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Have you ever taken on a project that you thought was a good fit but ended up being a nightmare?

It happens to all of us.

Sometimes we get a gut feeling (trust it!) but not always. Sometimes bad fits blindside us and we have to dig our way out of the mess.

Here are a few ways to pinpoint whether a project is a good fit or not.

Are you excited to work on the project?

When you think about the project, are you excited to work on it? Apathetic? Already dreading it it? When you’re not interested in a project, at least mildly, your work and the project can suffer.

When you’re excited about working on something and enjoy the work, you are more likely to pay greater attention to details. You’ll also be more likely go above and beyond to ensure that you’re creating the best website (or whatever) possible for the client, and produce something that both you and your client are proud to show off.

But when you dread working on a project, either because you don’t like the client or the project itself is not what you want to be working on, then it’s hard to stay motivated. Figuring out a tough piece of code becomes a nightmare instead of a fun challenge. You start to resent the project and cringe just thinking about the work you have left to do.

The honest truth is that we won’t love our jobs every day. Sometimes, no matter how fun the project is, we have bad days. And we won’t love every single project or client that we work with.

We should never work with someone who is such a bad fit that we have zero enthusiasm about the whole thing. It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to the client.

You should approach each potential project with the question, “Would I do this for free?” If the answer is a resounding “YES!” or “NO!” then you know where you stand. But more often, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Take some time and really consider whether you want to do the project. Take money out of the equation. Is this something you would enjoy working on?

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Is the client part of your target audience?

We’ve talked before about niching your business and finding your true ideal clients, but you may still get inquiries from people who fall outside of your target market.

If you want to work with wedding photographers, and get an inquiry from an auto repair shop, you need to consider whether it’s a project you want to take on.

These projects that fall outside of our target audience can pay well, but often have less benefit to our businesses because adding them to our portfolio dilutes our brand and focus. And, working with these clients makes us unavailable if someone in our ideal audience does come along.

So should you take on a client who isn’t part of your target audience?

It depends.

If they’re a great fit otherwise, and you don’t have someone you’d rather work with waiting, then it could end up being a fun project and shake things up a bit by allowing you to do something new.

Is the client willing to pay your rate?

I don’t like to wait before talking rough numbers. I try to give a rough quote as soon as possible. This tells me right away if the client is willing to pay my rates. This happens on my inquiry form and in the intro packet, which is in the first email I send them.

If they aren’t willing to pay my rates, they normally disappear, or will ask me to go lower. While I will check-in on someone who doesn’t respond, if they ask me to go lower I’ll take work off the quote or send them somewhere else.

Clients who are looking for deals tend to scope-creep the most.

If the client is willing to go without some bells and whistles, you can often salvage the project and focus simply on the basics that they NEED while giving them the ability to come back later for the fancy stuff. But if the client is insistent that you lower your rate (maybe they’ll give you “exposure” in exchange), you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll try to haggle the entire project and become a problem.

Are you capable of doing the work involved?

As someone who has completed several website development projects that ended up being over the original developers’ heads, I can tell you that underestimating the work involved happens often.

And to be honest, I’ve done it too. I’ve gotten stuck and had to hire someone else to come in and troubleshoot things that were beyond my knowledge. Mostly server and email stuff, both of which I hate doing.

It happens, but you shouldn’t go into a project that you know you’re not capable of completing. Unless, of course, you have plans to hire out that work to someone who is willing and capable of completing it.

Before accepting any project, you should take an honest assessment of the skills that the project will involve, and whether you’re capable of doing them, or learning them.

Learning on the job is part of being a creative business owner, and if you don’t learn anything from your projects, you may need to reach a little farther. But you shouldn’t be completely over your head with no clue where to start.

And your clients shouldn’t suffer due to your inexperience. Losing hundreds of blog posts or comments when redesigning a website because you didn’t know how to transfer them can happen–but it shouldn’t. If you’ve never migrated content before, you should test it before doing it for your client.

You can learn, but you shouldn’t learn at your clients’ expense. You should practice, test, and make sure you understand what you’re doing before you risk a client’s hard work over a payday for yourself.

And if you do mess up? Make it right.

Do you and the client communicate clearly?

Clear communication between you and the client is crucial for the project to go smoothly.

You can be excited about the project, and completely capable of seeing it through. But if you and the client can’t communicate, then the project is doomed before it even begins.

