Saying "No": A Lesson In Controlling Your Business


A coworker heard about my background in TV production and asked for my help in shooting a documentary about a social justice issue she was passionate about.  Since we both work full-time, she wanted to film on nights and weekends.  I declined politely, saying [truthfully] "I don't do that kind of work anymore."  I'd long since sold off all my production equipment and I've turned down every producing job I've been offered since 2009.  Undeterred, she continued to sell me on the project and when she was done, she said what they always say: "I can't afford to pay you, but you'll get lots of great experience."  This was my response:

"I don't need experience.  I need money."

I get asked to help out on video projects a lot... at least once a month and sometimes weekly.  I say no to all of them.  That's because most of the time, people don't realize what kind of time and effort these projects require, and therefore, what kind of commitment they're asking of me.  The few who ARE aware will offer me "experience" in the hopes that it will be enough to sway me.  It never is. I don't produce anymore, but if you're going to convince me to lend my considerable production expertise to your video project, I want - nay, DEMAND - to be paid for it.  I'm not shy about it and I feel no shame or embarrassment by telling someone that without $$$ they'll have to look for someone more altruistic.

I've written about doing unpaid work in the past so I won't go into the pros and cons again here.  Instead, I'm going to talk about the power of learning to say "No" to situations that don't propel your art and business forward. It's such an important thing for young artists to know, yet so hard to put into practice.

I don't turn down requests to work on unpaid video projects out of greed or selfishness.  I do it because I learned from personal experience that it did actual harm to my business. When I was first breaking into the entertainment industry I took tons of unpaid work because I was too afraid to turn down any job, regardless of compensation, for fear of doing irreparable harm to my reputation.  "Don't hire Greg.  He's not a team player... he [gasp] wants to be paid."   At one point, I had three simultaneous unpaid internships, and various unpaid production assistant gigs.  I had more jobs than I knew what to do with, but my parents had to pay my rent because my income was $0.  I wasn't in control of my sh*t.

In hindsight, I realize that I took all that unpaid work because I didn't understand the value I brought to the job.  I didn't believe that I could say "No" and get away with it.  One day, I made a conscious decision to take control.  I would refuse all unpaid job offers and only accept paying gigs.  That was a good decision - a difficult decision because it resulted in a nine month work drought, but I'm glad I made it.  Eventually, the paying work came and it paid a living wage.

I understand how tough it can be to turn down a seemingly perfectly good job, especially for young up and coming artrepreneurs.  Figuring out what situations are good for your business or bad for your business is a calculus that's different for everyone.  And it can only be done through personal research and soul-searching.  It took me years to discover that working for free was harming my business instead of helping.  So instead of just yelling at you to say "No" to bad situations, I'll give you two real life examples (three if you count mine above) that will hopefully inspire you to be vigilant about what kinds of work situations are right for you.

  1. An illustrator friend of mine was recently working for a client.  The client became difficult to work with and made numerous demanding requests.  My friend decided to inform the client that she would no longer be able to work under these conditions.  She further told the client that if they no longer appreciated her work, they were perfectly in their rights to find another illustrator.  After several conversations, the client decided to discontinue the relationship.  When I asked my friend if she was angry, she said, "No.  That relationship wasn't working for me and it wasn't working for them.  Neither of us were happy.  I had to walk away."
  2. A painter friend of mine was selling his paintings.  All the paintings were at a fixed price and he refused to negotiate over them.  When I asked him why he didn't negotiate, he said, "I don't like negotiating so there's no point wasting my time doing it.  The paintings cost what they're worth."

Both of these people are professional artists who make a living by making art.  They each figured out what situations worked for them and what didn't.  They each learned how to say "No." And once they learned to say "No," they didn't run from it or act embarrassed by it.  They embraced it.  And once you learn how to make that choice, your business will be able to take off.