Learning To Say No – Confessions Of A Small Business Yes Man

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My wife and I jumped right into our online business with a “whatever it takes” attitude. We were excited. We were enthusiastic. And we were ready to make money by any means necessary even if it meant catering to our customers.

Looking back, this was not necessarily the wrong attitude to have. But this no holds barred policy got us into a lot of trouble and wasted a lot of our time early on in the life of our business.

The truth was that we felt desperate. After countless hours of work, we launched our online store but didn’t have the customers to justify our efforts. Our website was a ghost town and we practically jumped on every customer that came through our virtual doors.


Photo by Stoo Hopwood

As a result, we went out of our way to do special requests for anyone that asked even if it had no long term value for the business.

The quick cash was like a drug. Seeing money come in validated our store’s existence and we let our fear of missing out on potential business turn us into virtual doormats.

Back then, we didn’t value our time and it took a few bad customer situations to that help us realize our true worth.

The Wealthy Customer

I very clearly remember our first large potential customer. Her name was Anita and she was helping her daughter plan her wedding which was to take place the following year.

I remember speaking with her on the phone for the first time and getting the impression that she was extremely wealthy. I also received a vibe that she wanted her daughter’s wedding to be extra special no matter what the cost. That last part made me salivate.

I remember Anita found us on the web by clicking on our adwords link and wanted to order personalized wedding handkerchiefs for her daughter’s wedding invitations.

She had this vision of embroidering the guest’s name on a lace handkerchief and wrapping a paper invitation inside. Quite a novel idea actually and all told we were looking at a deal worth well over $2500 in revenue which easily would have been our largest single order to date.

The problem was that Anita was not satisfied with any of the embroidering options that we had in place at the time. She wanted something very specific to be stitched onto each handkerchief and she wanted to see what it would look like before placing her order.

After getting a rough outline of what she wanted, my wife and I were comfortable with her request and we agreed to help her out. After all, Anita seemed like a very pleasant lady and easy to work with as well. We would work out the details later.

The Result
While Anita was extremely nice, she had no clue what she really wanted. Even though we made samples for her and even put up webpages with detailed photos of the handkerchiefs, she never seemed satisfied.

She would tweak things slightly this way, or move the text around. And each iteration would take us several hours to implement.

In fact, we spent several weeks trying to refine the embroidered design to her specifications and she was clearly getting frustrated and so were we.

Meanwhile, my wife and I had completely dropped the rest of our business on the floor for this lady. Our original vision of our online store was one of complete automation. Orders were supposed to fly in from the internet and we would just have to fulfill them.

Working with Anita on her wedding project just took too much of our time.

Ultimately, we decided to call it quits. The aftermath? One month wasted and no money to show for it.

The Special Order

One of the main strategies that my wife and I had early on with our business was to specifically go after wedding planners. The idea was that if we could get a bunch of wedding planners on board that we could sustain a steady stream of referral business over the long haul.

So we were always on our best behavior whenever any sort of event planner contacted us over the phone..

This particular wedding planner wanted to order 50 dozen of our rose embroidered napkins for a last minute reception. But the problem was that it was one of our least popular napkin styles and we didn’t have enough in stock to fulfill her order.

The other problem was that she needed the napkins in under 2 weeks.

Since our vendors are from overseas and our products are made to order, we had to pay extra for expedited manufacturing and air delivery.

Normally, we would never have placed such an order without collateral, but the wedding planner assured us that she was definitely going to buy from us and just needed the final okay from her customer.

The timeframe was so tight that we decided to place the order with our manufacturer even before the final approval was met. After all, thousands of dollars were at stake.

The Result
The wedding planner was true to her word. She did receive approval from her customer and she did place the order. However, the order was far less than she had initially specified.

Turns out her customer decided to reduce their budget and slashed their guest list by over a half. We ended up only making 40% of what we thought we were going to make and we were stuck with dozens of our worst selling napkin styles.

Special Delivery

Perhaps we’re just softies but my wife and I tend to be very sympathetic towards desperate brides. Whenever we get calls from customers on the verge of tears over something wedding related, we are much more inclined to listen and go out of our way to help them out.

