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Don’t paint the red flags green

If you’ve checked out my last two creative business owner interviews, you’ll have seen how important it is to follow your gut instincts.

Laura Houghton said “I’ve turned clients away before when I wasn’t getting a good vibe about the project,” and Monica Shepherd said “the number of times my gut has been saying ‘no’ and I’ve done it anyway, it’s always been a shitshow”.

It’s a lesson that every creative business owner needs to learn. I’ve had the exact same experience as Monica myself. As soon as you realise they’re way more interested in how much it’s going to cost them than in the work you do, or they ‘could do it themselves but don’t have time’, or want you to work for exposure or a contra deal, or anything else that makes you feel weird about the project or the client, it’s time to listen to that nagging voice.

Throughout your life, your brain’s gathering data about novel situations to keep you safe.

It’s why you can judge the distance and speed of an approaching car to know when it’s safe to cross. It’s why you didn’t go home with that person at the party. It’s why doctors sometimes have the urge to check on patients for no good reason, only to find something seriously wrong. (And it’s why you should always go with your first answer in a pub quiz.)

The thing is, experience is what builds all those instincts. When you’ve had your business for a while, and you’ve earned those creative business owner stripes, you’ll have worked with enough clients or customers to have a good idea about what those feelings feel like. You’ll be able to read between the lines, gauge their answers, and – importantly – know if there’s a gulf between the budget they are expecting, and the budget they should be expecting.

And even then you’ll get it wrong sometimes.

A potential client’s business really lights your fire, but somehow the client is troubling you. They’re really slow to reply to your questions, and don’t give you great answers. They’re also asking you the wrong ones; they’re overly focused on cost and how fast you can do it. You’re finding it hard to gauge what they actually want. And they seem disorganised. They’re messaging you at odd times and they don’t have a great idea of timelines.

But you really like what they do and you really want to make your target revenue this month. Plus it’s a new type of project and it’ll look great in your portfolio, so you sign them up.

This is what I like to call ‘painting the red flags green’. It’s when you ignore all the niggly datapoints in your face, and instead focus on an imagined and glorious post-project future.

And, surprise! It all goes wrong. They don’t like your work for unspecified reasons (“I’ll know it when I see it”), and your hourly rate plummets as you do revision after revision. Your blood pressure rises as soon as you see a new email from them. By the end of it, you just want it all to go away and never speak of it again (much less add it to your portfolio, because your work now sucks).

Those are the experiences by which you develop your gut instinct.

Every creative business owner has to have them. It’s even sometimes worth taking the odd one of those projects if your mental health and life can take it. If you’re new to your business, it will really help to develop that instinct. (But rest assured, you’ll have them even if you don’t explicitly try. Sorry!)

So what do you do?

You look after you, the person, ahead of you, the creative business owner. Yes, you need the work to have a business.

But saying no to a project that’s screaming with angry bees is an act of self care.

You’re not going to be a healthy, happy business owner if you keep taking on projects that you end up hating. You do your best work when you’re enjoying it and you and the client are feeding off each other’s energy.

Saying no feels good. And I can already hear you saying, “but Lucy, the money”. Well, here’s the thing. It almost feels worse to be making what works out to below minimum wage – on a soul-sapping project – than it is to have a low-income month on your books.

And when you’re taking on good-vibes clients, they’ll refer you to other good-vibes clients because your work will be awesome.

And that’s how you build a creative business that you love, that feels like home, that you’re aligned to.

Just say no to bad projects.