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  • Tyler Sirman

Setting Boundaries as a Freelance Creative

As someone who decided one day to just "open up shop", I've had my fair share of learning opportunities and random gigs. I thought it might be helpful to share how I got past saying yes to gigs, what challenges you'll face as a freelance creative around boundaries, and how this all relates to you and your business.

There have been many times where I have had to say ‘yes’ to things out of necessity and out of kindness. What I’ve been working on is my ability to say ‘no’ to clients and to stuff that is not going to benefit my business or me. In this post, I’ll navigate when to say ‘no’, when you can say ‘no’ and the benefits it brings.

In my opinion, freelancing and running your own business requires you to be a jack of all trades. From a personal development standpoint, this has been super helpful. I’ve learned every moving part of my business from the ground up, through failure and learning and reading and teaching and networking. But the biggest thing it has asked of me is that I define what I do.

For franchise owners, you know that when you buy a fast-food restaurant, you’re signing up for certain responsibilities. For painters, it means you’re painting a lot. For us creatives, it means picking a niche. Because I strongly believe you cannot be good at every type of photography. And even if you are, it won’t make a ton of sense to try to. Because if you’re great at weddings, it’s likely you’re just a wedding photographer and the skillset is around portraits and events, with the technical knowledge to follow. Plop you in front of a sports field, and you’re probably underprepared, even strictly from a gear standpoint.

Point is, as a wedding photog, you’ve defined yourself – and your business around that niche (probably). For me, I have my cut and paste sort of shpeal I tell people when they ask “what you do”. You have to define it for yourself and for your business. That two-liner I tell people has changed multiple times because I am often so challenged by what type of business I do because I have trouble saying no.

Ripple Effect

My inability to turn down gigs (which has been incredibly beneficial, don’t get me wrong) has created problems in how I define my business. Yes, I do photography and videography, but it’s the niche that I’ve been having trouble defining. Is this bad? Is this good? I’m not sure yet. I’ve found my comfort zone in gigs I’m good at, but I still won’t say no to a gig I know I can do well at. So, the ripple seems to be small right now from a ‘staying busy’ standpoint. But the ripple to clients goes much further.

When you can’t accurately define your business when ‘selling yourself’ – both online, and in-person, you’re going to have trouble getting gigs from the beginning. Again, for me, what’s been helpful is that I often won’t say no to gigs just so I can round out my business a bit. I also have found stuff that I like doing, and stuff that I really don’t enjoy. So from a formative standpoint, if you’re deciding what type of photography to do, or videos to specialize in, or I suppose, what career to pick in general, I’d say testing the waters is a good way to at least see what’s for you.

The key is to say yes to those types of things…so that you can say no later.

‘No’ is a Full Sentence

Now that we’ve worked through saying yes to stuff, you’ll be in a bit of comfort zone where you know what you like, or what you’re good at. So when do you start saying ‘no’ to gigs? The first filter, again, has to be “does this fall into my comfort zone, or near it?” – and only ask this question to get a feeler at the beginning. Do not let it dictate your final decision to say no or yes to a thing. The second filter will be “How will this benefit me and my business?”

You need to ask this question next because it will lead you to think critically. Most gigs are paid, so financially, most gigs benefit you financially. But what about the volunteer or *shudder* exposure gigs? Well, there might be a meal benefit or a networking opportunity – but is that a worthy tradeoff? Can you trade your services enough to gain the next gig? Can you open a door that will stay open for a long time? Review that last bit often.

I’ve done gigs for organizations that are still marketing my business for free stuff I did years ago. When you choose the right ‘yes’ properly, you gain way more in the long game.

If you’re confident this gig will not benefit you or your business (either long or short term), and you’re sure it’s out of comfort zone you’re most of the way to a ‘no’. The final filter is to ask “Can this shape my business?” – and I find myself here still fairly often. I am always curious if that next idea will be the next major thing I do. Whether that’s exploring a new niche, a new relationship, or just to round out your skillset – can it shape the next phase of your business? Will you forego your comfort zone and any benefit to shape your business?

If you’re asking high-level questions like that last one, you’re probably ready to say ‘no’. And here’s what I mean by “no is a full sentence”… I mean that once you’ve weighed all of this out, you shouldn’t need to explain yourself to your potential client or even yourself. Just say no. It is the most gratifying and pro thing you’ll do all day. Be ready to explain your reasoning, and don’t be a jerk about it. Just say no. There are nice ways to say it too.

What to Expect After You Set Your Boundary

Ok, we’ve said no to a gig. Now what? Well, that day is still open in your calendar.

I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. If you disregard the rest of this post and just say no because your gut feels it, then it happened for a reason. Maybe that day in your calendar will be filled with another gig. Maybe it won’t. Point is, you made a decision that affected your business. You chose to draw a line in the sand that dictates a set of parameters you don’t work with. It is a freeing feeling for sure, but it’s also kind of scary because you’ve closed yourself off from one opportunity.

The more you do this, the more you iron out your business model, and ultimately, what you as a person will do in your profession. You will no longer be a jack of all trades as a business owner, but you’ll be the owner of (your name here) photography that specializes in _______________ and ______________. And you’ll have the right gear for those gigs, and the right know-how. You’ll begin to master your craft.

This won’t be the end of it though. You’ll constantly be going through these questions. And sometimes you have to rush the decision. Where growth occurs is when you say no to the wrong thing. And you cannot feel guilty about it. You made a decision at that time that you felt was right. In retrospect, if you kick yourself for saying no – you are actually doing something right…. because you’ve realized that you are human, your judgment isn’t perfect, and your business should go that direction.

They say negative emotions shadow positive ones every time. Let your negative emotion of doing the wrong thing fuel your need for positive emotion in doing that thing you should’ve next time.

Is there anything wrong with being a jack of all trades in this industry? Probably. Is there anything wrong with saying no to stuff? It depends. Are you at a stage in your business where you can say “no”? That’s your decision. Ultimately, this is all just to start the conversation around what stage your business is in, and to raise questions about your boundaries as a human and as a business owner. My advice about saying “no” is best summed up in this quote by Henry Ford:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t….you’re right.

That’s business boundary setting for freelance creatives Through My Lens.

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