Occasionally, we’ll receive orders from customers who live only 10-15 minutes minutes away. This one particular customer placed an order online and then called us begging for permission to pick up her wedding linens in person for her wedding the following day.

One of our policies is that we don’t allow customers to visit our storage facility. We don’t have a physical storefront so we are not comfortable handling customer visits directly. We either ship our orders or we turn the customer away.

Honestly, I have no idea what came over us that day. Perhaps it was because we were desperate for business. Perhaps it was because this bride wanted to order a large quantity of linens.

Perhaps it was because she cried over the phone. In any case, we decided to deliver the linens to her rather than have her come to pick them up.

The Result
In her haste, the bride gave us an incorrect address which caused my wife and I to go on this wild goose chase to deliver her order. While her residence was only supposed to be 10 minutes away, we could not find her house nor could we contact her by phone either.

She simply wasn’t picking up her cell.

So my wife and I ended up expending a lot of energy trying to track down her real address over the internet. We used every means possible. We searched for her on Google. We tried looking for her fiance by combing the wedding registries.

When we finally found her, we had effectively wasted our entire day.

What’s The Point Of All This?

After going through many more situations like the ones described above, my wife and I gradually learned to say no. Learning to say no was an important word to learn because it will allowed us to focus on growing our business the way we wanted it to grow.

These days, my wife and I use the following rules of thumb when it comes to one off projects.

  • Does the nature of the work provide long term value to the business? Can the work be leveraged towards content or new products for the store?
  • Is the money involved justify our personal time and effort? Are we paying ourselves enough?
  • Is the income scalable? Can we afford to take on many of these projects without killing ourselves first?

Take it from a former “yes” man. Saying “no” is an underrated skill and can be one of the most valuable words in your vocabulary. One thing we often neglect is the value of our own time.

The sooner we realize our true worth, the sooner we can focus our efforts on what truly matters.

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24 thoughts on “Learning To Say No – Confessions Of A Small Business Yes Man”

  1. Wow…I’m nearly in your shoes…and I appreciated this post. Focus on the worthwhile endeavors instead of saying yes to every business opportunity that comes your way is one I’ll need to learn slowly. Good stuff, glad I could learn from your experience!

    1. @Robert
      Thanks for the comment. Even after going through it many times, my wife and I still occasionally get caught up in the money. It really depends on our mindset at the time.

      Yeah, I think learning to say no takes time….after you’ve gotten burned a few times:)

      One thing we’ve done to help stick to our price list is to require a joint decision between my wife and I. Usually, one of us has a sane mind at any given time.

  2. Great post Steve. Saying no is definitely an underrated skill. And this is especially true for business. If sooner you learn, the better. But in part, I guess for your circumstances, it is understandable.

  3. I can totally relate. I have seen my husband chase his tail and end up not making money trying to please someone AND because we’re hungry. When you’re hungry you try to get the job anyway you can. That’s one thing we have decided to never do again: to make a business decision because we need the money. I keep reminding him to stick to his price list and guidelines posted on his website and not negotiate so much.

    It’s hard sometimes, but we’re working on it and learning to say NO more firmly :)

    Thanks, this is another great post.

  4. Steve, you’ve hit a sore spot with a lot of new entrepreneurs and small business owners. Many struggle with not being able to say no for the exact reasons you listed – I know that we did when we started our company. Luckily we didn’t encounter too many difficult situations and overly demanding clients – not to say that there weren’t a few.

    We’ve learned that saying no and standing your ground can not only protect you but the client as well. Some clients have a habit of negotiating just for the sake of it while others think that by being extremely demanding they will get better service, but the reality is that often clients don’t know exactly what they want and forget that they are hiring experts to do a job for them. Only by working together will they get the best results from their business dealings with you.

    To add to the benefits you brought up of saying no, we’ve learned that saying no often had the opposite effect in that we earned more respect as clients realized we knew what we were doing and were not going to give it away at prices that would barely compensate us for our work, effort and the results we brought them.

    It’s hard to say no when you’re just starting out but I totally agree that the faster you do so, the faster you’ll be on your way to success. Not to mention eliminating a lot of frustration!

    1. @Xurxo
      What you are saying is completely true. As soon as you cave in on one request, additional requests will usually follow. A preemptive no usually sets the precedence for less negotiating down the line. I think learning to say no just takes time and experience. The thought process is counter-intuitive because you want to accommodate the customer but you need to look out for yourself as well.

