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Zombie Projects: 7 Tips for Finishing Neverending Web Design Projects

This week on the show, I'm breaking down one of the biggest problems we help our Web Designer Academy students with: Zombie Projects.

Zombie Projects are a huge reason you feel stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out and not making nearly enough money in your web design business.

What are zombie projects, you ask?

We coined this term in the Web Designer Academy to describe web design projects that have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • You’ve got a contract and a deposit, but no content so you can’t start.
  • You may have been paid in full, but you’re at a standstill and can’t finish the project because you’re waiting on the client for something.
  • Maybe you’re paid in full, or there are still some payments due… but you’re stuck in revisions purgatory – the client keeps changing little things or maybe even big things, or adding things.
  • And sometimes… you might have a zombie project that you haven’t even been paid for at all. Maybe you just have a verbal agreement with someone, and it’s just hanging out there, like you know it’s gonna happen but you just don’t know when.
  • And sometimes…. SOMETIMES… you have a zombie project because YOU are the one who procrastinated. Maybe the client was breezy, they didn’t really have a deadline and so it fell off your radar… and sometimes… you bit off more than you could chew, or life got in the way, or whatever… but either way, sometimes the ball is in your court on the zombie project.

In this episode, I share with you why getting rid of Zombie Projects can have a huge impact on your web design business – and give you 7 tips for finishing up your never-ending Zombie Projects.



In this episode, Shannon Mattern discusses the concept of zombie projects in web design. Zombie projects are projects that have been delayed or put on hold for various reasons, causing stress, overwhelm, and financial drain. Shannon explains the effects of zombie projects on mental well-being, productivity, and business growth. She highlights the financial impact of zombie projects, including undercharging and missed opportunities for marketing. Shannon also addresses the confidence and mindset issues that can arise from dealing with zombie projects. She provides tips for handling zombie projects, such as setting realistic deadlines, communicating boundaries, and guiding clients through the project. Shannon emphasizes the importance of combining web design skills with systems and processes to prevent and address zombie projects.


  • Zombie projects in web design refer to projects that have been delayed or put on hold, causing stress, overwhelm, and financial drain.
  • Zombie projects have a significant impact on mental well-being, productivity, and business growth.
  • Financially, zombie projects result in undercharging, missed marketing opportunities, and delayed payments.
  • Dealing with zombie projects can lead to confidence and mindset issues, making web designers feel unprofessional or not good enough.
  • To handle zombie projects effectively, set realistic deadlines, communicate boundaries, and guide clients through the project.
  • Combining web design skills with systems and processes is crucial to prevent and address zombie projects.


00:00 Introduction to Zombie Projects
02:11 Effects of Zombie Projects
04:13 Time and Financial Drain of Zombie Projects
07:26 Impact on Confidence and Business Growth
08:50 The Search for Perfect Clients
10:40 Exponential Financial Drain of Zombie Projects
11:29 Understanding Zombie Projects
13:18 Mind Trash and Limiting Beliefs
17:06 Tips for Handling Zombie Projects
23:09 Combining Web Design Skills with Systems and Processes
24:36 Next Steps

Episode Transcript

Shannon Mattern (00:03.714)

Hey there and welcome back to the Profitable Web Designer Podcast. And this week on the show, I am talking about a topic that comes up a lot, especially around the holidays or summertime or honestly really anytime. And I'm talking about zombie projects. So zombie projects are a huge reason you might feel stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, and not making nearly enough money in your web design business.

So what are zombie projects, you ask? Well, we coined this term in the Web Designer Academy to describe web design projects that have one or more of the following characteristics. So you might have a contract and a deposit, but no content, so you can't start the project.

You may have been paid in full, but you're at a standstill and can't finish the project because you're waiting on the client for something. Maybe it's feedback, maybe it's content, maybe it's just the green light to go to move forward on something. Maybe you're paid in full or there are still some payments due, but you're stuck in revisions purgatory and the client keeps changing little things or maybe even big things or adding things.

And sometimes you might have a zombie project that you haven't even been paid for at all. Maybe you just have a verbal agreement with someone and the project's just like hanging out there and you know it's going to happen, but you just don't know when. And sometimes, sometimes you have a zombie project because you are the one who procrastinated. Okay. So please do not feel bad about this one.

