keep going but i need to get back to the family. So if you would like to hear more let me know.

  25. says

    I really enjoy working side-by-side with clients. I have found that some new clients really don’t see a VA as a partnership-relationship. What may start out ‘with a bang’ will begin to wane. I see this happen when a client begins to answer my correspondence using a Blackberry or an iPhone giving answers which really do require a more descriptive answer than a one-line response. When communication stops or is religated to cryptic one-line communications from a Blackberry, this could be a sign to ‘cut them loose’. Some are not interested nor do they understand that a virtual assistant is an investment in their business and good communication is key to growth.

  26. says

    I really enjoy working side-by-side with clients. I have found that some new clients really don’t see a VA as a partnership-relationship. What may start out ‘with a bang’ will begin to wane. I see this happen when a client begins to answer my correspondence using a Blackberry or an iPhone giving answers which really do require a more descriptive answer than a one-line response. When communication stops or is religated to cryptic one-line communications from a Blackberry, this could be a sign to ‘cut them loose’. Some are not interested nor do they understand that a virtual assistant is an investment in their business and good communication is key to growth.

  27. says

    Janine, I agree. Whenever I start getting text messages from a client via cell phone I wonder at the depth of their commitment. I sometimes wonder if all these electronic devices hasn’t eroded people’s mental capacity to 140 characters.

  28. IP says

    The initial conversations was this. “Hey Dave told me to give you a call, he said you were looking for a web designer.” Client-“Yeah I am, come by the club sometime this week so we can sit down.” This may not seem like much but I’ve done this too many times and all that comes out of it is a couple of drinks. Do not go anywhere for less than $1000. You will be expected to meet face to face over every revision. And trust me 3 meetings will cost you 3 deadlines on your other projects. I am learning how to just say no. Its weird because I have clients now whom I’ve never spoken to over the phone or in person. Strictly e-mail, twitter and facebook.

  29. says

    Bit of a delayed response by me, but you guys are awesome.
    I have been doing more a lot more client work since my last post in mid-November and been sure to get a signed contract every time.
    I hadn’t thought about the idea of mailing it to them with a prepaid envelope, but that’s fantastic. Guess I’m so used to the speed of the internet that thought never crossed my mind.

    Thanks again,

  30. says

    The client oriented decisions will give the longtern goal achievement for a organisation..Your valuable process of guide towards the clients satisfaction is toooooooo good.
    I like the client reputation and their state on their field must be taken into account….keep sharing.

  31. says

    What do you guys think about when you discover that that client “Thinks” that they have industry knowledge and pretty much dictating what you do rather than listening and appreciating what you do?

    Some clients can become quite demanding and you almost begin to wonder as to why they didn’t do it themselves if they say they know so much.

  32. says

    Eduardo, my advice is to dump a client like that. Of course do it diplomatically, if you can. I have implemented a more advanced approach now to dealing with clients. The first step was to work up a design contract of my own (in PDF format), which I can send to any potential clients. I have alluded to the “client knows everything” clause in this contract which basically states that they came to me for design work not the other way around. I’ve also included terms about bringing other people into the design process (like their mother, friends, etc.). I’m working for the client, not the clients friends and family.

    Second is to require %50 of the total quoted price up front before doing any work. I’ve also wrote up a Client Questionnaire which includes targeted questions about the different aspects of my services (logo design, character design, etc.). This is free to download off my hire page and it basically makes people stop, think, and form a more formal plan about what they need so I don’t get inquiries like, “I need a letter/pirate theme” or “I would love a new fresh simple attractive look for my site what would that run?”

  33. says

    I’m still new in this whole freelance stuff, so I won’t be giving any advices here. But for me it was very interesting and helpful to read this article and all the comments, I read things that will help me a lot and save me time, nerves and hair. Thanks all!

  34. says

    One of the big issues that I’ve run into that might not be in the top 10 but is one that really stands out is the issues that relate to the client having more than one point of contact, and how those points of contact get along.

    I’ve literally had a co-ceo warn me that working with the other ceo is a complete nightmare. When the “go to” points of contact are not on the same page and there’s infighting, it can be really disastrous. The internal aspects of an organization that you can’t see from the outside DO effect the project. Numerous delays, inability to commit to edits and revisions, and general infighting is something I don’t ever want to experience again. You can’t really take sides as a freelancer in a way that makes everyone happy at the end of the project.

    If you have multiple points of contact within a project, just keep your eye out for how they interact. Don’t be afraid to ask professionally based questions (of course) that might give you some insight into their processes. If there are constant complaints, trash talk and worrisome comments, get your guard up a bit higher, and if it’s really bad… forget it (if you can afford to).

  35. says

    Agree entirely with it, especially the first type of job to turn down. Had one example this morning, that I binned off:
    How are you different from your competitors? (Blank)
    Do you have any specific imagery in mind for your logo? “no”
    Do you have any color preferences, or existing brand colours? “No”
    Do you have any colors that you do not wish to use? “no”
    What adjectives should best describe your logo? “Don’t know”
    What feeling or message do you want your logo to convey to those who view it? “Quality and service”
    How do you prefer your logo to be worded or written out? “Not sure”
    How would you like the typography to appear?
    What’s your preferred deadline, time frame or exact date of completion? Now
    Budget? (Blank)

    Got to love people that things can be made from nothing in no time at all.

  36. says

    Thanks Doug C. Like your upfront approach with the client. I usually collect deposits of the client, but was unprepared at how this client thought that they knew everything about websites just because they may have gone to 1 or 2 seminars about websites or online sales.

    I ended up literally firing the client. In the end I was losing value out of my time spent on my business answering all these requests and demands by the client wanting it done their way even though it wasn’t normal practice or the best way to do so.

  37. Rose A. says

    How do you cut an abusive or unresponsive client away in the middle of a contract agreement period? Should I include a clause in the contract, or is that even necessary?

  38. says

    This article was written 2-3 years ago i guess, and things just got worst now. Most of the clients now were demanding more for a fraction of price. I think it’s because other freelancer from countries with cheaper cost of living were already into our business.


  1. […] I also don’t take on clients that are trying to get work for free, are extreme headaches or that I know won’t be worth working with. While this may sound harsh, not all clients are the same, and money does not make the “pain” worth it. (Freelance Folder has a great article about the types of projects you should turn down). […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>