The Happy Truth About “Ugly” Projects

Some freelance projects are just too much trouble to take on. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But is the conventional wisdom right?

That depends.

You may have already been approached by a potential client who has a seemingly impossible project that no one wants to work on. Turning this “ugly” project down may seem like a no-brainer, but is it really the right thing to do?

If you haven’t been approached by a client with an “ugly” project yet, chances are good that you will be offered one at some point during your freelancing career.

In this post, we’ll take a look at “ugly” projects and discuss how you might benefit by giving them a second look. Also, I’ll share my own experience with an “ugly” job and ask you to share yours.

Why Taking “Ugly” Projects Sometimes Makes Sense

“Ugly” projects are often exceptional opportunities for freelancers.

Willingness to take on work that no one else wants at a well-known company can help you get your foot in the door. Maybe that company wouldn’t normally consider your or maybe there is ordinarily just too much competition to get on board with them. The “ugly” project becomes your door of opportunity.

Many freelancers won’t tackle projects that look too hard. If no one else wants it, you don’t really have any competition for the “ugly” project. Usually, this means that you can charge more money for it.

If you do conquer an “ugly” project, you may find that:

  • The rest of the work isn’t so bad. Once you get past the “ugly” part of the project–the part where everyone else got stuck–you may find that everything else about the project goes smoothly.
  • You’ve earned a bit of respect. Most companies are extremely grateful when you complete a project that no one else could. This can mean positive references for you. Be sure to ask for a testimonial.
  • This client will turn to you again. Since you solved a problem for them in the past, they now trust you. Chances are that the client will choose to use your freelancing services again in the future.
  • You’ve learned new skills. Sometimes a project is too difficult because most freelancers don’t have the right skillset. An “ugly” project can mean learning valuable new skills.

Of course, there are also risks involved in taking on “ugly” projects.

What About the Risks?

The main risk of accepting a project that no one else wants, of course, is that you fall flat on your face. You tackled something that no one else was able to do and found out that you can’t do it either.

Well, if this happen, at least you won’t be alone in your failure.

Now, there is a bit of risk inherent in taking any freelance work–but taking on a project that no one else wants is especially risky. That kind of risk is just not for everyone–and that’s perfectly okay.

If you do decide to take on an “ugly” project, you can minimize the risk by learning as much as you can about the project before you accept it. Ask as many questions as you can and listen very carefully to the answers.

As with any project, you should get your agreement with this client in writing.

Personally, I’ve had some good experiences with “ugly” projects in the past.

My “Ugly” Project

Many of my first writing opportunities were projects that no one else wanted.

As an example, I still remember my first writing job. My boss led me to my desk, which was piled high with unfinished projects and unanswered correspondence. (Two months worth!) Part of my job would be to catch up.

Previous applicants for the position had been discouraged by the huge backlog of work. But, after a month of very hard work I did catch up. I found myself in a great work opportunity with colleagues who liked and trusted me. If I’d walked away when the job seemed too hard, I’d have missed out on a lot.

What About You?

Have you taken on any ugly projects that went well? What are your tips for succeeding at “ugly” projects.

Share your stories in the comments. (Please don’t name any clients specifically, though.)


  1. says

    What are some example of “ugly projects”? :)

    Let’s say, I once had a few low paying jobs (eg: 3 weeks invitation card design for an event, S$240; or 6 months poly final year project that is deployed live for a company, S$500). I was like, 19 or 20 then (26 now).

    Looking back, those were starting stones that got me to be where I am today.

  2. says

    Daniel Richard–Those may be good examples of an ugly project. I like that they helped you get where you are today. :)

    Some examples that I’ve had are 1) projects that are already running late 2) projects that have a challenging subject or 3) a project with someone who might be difficult to deal with (especially if you can figure out how to get along with them).

    That’s a good question, though. I’d love to hear more examples. Hopefully the readers will chime in.

  3. says

    I had a new client who asked me to rewrite a pile of articles written by my predecessor. The assignment made me understand immediately why my predecessor was fired and what I had to do to stay in the client’s good graces. Rewriting someone else’s work to make them usable is not something I like doing, but I want the client to be happy with me so I did it.

  4. says

    I agree with Daniel, although a job may seem ugly, it may also lead you to a really beautiful one :) excuse the cliche.

    I guess freelancers have to tread carefully when deciding on projects, but then again, all experience in good!

  5. says

    Anna Sibal–That’s a great example of an ugly project. I hope the job went well for you after you fixed your predecessor’s articles.

    Hanife, Well, there are some experiences that might not be good… But, when it comes to ugly projects sometimes they present an opportunity. Many freelancers don’t realize that.

  6. says

    How about working 18 months on a project, getting chargebacks for the last 12 months, getting your intellectual property infringed, having to go through legal proceedings to recuperate the loses.

    I think this is the mother of ugly projects ….

  7. says

    Also, most ugly projects get you good money! (Talking about ugly in terms of difficulty of the project here)

    For example, I get work to make a website ‘work’ in IE6 – IE7. I charge hourly on that, the work takes long (as IE is just that stupid) and I get paid well for it.

    Now, this kind of work doesn’t teach me much, nor it can go into my portfolio, but it pays.

  8. says

    It depends on the factors on what will define a project “ugly”. For me it has been where you learn it was left by someone else or it’s being posted in other job boards. When I see that it’s a red flag and I should stay far, far, far away. On the other hand, if it’s something real enticing in creative freedom, the client and pay is good then i will take the challenge. All said, prudence is the key here. Making impulsive judgements without weighting the risks will definitely seeing you fall flat on your face.


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