I know some of you who are listening right now are feeling a little called out like, oh, that was my little secret, Shannon. But sometimes, like the client was breezy, they didn't really have a deadline, so it fell off your radar. And other times you bit off more than you can chew or life got in the way or other client projects got in the way and you just couldn't manage your workload. But either way, sometimes the ball is in your court on the zombie project and sometimes it's in the client's court. So

Shannon Mattern (02:11.182)

Here's why zombie projects are such a problem in your web design business. One, they are mentally draining. They take up mental capacity. They are always on your to-do list. You think about them and worry about them. And when you're about to take time off to go on vacation or just not work for a weekend, you're constantly thinking things like, what if they're finally ready to launch when I'm on vacation?

They make you feel overwhelmed because you feel like you have too much on your to-do list and you're frustrated because you can't check things off and they make you feel behind like you can never get caught up. They stress you out because they're an open loop in your brain and they affect your normal non-zombie projects in so many ways. And we call them zombie projects.

not just because they're like semi-dead projects, but because they are literally eating your brain. They are siphoning off your mental capacity that you could be applying to your active projects. They're like ghosts on your development calendar. You're always planning around them, but they never really materialize. And you might prioritize a zombie project over a normal project.

because you're so freaking excited that you might actually get this zombie project done and out of your life, and then your zombie client goes to you again, and now you've lost time on your active client projects too, making you feel even more behind. And if it's one of those zombie projects where the ball is in your court, you might feel guilty, maybe even a little ashamed.

and you might be avoiding addressing it because you might be afraid of a negative interaction or have some kind of low key anxiety around it. I mean, do you see how mentally draining zombie projects can be? And they don't just drain you mentally, they're also time sucks. So we've all experienced a zombie project that has been dragging on forever. And when I say forever, I mean months.

Shannon Mattern (04:13.182)

sometimes even more than a year, I've helped clients with projects that have gone on that long. They've been dragging on for so long, like maybe you've even forgotten about it. Maybe you've just written it off completely. Then just when you're about to go on vacation, that zombie shows up in your inbox like, hey, guess what? Sorry, I have been MIA, but I'm ready to go live on Friday. You're like, I did not plan for this at all.

You've been ignoring my emails. I didn't even expect to hear from you. And so if you're like most of the web designers that we work with inside the web designer academy, well, before you come and work with us, like what do you do? Right? You drop everything and you get it done on time for the client, of course, and you add on all the stuff that they ask for and you take your laptop on vacation.

to get it done or get all the other stuff done that you didn't get done because you put it aside to work on their project, but it's okay because you were working in those early mornings while your family was still sleeping, right? Before like the vacation got started for the day. I mean, how many times have you done that? Have you dropped everything for a zombie client that just finally like popped back up out of nowhere? So.

They're mentally draining, they're time sucking, but they are financially draining too. So how often have you had one of those zombie clients pop back up and not only want you to start working on their project after they've been gone forever, but also want you to add new work at the rates that you were charging back when they originally started that project like a year ago. And you've raised your prices since then, but now you find yourself billing them at that old rate. Or...

when you're really overwhelmed with a literally never ending to-do list, what is the last thing that you wanna do? Marketing, right? Not only are you probably trying to do a marketing strategy that takes way more time than you really need to take, and that's way too complicated and overkill for what you actually need to be doing to get clients, but when you have zombie projects, like taking up all the space in your brain, and you don't have the mental capacity,

Shannon Mattern (06:28.426)

you actually don't market yourself, right? You don't market yourself because A, you're burnt out on the zombie projects that are taking up space in your brain that you can't work on. And they prevent you from doing your marketing and getting new clients. That drains your bank account. And zombie projects keep you from getting paid. They are keeping money out of your bank account in so many ways. All of those unsent, unpaid input.

invoices you have sitting out there that could be money in your bank account. If you haven't actually added up, added it up yet, add it up. How much money is sitting out there that's either owed to you that is actually yours or that you didn't collect because you undercharge because they came back around a year later. So they keep you from marketing, they keep you from getting paid, they keep you undercharging. And this one might be surprising to you.

