How Learning to Say “No” Can Help Your Startup Thrive


For startups, there can be a lot of pressure to say “yes.” You want your business to grow, and taking on new clients or customers seems like a surefire way to do that. But the most important skill that startup business leaders can master is the ability to gracefully say “no” to offers and potential work that are not right for their businesses.

Taking the time to pause and decide whether the client is a good fit for your company can save you a lot of grief in the long run and can actually help you build your business and your brand. Here’s why.

Mismatched Clients Affect Your Brand

Not every client who approaches you will match your brand. Your startup has a distinct mission, and you should avoid working with clients that don’t align with your brand and mission.

It’s important to prioritize clients who you can serve well. Ensuring that you align with the client in terms of goals and objectives is key. “Look for deep partners,” says Beverly Brooks Thompson, managing director at Carter Global. You want clients who will be engaged collaborators, not ones who are looking for you to save them or who won’t be an active partner.

“No one wants to work on a project with a client and create a plan that sits on a shelf with no results,” says Brooks. Even worse, the client may blame you for the lack of results, and your startup will suffer the hit to its brand reputation.

Saying “No” Early Underscores Long-Term Success

Let clients know that you can’t serve them the way they need. “It’s OK to take a big contract that is above your bandwidth if it is a very targeted, ideal client,” says Brooks Thompson. If it’s a good fit, you can always bring in partners or ramp up your staffing to meet the needs of the project.

But if the client is simply not a good fit for your company, don’t do it, she advises. If you have challenges early in the process with the client or feel unsure that you can work effectively with them, walking away is a better outcome than a failed project or relationship.

Turning down opportunities that aren’t a good fit frees you to take on ones that are and that will help you grow your business.

Honesty Supports Better Service

You might find yourself in a situation where you have to part ways with a client. “You have to know when it’s time to cut bait,” says Brooks Thompson. While that can be a hard decision to make, the potential positives from being honest when things aren’t working outweigh the negatives.

Saying, “This doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m willing to cancel the contract or help you find somebody else to serve you” can go a long way toward maintaining goodwill with the client, she says. Brooks Thompson even says that when this has happened in her business, she’s had that client go on to refer her to other people.

“Honesty is tremendously powerful for your brand,” she says.

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