When Should You Turn Down New Business?

Does Mark Cuban invest in every idea on Shark Tank? Did Derek Jeter swing at every pitch? Do authors cram every good idea they have into every novel? Sometimes it’s necessary to turn down new business.

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As an entrepreneur, business owner, manager, or whatever, you’ll never become the company you want to be if you keep chasing every opportunity.

I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to grow my agency into the one I had in my mind, I had to stop fishing for the clients that I never wanted in the first place. I was only going after them to help make ends meet, not because I wanted to work with them, or because I had good ideas for them.

At what point do you say no to new business?

It’s not easy to turn down business, trust me I know. When you’re already envisioning the softer chairs or better coffee you’ll buy with the big check, it’s difficult to turn it down. As an entrepreneur or business owner building a business and brand (whose sole responsibility is making sure the company is profitable), turning down anyone who wants to give you money sounds pretty ridiculous.

How to turn down business

I’ve started multiple businesses, and I worked very hard to get them off the ground. And sometimes, when the times got hard, I accepted work with clients who I knew didn’t align with my goals or my vision for my company. But I signed them on because business is business, and we all have to make sacrifices, right?

In the beginning, that’s what it seemed like should matter. You can’t get your business up and running if you don’t have clients, so who cares who’s paying as long as you do good work… right?


There’s more to clients than just dollar signs.

If you work with a client who shares your vision, you spend less time getting on the same page, and more time doing good work. If you decide to sign a client who doesn’t understand you or your work, you’ll spend more time working through useless details than is worth what they’re paying you. The right kind of client will work with you throughout the process so the end result is something everyone is happy with.

The wrong client will fight you at every step because they see something different than you, and once they send a check, they’re going to fight to get what they paid for, not what you are paid to give them. See the difference?

If you continue to take on the wrong kind of clients, what happens to your business? Eventually, you spend most of your time on work that doesn’t align with your vision at all. Pretty soon you end up in an entirely different lane than where you started. Sometimes you may even change your vision to match that of your new clients. This is a trap from which there is no easy escape. I’ve made that mistake.

How to change your client base

When I started my current agency, I wanted to create big, world-changing ideas. But the allure of easy, cheap work was too tempting to ignore. We started accepting social media clients just to pay for the basics, nothing big, but enough to have our interns do work. But slowly and surely, we signed more and more. We spent hours-long conversations with these clients that weren’t happy with the content we produced, which caused us to hire more individuals who could work on social media full-time.

Then one day, I woke up.

We weren’t working on any of the work I wanted to when I began. We had become an hours-for-dollars social media company! We needed to make a change, and while the retransformation wasn’t easy, or painless, it was necessary. We cut what we needed to (employees and clients) and focused on what we wanted to do. Did I enjoy the transformation? No. But am I grateful we did it? Definitely.

When to turn down clients

Since then, we have turned down clients both big and small (some five-figure monthly contracts) because we knew they would distract us from our vision. Does it make it difficult to pay for the luxuries we want to have sometimes? Yes. But I would rather deal with that problem than have a lost vision and nightmare clients.

What many business owners forget is that you don’t have to be “big” to be able to say no to clients. It’s all a matter of scaling your startup.

Hungry entrepreneurs want to grow their business as fast as possible, and that often entails working with the wrong clients.

Good leaders, however, understand that no matter how big you are, you can afford to turn down the bad opportunities as long as you work within your means.

Do you have a team of three? Great, work with the right clients that cover your costs. Soon enough word will get around and high-paying clients will come, and you can scale. The value of your vision is infinitely more valuable than extra dollars in the bank.

So, would you rather have a fancy coffee machine or a valuable vision for your company?

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  • Originally published March 15, 2019, updated April 26, 2023