But when the projects that you book go and turn into zombies and feel like a hot mess, and when working with clients and getting them to cooperate feels hard, it drains your confidence also. It makes you feel unprofessional. It makes you feel like you need more experience. It makes you think things like, if I were a better web designer, things would be easier. And if you think you're not good enough, how do you think your, what do you think your pricing looks like? Your pricing reflects what you think about

your capability and do you think subconsciously that you keep your prices lower because you don't want to disappoint? I can almost guarantee you, you are massively undercharging if the back end of your web design business feels messy. And this one also might surprise you. Zombie projects keep you searching and hustling, searching for the perfect niche, for the perfect client, for the strategy that's going to prevent all of this.

because you're having all these problems and you think it's because you haven't found the right niche or you think it's because you haven't figured out how to attract investment-minded clients or you think it's because you need to rebrand or redesign your website or redo your copy or relaunch. And like, fine, like you're searching for this whole new niche of perfect clients who will never go zombie on you.

Shannon Mattern (08:50.454)

And I just want you to think about this. Do you know how much starting over costs you? Think about it like let's quantify this. It probably takes you what? At least a few months and a hundred hours to completely overhaul your own website. That's if you spend just one eight hour a day a week working on your website for three months. So let's say your website design, your branding, building it, building out all the pages, building out all the automation, setting everything up.

there is such a huge opportunity cost to solving the wrong problem. And if you've never heard the term opportunity cost before, it means time, money or other value lost as a result of choosing one thing over another. So when you choose to spend, let's say 100 on paid hours and three months of time on a project that doesn't directly make you more time and money or even solve the problem of lost time and money on zombie projects, you've lost so much.

more than just that time. You've delayed your results. Even if it takes you 50 hours in one month or whatever, you've lost so much time. And speaking of opportunity cost, do you see how there's an opportunity cost to not finishing the zombie projects? Wrapping up the zombie projects?

not only gets you paid what you're actually owed right now, it frees up your time and your mental capacity so you can go out there and create more money so that you can market your business, so that you can confidently raise your prices, so that you can stop starting over, so you can stop starting over. Okay? So not only are zombie projects financially draining, mentally draining, and time draining, they are exponentially financially draining.

Like all those ways that they drain your time, money, and capacity compound. And it doesn't matter if you have one zombie project or 10, they are just a huge, huge drain on your web design business. So I want you to think how much more money could you have right now if you sent those unsent, unpaid invoices and they got paid and that money was in your bank account.

Shannon Mattern (11:05.002)

What if you stopped undercharging because you finally felt confident and professional? What if marketing was no big deal because you're not so overwhelmed and burnt out? What if you stopped searching for the perfect niche and stopped spending time and money starting over? Zombie projects are such a make or break for web designers that when people come to work with us inside the Web Designer Academy, one of the first things we do is identify their zombie projects.

and help them put together a customized plan of attack for getting them completed and off of their development calendar, off of their books, and out of their brains so that they can get paid and move forward. Because here's the thing, zombie projects don't happen because you're not good enough, okay? If you have zombie projects, I just want you to know you are so normal.

because if you're like most web designers, especially women web designers, not only have you been conditioned to run your business this way by society, by your employer, by everyone that says that you need to be cooperative and say yes and be quiet and wait your turn, your unique web designer archetype probably plays a part in this too. And I go so much deeper.

into your unique web designer archetype and our free training all about the six sneaky places web design businesses leak time and money. So if you want to get access to that first, go to webd forward slash quiz. Take our archetype quiz to uncover your web designer archetype, your unique strengths, some of the challenges that you might uniquely have that result in things like zombie projects that ultimately cost your web design business not just

Shannon Mattern (12:52.126)

fulfillment, can't say that word, freedom and fulfillment and flexibility you started your business for in the first place. So that training will take you way more in depth into all of the opportunities that you have to fix time and money leaks in your web design business beyond what I'm talking about in this episode. But again, if you have zombie projects, whether the boss in the client's court or yours, you are so normal. There's nothing to feel guilty about.

There's nothing has gone wrong. It's a skill that you just haven't learned. And there's also probably some super innocent sounding mind trash going on in your brain that's giving you really good reasons to let those zombie projects live on in limbo. So if you're new to the podcast, mind trash is a term I first heard from my friend, Jasmine Haley on a podcast interview we did way back in the day.

And we use the term around here to refer to thoughts that you have that you believe to be true, but that are creating unwanted results in your life and your business. So there's a lot of mind trash that we hear from our clients when it comes to zombie projects. And you might not think these exact thoughts, but you might believe these things to be true. So like these thoughts is like the way you think the world works.

