Lessons Learned: It is OK to Say No

In the world of web design, you may have to make many compromises.  In this article, I will discuss when it is OK to say NO and how to keep composure through integrity, dignity, and professionalism without going under.

 A Rough Morning

You wake up at 8am and get out of bed, already dreading the day.  Some questions that may go through your head –

“How am I going to pay my bills this month?”

“I didn’t expect this car/vet/appliance expense, how will I pay for it?”

“How will I get a few small gigs this week/month with all of the competition?”

After putting on some coffee, you make your way to your computer where you will sit for the next 4 hours as you try to make contact with small businesses and land a job or two doing WordPress work.

LinkedIn, Craigslist, Facebook, Yellow Pages……. you choose your outlet for the day to try to connect but like always, your emails will most likely come across as spam and be ignored or deleted.  On occasion you might even get a “hate mail” back.


Today is a special day, you have a lunch business meeting.  This meeting is held with an acquaintance who you do not know very well but you have a mutual respect and are eager to work together. You know him through a friend of a friend and understand that he has big goals for a new project and wants to use your service.

By the end of the lunch meeting, you now have a clear vision of his needs.  As you had been led to believe they are indeed huge.  eCommerce, magazine layout with tons of content, private paid membership area, dynamic calendars and maps, content import, legacy content grooming which requires a bridge to another older system for warehouse order processing, customizing plugins, and he wants you to update it for him once a month for 6 months.

Two hours have passed and it is time to talk time, money, quality.  We all know this Project Mgmt. triangle;  you only get 2 of the 3.  If you want cheap and fast the quality will lack, if you want good quality and fast the price will be higher, etc.  Common sense reality folks.

So, your ballpark figure after hearing his needs are something like this –

$30K for eCommerce & Magazine Development
$15K for the custom bridge he wants built – you are going to have to farm that out to your development team.
$10K for the rest of everything he wants and you will throw in semi-dedicated hosting for a year and  the tech support/updates he will need for 6 months

Quick rough ballpark:  $55K and a time estimate of 6-8 months

You become elated.  This is a years salary from one client, you really hit the jackpot and the project sounds like a lot of fun!

Before the meeting, you were assured that the company has a budget in place and that it is flexible.  This is exactly what you wanted to hear.  The company understands the expense and values their project, or so you think……..

“Here is the thing, we are going to need this in 21 days”, says the potential client.

“Ok” you respond.  Following the PM triangle, you start thinking about doubling and tripling resources so that you can meet this deadline.  It will be tough, but you can make it happen, but of course, this will make the price go up.

“That is a really tight timeline for a project of this size.  It is near impossible but we can get it done if we double up our resources.  What kind of budget are we looking at?” you ask in a calm reassuring way.

“$500.  But I might be able to get $1,000 if you think it is going to be a big project,” the no longer potential client states.

Later that Evening

When you left the lunch meeting, you didn’t tell the chum “NO”.  This happened for a few reasons:

1) You really like his project and want to do it.
2) You want to investigate to see if you could find a cheap way to build it and perhaps come up with an agreement not to implement all of his “wants” in Rev. 1.
3) The ugly reason – You need money.

The plain and simple truth is that if you were making the kind of money that you intended to make at this time, you would have said NO, explained WHY, and walked away.  But you didn’t.  You left it open ended so that you could ponder on it and try to come up with a way to make it all work out so that you can make $1,000 and be a part of what you thought was a good site concept.

The ugly truth is you will probably offer something stupid and ridiculous and either screw yourself over (time and money) or the client still will not want to kick off the project even after you stoop down to his level which will make you feel used and worthless.  Let’s see how this plays out, shall we?

The Next Morning

You have decided that if you do not use your outsource team and get rid of some of the requirements, that you can cut the price of the whole project down significantly and they can still launch with a decent site.  For a ballpark figure, if you were to do it yourself you are estimating it would cost $21K but there is no way you can get this work done in 21 days.

You desperately start calling friends, old co-workers, and others in your network.  You place an ad on craigslist for help.  You actually end up finding a few volunteers who just love the project idea and will do it for free to have their name associated with the lovely work you all will create together.  Sounds lovely doesn’t it?  No.

You see, you have gone against your whole business plan and strategy.  This is the stupidest idea you have had in awhile.

But the end of the day, you have determined that with some help by some very skilled volunteers (assuming that they do not flake out), you can meet his budget of $1K and you will be able to keep this full amount and finish the project in 21 days.

This is complete insanity and you know it.  You know that you have cheapened yourself.  You know that your 15-20 years of experience and business model are out the window all for 2 reasons:

1) you need to pay your bills
2) you hate saying “NO” no matter how ridiculous a project is because you know that SOMEONE ELSE out there will say YES.

You decide to sleep on it and reach out to the potential client in the morning.

Day 3

You have now lost 2 days.  You have 19 days to complete the project.  You contact the potential client and you decide to not tell him your original quote of $55K and 6-8 months.  If he knows this he will be completely confused as to why you would do the job for $1K or he will be insulted and think that you are trying to make him feel bad for your compromise.  Instead, you very politely say –

“It was quite the challenge but I have been able to find a few volunteers and we are determined that we can complete this job for $1K and in 19 days.  Since this project has such a small budget, we will need to be paid 1/2 up front and the other 1/2 at the end of the project.  As soon as the payment is made, the site will be pushed live.”

Well, now the client is confused.  He thinks this is a BIG budget compared to where they started before he pressured for a budget ($0).

“Well, I don’t know if I can get them to agree to $1,000.  They told me $500 for sure but I don’t know….. “  the almost no longer a potential client says.

You have gone to the ends of the earth to make this magic happen for him and he won’t even commit to the $1,000.

What you want to say:

“If you can’t commit to $1K for such a LARGE and UNREALISTIC project (for that budget), then this project obviously isn’t worth your time/money so it isn’t worth mine either”

Instead you say:

“Well, that is the best I can do.  I will need to know by the end of day if you want us to start since the timeline is so tight.”

Guess what?  You never hear from the guy again.

Lessons Learned

Don’t compromise – Determine your rate, your process, and your level of service and STICK TO IT!

Don’t worry about the “other guy” – Sure, there is always a “yes man” out there and when you turn down a ridiculous project with a ridiculous budget he will swoop in with his cape and YES on his chest but guess what, your almost headache is now his and as long as he has the headache you can not swoop down and take other potential clients.  Let him have the project, you will feel better about it when your schedule is free to work on something that better aligns with your business plan.

Don’t fall in love with a project – Part of the reason why you ended up in this situation is because you loved the idea of the project so much so that you would have done it for free if you could have.  This is a backward way of thinking and not productive to meet your monetary goals.

Don’t feel like you are helping someone – This is a business arrangement.  Unless they are family or a close friend or even a charity that you really care about, don’t feel like you are on the hook to help someone.  This is, after all, business.  You do not want to be known as the cheap designer in town who makes wacko designs (because you had to do a rush job!).

and last but certainly not least……..

Don’t become desperate for $ just because you need it – Here is a wise piece of information so listen up.  When you become desperate for money to pay your bills, you will begin to break all of the rules and compromise to the point that you have painted yourself into a corner while making little $.  What happens when that really awesome large client contacts you?  You will not have time to help them.  Or, even so, what happens when you do not have time to find the next big client because you promised a $55K site for $1K and your next 19 days are solidly dedicated to it?  You are in an even worse situation than you were to begin with because you have now lost 19 valuable days which could have converted to several thousands of dollars for $1K and a huge headache.

Just say NO and you will feel better about yourself at the end of the day.

Try it today.  Empower yourself.  Do not compromise and stay true to your inner entrepreneur.