How to Say ‘No’ as a Creative Business Owner

By Ella Nobre-Watts of whimsicella

Saying ‘no’ is extremely necessary when you’re a business owner. You can’t do everything at once, and you certainly can’t please everyone, so saying ‘no’ is vital for protecting your sanity and asserting boundaries.

Your time is your most valuable resource, and it deserves protection. Saying ‘no’ to one thing means saying ‘yes’ to something else – so don’t look at saying ‘no’ as missing out on anything. Instead, see it as an opportunity to say a full-bodied ‘yes’ to creating more space in your life, whether that’s for rest, time with your family, or even personal creative pursuits.

While ‘no’ can be a complete sentence in itself, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation, we thought it would be helpful to list some ways to soften the blow when you have to establish boundaries with clients, customers, or even friends and family.

How to say no when…

You have a huge workload

Perhaps the most typical business conundrum: taking on every opportunity that comes your way because you’re afraid sales will dry up in the future. 

It’s a completely valid fear, business can be temperamental at times. But know this: there will always be more clients and customers in the future. It is not worth burning yourself out, and you won’t be letting anyone down by taking care of yourself.

Be honest about your limit when people come to you with work opportunities. You can also offer alternatives, whether it’s a date down the line when you’ll be more available or a referral to someone else. For example, “I’d love to work on this project with you, but I’m currently at capacity. I have space in my calendar in [1/2/3 months] if you would like to get back in touch then, or I can refer you to someone else if your needs are more time-sensitive.”

You can even set up waitlist information on your website so that expectations are clear and prospective clients can manage their expectations from the get-go.

A client wants to pay below your standard rate

It happens from time to time: you send over a quote for a project – or maybe you have your prices clearly set up on your website – and a prospective client tries to get the same for less. It can be disheartening because it can feel belittling to your time and skills. Unfortunately, not everyone understands that proper investment is required to ensure a thorough job and quality results.

If you find yourself in a position where someone is asking if you’re willing to charge less, be firm but polite. For example, “Due to the time spent and resources used for a project like this, I can not charge below [$ amount] for this level of service.”

You deserve to be paid fairly for the expertise that took you years to cultivate. So don’t be tempted to accept less than you are worth, even at the early stages of business.

A client asks for extra work you didn’t previously agree on

A challenging hurdle for any creative business owner is when a client asks for (or sometimes even expects) additional work that you didn’t agree to. It can be especially tough if you don’t have anything in writing to set your terms.

To avoid this, make sure you put together proposals and contracts for every project, where the deliverables on each side are crystal clear. Throw in as many disclaimers as you deem appropriate, such as, “Please note, the price only includes A, B, and C” or “Please note, this does not include additional costs such as X, Y, and Z. Any additional work the client requires will be mutually agreed upon by both parties and billed separately”. 

Be sure to keep everything in writing, including contracts and emails, as evidence of your agreement so that no one can feign confusion or ignorance.

If you have set expectations from the get-go, and the client still insists on you completing extra work, stand firm in your boundaries. For example, “With all due respect, we only agreed upon A, B, C deliverables. If you would also like X, Y, Z, I will need to charge you separately for this.” 

A friend or family member wants free work

While small favors to friends might seem like they won’t be any harm, they can easily snowball and you can find yourself putting in more of your time than expected. 

If you find yourself in a situation where a friend wants a freebie or a favor, but straightforward with them. Say something like: “No, because value our friendship and I’d rather not mix business with pleasure”. You can be even more to the point and say, “I can’t afford to offer freebies or take on unpaid work right now.” Don’t be tempted to apologize.

Remember, you’re not wrong for saying ‘no’. Your friends might mean well, but you need to put yourself first. Giving your time away to friends can sometimes lead you down a slippery slope and set unhealthy terms within your friendship, putting you in a position where you’re expected to offer more ‘free’ help in the future. Keep your business and personal affairs separate.

Someone enquires about services you no longer offer

It’s normal for your offers or product suite to change over time. Whether it’s because they are no longer beneficial for your time, don’t make sense for your business, or you’ve simply outgrown them, your reasons are valid.

Just be straightforward. Say something like, “In order to best serve my clients, I am no longer offering ABC, so that I can focus on XYZ. Let me know if I can help you in that way instead.” Alternatively, you can also point people to referrals who do offer those services.

Someone is not a good fit

You’ll often hear people in the online business space talking about your ‘ideal client’ or ‘ideal customer avatar’ to attract the right people to your business. But sometimes no matter how much work you do towards this, there will be occasions when a client or project is just not the right fit. 

If it’s an inquiry from a new person, you can simply say, “​​Thank you for thinking of me, however I’m not the best choice for this sort of work. I focus mostly on A and B, so if you’re looking for C, I can point you towards the right people.”

If you’ve already started working with someone and it becomes evident that it’s not working, be clear but kind. For example, you could say, “Unfortunately, because of [XYZ reason], I think we are no longer a match for this kind of work.” Keep things civil, don’t place any blame, and don’t forget to give them adequate notice or refer them to someone else that may be a better fit.

In short, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’

Saying ‘no’ can feel almost counterintuitive as a creative, but it is a powerful way to take control of your business. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential to maintain a healthy work/life balance and make room for your creativity. It’s also a great way to empower you and the direction your want to take your creative business. Don’t be afraid to say no from time to time!

don't be afraid of saying no as a business owner. here's how to say no if they're not the right fit, say no to free work, or extra work that you didn't agree on.
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