We call that a paradigm around here. It's like you have these set of thoughts that you believe to be true that influence the way that you think the world works. And because that's what you think, you just never even question them at all. And you never like question whether they are true or whether they're helping you create the results you want or not. So I'm gonna list out some of the most common thoughts or mind trash I hear from our students.

around a zombie projects and I just want you to take a mental note of what resonates with you. So the first one is they're paying me so they get to decide what happens when it's out of my control. And this is such a common thought if you're used to being an employee who is used to having a boss telling you what's happening when and what's not happening when and what's changing on a whim and your job is to just roll with it so that you keep getting paid and you keep and you

Shannon Mattern (15:10.266)

um a sense of not having conflict. That's what we call employee mindset around here at the Web Designer Academy and it's one of those six sneaky places web design businesses leak time and money. So you'll learn all about that if you take that archetypes quiz at webd forward slash quiz and watch that six sneaky places training. Another mind trashy thought I hear is I've been paid in full so it's not really a problem.

or they don't need to launch until summer. So even though we had a deadline, they have plenty of time to get their stuff to me. Or I don't have any other projects right now, so I don't have a reason not to wait on them. Or I can't charge them more now than what I charged them then. Or they might get mad at me if I tell them no, or tell them that the price has changed, or tell them that I can't launch on Friday because I'm actually getting on a plane to go on vacation after not hearing from them for six months.

Or, it's my fault, I dropped the ball, so now I just have to do whatever they want whenever they want to make up for it. Or, it's not their fault, they're waiting on a photographer, a copywriter, their board of directors, all their friends' opinions, you know, to figure this one thing out in their business, their business coach's feedback. Or, if I had a better system for getting content, this would be easier.

and then queue diving down the rabbit hole of finding and building the perfect content collection system, researching all the tools, buying a course to show you how to set it up, all of this to prevent just having to communicate with clients. So these are thoughts that you might think that you believe are true that are keeping zombies in your life. So now I wanna share some tips for handling your zombie projects because

We walk our Web Designer Academy students step by step through a process for dealing with their zombie clients and coach them every step of the way on what to say, how to say it, when to say it, how to respond to the client's response, what to do if they don't respond, because honestly, we hold their hand because dealing with zombies can be scary. It can bring up all of our stuff about being worried about people being mad at us, disappointed at us, leaving bad reviews, them thinking we're unprofessional.

Shannon Mattern (17:35.53)

us thinking we're unprofessional, whatever. So if zombie projects are a problem for you, we would love to help you with that. You can go to webd forward slash apply to learn more about what it looks like to work with us in the Web Designer Academy. But without knowing your exact situation, here are some universal tips for handling zombie projects. Number one, make a list of your zombie projects and look at your schedule.

and decide by when you want to have each one done and be realistic. Give yourself enough time. If it's December 15th, don't try to wrap up five zombie projects by the end of the year. They'll remain zombies if you try to do that. Number two, review your contract and decide ahead of time what you're going to do or not do if your zombie client goes to you again or doesn't meet your deadline and be prepared to follow through on the boundary. Again, this whole process is moo if you're gonna let them.

Keep being a zombie. Moo, like Joey said on friends, cow's opinion doesn't matter. So make sure you're ready to mentally hold your boundaries. If you're not, write down all the things that you're afraid of, and that's where our coaching really comes in handy because we can help you sift through all the mind trash, clean it up, and be able to confidently move forward to communicate with your zombie. Step three, reach out to each zombie.

and communicate the new deadline with them and a recap of what you need from them by the deadline. When you'll have the project completed and what will and won't happen if they don't respond or meet the deadline. And these emails do not have to be bossy or punitive. And I also don't advise that you send an email with a laundry list of all the things that you did and all the things that they didn't do and blame them. And even if it's totally on them, like we don't need to do that.

Right, we don't need to justify why you're reaching out or why you're setting a boundary. Just state it like you're reporting the news, the facts, the weather, totally neutral. We help our clients draft these communications in a way that feels good and safe to them so that they can confidently send them, feel safe sending them, and confidently deal with their clients' reactions and bring these projects to the best possible resolution. So number four.

Shannon Mattern (19:58.25)

Wake them up one at a time. You do not wanna deal with a whole army of zombies at once. So reach out to each zombie one at a time. Number five, be prepared for the zombie to be disappointed or upset. They might not care, they might be motivated by the new deadline, they might also be annoyed that you're not just letting them ignore you anymore. They might believe that they are the boss of you and that you have to do what they say.