  5. Chi says:

    Great story Steve. I have had some many issues with people not understanding my business or that certain services are not free. Also, I stopped pursuing govt contracts despite the fact that due to certain certifications I had an advantage over other companies. But at the end of the day the margins were so small it wasn’t worth my time. The ironic thing is now many Prime Contractors have found me to do work for them due to these same certifications. I think its best to decide what you are willing to do early on and stick with it. As long as your policies adhere to your company’s ethics then I think things will continue to grow.

    1. @Chi
      I don’t how you do it selling promotional items. It’s almost impossible to have set prices because everyone wants their own specific customizations which take varying amounts of design effort. I guess over time, you get an idea of the overall effort and can set guidelines accordingly. Good luck with your business.

  6. Hi Steve, there were some great stories in there to illustrate your point. I think if you’ve got the guts to start an online business, you have to listen to your instinct when alarm bells are ringing about your customers and just say no.

    I had a customer, last week, who wanted me to do freelance writing for him and it was a big job, 5 articles per week and only 500 words per article, an extra $150 for me per week. I too salivated at the thought of this. It turned out he did not have a paypal account and he couldn’t get one, which started alarm bells ringing and it also turned out he was from Nigeria, infamous for scamming. He assured me that he had a valid credit card and would wire me money but gut instinct told me to turn the job down.

    Great article Steve, I love all these business stories.

    1. @Steven
      Wow, I think that offer would tempt many freelance writers. It’s a good thing you did your homework! Thanks for sharing your story. I wonder if any businesses in Nigeria are legit?

  7. I agree, Steve. If you look into your life and take note of the activities that brought you the most success and achievements, you would easily discover that about 20% of your activity produces 80% of your success. This is the basis for the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule.

    We would certainly benefit much more and reach our goals much faster by dedicating 80% of our time to 20% of the most productive and meaningful activities and say ‘No’ to all those time-wasting activities.



  8. Thanks for sharing this story.

    I think doing online business is like any other business, you have to be laser beam focused on just the core competency. I had similar experience doing my website.

    I often get such request that ask me to build a website. However, I am more comfortable to doing my own site and provide hosting services rather than building a website for others. I know the money is good but for me, it is not scalable, let alone saying I might get pesky customers nitpicking each bit of the layout all the time.

    Also, there is a price for learning to say no, as you will lose the sale. So that’s why it is very very important to keep a cash-cow (full time job for example), so that you don’t have to say yes to just get the money.

  9. Wonderful post. I’ve felt this same way for years with my business. Lucky for me, I’ve only had one client for whom I just had no idea what it was the ever wanted from me, and, though it took me some months, I finally ended the relationship. And she never said a word to me when I contacted her saying it was over; not one word. I did the right thing, and learned a very valuable lesson from it all.

    1. @Mitch
      I think all of us business owners have fallen for this trap at some time or another. I just wish that I knew what I know now back then:)

  10. Great story! I have gone though some of the same issue you’ve had with people either wanting something for nothing, don’t know what they want so they waste your time or trying to scam you. When you’re starting out, its easy to want to give in, but we have to have a balance between excellent customer service and looking out for ourselves.

  11. JD says:

    First, congratulations on having a supportive wife for your business; that will make it much easier to succeed!
    Other than learning to say ‘No’; learning to know when a client is toxic and when to let them go is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn.
    Good luck!

  12. This is an amazing accurate account of what many of my clients had gone through with their e-commerce sites. You really hit this nail on the head!

  13. Do only said yes that the order is profitable. Every order need to be analyze. Waste to much time and cost to complete an order my cause us lose lot of time which we may change the our business marketing to get more sales. So do think it that is that worst to to scarify your time and cost for each order. Once you do that , every customer will thought that they should have the right to have the same service form you as well.

  14. Helen says:

    hmm! well gentlemen, it may surprise you to know that legit businesses do exist in Nigeria and I am talking from experience as I am a Nigerian. Agreed scammers exist in the country just like they do in other places but its not quite right to tar every Nigerian with the same brush.
    All the same good points highlighted Steve, about learning to say No as an entrepreneur.

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