Sometimes you have to say no
Matt in shop 2024

Matt Buell says that young woodworking professionals — indeed, all professionals — need to learn to sometimes say no to work.

The public at large can at times be quite unaware of the costs and the time that go into woodworking. This can lead to a very large gap between your price and their expectations. This also can lead to a large gap between realistic timelines and expected timelines from potential clients. 

When you are first starting out, every job can look like a job you need to take because you need all the money you can get. Sometimes the need to survive and ambition to succeed can put us in some regrettable situations. In hindsight, some of those situations taught me the juice just isn’t always worth the squeeze. Here are my top three situations where it could be wise to say no.

Materials cost more than you
First on the list is when the materials cost more than you. What I mean by that is when the client’s expected price adds up to the cost of materials/operating cost being more in total than the cost of your time. 

I’m sure there are some exceptions where this rule could be stretched and applied incorrectly, but in general, it has served me quite well. 
Many times, I’ve had potential clients who have approached me with expectations of a price that is based off of comparing cheap imported furniture as market value of all furniture including what mine should be priced at. 
I usually attempt to remedy this by presenting different material options with an itemized explanation of my costs and difference in quality, but sometimes it is impossible to give people what they want at a price they want it. 

There’s nothing worse than building a piece for a client and not making any money, or even taking a loss. 
Best to stay away from those situations. It is never in your best interest to work for free.

“Good exposure”
Second on the list is when the client promise the work will be “good exposure” for your business, and saying it merits a cheaper price or free work. This is one of my favorites, and over the years, I’ve learned to chuckle when it is presented to me. 

Unfortunately, a lot of people love to dangle this incentive. That is especially true when they know you are just starting out or are ambitious and younger. It doesn’t mean that exposure is bad, and sometimes they can be right. But I encourage you to thoroughly vet anyone who makes this claim. 

By thoroughly vetting, I mean, ask for data or any other measurable and definable way they can back this claim up. If anyone has the audacity to ask you to work for free or too cheap, they should have no problem backing up their claims with something provable. 

I also encourage you to investigate if this exposure is putting you in front of your target audience and what the return on your time investment and materials will be. Rarely when doing this have I ever seen numbers that showed me I would at least break even. 

Red flags
The third scenario is when, in the initial phases of proposing a build with a client, I see multiple red flags regarding boundaries. This is a very rare occurrence, but it is important. 

First, let’s define “red flags.” In my experience, examples of this are clients who call or text after 9 p.m., asking for renderings/meetings more than three times before a contract is in place. Another issue is constant daily communication or changing their mind on design direction several times. These would qualify as red flags. 

Clients who speak to me or use derogatory language toward me without provocation is an absolute deal breaker. 
The tricky part here is that saying no isn’t that easy because you do not want to be known as somebody who doesn’t want any work. The best solution for this is pricing the work for them, with them specifically in mind. 

I’ve heard this method from other woodworkers referred to as plugging in “soft variables” into your bidding formula. This means when I’m plugging in the numbers on what it’s going to cost to build a piece for this person, I will factor in a percentage for extra time or for non-woodworking work that they individually will require from me (time away from my non-work life that’s not woodworking or massive unnecessary stress that they will cause). 

I’m coming up with a price that makes the job worth it even though I know there will be a lot more on me than usual based on the potential client’s behavior. 

Of course, you must be mindful they might actually still hire you when you give them a high number, so make it one you can honor. 

This is only a tiny fraction of the clients I’ve had over the years. It’s not all doom and gloom. You might not ever have to do this. I hope you don’t. Most of my clients have been amazing people and some even became good friends.

Saying no is part of being a woodworking professional, and really it’s part of many professions. It is my least favorite part though. 
It is also not a topic I really like talking about or discussing. However, it is my job to help you as you start your new career in woodworking. I would be failing at my job if I didn’t make you aware of these things and how to deal with them. If they come up, you will have to learn how to say no sometimes to give yourself better chances to succeed.

#YoungWoodPro is a contest and an educational program sponsored by Grizzly Industrial to help novice professionals improve their skills in business and woodworking. Entries are closed for the 2024 contest. Learn more about the winner and finalists.

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About the author
Matt Buell | President/Owner/C-Level

Matt Buell of M. Buell Studio the host of the 2023 #YoungWoodPro contest and lead coach for the people who make up the YoungWoodPro audience. Buell has achieved national acclaim for his custom furniture and was honored as a member of the Woodworking Network 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.