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The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Know How to Say 'No.' Here's the One Exercise You Need to Learn This Skill. There's a robust correlation between success and having the ability to say "no" to opportunities that don't serve you. Here's how can learn how to master the art of saying "no," too.

By Barry Raber

Key Takeaways

  • When I think about the most successful entrepreneurs I know, I realized they say "no" to many opportunities.
  • While it feels counterintuitive, the most crucial question to ask is: "What won't we do?"
  • Gather your team and make a thorough "Won't Do" list. Be thoughtful about it and commit to the result.
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"We've said no to Fortune 500 companies," said Tim Bergler of Percipio Group Consulting during an expert panel session with 50 entrepreneurs in the room. Bergler was sharing the one piece of advice he would give new entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon's EO Accelerator program. "Don't be afraid to say no if you can't nail the work for your customer," he continued. His answer rang a bell for me.

Recognize the power of no

As I thought about the most successful entrepreneurs I know, I realized they say no to most "opportunities." When I reflected on my companies, I noted that our greatest successes occurred after we got really clear on what we would not do.

The overarching issue is that most people say yes too much. When you start a business, you mostly think about what you will do — which is pretty much anything to grow the company. So, you say yes to everything and focus on getting more sales however you can. And while that might work in the short term while you are smaller, it doesn't work long-term, and may even keep you smaller.

That's because as a growing company, resources are finite and can easily be wasted. Saying no is critical because it empowers you to focus your limited resources — people, time, money — on the core elements that drive success best.

Related: Stop Overworking Yourself Because You Say 'Yes' Too Often — Here's How to Harness the Power of a Simple 'No'

Devise your "Won't Do" list

While it feels counterintuitive, the most crucial question to ask is: "What won't we do?" Gather your team and make a thorough "Won't Do" list. Be thoughtful about it and commit to the result. Watch how this exercise focuses and propels your company.

Businesses with a narrow focus on delivering only what they can nail for the customer — a product or service not readily found elsewhere — are the successful ones. Think about all the businesses you love. Are they doing everything for everybody, or just one thing exceptionally well?

Take the grocery business. Standard grocery stores sell an astonishing range of food items in a super-competitive segment with low profit margins. Compare that with Costco or Trader Joe's, which are high-profit and focused on what will or won't sell. They only stock value-added items that customers can't find elsewhere. The top fast-food businesses — McDonald's, Starbucks, Dunkin', Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell — all have strong "Won't Do" lists.

A recent headline referenced "the most important stock on planet Earth," which rose from obscurity to a $2 trillion valuation because of its "Won't Do" list. That company, Nvidia, creates technology that enables AI. Nothing else.

Related: Focusing as an Entrepreneur Is All About Choosing Opportunities Wisely

The impact of strategic omission

I failed to create a "Won't Do" list for my first company, a commodity business that wasn't particularly successful.

The second time around, my self-storage business was way more focused. We shopped our largest competitors — Public Storage, Extra Space Storage and CubeSmart. Then, we thought deeply about what we could provide that they did not, as a way to differentiate ourselves.

We made a comprehensive list detailing what we did not like about those companies. That list informed our "Won't Do" list, which includes:

  • Change our prices every day
  • Upsell or push extra products/services
  • Save hidden costs for move-in
  • Route calls through a call center
  • Act like our customer is bothering us
  • Mandate insurance
  • Be a national company
  • Put a customer in a space that isn't right for them

That list is simple but magical. It does four remarkable things:

  1. Determines what you will do. Deciding what you don't like and won't do is a hack to identify what you will do, which is basically the opposite. Establishing a "Won't Do" list creates a clear, inspiring answer for what you will be to your customer.
  2. Becomes the ultimate time-saver. By eliminating what you won't do, you create space to focus on what you will do — and enhance that offering.
  3. Simplifies decision-making. Decisions are either on-brand or off-brand; the list makes it quite obvious.
  4. Clarifies your brand in a way you otherwise couldn't. When you nail what you will do, your company will be more successful and profitable. You offer something unique that is not a commodity.

Your "Won't Do" list is an essential business tool. It doesn't only limit business scope — it can also help shape how you operate; your business practices, pricing structure and how you will treat your customers. A plumbing company might opt out of electrical work but also exclude practices such as overcharging, pushing upgrades or setting half-day-long appointment windows. Ultimately, a "Won't Do" list streamlines your focus and helps narrow your niche.

Related: How to Say 'No' More Often: Why Every Entrepreneur Needs a 'To-Don't' List

Focus your business with boundaries

Back to Bergler, who ran a management consulting company with a narrowly defined space where they could add significant value. He was as selective about the quality of people on his team as he was with the type of business they would do. The resulting quality of work put them in high demand. Eventually, incoming work opportunities exceeded capacity. He turned a lot of business away and even referred clients to competitors when he felt his company could not truly nail it.

As a result, clients started to approach Bergler first because they had so many misses with sub-par competitors. It made Bergler the preferred provider for their best clients. When he chose to sell the business, multiple buyers were confident in the company's durable income because of its 20 years of consistent performance and sky-high customer satisfaction.

With our self-storage company, we enjoyed a lot of success quickly. Our differentiated brand made us a customer favorite, earning us higher marks than the big-box companies and ultimately making us a great acquisition candidate when we chose to sell.

When we started a new company focusing on vehicle storage, one of the first things we did was shop our competitors and brainstorm our "Won't Do" list.

As I think of the many businesses I know through 20 years in the Entrepreneurs' Organization, I can tell you there is a robust correlation between success and abiding by a strong "Won't Do" list. Do yourself a favor: Make your "Won't Do" list today.

Barry Raber

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Carefree Covered RV Storage

Barry Raber is a serial entrepreneur, president of Carefree RV Storage, a 22-year member of the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), the founder of Business Property Trust and an EO Portland Entrepreneur of the Year. He shares his successful business secrets at realsimplebusiness.org.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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