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originally published over at

One of the primary problems with any aggressive project is that opportunities to fail are everywhere – but they are hidden. We see so many exciting things: new things to learn; new projects that come with revenue; new features that would make our product or service “better”; and so many more.

If we say yes to all of these “opportunities” we’ll end up dead. Simple as that.

The successful startups out there almost always do one thing – and they do it very well. They also started simple and added complexity later.

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

That’s a hard line to pick – and it is even harder to do. Saying No is hard – we’re wired to say Yes.

Most of us don’t even know what to do when someone tells us “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 that we’re assholes. Not good.

So get past it.

Learn to Say No With Grace

Saying No doesn’t have to be a brutal experience. Saying no with grace can actually make things better than they ever were.

Be gentle, but firm and quick and if you can, give a reason why. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Interruption – a team member has a question for you but you’re “in flow” – “Sorry, but right now is a really bad time – I’ll be coming up for air in a couple of hours though. Can you flip me a message and I’ll come find you.”
  • Dumb Money – Customer has a bag of $$$ to give you if you’ll just 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 need to say no. YES – you need to say NO to a BAG OF MONEY. In the VC world there is Smart and not-Smart money – but in the customer world there is also this other nasty thing: Dumb Money.
    • Smart Money means the investor comes with talent, experience, industry contacts, or something else that 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 they want 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 bad) you’re taking a candy-covered poison pill. The poison is slow-acting though. As you become those heroes and are solving the Customer problem, you’re slowly killing yourself. (note: this is a whole topic unto itself – I’ll be thinking on that and writing something later).
      • BE VERY CAREFUL when you take on a proof-of-concept (POC) that may be re-directing your effort. There is a huge difference between finding product/market fit and taking money for the sake of taking money. Decisions here can kill your chances OR make all the difference in the world.
  • Future (aka Delusions of Future Grandeur) – We’re in the middle of building towards a major release and then we learn something that may help us in a future release. Something really cool. Something that is amazingly powerful. 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 a certain death. I can’t tell you how many mission critical projects have succumbed to this one – whether they know it or not. Here’s where the team needs to stand strong, 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 does 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 – and drive 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 (smart) 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 – you need to let them know.

NOTE: This post is going to be edited regularly as I refine the approach.

Also published on Medium.