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Do small project clients turn into big project clients?

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Have you ever tried to change someone’s perception of you after you’ve known or worked with them for a while?

If you’ve tried, you’ll know it is incredibly difficult to do it—especially with siblings or family for example.

Maybe you’ve been labeled the “good one” or the “smart one” or the “baby” or the “black sheep.”

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Whatever it is, changing that perception is tough.

Or, it could be at work or in your previous job. Maybe you were labeled the “over-achiever, ” and you got sent all the overflow work others weren’t capable of doing—even though you didn’t ask for it or want it.

Once that expectation is set, changing other people’s behavior toward you—and ultimately the way you are perceived is almost impossible.

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Your peers see you a certain way, and once you start behaving differently, the world will conspire to put you back into that place or role they’ve become accustomed to.

That’s why the first impression you set with a potential client is so important and will influence the rest of your working relationship together.

I received this reader question the other day in response to my recommendation to not take on small projects because each project takes up your limited time and you are better off allocating that time to higher paying projects and clients.

Here’s the question:

“What about the scenario where I don’t accept smaller projects, but the client still needs them done. This forces them to go and find another graphic designer who will do the smaller jobs (and maybe for a cheaper price). Then, they build a relationship with the other graphic designer, and they give that person more work, even the large projects I wanted in the first place.”

Yes, there is always the possibility of a small project client turning into a large project client, but often that’s not the case.

For example, someone doing a website project for $2,500 is unlikely to ever get a web design project for $25,000 from that same client because most likely if that client grows substantially they will hire someone they feel is a $25,000 web design agency, not the same $2,500 freelancer.

Photographer Chase Jarvis explains this well:

“I’ve never seen a photographer who came in at a low rate suddenly get paid a high rate. You’ll get sold the idea that ‘this is how much money I have right now, and if you just come in and do this you’ll get more later.’ That’s not what happens. Because if you come in at $1,000, when they get $50,000 do you think they are going to go ‘My $1,000 person is going to be a great $50,000 photographer’? Heck no.”

If they perceive you like a cheap or affordable vendor, they’ve qualified you as such, and it’s hard to turn that perception around. That’s why those initial interactions are so critical.

That’s the downside to letting your client put you in a box by charging low prices. Escaping that box becomes nearly impossible.

But what if it’s not so big of a leap you are hoping to make? What if the small job is a $150 small business card job and you might go on to do a full brand identity for $1,750?

That’s much more likely and does happen, sure, but that’s when you have to realize that there are clients in different categories or buckets. This client you are serving is in a lower bucket on the revenue chart.

Client buckets

If you think about it on an annual basis, this type of client is maybe worth $2,500 to you—if you’re lucky.

From that perspective, if you want to move up and significantly increase your revenue, you have to target clients that can generate more revenue for your business on an annual basis. You’ve got to target clients in a higher bucket.

Maybe that means working with small businesses of a certain size (minimum 10-25 employees for example) and not working with mom and pop type businesses.

Those are two very different type of clients.

They have different business needs and different business problems, even though some of the deliverables you might sell them are pretty similar.

Since you have limited capacity, those smaller businesses crowd out the larger businesses you might be able to take on.

So let’s put these client types into different buckets.

You have your $2,500/year type clients, you have your $10,000/year type clients, and you have your $25,000/year type, clients.

You can put clients in whatever size buckets you want, but the important thing to recognize is that with the $150 business card client you are working with a client in the lower bucket.

If you say to yourself (or even publicly), “I’m going to step up now and only work with clients that spend upwards of $10,000 in the first year.”

Now you’ve made sure that you are not spending all of your energy with clients that won’t allow you to earn the amount of revenue you’d like to make.

Once you are working with a client that is a $10,000 or $25,000/year type of client, you can definitely do smaller one-off type projects to make sure they don’t go find someone else.

You want to keep them happy, and occasionally that means doing small projects.

The next question then becomes, “Well if they come to me with a small project before I’ve worked with them on a larger project, what do I do?”

Expanding the scope

This is where you need to get a feel for the overall need for the project.

After you’ve qualified them as a client that CAN spend in the range you are looking to work in, you should be looking for ways to expand the scope of the project.

Blair Enns has a nice way to reframe a conversation about a small project into a conversation about a larger project.

