Saying no

In the first few years of a startup's life, there's lots to do. Hiring the best talent to build a killer team, convincing customers to pledge their money to support your fledgling product, seemingly constant fundraising and delicate management of investor interest, crafting an ever-evolving culture are all among a long list of things for which a founder must make time as they lay the foundation of their business.  Over-achievers by nature, many founders naturally revert towards "doing". There's a bias towards seeing each day through the lens of a to-do list, checking off one box after another on a long list. Because startups are so much about testing, learning, iterating and repeating this cycle, going too far in a wrong direction can be the enemy of progress. Figuring out where not to invest time is every bit as important as getting things done. Seth Godin makes this point well in his book "The Dip" and there are countless examples in everyday startup life.  Here are a few that come to mind:

--When a startup has open hires, the senior team often feel tremendous pressure to fill the roles. This can lead to bad hires, putting speed (and checking off the boxes) ahead of quality. A bad senior hire can easily set a company back 6-12 months so it's far better to invest an extra 2-3 months in finding the right candidate versus course correcting after many more with the wrong one who may have already done untold damage.

--Figuring out what your customers look like and targeting the right ones - and avoiding the wrong ones - is critical. This usually means saying no to prospects who may express interest in buying what you're selling. With many enterprise businesses, a sales cycle can extend more than six months. Investing that amount of time and energy selling to the wrong prospects, who will never buy your product (and if they do buy, will churn), is detrimental to establishing predictable and repeatable sales processes. In a startup's early days, this usually means saying no to customers who are too large, too complex or simply outside of the target audience who will perceive the highest ROI.

--Raising money is hard and sometimes a founder needs to take money from whomever will give it to them, but taking money from the wrong investors can be painful. Investors who meddle without adding value and/or form a  toxic board of directors (in the case of venture capitalists) can be every bit as problematic as a toxic company culture, and sometimes they're correlated. Given the duration of a typical startup investment, investors and founders are often married for the life of the company.

Saying no is hard for a lot of people, but it's every bit as important as saying yes and checking off the boxes in terms of maintaining focus. In each of the examples above, accepting some short term pain in exchange for long term gain is almost always a good trade-off. The quicker a founder can get comfortable saying no and maintaining appropriate perspective while also working to get things done, the faster they are likely to figure out the key drivers that will set their business up for success.  

By Josh Guttman

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