And when you are operating in integrity, you get to practice letting people have their feelings, even if their feelings make you uncomfortable and hold your boundaries. Number six, if the zombie project is on you, don't make excuses. Everyone's busy, just own it and move forward. We have totally coached our clients on dropping the shame and the guilt and then communicating a way forward to bring projects that they've dropped the ball on to a good outcome. So,

There's no point in spending time and shame and guilt if it's on you, just move forward. And number seven, if your zombie responds favorably, lead them through the end of the project. They're not a zombie because they're a jerk. They probably just didn't account for the level of effort on their end. Send them reminders and deadlines. Offer to hop on a call with them to answer any questions. You can even offer to upsell services.

to help them complete some of the things that they thought they could do on their own, but don't have the bandwidth for. And only do that if you want to, and make sure that you're not doing any extra work for free, make sure you're charging for all of it at your current rates. We don't wanna make the zombie project even worse, okay? We want you to offer creative solutions, but we want you getting paid for those. And if your zombie has additional requests for out of scope work, don't.

add it to the existing project, tell them how they can hire you after you complete this project and get on the schedule in the future so that you can add the things that they want to add. Take the lead and guide them through the project. So to recap those seven tips, make a list of your zombie projects and set realistic deadlines for when you want to have them done.

Shannon Mattern (22:13.034)

Review your contract and decide ahead of time what your boundaries are. Number three, communicate the updated deadlines, deliverables and boundaries to your zombie client in a neutral, non-punitive way. Number four, reach out to each zombie one at a time. Number five, let the zombie feel how they're gonna feel about you setting boundaries. Number six, if it's on you, don't make excuses, own it and move forward. And number seven, take the lead and guide them. And I get it.

The skill of guiding clients through a project and all of the communication and boundary holding probably doesn't come natural to you. You've put thousands of hours, probably literally tens of thousands of hours, into learning the skills that you have now to build amazing websites for your clients. And not nearly as many hours into learning the skill of running the business side of your web design business, the skill of project management, the skill of client communication.

the skill of systems and processes, and that's okay. That's where we come in. We help our clients find and fix the time and money leaks they're bringing into our program and then structure their web design businesses to prevent them in the future. And when you combine your awesome web design skills with our systems and processes, you become unstoppable. Because the opportunity cost of you continuing to

not market your current web design business, and stop and start over and redesign and rebrand and change niches and hope the zombies go away and just continue undercharging until some magical day in the future that you feel good enough and professional enough and confident enough to raise your prices, the opportunity cost of waiting is just so high. You are leaving so much time and money on the table and we want to help you start picking that up now. So you have a couple of options.

for next steps. If after listening to this episode and adding up all the unsent unpaid zombie project invoices and really realizing how much money is out there waiting for you to claim it, both in invoices and in undercharging and realizing the true cost to your web design business of ignoring this problem, you feel ready to do something about it, go to webd forward slash apply to learn more about our program and how we can help you not.

Shannon Mattern (24:36.262)

solve this problem, help you find and fix the other places your web design business might be leaking money to, and help you restructure your business to like make more money than you ever thought possible. And your second option if zombie projects are a huge problem for you right now but some of the other things that I've said in this episode have also resonated with you like the cost of starting over or letting your clients be your boss.

or saying yes to everything because you're worried about what other people will think if you don't, or feeling like you're not good enough to charge more, or overworking and hustling and doing more than your clients ask for and not getting paid for it, stuff like that, please go take that web designer archetypes quiz at webd forward slash quiz. You will understand yourself so much more. You will realize that there is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken and that you are so normal that

We have a quiz that spits out your archetype because we know you, we've met you, hello, we've worked with 10 of you already. And you, you're so normal. You're so normal. You just don't know what you don't know. And you'll get tons of insight into why you do what you do and how to turn your weaknesses into strengths so that you can create more time and money in your web design business. So...

That's all I got for you this week. I hope that you kill some zombies after listening to this episode. I hope it helped you to be able to move some projects forward. And I'll see you back here next week. Bye.


I help ambitious women web designers reclaim their time, book web design projects they love, and make more as a freelance web designer than they ever thought possible.

I created the Web Designer Academy to give you everything I wished I would have had when I started freelancing:  step-by-step processes and fill-in-the-blank templates for your messaging, marketing, packages, consultations, sales and project management combined with next-level support so that you have everything you need to create a consistently profitable web design business doing work you love for clients you love.