Let’s say someone has come to you looking for a brochure. Here’s what Blair recommends you say:

“We’re not in the brochure business. We’re in the business of creating total brand experiences.” (As a broad hypothetical example.)

“We often do brochures as part of that, but if someone’s just looking for a brochure, we usually refer them elsewhere. Let me ask you, is your brochure part of a larger undertaking?”

You’d probably adjust the language to suit your voice, but the goal is to expand the scope by tying it to a larger project with a broader business goal.

But, you can only do this when you’re helping clients achieve results instead of just giving them a deliverable like a brochure.

To do that you need to work on those first impressions and to set the expectation early on that you’re not just cheap labor or a pair of hands. Instead, you are an expert problem-solver looking to deliver results.

Changing your client’s perception during the project is pretty much impossible.

If you start as cheap labor, they’ll see you as cheap labor during the project and for the length of the working relationship.

Taking on small projects doesn’t necessarily get you labeled as cheap labor. But being labeled as cheap labor will likely keep you from working with big project clients.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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About Ian Vadas

Ian Vadas is a designer and the author of Work With Clients You Love. Get the eBook to learn how to select clients that pay well, treat you with respect and allow you to do your best work.

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Leave a Comment



  1. Mark Okyere says:

    Hi Ian, many thanks for this article.

    It is on point and like you mentioned, the first impression really counts.

    Apply this to a current situation I’m facing, there is this client that I teach his kids three times a week after they return from school and since I hardly complain about his payments, he pays me whenever he feels like he wants to pay me at the end of the month.

    As a result, I have decided to quit teaching his kids because I feel he sees me as a cheap labour. Meanwhile, I have explained to him my current situation. I believe this is as a result of the first impression I created.

    This is a good advice I needed this week because I have been thinking of how to target high paying clients and I will definitely pay heed to it.

    • Thanks, Mark. I think small to moderate size price increases are fine and doable if you approach it in the right way.

      But yeah, if he’s just paying you whatever and whenever, you’ve probably got bigger issues with this client than just payment.

      It sounds like a bit of resentment (justifiably) is also creeping in on your side.

      Sometimes it’s best just to start fresh with a new client.

  2. This is an excellent approach to a hot topic, Ian!

    First impressions are crucial and something that cannot easily change, as you mention.
    Earning what we deserve is a combination of providing quality work and using the right strategy to promote it and sell it.

    If there’s one thing I could add is that you must be qualified to work on high budget projects.
    Normally, this won’t happen overnight!

    I’m saying this, because many fresh freelancers often misunderstand this kind of advice and feel underpaid, when they actually get what they’re worth.

    • Thanks, Mania!

      And yes, I think that’s true, Mania.

      Freelancers have got to have a certain level of competence and be qualified in the sense that they can help solve their client’s problems, right?

  3. I had a client when I was starting out several years ago. Just an individual. Not a huge business or anything.

    He sent me an inquiry asking for a simple cartoon illustration.

    So in the end he commissioned me for a small project. I didn’t charge cheap labour. But a fair price. Went okay. Though I didn’t really hear back or get feedback for the work I done.

    Several years later, his company has grown into a big corporation and now I’m creating cartoons for his company on a daily basis.

    It’s amazing really. It’s because of this one inquiry (that went into my junk and I nearly ignored) that I had all this while ago, Is now my biggest paying client. And is ongoing.

    • I definitely think this is an exception, Jamie.

      But that is quite awesome that it happened that way.

      That’s quite a powerful story.

      If you contributed to turning that small client into a big corporation you can use that as a sort of testimonial to get new clients.

  4. Ian, You’re always killin it with the knowledge.

    I am facing this right now, I have gained some loyal lower paying clients, but I am ready to step my pricing up and have realized these people, just aren’t in the bracket to pay my new prices.

    I like the suggestion focusing on clients with 10+ employees for example. That helps me a lot.

    By the way, what font is this? I cannot but they style to the name. Everytime I type a “w” I get mesmerized. : )


    • Thanks, Sarah.

      Just concentrate on getting new clients at a new rate instead of upping your prices with lower paying clients.

      If you have some loyal clients, they’ll stick with you but some simply can’t afford to pay more.

      And BTW, this font is Raleway. You can install the WhatFont Chome plugin to see what any web font is.


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