There are many times in the life of a business – from its entrepreneurial startup days to its era of maturity – when saying “no” is the smartest move an owner or manager can make. One of Steve Jobs’ most insightful quotes is:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
Jobs was talking about innovation and what he is saying covers businesses at virtually every step of their evolution, but it may be most important for the majority of businesses when they are in the startup phase.
Distill, don’t dilute
The single most important attribute for a startup is to have a clearly defined minimal viable product or service. We’re always talking about the critical “elevator pitch” that entrepreneurs need to have in their pocket. If there isn’t a clearly defined central idea, there can be no concise elevator pitch.
Whenever your business idea is linked together several times by the word “or” – you’re probably on the wrong path; you need to say no to a thousand things.
However, it is also true that innovative startups often discover that they have to “pivot” one or more times as they get closer to the marketplace. Understand that a strategic pivot is not the same as a “shotgun” approach to business formation. Whenever you pivot, it must be in the direction of a product or service that is even more clearly defined and closely aligned to market conditions than your previous product or service concept.
Leave your lane, get disqualified
The need to say no continues throughout the lifecycle of your business. Rough patches or a shifting market can light a fire under owners and send them scurrying to find ways to increase revenue. Noted customer service expert Shep Hyken likes to talk about companies having a “lane” in which they run. When they stray outside of their lane, they tend to get into trouble.
This is a trap that businesses both large and small can fall into. A friend once told me about a small, independent hardware store in a rural community that was struggling after many years of being in business. Suddenly school supplies started to appear on its shelves along with other merchandise unrelated to the hardware business.
Before long, the owner sold to a couple of young guys who had been in the construction business. They went the opposite direction. They sold off all the junk not related to hardware at fire sale prices, dramatically expanded their hardware and building supplies inventory, and aggressively pursued professional builders for their business.
If I can borrow Shep’s language, I would say that instead of going outside of their lane, they stayed in their lane but found the energy to run even faster. They were able to turn the corner on profitability.
Few radios in Radio Shack
That’s one small, rural store. On a national level, we have just witnessed Radio Shack filing for bankruptcy protection. Once a haven for electronic DIYers and innovators, it diffused into part television store, part stereo store, part cellphone seller, part toy and gadget outlet, and part “other.”
I’m sure that over the years you have been to several networking events or even private parties where someone asks you what you “do.” Not being able to answer that question clearly is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world.
Being unable to answer it for your business is a prescription for oblivion.
So as you are presented with opportunities and alternative paths for your business, remember that the simple word “no” – although merely two letters in length – can be the most clarifying and powerful word in your vocabulary.
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