Pic: Original 1962 Bond villain Dr No
Audio version 7’20” or get it on Spotify
What’s your definition of success?
That moment when you step back and think: I’ve made it. This is the destination I’ve been working my arse off for years to get to. It’s quite thrilling when it happens. Let me tell you mine.
I got the call in humble surroundings. A Target store, in the pillow department. An official-looking landline number popped up on my phone.
“Hi Ian it’s Walter Benson (not his real name). We haven’t met, but I’m Asia-Pacific CFO of (a global brand that’s a major player in our industry). I’ve heard really good things about Scene Change, and I’m calling to invite you to pitch for our Asia-Pacific contract.”
Back story: when we started up, our grand plan was that one day we could get to this point. Clients like Walter’s company were our major goal, offering guaranteed revenue over multi-year contracts in lots of locations. We pitched a lot. We lost most of them, being an unproven quantity at that point.
Over ten years, we worked out other business angles to pursue, and we grew a lot. And now, finally, the chance to sit down and talk a deal in the big leagues.
All this flashed through my mind as I listened to Walter’s invitation. I paused, then replied:
“Thanks Walter, I really appreciate the call. But it’s not really an opportunity we’re interested in.”
And I went back to the pillow purchase situation. Pillows really are the most confusing product matrix this side of toothpaste.
The Thrill Of Saying No
Oh my God it felt so good. It felt like we’d achieved clarity on what we are and what we stand for. I called up my business partner and said GUESS WHAT, EXCITING NEWS! And told him about the call.
“That is AWESOME,” he said.
I’m aware that this could come across as cocky, like “hey we’re so good we don’t need their stupid business”. You hear that sometimes in swaggery companies that two years later are paying their creditors five cents in the dollar. So let’s clarify a few things.
We would not have won that contract. The incumbent would have pulled out all the stops to win it, and clients like that are very “better the devil you know”.
On the remote chance we had won it, we probably wouldn’t have done a great job because we’re set up to service a different type of client. It would have doubled our size, and after the initial celebrations, we would have had endless delivery issues.
Frankly, the best choice for Walter’s organisation was their existing supplier.
A World Of Effort And Stress Saved
If I’d got that call five years ago, it would have been so different.
We would have been so pumped for that opportunity. It would have kicked off weeks of proposal-writing all-nighters. And an epic suit-clad presentation with a dozen layers of management. Followed by a two month wait, then the inevitable email: We’d like to thank you for the large amount of effort that went into your proposal but …
So much effort and stress saved by just saying no thanks.
To be honest it felt better than getting the keys to a Ferrari or whatever success props the LinkedIn grifters flaunt at you, because it proved we’d done the thing that we really set out to do:
“Make enough money, but mainly have the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.”
That sounds more anarchic than the reality, because what we want is to just concentrate on building a good business.
I’ve written about the money thing before (I’m Rich – Deal With It) but the freedom from having to put up with other people’s expectations is better than any drug. To not have to justify your actions to your boss, private equity overlords or market analysts really is the greatest luxury of all.
And don’t get me wrong, we still surge with excitement at new business opportunities. Call it karma, but in the two years since that conversation, we’ve had a string of deals arise with clients who are a much better cultural fit.
I’d like to think it’s because we’re comfortable being honest about what we are, and what we aren’t. Rather than just saying “we’re the PERFECT choice for you” in every situation like indiscriminate sales hustlers.
The Long-Term Benefits Of The ‘No’
So when you’re visualizing your successful future – a thing you should definitely do – consider the intoxicating rush of who you’re going to say no to.
You might not be there yet, but two essential lessons:
1. Be Clear On What You Are
This is vital from day one. Most businesses start with the positioning of ‘yet another supplier of things you can already buy’. You need a clear, compelling reason that your customers and staff can understand. Read how to do that here (Why Should Your Business Even Exist?).
2. Saying No Builds Culture
When you start out you kinda have to say yes to every bit of business because you’re surviving on two-minute noodles and you’re surging with startup energy. And that’s the way it should be. As you get bigger, pressure from above to always say yes can distort your business.
It means your sales people say yes to credit risks and garbage clients who will demoralise the rest of your staff. Taken to extremes, pressure from analysts and CEOs to get every bit of business led directly to the mortgage security issues that triggered the global financial crisis in 2008.
If you say no when it’s justified, you build a stronger, more devoted portfolio of clients. And it builds company culture much better than stupid HR training courses.
A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money*, and by knocking back business, your staff get a much clearer idea of what your company stands for.
They respond by doing better work, and it becomes a virtuous cycle.
It’s a great feeling. You sleep much more soundly at night.
On your responsibly-priced Target pillow.
* From Bill Bernbach, the original Mad Man. If you’re interested in business, his story is essential reading.
Hey don’t forget Motivation For Sceptics is now on Spotify! Current stories and old collectors items, they’re all going up on there. It’s the ideal soundtrack for gym sessions when you couldn’t be bothered trying too hard.
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