I can’t do everything with WordPress. Want custom rewrite rules, yeah regex is a black art and the WordPress rewrite API is a pain in my opinion. When I need rewrites I hire Brady and he knows his rewrite rules. He rocks.

I’d love to tell you that when you’re starting to freelance you say you can do anything because you don’t know any better. Then as you work longer it just stops being a problem. That would be a lie. I still get stuck saying I can do things that I really can’t.

It sucks to be staring at your computer screen after 3 hours and still have no idea what the answer to your bug is. It sucks even more when you own the business and know that you’re just burning through the next mortgage payment.

It can be really hard to tell clients that you can’t do what you originally said you could. It only barely gets easier to do that as you gain more experience.


I think that it only barely gets easier because you look at me and I look at you and we see that the other person is awesome. I see that you get things done every day and work for huge companies and must have a Scrooge McDuck money pit. You’re that awesome.

But you think the same thing about me.

We want to be viewed as awesome. We want to be Superman (or Superwoman). The image of the solo founder/business is ingrained in our heads as the ideal that we want to emulate.

This reminds me of The Incredibles when Mr Incredible wants a cap with his new costume. Capes are dangerous.


The second reason that it’s hard is because it’s hard to be humble. You already told the client you could do X and now you have to go back and say you can’t.

It’s hard to be humble.

You know what though? How you deal with tough times speaks more to your character than how you act when everything is just rolling along without issues.

Anyone can be awesome when clients are happy and things are getting done. It takes a truly great freelancer to be humble and admit when they failed in a project.

When to say “I can’t”

Last week my daughter coloured on the couch. She’s 2 and it happens sometimes. We weren’t happy about it but we were proud of her at the same time. Can you guess why?

As soon as it happened she came in to the kitchen and said she coloured on the couch by accident. We took a wash cloth and cleaned the couch right away and told her she was awesome for just telling us.

So when do you tell a client you can’t do something?

As soon as possible.

You may want to avoid the admission but the longer the client thinks you can do something and you can’t the more upset they are going to be. That may not make the email/call any easier to make but it’s the truth.

Waiting will only make the situation worse.

How to say “I can’t”

The obvious first step is to actually sit down at your computer and open up your email program and put their email address in.

Here is a basic format I’ve used recently.

Hey $clientname, hope things are going well on your end.

Over here we have a few issues. I know I said that A was possible but I’m having some issues getting it done. Right now I don’t actually have an option but I do have an email out to a fellow developer that indicated on Twitter he has done A before or at least something very similar.

I’m not sure if this will increase our cost yet. I won’t know until I’ve talked with the other developer. As soon as I know about a change in cost I’ll let you know.

I hope to have a final answer for you by $date and if you have any questions please feel free to ask them.

If you’d like to set up a call about this I’ve got call spaces on $date, $date and $date. Pick one of those and if none work suggest a few.

Have a great day.

In every case that I remember sending emails like that there has never been an upset client unless we were already 2 weeks overdue and this is the first they heard about an issue.

They all accepted that there was an issue and that I was working towards a solution for them. No one was mad and they have all continued to be clients.

The only clients I don’t have are the ones that went way over and didn’t have regular email updates on issues that I was encountering.

Take Away

  • Be quick to admit what you can’t do
  • You don’t have to have all the answers
  • Have a plan of action to get it accomplished
  • Be honest with yourself about things in projects that you’ll need help on
  • Take a deep breath and write that email today!

photo credit: Ochre Jelly via photopin cc