When I started my business, I was pretty sure I had to say yes to everything.
Every small business who needed marketing help. Every non-profit who needed discounted services. Every networker who wanted to get coffee.
Yes. Sure. Why not? Yep.
Over 5 years in business, I’ve learned (in a painfully slow fashion) that I don’t have to take every opportunity. I’ve learned how to be more careful with my time, my commitments, and unpaid work.
But until this year, I still had one big hurdle in saying no—Paid work.
Until I started my big soul-searching process of narrowing down who I really wanted to work with, I’d take any paid job that came my way.
It didn’t really matter if I hadn’t done something before. If it was marketing or internet-related, my response was “You need help? I’ll figure it out.”
My “Saying No” Breakthrough
A few months ago, I got a referral to a local government program that needed some flyers redesigned for a campaign. The referral was from an existing client that I really respect and wanted to honor. Even though we don’t do a ton of graphic design-only projects, I took the call.
On the initial phone call, the scope of work was pretty loose and undefined. I couldn’t figure out how many flyers they needed or why they were even redesigning them.
I just wasn’t excited about the project. The unclear expectations and lack of a digital component to the project were both red flags for me.
It was still an internal struggle—They were willing to pay well! And we were referred by a great client! Should I really turn down money????
But the pit in my stomach wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t get excited about it, and I’m still filled with this feeling of dread just writing about it.
I decided to tell the prospect we weren’t a good fit for their project.
As soon as I turned the work down, I felt amazing. A huge weight felt lifted knowing I didn’t have to do a project I knew I wouldn’t enjoy at all.
All the sudden, saying no felt really good.
Choosing Work I Can Joyfully Say Yes To
As I mentioned on a recent interview on SEObits.fm, I have also taken search engine optimization training and increased prices.
Through all of this, I’ve gained the confidence to only take on projects where I think we’ll do an awesome job.
So for us right now, only service-based businesses who are looking for a website get through our initial screening process. All other jobs get referred out.
I Honestly Don’t Feel Bad About Turning Down This Stuff
I hereby declare that we’re not taking on new projects for any of this:
- E-Commerce stores (except small ones for mostly service-oriented businesses)
- Hourly consulting
- Graphic design-only projects (we still do plenty of graphic design, but only for website clients on our “Ongoing Marketing Package”)
- SEO or SEO copywriting-only projects (again, happy to do this but only for clients who start with a website)
- Social media marketing
Here are a few examples of work I’ve turned down recently
- A monthly retainer for optimizing an e-commerce site
- Instagram and Facebook marketing for a small food maker
- An e-commerce site for a local product company
- Copywriting for a consultant
Every time, saying no to this work that wasn’t a great fit felt really, really good.
A Few Things to Realize About Saying No to Paid Work
There are a few things you have to realize and overcome when you make a commitment to saying no. Here’s what I’ve learned:
You don’t have to be everyone’s savior
I think this was the hardest thing for me to internalize. I got into digital marketing to help small businesses have an easier time online. I truly want to help people, and I thought saying no to a small business owner meant they would just continue to flounder through their digital issues.
But it’s not true, you guys.
For every problem someone has, there is a consultant who can help. It doesn’t have to be you.
If you want to say no but worry people won’t get their problems resolved, it’s time to start making connections and build a list of people you can refer work to. I now have a short list of people I can suggest for e-commerce stores, Shopify projects, SEO issues, and clients who can’t afford our services.
If you’re not sure who to refer out to, head to a WordCamp or join a few online Facebook groups or Slack channels and just ask. Ask who is looking for referrals or who the group would recommended when you get an inquiry that’s not a fit for you.
I promise you’ll feel a lot better internally about saying no if you can phrase it as, “Thank you so much for considering me for your project. While it’s not a great fit for our agency and focus, here are a few people you could reach out to instead. I haven’t worked with them personally, but they would be a good start.”
There really is more work out there for you
When you turn down good-paying work, I know there is a fear that no work will ever come your way again. What if you turn down that big project that you don’t really want and nothing else better turns up for months??
Relax. It’s really OK. Yes, there may be some dry times, but not working on a project you don’t like gives you more time to make connections, improve your skills, and market yourself for the work you do want.
Saying no is really an investment in developing your business into what you want it to be.
If you treat people well, you’ll still get referrals
The last issue I worried about was honoring the people who were kind enough to give us referrals. If I refer out their Aunt Sue’s hair salon website, will I ever get another referral from them?
The answer is yes, if you treat the prospect well and help them find their right fit.
If you take time to help the prospect understand that you’re not a great fit for their project and refer someone who will do a better job for them, you will keep your great relationship with the referrer. And if they hear about it, they may learn a bit more about what type of business you are looking for.
Let’s Become Professional No-Sayers
So I’m not saying we should all get super negative and only say no. I still happen to like saying yes a lot.
I just want to give you permission to say yes only to those projects that get you excited, where you know you can make a great impact, and where you actually seem to like the client.
Saying no to work you don’t want is a great way to specialize without even really trying, and that’s a big win.
Have you said no recently? Comment below and I’ll send you some sort of virtual high five 🙂