Say No With Grace

You quickly learn that you can’t do everything when starting a business. Saying ‘no’ lets you focus on the most important things to your company and its success.
More important is the ability to Say No With Grace.

One of the primary problems with any aggressive project is that opportunities for failure are everywhere – but they are hidden. We see so many exciting things:

  • New things to learn.
  • Fresh projects that come with revenue.
  • Exciting features that would make our product or service “better,” and so many more.

If we say yes to all of these “opportunities,” we’ll die. Simple as that.

The successful startups out there almost always do one thing – and they do it well.

They say NO to many things and know what they MUST and must NOT do.

They also started simple and added complexity later.

That’s a hard line to pick and even harder to do. Saying No is hard – we’re wired to say Yes. Most of us don’t know what to do when someone says “no.” Femgineer covers this off pretty nicely here.

Sometimes No just means No. But engineers are usually brutal at saying it. We don’t say no with grace; we just say “no,” – leaving the recipient semi-destroyed and thinking we’re assholes. Not good. So get past it.

Learn to Say No With Grace

Saying No doesn’t have to be a harrowing experience, and saying no gracefully can make things better than they ever were. Be gentle but firm and quick; if you can, explain why. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Interruption – a team member has a question for you, but you’re “inflow.”
    “Sorry, but right now is a terrible time – I’ll be coming up for air in a couple of hours. Can you flip me a message, and I’ll come to find you.”
  • Dumb Money – Customer has a bag of $$$ to give you if you do [insert new feature]. If this feature is not already planned for and you can’t see why you would change your road map, you must say no. YES – it would be best if you said NO to a BAG OF MONEY.

Dumb Money

There is Smart and not-Smart Money in the VC world, but there is another nasty thing in the customer world: Dumb Money.

  • Smart Money means the investor comes with talent, experience, industry contacts, or something else they bring to the table.
  • Not-Smart Money means the investor comes in with cash and doesn’t do much more other than wait for a payday.
  • Dumb Money comes into play when a customer shows up with that bag of money and wants you to solve their problem with a project. You can be heroes to them. BUT – if their project means you are veering away from your core (deciding to “whore the core” is terrible), you’re taking a candy-covered poison pill. The poison is slow-acting, though. You’re slowly killing yourself as you become those heroes and solve the customer’s problem.
    • BE VERY CAREFUL when you take on a proof-of-concept (POC) that may be re-directing your effort. There is a vast difference between finding a product/market fit and taking money to make money. Decisions here can kill your chances OR make all the difference.
  • Future (aka Delusions of Future Grandeur) – We’re building towards a major release, and then we learn something that may help us in a future release. Something cool. Something compelling. But something that isn’t directly relevant now. This no is hard – it’s impure from an architecture, learning, and general intellectual level. It is also a Siren – tempting you to certain death. I can’t tell you how many mission-critical projects have succumbed to this one – whether they know it or not. The team must stand firm, suck it up, and leave that perfection and beauty for later.

Is No a No?

No can mean so many things:

  • No – not right now
  • No, our company doesn’t do that part of the work – but man, do I have a partner for you – they do this stuff like magic.
  • No – and No.

Saying No With Grace

When possible:

  • Be Gentle – don’t just say No, but be quick and unambiguous (hint: if this is the 4th time you’re providing the No, gentle isn’t working)
  • Give a Reason – even a short reason helps soften the blow. BUT – don’t make your reason so long that you mess yourself up (e.g. if you’re trying to get back to a task you were flowing on.)
  • Give a “What No Means” if you can:
    • Somebody else can do this – If you can point someone to a place, they can get a Yes, you can help both of you. A great example is any Platform company should point to the platform partners that can handle things. Those partners will likely do a better job anyway, driving incremental revenue on the platform.
    • I can’t right now, and here is why – If saying Yes puts your core projects at risk, very few (savvy) customers will want to proceed. If they see that their immediate needs can de-rail you, they are likely willing to wait for the appropriate time. BUT – it would be best if you let them know.

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