I got a call from a former boss and coworker about an urgent project they needed done before a board presentation. At first it sounded perfect - it was part of a long-term strategic plan for the company and my part would involve competitive analysis. All things I had done in the past and really enjoyed doing, plus the time frame would allowed a nice fee "premium". She referred me to the leader of the project and we were able to arrange a conference call quickly.
After talking with the decision maker I quickly figured out what he needed and what I could really do weren't lining up. I probably could have pulled off something that was close to what they wanted and maybe it would have met their needs, but in the end the risk of messing it up and leaving them unhappy was not worth the fee or the time trying to make it work. I definitely felt the pain of turning down a good money making project, but I truly believe that the one thing you have to maintain more than anything else is your integrity. I think all of us want to be known for the quality of work we provide and exceeding client expectations, and I'm confident that if we do that the money and work will follow.
I think this is especially true if you are trading on someone's else name (my old boss and coworker) since a failure on your part would impact their reputation in the company. The world is an incredibly small place, especially your professional network. Good and bad news can travel a lot faster today than it did in the past, and that goes for good and bad experiences you offer to your clients and prospects. Sometimes saying no to the wrong project and leaving an opportunity at a positive point will lead to a yes to the right project down the road.
If you're interested in reading more on figuring out what projects to choose, check out this blog post from Freelancers Union. The Freelancers Union is a great resource for a variety of independent work topics and issues and this article was a great one for me in evaluating my account strategy. Happy hunting!