Why Saying ‘No’ is a Skill that Successful Entrepreneurs Should Master


From the time we’re in middle school to the day we enter the workforce, we’re taught about the importance of having a positive mental attitude. Throwing negativity out the window, we’re told, is the key to success.

That’s one of the reasons that saying “no” has such negative connotations. Saying “yes” keeps us moving forward and, quite honestly, it’s so much easier than saying “no.”

I speak from experience. A few years ago, after almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship, I learned that one of the most valuable things I could do for my businesses was to learn to say, “no.”

And it’s made all the difference in the world — not only for my company’s success, but also for my productivity and my attitude.

Knowing how and when to deliver that strategic “no”, however, can be difficult. Here are three circumstances where it might be justified:

1) You’re swamped.

Okay, this sounds like an obvious one — but that doesn’t make it any less important.  In my experience, however, there seems to be an unwritten rule that people ask for favors or try to rope me into new projects only when I’m at my busiest. Sometimes, when we’re crunched for time, the adrenaline makes us think we can do anything. We feel like we’re in a zone and can keep adding fuel to the fire without consequence. Instead, you need to take a deep breath, look closely at your time and resources (and the profitability of the new request), and politely say “no.”

2) The request just isn’t profitable.

In his book, Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss invokes the “Pareto Principle” in asserting that, on average, 80 percent of an entrepreneur’s profits come from 20 percent of his or her clients. Ferris shares his own personal stories of smaller, less-profitable (and sometimes abusive) clients dominating the majority of his time — while he struggled to keep up with the clients that were actually driving the great majority of his profits. Ferriss learned to say “no” and it made all the difference in the world.

It’s a common maxim among business owners that the smallest-paying clients are the most high maintenance. They don’t drive profit, and they eat up time that should be spent growing your paying client base and building your business. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, unless they are part of that 20 percent that drives 80 percent of your profits, it’s probably time to say, “no”.

Sometimes, less profitable projects may have additional benefit — such as marketing value or coming with the promise of future, more profitable business. Most times, however, the potential for future gain is overblown, and we should’ve said “no” from the beginning.

3) You want to maintain relationships.

Often, we end up saying “yes” to maintain friendships or relationships. Just as often, however, we end up with the exact opposite result. In my experience, saying “yes” to friends often involves taking on high-maintenance projects that violate the 80/20 principle outlined above. Our desire to be polite by saying “yes” is often not matched by our friends’, who tend to overstay their welcome by expecting a ton of work for very little profit. This can lead to animosity, ruined relationships and even a damaged reputation for your company. Saying “no” on the front end avoids these problems and, most times, your friends and colleagues will respect you more for being upfront and honest.

Knowing how to say “no” is also an acquired skill.

If you’ve come to the realization that you need to turn someone down, you have to figure out how to do it politely. It’s always ok to say “no,” but it’s never ok to be rude. If you need to say no, tell them you can’t because you have other commitments. You’re not obligated to give a specific reason but do so if you feel comfortable.

It’s also helpful to give the person suggestions. You may not be able to help but maybe someone else can. Or maybe you know of another way to go about doing it that will save them a lot of time. They will be appreciative of even the smallest tips.

And if you just need to say “No, I can’t do this”, then just say it. While it’s a little scary to think about the person’s reaction, you’ll come to find that it’s never even half as bad as we expect. People are more understanding than you think.

Once you’ve learned to say “no,” you’ll find yourself with more time to work on yourself and things that are important to you and your company.