#9 - It's okay to say no

November 3, 2020

Have you ever ignored a red flag and been caught up in a difficult project with a client?

In today’s episode Matt discusses why it’s okay for you to say no, and why doing so is a huge boost for your mental health. He talks about the common paths that lead to “burnout city” and how to avoid them.

Have a listen and see if this episode ticks any boxes for you. It likely will!


Hello friends, I’m Matt and welcome to episode 9 of the Nurture Flow podcast. Today, let’s have a chat about why it’s absolutely okay for you to say “no”.

A couple of months ago, my good friend Shane Rielly asked a question in his Facebook group (The Creative Pros Community). He asked: “What do you think is the one main mistake that inexperienced designers make?”

I had an immediate answer as soon as I read his question. My reply was: “Not learning that ‘no’ is an acceptable response”.

Not only is this something that is really important for experienced business owners to learn and understand, but frankly it’s one of the most important pieces of business advice that I could ever share with you.

It’s okay to say no in your business.

You have the power and the right to do this. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.

As you look back through your history as an agency owner, designer, marketer or lemonade stand attendant… I bet there’s at least one time where you ignored red flags and took on a bad client.

You may even be working on a red flag project right now…

It’s easy to look past your principles and processes and take on a client who is displaying red flags. Perhaps you hope that this time it will be different or maybe they seem really “nice”.

Unfortunately, at some point during the project, things will likely take a downwards turn and you realise that you should’ve just said no.

Working with clients that are not a good fit for your business is a great recipe for a project that will challenge your mental health. You may even need a new computer after you decide to launch yours unceremoniously out of the window.

It’s also going to increase your burnout meter steadily.

Every time you work with a client on a project that is challenging you in the wrong way, you’re taking a step closer to hitting 100% on your burnout meter.

If you’ve suffered from burnout in your business before, then you’ll know just what I’m talking about right now.

Adding in the stress from projects that are a bad fit with your business, to taking on too many tasks, falling out of love with your work, or overpromising and struggling with clients… there’s your welcome basket to Burnout City.

Let’s have a look at some example scenarios…

  • Have you ever had a client that tried to control every single part of the project and didn’t respect your position as an expert?
  • Have you worked with a client who ignored your boundaries, contacting you outside of your office hours? Those 7am texts telling you the website is offline or calling you on a Sunday, when you’re trying to relax with your family.
  • Have you had clients that didn’t listen to your processes and demanded that you do things their way.
  • Perhaps you worked with a client that disappeared for weeks or months, only to return and expect you to immediately action any requests they’ve sent over within a day.
  • Similarly, maybe you’ve had a client that suddenly introduced a new deadline in the project. You know the ones I mean – they’ve announced a launch party for their new business in 3 days time, but they still haven’t sent over everything that you asked for a month ago.
  • What about the “Houdinis” of this world? The clients that can magically vanish as soon as it’s time to pay a bill.
  • Have you ever had a client that you had an immediate gut feeling about, knowing that they’re not the right fit for your services. But… you probably ignored that feeling didn’t you…
  • Have you worked with clients that would arrange numerous meetings but never show up to them or claim they “forgot”? This is still happening even in 2020, with Zoom meetings or video calls forgotten about.
  • What about when a client tried to move the goalposts mid-project and didn’t appreciate or listen to the time or financial cost of the changes they’re asking for.
  • Finally, have you ever had a client that treated you like a commodity, rather than the immense value that you provide?

In every single one of the situations that I’ve just talked about, it was and is okay for you to say no.

You are the expert, the authority and the person who is in charge of the situation.

If something doesn’t fit your processes, your boundaries or your contract – you can say no. It’s your right to do this.

Before we started working together, my partner Mel worked for herself as a graphic designer. There’s a great example from this time where she should have said no to a client, and she thought it would be perfect for me to share with you.

Mel was approached by a client, who in his very first message, decided to send over a very long critique of every piece of design work that was in her portfolio. It was weird and frankly a little much.

Can you imagine how you would react to getting unsolicited feedback on everything in your portfolio today? It’s not a happy positive reaction is it? You’ll immediately feel defensive about your work.

Mel talked with me about the message, as she was unsure if she wanted to work with the client. She had a gut feeling that this wasn’t a good fit. I suggested saying no, as the client was literally waving a giant red flag.

Mel is someone that likes to see the good in people. She has a wonderful kind heart. She decided that she’d work with him, believing that he probably had good intentions.

She sent over a detailed response to the unnecessary critique of her work and felt that now she had done this, she would be in control of the process.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and the project very quickly turned into something that was a huge drain on Mel’s physical and emotional energy. It took a long time to complete, with the client being critical, picky and at times just awkward for the sake of it.

Finally, about 3 months later than scheduled, the project was finished and Mel was free. She politely declined to work with the client on any further projects. Finally seeing that “no” was the right answer to this client and the red flags they continued to wave.

It’s not just working with clients where it’s okay to say no.

You may be asked during your career to appear on a podcast, speak at an event, write a guest post for a website, collaborate on a project or be offered many other interesting opportunities.

Before accepting an opportunity, it’s really important that you take the time to consider your goals, values and morals. There will be opportunities that you are offered that seem like a good idea initially, but you’ll quickly realise they do not align with what you want to be doing or your core values.

There have been a couple of examples of this in 2020 with online events, but I’ll focus on just one of them.

As a side note, are you getting online event fatigue yet? It’s great that there are more options for viewing and attending events – but there seems to be a new one every single week, and it’s feeling like a bit too much.

Anyway, there was an online event earlier this year that featured an all male line-up.

This would’ve been a great opportunity for some of the speakers, but being listed in a speaker line-up that completely ignores or fails to consider equality, tends to lead to backlash.
And that’s exactly what happened. There was predictable and justified outrage about the line-up.

The organisers of that event managed to shoehorn in a couple of female speakers, but it still didn’t look great for them. Their reputation was lowered a few notches this year because of their mistake.

Reflecting back on the question that Shane asked, learning to say “no” is definitely something that inexperienced designers should learn. Not just designers though, every single business owner. And as I said, I think it’s one of the most important pieces of advice that I could ever share with you.

We see on a daily basis that even the most experienced business owners can make mistakes. It happens all the time.

Mistakes are our way of learning in this world. We do something wrong, we learn from it, and we try our best not to make the same mistakes again.

Although if you’re anything like me… you probably still go to the empty fridge, just to check to see if the magical fridge fairy has filled it up with food again. One day it’ll happen… right?

As we’re rounding off this episode, I want to add that there will be times in the life of every business owner where you may feel that you need to accept a red flag project or opportunity. Especially this year with the global pandemic and the stress this has caused across many industries.

The most important thing in your life is to have a roof over your head and food on your table. In a situation of great need, you may be forced to say yes.

If this happens to you, please don’t beat yourself up about it. You took on work and you ensured your survival. Sometimes it needs to be done so that you can get by, and that’s okay.

As soon as you’re able to, you’ll be back behind the principles and core values that make you a great business owner and a wonderful human being.

Watch out for the red flags in the world and remember that it’s okay to say no.

If you found this episode helpful, please feel free to subscribe in your podcast player of choice. I’d also be honoured if you’d consider leaving a rating or a review if you feel that the content is valuable to you.

Have a great day ahead, you’re awesome. Take care!

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