You must be on the same page, and speaking the same language as your client. It doesn’t matter how amazing the project sounds, if you don’t understand what the client wants, you’re not going to be able to deliver it.

If struggling to communicate with a client who otherwise seems like a great fit, ask yourself how you can communicate more clearly. Can you include screenshots in your emails? Hop on Zoom once a week so you can screen share? Can you use her language so you know that when she’s talking about a “banner” she means the website header?

If you can’t get clear on your communication, you may end up with a nightmare client.

Are you both clear on the goal of the project?

A project without an end goal serves no purpose. Remember you need to ask your clients why they want to do this project, and everyone needs to be clear on what the project is supposed to accomplish. If your client isn’t clear on why they are hiring you, you will have to help them dig deep and figure out what the purpose will be–or not take on the project.

Some clients may be clear from the moment they contact you. Others might need some handholding. And still others may be unwilling to think beyond, “I just know I need this,” which helps no one.

When clients are unclear about why they need whatever service you’re providing and refuse to get clear, it doesn’t matter how clear YOU are. You’ll run into problems.

Is the client organized?

When a client is all over the place, it can be really hard to do your job. Wrangling disorganized clients is like herding cats. Maybe even harder, because with clients you generally only have a phone or email to help them along, and they don’t come running when you open a can of Turkey & Giblets. At least I hope they don’t.

Look at how the client writes her emails–are they organized and thought out? Or does she seem to start typing in the middle of a thought and expect you to be able to interpret?

When you get on calls with her, is she frazzled and disorganized, jumping from one idea to the next, or does she give thoughtful responses to your questions?

When you ask her the initial questions you need in order to put together a quote, do her responses make sense and seem well thought-out?

Working with disorganized clients can quickly become a nightmare.  If a client is disorganized on initial contact, it’s very unlikely that she’ll get organized when the project begins.

Is the timeline realistic?

Sometimes clients want things done yesterday, and unless you’ve got a TARDIS, you can’t make that happen. So look at the timeline the client is requesting and whether it matches your schedule or not.

If the timeline does not match your schedule, is the client willing to adjust their expectations and go with the schedule that you recommend?

Yes? Great!

If not, will they pay you over-time to get the project done on their schedule?

Unless a client is making it worth your while to work extra hours and weekends, and you’re willing to do that, then an unrealistic timeline will just stress both of you out and create problems.

Are you both on the same page?

You and your clients need to be on the same page, from price, to project management system, to timeline.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to create an intro packet that lets clients know what to expect before you start working together. An intro packet outlines your basic procedures, how you’ll communicate during the project, what is expected of the client and at what stage (e.g. when is content due?), as well as any other pertinent information that the client needs to know before you get started.

Likewise, you need to be on the same page as your client, in terms of what you’ll be providing in exchange for their money. While the actual scope of work may come after the initial screening process, you can nail down the basics, like what type of website it is, early on.

It’s very important that you outline at least a rough scope early on, so that you’re both on the same page about what the end product will be.

What does your gut tell you?

Most freelancers or creative entrepreneurs will tell you that you should always trust your gut.

Sometimes you recognize that something is wrong but can’t form the proper thought Trust your instincts and avoid any project that just doesn’t feel right.


Bad fits don’t necessarily mean bad clients. If you’re not excited to work on a project or it doesn’t fit the audience you’re trying to attract, pass it on. Make use of referrals and others in your industry will return the favor. You should never feel guilty for passing a project on to someone who is excited to work on it.

If a project is beyond your skill set, you can hire out the portions that you’re not able to do. Just make sure that you plan for that so that you can bring in someone to complete the work. If the entire project is beyond your level, you can pass it on to someone with more experience.

When a client isn’t clear on their goals, or is too disorganized, you’ll spend most of the project trying to wrangle your client, instead of producing great work. And if a client isn’t willing to pay you for your expertise, or demands unrealistic timelines, the chance for hard feelings is multiplied about a million times.

If you can’t even talk to your client, it doesn’t matter how great the project could be. You’ll never be on the same page. Try to adapt your communication, but if that fails, then it’s better to pass the project to someone who understands the client.

And finally, remember to trust your gut. It won’t steer you wrong.

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Originally published 4/6/2016. Updated 3/28/24.

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