Firing a Nightmare Client & Losing $5,000 Was the Best Decision I Ever Made

By Stephanie Walden September 16th, 2021

From the very first email, I had a gut feeling the project was going to be a disaster.

I’d worked with this client before a couple years ago. During that experience, the two rounds of revisions included in my fee had ballooned to 12 drafts. Each version came back with elaborate and disjointed feedback. To top it off, I wound up composing the final draft in a few frantic hours after the client realized they needed it ahead of schedule. I didn’t see an extra dime for this out-of-scope work.

But over time, that nightmare had faded to a foggy memory. I had higher hopes this go-around. Previously, I’d been contracted by a third-party agency, but this time the publication reached out to me directly. Cutting out the middleman, I hoped, would streamline things.

The new assignment was a sponsored content series of five video scripts—and the fee was $5,000. So against my gut, I said yes. Six weeks and dozens of email chains later, I quit. It was the first time I’d done something so brazen in five years of freelancing.

It was also liberating. And I have no regrets.

5 red flags I ignored

To help other freelancers avoid making the same mistake, here are the major warning signs I ignored.

1. Assignment ambiguity

The first issue: The assignment was vague. Sure, I signed on to write five scripts, but the client didn’t provide anything resembling a clear brief. The series was sponsored by a technology brand, and my editor noted that they were still “hammering out the details.”

When I asked if I would be expected to help with ideation and story direction, her response was cryptic. “It would be great” if I could join the initial brainstorming call. Despite the fact that I’d been hired to write the scripts, I quickly realized the client also expected me to shape the project’s content strategy—a service for which I typically charge a separate fee.

2. Clear disrespect for my time

In the first 48 hours after accepting the assignment, I was added to weekly client calls along with 16 other participants. Nobody checked with me before dropping the meetings on my calendar. This phenomenon—calls suddenly appearing in my inbox with no heads up or context—became a recurring theme.

3. Contract confusion

If the “your time is now our time” approach to meetings hadn’t warned me that this client wasn’t a great fit, the onboarding process gave it away. The organization couldn’t hire me on 1099 or via a standard work-for-hire agreement without a specific type of insurance, so I had to become a full-time employee via W-4—for a grand total of five days. This was a first for me as a freelancer, and my accountant had to walk me through the process and tax implications.

4. Moving deadlines

Yet another indication of the messiness ahead was when the initially proposed deadlines for the first two scripts came and went. It became obvious that the nebulous timeline would stretch on for months. Like most freelancers, my workload ebbs and flows. The week of the original deadlines was relatively calm. A month later, after those deadlines had been pushed three times, I had seven other projects due.

5. Too many cooks in the kitchen

More than a dozen creatives spread across at least four different companies were working on the project. There were so many people involved that it was difficult to pinpoint my primary point of contact. It was also a challenge to figure out where to collaborate or ask questions.

The final straw came a month in. Remember that agency I’d had trouble with a few years ago? They suddenly got involved.

I started receiving emails from a producer at the agency, rather than the editor who contacted me about the job, asking for deliverables. Immediately, I had flashbacks of dozens of rounds of revisions and felt a sense of panic. What had I gotten myself into?

Firing clients: Scary, yet empowering

Early on in my freelance career, I would have jumped through fiery hoops for a five-figure project. I’ve joined client calls on Saturdays, Sundays, Labor Days, and Christmas Eves. I’ve traveled extensively but haven’t been fully “off grid” in five years. On a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my mother in 2019, I spent six hours desperately trying to find WiFi in the African savannah so I could respond to an “urgent” client email.

But the pandemic flipped a switch for me. It forced me to reexamine my priorities. I realized that ultimately, this is just a job. Yes, it is income, and that is inarguably important. But it was time to draw some lines in the sand.

Early on in my freelance career, I would have jumped through fiery hoops for a five-figure project.

With a full schedule of deadlines ahead and no end (or beginning, really) in sight for the scripts, my cortisol levels shot through the roof. I was having regular stress dreams about the project. I finally sent that “it’s not you, it’s me” email. Like most break-ups, it was bittersweet. I was flooded with both guilt and relief.

I’ll be the first to admit that I did not handle this situation flawlessly. In the first assignment I completed for the client, I did a poor job setting boundaries. So this time around, it was naive to expect different treatment. I should’ve quit as soon as I realized the project would be messier than I was willing to accommodate—which was two weeks in. Better yet, I should have listened to my gut and not agreed to do the work in the first place.

I did take a few steps to try and salvage the client relationship.

  • First of all, I was honest. I did not lie and say that I needed an appendectomy, my grandmother had died, or that I needed to bow out due to vague “personal reasons.”
  • I cited the ambiguity and shifting deadlines as real concerns, and said that I needed to prioritize my mental health.
  • I introduced the client to three possible replacement writers, and offered to join handoff calls to ensure a smooth transition.
  • I gave up the full fee, even though I’d already put in hours of work.

I might not have made the same decision without a plan to earn back the lost revenue elsewhere. To compensate, I pitched one of my regular clients several stories I knew would be much less taxing (and much more enjoyable to write). I subbed for another managing editor at Contently, taking on more hours in July. Ultimately, I made up 100 percent of the lost income in just a few weeks.

Setting the standard for the future

I’ll take the lessons from this experience to heart in both my writing and editing roles. Too often, editors get caught up in the pressures of the job and a sense of self-import. I’ve been guilty of this mentality in the past. Stop with the inquisition; I’m trying to pay you, I’ve thought when freelancers ask a ton of questions at the onset of a project. When they turn something down? The audacity!

But the truth is that self-employed professionals have every right to turn down work—and they shouldn’t feel guilty when they do.

But the truth is that self-employed professionals have every right to turn down work—and they shouldn’t feel guilty when they do. As freelancers, we do not have bosses or colleagues to stick up for us. There is no HR department to run to when a client is being unreasonable. We must be our own advocates.

Half a decade into my freelance career, and I’m still learning some very basic lessons. One of the hardest is to know my strengths, my limits, and my worth. Ultimately, $5,000 was not worth my soul—or my sanity.

Image by sorbetto