On quitting a freelance gig

A powerful thing a freelancer can do for her career is to figure out when to fire the bad clients. Firing bad clients is an essential step on the way to finding better ones.

Identifying a client mismatch:

  1. The most obvious is a skills-based gap. They need something you’re struggling to do well.
  2. A temperament gap. They’re not treating you with respect.
  3. A quality gap. You want to do work that’s more difficult, sophisticated or esteemed, and they’re pushing you to cheap, fast and dumb.
  4. A pay gap. They’re paying you what you used to be worth, but as your skills and reputation have increased, you’re worth more now.
  5. A reputation gap. You don’t want to be associated with what they do or how they do it.

Quitting in a huff rarely changes the approach a client takes. Instead, it’s the erosion of esteem and resources that eventually help them wake up. They don’t have to be fired with drama. In fact, everyone wins when you hand off a mismatched client to someone who can do a better job than you can in dealing with their needs and approaches.

Freelancers need to worry about doing the right thing as well as maintaining their reputation. Leaving a project in midstream hurts your reputation, and your promise needs to mean something. But sometimes we express our fear of change by sticking around longer than we need to and longer than we promised to.

The magic of freelancing is that projects end but careers persist. If you can walk away from a project at an end point, it probably moves your career forward more smoothly than if you develop the habit of quitting in the middle.

A few questions to consider as you think this through:

  1. Have I done the hard work and continuing education, not to mention the market development and outbound connecting necessary to actually find and earn better clients to take this one’s place?
  2. Am I thinking about quitting because yesterday was particularly difficult, or because there’s a long-term strategic reason to do so?
  3. What’s the opportunity cost to my career to re-enlist for more work with this client instead of finding a better path forward? Every day spent doing this is a day I’m not spending doing something else.
  4. Can I walk away from this with pride, or is it a selfish act that I’m going to try to hide from others in the industry?
  5. What are the steps to take so that I can end this gig and also earn a reference from this client?

One last thought: The best time to think through questions about ending a gig is before you take the gig. Having a set of principles makes it far easier to handle the pressures and grind of the hardest days of your work, because you’re making strategic choices, not decisions under duress.

We talk more about this here.