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More Career Tips for You

Why Entrepreneurs, Especially, Need to Say ‘No’

Career Advice |

When I first started Social Tribe, I was often asked about my vision for the company. I usually hemmed and hawed something about being the best social marketing agency on the planet. In reality, making enough to pay rent and put food on the table were my Key Performance Indicators. In my opinion, “dream big” is a great philosophy, but in the early stages of building a company it’s often accompanied by side dishes of getting stuff done, staying afloat, and drinking from the fire hose. The primal needs of survival often outweighed the big picture essentials like strategic planning.

The danger of living in survival mode for too long is that you start to adopt a “here and now” mentality. I noticed a cycle emerging; when opportunity came knocking at my door, I said “yes!” Not a bad practice in theory, except that I found myself working on projects that didn’t always align with my passion, interests, or skill sets. By adopting a yes attitude, I was inadvertently diluting my service offering and morphing into a jack-of-all-trades.


Say No

The Danger of “Yes”

Being a yes person has its perks; everyone likes a yes gal or guy. There’s a lot of praise and “team player” validation that gets lathered on and it feels good, but there are some serious downsides to letting that buttery three letter word slide off your tongue. If you’re not strategic about what you agree to, it’s easy to scatter your focus, resulting in confusion and skepticism of your long-term vision. For new businesses, that can be the end game right there. You may find that you and/or your team are spread too thin with dark, puffy clouds of burnout starting to loom on the horizon. Worst of all, it’s almost impossible to measure progress and results because these “yes!” activities weren’t part of the original plan. So where are you? Off track, that’s where.

“No” Really Means “Yes”

As an entrepreneur, each day is filled with possibility. You could easily work twenty hours a day and that still wouldn’t be enough to accomplish everything you need to get a business off the ground. From that perspective, turning your back on opportunities sounds like crazy talk, but it’s not. Whenever you say no to one thing, you’re really saying yes to something else. It took me a while to truly internalize the yin and yang of this situation; it’s taken me even longer to put it into practice.

For my business, that means saying no to projects that aren’t in alignment with the brand I am building. If someone comes up and offers me $10,000 to take on a PR project, I would say no. Why? Because the time, energy, and resources I would invest in that type of project would build my expertise in PR, but it wouldn’t bring me closer to my goals as a social marketing agency. If you’re going to stay strategically focused, you can’t take on opportunities that cause you to veer off your path. Even if it’s a short-term win, in the long run, it’s a loss.

How to Avoid the “Yes Trap”

The first step to avoiding the yes trap is to define your vision. As the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Once you have a clear vision, it becomes much easier to create a road map of activities and benchmarks that will help you get there. Every time I am presented with an opportunity, I hold it up against that road map and ask myself, “Will this help me achieve my goals? Or does it take me off course?” If it takes me off course, the answer is simple: no.

The Up Side to Saying “No”

The word “no” is often associated with guilt, failure, and disappointment. However, when used correctly, it becomes a powerful ally that will drive your business forward. A few of the benefits of saying “no” are:

  • Increased time: fewer distractions creates more time and space for key initiatives that accelerate progress.
  • Narrow and deep: the days of being spread too thin are over. Reprioritize time and use it to deep dive into the projects that have the greatest impact.
  • Informed decisions: no more throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks; make every choice count by mapping to big picture goals.
  • Measure progress: every activity is an opportunity to measure progress; setting benchmarks and goals is the key to achieving tangible results.

While saying “yes” might give you a sense of instant gratification, leveraging the power of “no” could be the secret to your success.

What other strategies do you use to stay on track? How has saying “no” benefited your personal or professional success? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Catherine Murphy, Writer for Mercy Ships, how she learned to say “no” to one path and found herself on a new exciting one!

Photo courtesy of Jenny Wolf Interiors

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entrepreneur saying no prioritization


These are wonderful points, Megan! I think saying yes to too much can certainly lead to spreading oneself too thin, and I think women in particular are prone to feeling pressure and saying yes even when we don't want to. I am glad you gave advice for how to figure out when to say yes and when to say no by stepping back and assessing whether the commitment is in line with the vision!


So glad you enjoyed it Lauri! Really appreciate your feedback :-)


Love how saying "no" is saying "yes" to another opportunity!


I agree with Ella, Megan is really offering a new way of looking at the way we make decisions. When you turn something down, you are also opening up to more time to take on other projects. I'm definitely going to take this into account when I'm organizing my project lists.


Such great advice! As an entrepreneur it is sometimes difficult to say no to something that at face value looks like an opportunity but will really distract from the company's vision and mission. (Especially in the early days when saying no may mean saying no to a source of revenue!)


So true - it's something I've really had to practice at.


Megan's perspective on saying "no" is actually saying "yes" is great. We often think of "no" as a decision we should regret, however these decisions really present themselves as windows of opportunity. We should always be looking out for opportunities that align best with who we are, both professionally and personally.


Absolutely Ella! It's tough at first, but it doesn't take long to realize that no actually means 'yes' to what you really want.

Megan Conley

Megan is the Founder and CEO of Social Tribe, a social engagment agency that connects brands to customers through social media. Since opening its doors in 2009, Social Tribe has had the privilege of serving clients such as Cisco Systems, SAP, SuccessFactors, UC Davis and many others. In her free time, Megan travels extensively through China and Brazil – observing social tribes around the world. Follow her on Twitter @megconley @socltribe