Awhile back, I was approached by a prospective client with a project. She had a pretty grand vision of what she wanted, but I managed to get her to agree to a limited scope for a first iteration.

She seemed happy, and we started to move forward. A contract was drafted, and an invoice for a down payment was sent out.

A week later, she wanted to meet again, and she had some changes to make to the scope. Specifically, she wanted to expand it.

As soon as she said this, I felt my stomach twist, but I didn't know why.

I explained that the additional scope would mean higher cost and later delivery date, which she was ok with (even though she had initially indicated that there was a hard deadline on the project).

I recommended that we start with a limited scope so that we can create an MVP before adding more features, but she was adamant that the additional features were necessary for the initial iteration (even though there would have been no difference in terms of pricing and time between producing the MVP in iteration one and then immediately beginning the second iteration to add the extra features that she wanted).

But, I agreed to the increased scope, she agreed to the increased cost and new delivery date, everybody seemed happy, and we got ready to start up again (at this point, the contract was still unsigned, and the initial invoice was still unpaid).

A week later, she emailed me to let me know that she was dropping the project.

Was my instinct correct? Is increasing the scope before work has started a "red flag"? Or is that not usually a problem, and there was more likely something else going on here?

6 Answers 6


There are plenty of people that have 'grand visions' and limited resources. They'll get going on something and then realize either that they can't afford to use it the way they intended, it's going to take longer to do then they expected, or that their understanding of what they needed was incomplete and they really need something else. This goes on all the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if she calls you up again in a month and says 'we need this after all'.

You have a 'first contact' that is tentative (new client you haven't worked with before). Probably the best thing to do is keep rounds of communication going every month or so to see what her current projects are. Rather than make 'all or nothing' software agreements, operate 'a la carte' time and materials. You need to understand more about how this client does business.


Yes and no. In medium and larger projects, this means that the client did not seriously plan the project. If they had to change project specs with each "change of mind", then they would not change it so often.

Yet again, the client is not an expert in that area. He may find a "cool and simple solution" which will cost 50 work hours.

You as a contractor can only warn him/her that the small feature will increase costs and will prolong the deadline. I would never drop the project because of that. I also sometimes tell them that we can do that but I would have to put another person in the project and then the client usually drops his idea as he realizes it would cost too much.

Now, you asked if this should be a warning. The answer is: YES. Any unpredicted behaviour from the client should be a warning. But then again, is it a warning if a person comes to you without project specs? No, since you will offer to make specs for the money.

PS. I hope you took some money in advance in this project before the client cancelled it.


The answer to your question as stated is "No". Increase in scope before work has started is good, since that usually means more pay. It also means that you don't have to go back and fix, undo, or change things in the project in order to accommodate the new items. I think the primary issue here is in your statement:

But, I agreed to the increased scope, she agreed to the increased cost and new delivery date, everybody seemed happy, and we got ready to start up again (at this point, the contract was still unsigned, and the initial invoice was still unpaid).

An unsigned contract is NO contract at all. It has no teeth and the 'client' has nothing vested in the project. Be sure that your contract clearly outlines 'Change Orders" or "Change In Scope" consequences. Stipulate that the agreement is ratified and commencement of work begins ONLY upon obtaining signatures AND receipt of the deposit. In some cases, prospects will use your 'contract' to shop for a better deal, so it may also be a good idea to put an expiration on your quote/contract.

There are great resources available on sites like LegalZoom.com and others for standard agreements and contracts that can be amended. In any case, it's always good practice to have your attorney look over the contract to make sure you're covered. If there's one difficult, but important thing I've learned in running a freelance business, it's how to say "no thank you" to a prospect. But it sure has saved me time and allowed me to focus on serving actual clients - ones that pay.

I wish you well.

  • +1 for a reasoned answer. But a word of caution about "standard contracts" - people can be attracted to them, and either use them as is or try to amend them without legal advice... yet the contract is only truly there for when things go wrong...
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 8:09
  • Agreed on the word of caution. I mentioned LegalZoom because they offer reasonably priced document review services by attorneys. Good at least in the U.S. Answer edited. Thanks.
    – LeifQ
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 8:31

To answer your question, knowing the full scope of the project upfront is the ideal scene. Knowing the full intentions of the project allow you to better manage the project with time, costs, and updates. I have been working on a project now steadily for 14 months with the first edition going live within 2 months of the project. The scope of the project has grown by at least 1,000%. I have learned from this that the first release though being what the client wanted, was not exactly what the client needed. I have done triple and quadruple work that could have only been done once if I knew the project scope up front. project scope is inevitable with any good project. Controlling the project scope upfront takes skill and talent, but with practice it can be done. Having a good solid contract signed will also help control project scope.

I will state that there is nothing at all wrong with project scope before the work has begone. However, project scope once the project has begun is when you will wish to drop the project at some times and pull your hair out. Offering an initial release is always a good idea if it can be done without increasing your load exponentially. This gives the client a product in a timely manner and allow them to make changes before all of the features are added in. Some people may disagree with this style of project management, but I always like to work in stages with approval on every stage to prevent a major change with the final product. Good communication is the key with any project! Talk with your client and listen to what they say, look at what they need, and suggest what you know will be needed. Remember that you are the expert and that they have you doing the work because they want your advice. With this knowledge it is never a problem to make suggestions or changes to the project scope upfront and shoot down what the client "say" they want when it conflicts what you know they need.


I would say that No, increasing the scope of work, by itself, is not a warning sign. In your specific situation, the part at the beginning:

She had a pretty grand vision of what she wanted, but I managed to get her to agree to a limited scope for a first iteration.

is a much bigger warning sign to me. There are plenty of clients who don't understand software development, and more importantly, are unwilling to learn best practices from a "mere contractor". The above quote makes it look probable that this client is one of those, but without the details, at this stage, we cannot be sure of that.

However, the above quote combined with the later increase of scope is a definite warning sign, that the client has not understood your reasons for cutting the project down and is still clinging to their vision of directly going to a grand version of the project chock full of every feauture they want.

There's plenty of reasons a client might want to expand the scope of work from the original, but if they exhibit an understanding of the trade-offs, and without the presence of other warning signs like the above, that request cannot be considered a warning sign.


Yes, increasing or uncertain scope is a sign of unrealistic client expectations. Unrealistic expectations can be your fault (not clarifying what's realistic), or due to the client's inexperience, idealism, or deliberate attempt to get more than is realistically possible for their budget. It is critical to resolve scope creep early.

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