Saying "no" to the wrong clients is one of the hardest and most important ways to build a reputable brand that attracts clients and commands a premium price. We already shared the first time we said no and how pivotal it was to our profitability. That time had to do with price. This next time was totally unexpected, and it came out of nowhere...

It was summer 2015. We’d been flying high for about nine months, only doing Brandups, steadily raising our prices each month yet always filling our calendar with clients. 

I got a call from someone with a slightly different request.

His e-commerce website needed a new design, and he was also open to a new logo and possibly even a new name. He told me he needed it soon—or more specifically—within two weeks. 

I told him we don’t really deal with e-commerce or products, and usually we do brand strategy and website design for service businesses.

But he was desperate to get something soon, and he loved both our approach and our package.

Couldn’t we make an exception?

Well, technically we could. We are always booked solid, but we also normally leave a week open for internal and personal projects, and that week happened to be coming up. For $10,000, I could make an exception, and Steve—though usually unwilling to give up his art time (smart man)—succumbed to my pressure (he doesn’t anymore, and I’m fine with that).

Stick to your process

I said we would start with a Brandshrink and take it from there. The client and his partner were in the office the next day, and to see if this was even possible, I wrote the brief that night and sent it the following morning.

They were sold.

And because of the tight timeline, we agreed to do the Brandup a week and a half later.

In the meantime, we needed feedback on the brief, which outlined what the client was looking for, our plan, and advice for how to execute it. They needed messaging, and they sent me “brand documents” someone else had prepared for them.

Now, these brand documents were pretty typical. There was a lot of info and tons of ideas—a lot of fluff, all pretty sweeping and generic.

I told them their documents weren’t too helpful, because it was just the same thing over and over again. The reason there was so much info was because they hadn’t picked an angle yet, and they desperately needed to. 

The client’s business was delivering brand name goods to Africa from all over the world at affordable prices. Their mission was smart, and their model made sense.

Ask your client the important questions

But what was separating them from other companies like this? Even if they were really “better,” there were too many details to explain—too many details they insisted needed to be part of the message.

They were falling victim to one of the most common problems I’ve seen: a startup with little to no funding who didn’t want to be known for anything in particular. Instead of specializing, they wanted a brand broad enough (“like Amazon,” they said!) to appeal to everyone.

They made brands available with cash—a big problem solver in Africa—but they also took credit cards and didn’t want to seem like they didn’t.

They allowed deliveries to kiosks, solving the postal service problem for people living outside of delivery zone, but they also delivered directly to people, so they couldn’t own that.

They delivered fancy brands from America and Europe, but they did so at affordable prices!

To sum up: This client offered the cheapest, easiest way to get your goods from the U.S., Europe, and Asia, with guaranteed quality that can be delivered to your home OR kiosk paid by COD OR credit card.

Okay, let’s sum that up now: They wanted to be everything for everyone.

Identify the problem (if there is one)

Even though they kept saying they trusted us, they really didn’t want to budge. They wanted something generic, something that—in our opinions—wouldn’t work.

How could we execute this properly? They wanted our expertise, but they weren’t letting us give them our expertise.

There was also another problem here: this was not our specialty. We know small service businesses like the back of our hands. Not only have we successfully built one ourselves, but we’ve worked with hundreds of them and can confidently say what will and won’t work. 

Large e-commerce delivery services on another continent, though? Well, we know that the branding principles still apply, but I just couldn’t confidently put my foot down…

The situation was becoming clear: we had a client who wanted to work with us but didn’t want to let us do our thing...

They needed to separate themselves from competitors, but they weren’t willing to focus on one detail of their business. They wanted to be everything for everyone.

So, this Brandup was going to be a lot of back and forth, just trying to make something they like, and then them looking to us to tell them it’s good.

“No, it’s not good, but it’s what you’re forcing us to make…”

It was a shitty situation with a client that I’d turned into a bad client.


We prepped anyway, and we made some great looking designs that were both in-line with what they wanted and modern. (Seriously, anything would have been better than the site they’d currently had.) We also wrote some generic copy they wanted, attempting to make it unique and different.

All prepared, Steve and I walked to the client’s office early to start the first day, both kind of dreading this project.

Why dreading it? Because we were going to charge them our fee to do something we didn’t believe in. Even if they were ultimately going to be happy, they shouldn’t be paying a premium rate for this. If they wanted a designer to just make something that looks nice according to them, there are waaaay cheaper options.

And me? I was going to have to manage the entire thing, simultaneously trying to please them and convince them that the generic fluff they were forcing me to write was actually going to work? (Not like they needed much convincing anyway.)

That’s when we turned down $10,000 the morning of a project, even though we had done all the prep work and could have easily just done it and made them happy.

Best “No” we ever said.


Of course, Steve and I called the client up and apologized. I explained why: I didn’t think they were going to let us provide the service they were paying us to provide, and I couldn’t charge them for the work we were going to do. I said we would just give them all the prep work anyway, and that they could take these awesome designs and find someone cheap to implement them if they wanted. I figured they basically got some great design work without having to pay for it, and that that would make them happy.

They understood, no hard feelings. They were happy to receive the designs for free, and Steve and I danced down the street excited to have escaped this nightmare couple of days.


This experience solidified it: we were for service businesses only. Now, we knew we wouldn’t even entertain products because it just wasn’t worth it. There are plenty of service businesses in need of our Brandups, and we know we can crush it every time. The value of what we are selling is highest for those types of clients. 

And that’s the main point of saying no in the first place: to create time for the clients you love—to work with the clients you can do your best for.