TRUE FACT: As a freelancer, you're not obligated to work with anyone.
That's why you're a freelancer. No boss is there to tell you that you have to do this gig or work with this person. You are the boss, so you get to make that call. And your call, if there's not a good fit, can be to part ways quickly, before there's money on the table.
I burst a lot of bubbles. Not because I'm a jerk, not because of my ego -- but because I'm relentless in determining fit and value with every client I work with in my business. I only take on projects where it's likely going to be a win-win.
Which is why I tell potential clients not to hire me all the time. Sometimes, more than once a week. Their reactions vary too: Some are mad, some are upset and some totally get it. I write them long emails because I feel bad that I must break up our business relationship before it ever even gets off the ground. But, I do it anyway. Because I have to. For their sake, and my own.
I only take on clients that I'm sure I can help.
Not only is this why I do okay with my client-based services, but also why my clients do really well (which, in turn, benefits me in the long run -- successful clients = successful freelancer). Some of it comes down to just trusting my gut on whether a project will work out or not, but there are also some very concrete reasons why I turn down work (and why you should too).
Why you might not want to work with a potential client:
They aren't in your niche.
Smart freelancers focus on a specific niche, which helps them build credibility, expertise and a name for their brand. If, for example, you're focused on creating websites for indie-published authors and a real estate agent wants a site -- would that real estate site really benefit your portfolio in any appreciable way? Would it further build your brand in your target niche?
They can't afford you.
My pricing starts at $9,000USD for websites. If someone emails me and says they'll need to save up for a few years to be able to afford my services, then they aren't a good fit. It doesn't make sense for them to spend money on an expense their business can't cover in a few months. Yes, what I do (and what most freelancers do) can help build a business, grow an audience or increase sales -- but those are all much harder to do if a client is starting from a place where they're making no money or worse, spending more money than they are making. Not to mention that I also wouldn't feel ethically good about taking money from someone that's really stretching to pay for my services.
They assume you're a miracle worker.
As a freelancer, how many times have you been on a call with a potential client, only to hear them tell you about their business idea -- and their business idea sounds awful. Freelancers could almost act as investors, since we hear enough business ideas from potential clients that we get a good gauge in our minds about what could work and what definitely won't work. If a client assumes that hiring you will completely turn their business around instantly, bring them bags of money every day and skyrocket their brand into the stratosphere... there might be a problem. What you do as a freelancer can, and should, totally help someone else's business. But that needs to be tempered with reality -- not based on inhuman feats of wonder.
It's an ego project for them.
My typical line with clients is that I don't work for them, I work for their clients and their audience. So, if someone wants to hire me simply because they want to look good for personal reasons, then they don't care about their clients (who I feel are my true bosses). Also, ego projects tend not to go anywhere, since they're only serving an audience of one.
They aren't ready (yet).
Sometimes, a client has a great business idea and has realistic expectations but it's just too early on in their business to hire an expert freelancer. If they're too new, they may not know much about their business or their audience yet. Which means they won't know enough to make informed decisions about what could work and what won't work. This isn't a bad thing, it's just something that requires some time and research to fully understand. In these cases, I tell potential clients to get a free or cheap website to start. Test the waters, build a bit of an audience and study them, and then come to me with that data and we can really rock it out.
As a freelancer, you aren't obligated to take on every project that comes your way. In fact, if you continue to take on work that isn't a good fit, you'll end up doing more and more shit you don't like. For the good of your business and the business that wants to hire you -- if there's not a good fit, just say no to the work.