When your client demands a discount to finance his Lamborghini

I’ll never undercut my own work for any client again.

By Christina Empedocles


While growing my design firm I’ve adopted the philosophy that digging in and bringing my A-game to every project is the best strategy for building a roster of quality clients willing to pay reasonable rates for excellent work. Getting up to speed with a new client always involves a significant investment of time needed to research their industry, corporate approach, and aesthetic. I’m glad to put in this kind of extra work because I know that demonstrating that I ‘get it’ ensures my new client will never go anywhere else. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I needed to carefully vet my potential clients before embarking on that initial investment, because some people just aren’t worth working for.

Not all opportunities are created equal

My firm focuses on information design, and we often create high-end infographics for clients who use content marketing. I had identified a growing company (let’s call them Interweb Consultants) with a consistent content marketing strategy that often used infographics in their messaging. I saw that their graphics could be vastly improved, so I pitched them, sharing our custom-made, richly researched pieces that have been so productive for our other clients.

The signs were there from the beginning

Interweb Consultants responded immediately that they liked our work — but they have been working with a design firm who will produce infographics at less than ½ of our price. They’d consider using us for a new brand they were launching if we were willing to drastically lower our rates. In return they’d give us a new infographic to design every week .

This kind of frequency would be HUGE for us, so I set aside the queasy feeling I got from severely lowering our price and went for a job that would provide a consistent stream of work over the next 12 months. My expectation was that once they saw how effective our higher quality product was, they’d eventually be willing to expand their budgets. But, I should have trusted my gut, because not everyone’s goals include producing great work.

I know that the minimum viable product (MVP) strategy, where only the bare requirements are fulfilled before launching, is gaining popularity in many industries. But in the design world, MVPs just don’t hold water, and producing less-than-excellent products goes against everything I believe in. My partner and I work with a range of budgets, driven by the understanding that we’ll grow with our clients, and our budgets will increase as our clients see an improved bottom line as a result of our work. But this plan only pays off if we hold fast to providing top-notch work no matter what. So I was caught off guard with Interweb Consultants when I realized that an MVP was the ultimate goal.

As I started on our first project together, one of the two principals of Interweb Consultants was immediately breathing down my neck for a quick turnaround, referring to their ‘other design firm’ like a veiled threat. And after providing a first draft before the agreed-upon deadline, I received unprofessional feedback a teenager might give – full of ‘LOL’s and ‘uglies’ – making me think, ‘Who are these people anyway?’

The answer was only a quick Google search away

Without revealing any names, I stumbled upon a recent article detailing how the two principals at Interweb Consultants claimed that spending over $150,000 on their individual wardrobes led to an instantaneous, massive sales increase for their consulting work, and over six figures of additional income per month. My direct contact at Interweb virtually chuckled about how this trick snowed people into closing expensive consulting deals, and that a fake-it-‘til-you-make-it philosophy had provided he and his partner with luxuries like a Lamborghini, $5500 velvet shoes, and NBA courtside seats.

I didn’t even get through the whole article before feeling the waves of nausea that comes from recognizing that I had made an enormous mistake. It had been a long time since I felt this taken advantage of at work, and I sat there stunned at the realization that the time I had spent away from my family on recent evenings and a whole weekend trying to impress these people was completely wasted.

They would never see the virtue of top-quality work when they apparently felt no need to provide it themselves.

Though I had invested a ton of uncompensated time already, it only took a quick conversation with my partner to decide to fire Interweb Consultants as a client and move on. I sent a quick note referencing the article I had seen, saying I no longer felt comfortable working for them, and that, in fact, their other designers would be a much better fit for their new brand.

Lesson learned

Making sure your good work finds the right outlet can be worth waiting for, especially if your values don’t line up with those of who you’re working for.



Christina Empedocles is a personal finance blogger at Sm*artly, Art + Personal Finance, and co-founder of Crux Information Design.


  • Jennifer

    Reply Reply June 12, 2015

    This has happened to me so many times, but I never get such great confirmation that I’m dealing with a jerk! Glad you washed your hands of them. I’ll do the same next time.

    • Christina

      Reply Reply June 12, 2015

      I know – it’s so rare to be able to see behind the curtain, and what a shock to find out it was worse than I could have imagined! Thanks for your comment Jennifer.

  • deborah burow

    Reply Reply June 12, 2015

    Hey, great article. I am an artist, so don’t really run into this kind of thing, yet at least. But it made me think of the people, even other artists that share that they think lower prices sell more art. I don’t agree. I tend to think if potential customers are buying my art based on price, then they just can’t afford my art. And that is OK. I don’t want to sell it for less than what I think it is worth. The right buyer has just not seen my art yet. I will wait. We have to honor what we do. And believe in excellence, passion and possibilities.

    I loved the article, and very well written. Someone will see that article and hire you for the right price to do an amazing job that you will both be extremely proud of.

    • Christina

      Reply Reply June 12, 2015

      I love your philosophy Deborah! Perfectly put, thanks so much for sharing!

  • Millie Turner

    Reply Reply June 12, 2015

    It is so easy to fall into that trap and I am afraid that it is a feminine trait – trying to please – at least in my generation. We’ve just got to toughen up!
    I really like your writing style.

  • Steve Cuso

    Reply Reply June 12, 2015

    Leave it to Christina to write an entertaining and engaging piece about something we all dread! I love it! Like everyone else commenting on this post, I run into this all the time. Of course, when you’re hustling to build up business, it’s often alluring to take a discounted job over no job at all . . . Still, I almost always regret it in the end. One thing I hear all the time is “we can’t pay the full amount, but if you do it anyway, we’ll make a ton of referrals, which will be really valuable . . . ” (or something like that). Of course, then all the referrals expect the same discount! A person I respect very much once summed it up by saying “low-quality clients lead to low-quality referrals”.

    Great piece Christina! Keep them coming!!!

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