Entrepreneurs are used to saying yes a lot — to opportunities, meetings, events — but as your business scales, time becomes your most precious resource, and the ability to say “no” becomes essential. As Steve Jobs said in an interview, people think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on, but it actually means saying no to the hundred other good ideas out there. “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done,” Jobs said. “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
While Jobs was referring to executing on ideas, the same is true for the small asks that come through your inbox daily — requests to pick your brain, to meet with aspiring entrepreneurs, to attend events, and to catch up with acquaintances. I’ve struggled with how to say no while still being approachable, and still making time to pay it forward to younger entrepreneurs and marketers. Here are a few of the tips and tricks I’ve learned from everyone from Jobs to entrepreneur friends.
Block time to take “pick-your-brain” calls — but ask people to do their homework
Setting aside structured time blocks to take non-essential meetings means you have time in your calendar, meaning that meetings with potential clients, your key investors/stakeholders, media or other key partners should always take precedence. I structure this as weekly office hours at a consistent time every week, and when someone asks for a meeting, I always have a 30-minute slot available — but it may be in a few weeks. Prior to confirming a meeting, I ask for more information — the context of the meeting, the questions they’re looking to ask — so I can either delegate to a team member if it’s a better fit, or at least know they’re serious about the conversation. If you get way more requests than office hours can accommodate, try doing a group chat. Entrepreneur Ilana Ben-Ari, founder of Twenty One Toys, holds online Coffee Tawks, which allow aspiring designers, entrepreneurs and researchers to ask her questions in a live video chat.
Adopt the “If it’s not a Hells yeah!, it’s a no” mentality
Entrepreneur Derek Sivers wrote an oft-quoted blog post about how to assess an opportunity, in which he says that if your reaction to it isn’t “Hells, yeah!” then it’s a no. Tim Ferriss outlined a similar strategy on a recent podcast episode about how to say no, saying that he rates requests on a scale of one to 10, but he can’t use seven. If it’s an eight, nine or 10, chances are it’s an easy yes. If it’s a six or below, it’s a no. If you adopt those two tests it should become clearer what you do and don’t want to do.
Prepare your “no” answers — it is possible to let people down elegantly
Once you’ve decided you want to say no, take the pain out of it by prepping answers. Inspired by entrepreneur Dan Martell and his “How I say no” post — and list of draft responses to requests — I’ve created canned responses in Gmail with a variety of “No” drafts, as well as responses that direct them to a colleague who can help, and responses that ask for clarification before I book a meeting. By having those at my fingertips and crafting them in a way that I feel comes across the best a “No” possibly can, it makes it easier to hit the send button. After a great suggestion from Dev Basu at Powered by Search, my “No” looks something like this: “Thanks for reaching out. While I appreciate the request, things have really taken off at my agency and I’m taking a vacation from 1:1 meetings because I’m focusing on growing the team and supporting them the best I can. I do appreciate you reaching out though, and if you reach back out in a few months I’ll try to accommodate your request then.”
Outsource your “No’s” and get rid of the guilt
Some people just aren’t great at saying no, so the key in that case is to outsource it. Some hire an admin assistant to handle their requests, or delegate to another email (some even use AI-powered virtual assistants through tools like Toronto-based Zoom.ai). I’ve hired AdminHeroes, an agency that provides virtual assistants for entrepreneurs and startups, to manage our company’s general inbox and to politely decline things I can’t commit to.