Startup Founders Need to Say No More Often

by | Feb 22, 2016

Creating a new venture and surviving the brutal startup phase often feels like a negotiation in which you need to say Yes to everyone just to survive. This is the fastest way to end up in startup purgatory – you get started but you get stuck on your way to scalable growth and steady expansion.

Startup founders who say No more often are the ones creating the fastest growing companies. This is not obvious to first timers, but it’s a necessary part of the growth game.

Saying “No” can take many forms:

  • “We won’t be doing that,” to customers (especially big ones) who ask for more features or services than are absolutely necessary
  • “We are not selling to them,” to potential customers with ready cash but who will distract you from core target market
  • “I’m not going to hire you,” to talented candidates who can help you now but who don’t fit the culture and values of your small company
  • “We’re not going to say that on our website or in our sales pitch, even though we could,” to create more powerful messaging that is focused on the center of your target market

Saying No is hard, but it is one of the biggest differences I see between first-time entrepreneurs and those who have created at least one successful company. The founders creating the fastest growth have learned to say NO more often and with more conviction. 

To starving sales-oriented founders, saying No to anything can feel like denying themselves a cheeseburger when they haven’t eaten in a few days. It just doesn’t make any sense when they are in the firefight and things are really, really hard.

I have been there and I get it. Saying Yes to a non-strategic deal because “You gotta eat” can be a reality in the early stages, but too much of this will prevent you from building a bigger company, which is the real goal.

This is one of the paradoxes of startup success – surviving long enough to create a scalable business that has enough focus that it actually becomes the best at something valuable to a big market.

There is no big company that started out selling everything to everybody.

I cringe when I hear startup founders say this: “We sell to consumers, small companies, mid-sized companies and enterprises.”

No you won’t. Stop saying this. It doesn’t help you execute and you lose credibility fast.

Maybe you are experimenting right now to find your best-fit customer, but you’re not going to create a big successful business selling from “the individual to the enterprise” in the early stages. There are almost no mature companies that serve all of those markets well and none that served multiple markets when they were small and struggling.

You are not a big, dominant company. Don’t try to act like one.

Stay as focused as you can and still survive. It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.

No one said it was going to be easy.