The Client Work Triangle Test


Over the last few years I’ve been very lucky in that I got to work with a lot of great clients. As anyone who has ever relied on client work for the livelihood will confirm, this is by no means a given. Particularly in the early years as a freelancer it’s perfectly normal that you will occasionally work on client projects that just don’t work – for you, for your clients, or most likely for both.

It’s not that the clients in these projects are bad people, of course, but that both sides agree too quickly to something they have vastly different expectations of. Most of the time, in my experience, better communication and expectation management would have avoided all that felt wrong.

So for quite a while now, I’ve been lucky (and, I hasten to add, privileged) enough to be in a position where I can be very picky about the type of client engagement I accept. Also, years of experience really help with communications, expectation management, and with detecting early on if a project has the potential to turn into a headache for both sides rather than a blazing success.

These days I approach all requests for a potential collaboration with a simple mental model that looks like this:

The Client Work Triangle Test Image: The Client Work Triangle Test (Creative Commons by-nc)

It’s a very simple model (riffing of course on the cheap-fast-good project management triangle), and works as follows.

The litmus test for client work

Whenever you consider a client engagement – or really, any kind of new project – you make a decision about investing your attention, and by extension, time. These are your most valuable resources and they are scarce, so you had better spend them wisely. This triangle helps prioritize. So what’s in the client work triangle? You simply ask yourself, is this project…

  • INTERESTING? Meaning, does it advance your skill or art, does it allow for learning and growth, does it allow you to dive into a new area that you have been meaning to learn about?
  • STRATEGIC? Does it fit your development goals (positioning, new expertise, financial etc.)? Does it make sense for your business, and is this the right time?
  • WELL PAID? Is this work well paid? Does it help you secure the financial freedom to free up time you need to invest in professional development, in new projects, in a retirement plan?

For any proposed project or client engagement, the answer to at least two of these question should be yes. If it’s yes to all three, all the better. If only one of these three boxes are checked, you might want to reconsider.

Build your own business

On top of that, you might want to build alternate revenue streams. Client work is interesting and fun and challenging. It’s also less reliable (in that is externally controlled rather than controlled by you) and so you rely more on third parties than if you build your own business. I’d strongly recommend to be cooking up some things of your own – if not to replace client work, then to supplement it. With a bit of luck, you will be less reliant on client work, which will make it much easier to say “no” the next time someone proposes a project that does not pass the Client Work Triangle test.

This blog post is also available on Medium.

Freelancers, be picky about your agency clients!


Are you a freelancer, and do you work with agencies regularly? To get a feeling for some issues, I have a few questions for you. Discussion is strongly encouraged. Here’s the question: How do you choose which agencies you work with? How do you pick your clients?

Poison Apples by Flickr user 7-how-7 At first glance it can be hard to tell good from bad apples, to see which potential client rocks and which would suck.

To put this all in perspective: I work both directly with companies/non-profits/other organizations, and with agencies of all sorts (ad/PR/web/communication agencies etc). Mostly my experiences there have been good, I’ve been lucky with the choices I made, and I’d do most of that all over again any time. Sometimes I was approached by agencies that seemed very inexperienced, or just not fit for the social media world. In very few cases, the contacts seemed slightly sketchy. (Obviously I won’t tell any names. And I can promise you, all the clients listed in my client list are cool, otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with them.)

Just to give a few examples that I’ve encountered over the years: deadlines that changed constantly, both ways. Agencies approaching me, then never reacting to my replies. Bad payment morale. Agencies not getting social media and trying to buy their clients good comments and blogposts. Of course, where I encountered such issues I blew off any cooperation. And never regretted it.

Sometimes I’m told that freelancers can’t be picky about who they work for; that freelancers are service providers who need to do whatever is asked from them. I beg to differ. In my opinion, freelancers need to be particularly picky about their clients. Let me explain.

Every time you, as a freelancer, agree to work with a client, your name is on the line. That goes particularly for social media, where clients sometimes ask you to act in their clients’ stead under your real name. (Which in most cases is a bad idea in my opinion, but that’s also up for discussion.) So the choice of your clients is a pretty important one. After all, you don’t want to show up to the next meeting with colleagues and friends and be ashamed of what you did; or even worse, show up to a meeting with potential clients where they confront you with some embarrassing thing you did for another client and expect you to do the same thing or worse for them. (“Of course we expect you to use your private Facebook account and your blog to push our product, it’s the least you can do!”) Know what I mean?

What I’m interested in – and I guess some of you, too – is what’s a No Go? What’s ok and what isn’t; what makes you say no to a client? Is it certain demands, too little autonomy in how you do your part of the job, people not returning your calls, changing deadlines, unreliability? How do you pick your clients? How do you tell the bad apples from the rockstar clients you love to work with?

I’ll ask you to stick to one ground rule for your reply: Strictly no names. (I mean it: any agency name here as a negative example and I’ll delete the comment. ’cause that’s be bad style and you can do better.)

So let’s hear it!

Photo by 7-how-7 (Creative Commons)

“How to become a freelance web strategist?”


my moo card…asked my reader Chris in an email:

To impose a question, is it financially lucrative to be a freelance web strategist? I am considering such a path for myself, and if you have a chance to explain your successes and failures to me…

Well, Chris, thanks for the question – a good one, too! So let’s dig right into this.

One, to get that out of the way: Yes, I feel very fortunate to make a good living from this line of work. (If you had told me this a few years ago, I would have thought you were crazy. Today, for me this is reality, and I can hardly believe how lucky I am to be paid for doing the stuff I love to do!) So the financial aspects shouldn’t stop you. (As money can move into, and out of, an industry quickly, though, this shouldn’t be your driving motivation – do what you feel passionate about, the rest will follow.)

That said, what I do is freelance work, so there’s no regular, reliable paycheck. There is always a certain amount of uncertainty about the future, even while business is good. If this is something you don’t feel comfortable with, freelancing is not for you. (Not a shame either, but it is something you should think about first.)

Two, apart from that, it’s pretty much intuitive: Do good work, be creative, and: blog, blog, blog. You will be consulting with your clients on topics like web communication, social media and blogging, so you need to know your tools & feel comfortable with them. From my experience, this is not only very rewarding because you meet so many cool folks, it’s also you best way of advertising your services. Do leave your traces online, be it via your blog address, via Twitter or any other means you feel comfortable with. Personally, I’m convinced that this kind of word of mouth is ultimately more important than all business cards, flashy websites and conferences combined. (Although attending the industry get-togethers certainly doesn’t hurt. But again, I go less for the networking than for meeting interesting folks to learn from.)

Three: Ask, ask, ask. As the old Twitter saying goes, it’s not who’s listening to you, but who you listen to. For example, you should listen very well to Jeremiah Owyang and Chris Brogan, both of whose blogs I read religiously, because they’re always insightful and inspiring. There’s plenty of others to discover, of course!

That’s just a brief rundown. Other than that, experiment & find your niche. How about connecting via Twitter to begin with? All the best, Chris, for your endeavors!