Why learning to say ‘no’ is crucial for a startup

As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to end up agreeing to every opportunity that comes along. But saying ‘yes’ to everything often prevents a startup from actually moving forward

Why learning to say ‘no’ is crucial for a startup

If there were one thing that pretty much all entrepreneurs would agree on, it would be that as a group of people we all try to spread ourselves too thin. When you’re trying to develop a product, build a team and raise funds all at the same time and a new idea presents itself, it’s incredibly tempting just to add it to your to-do list. After all, you tell yourself, it’s just one more thing.

But it’s taken me a long time and a lot of experience building and running two companies to realise that no matter how much energy you might have, it’s actually much more important to have focus. When the world presents you with a ton of new ideas, the most powerful word in your vocabulary is ‘no’. And that’s not meant in a negative way. Creating a successful business from nothing involves making the right choices at the right time. So to save you a bit of precious time and attention in helping identify the right opportunities from the wrong, here are a few of the things we’ve learned at Dressipi:

Develop more than you create

Like most – if not all – service-based businesses, we’ve been guilty of trying to respond too quickly to the demands of our clients. It’s tempting but dangerous to build out those new features to keep someone happy in the short term, only to lose them in the longer term when it becomes clear you are not executing any part of your service as well as you ought to be.

We’ve solved this by moving towards a quarterly priority development cycle. This means that we don’t do ad hoc feature development for Dressipi anymore. Instead we sit down four times a year to assess where we are with our product and platform, decide what we need to do to move it on and then plan for delivering that. It might seem boring if you swallow the myth that startups thrive on a constant stream of new ideas but this change in approach has been really useful for us. It’s allowed us to manage our relationships with clients in the first few months of a trial much more effectively and increased our conversion rate to full contract.

Raise with your exit in mind

Every day a new story breaks in the tech press about another startup that has raised millions in venture capital on a huge valuation. Although this does work for a few businesses, we think this is often a huge distraction if, like us, your focus is on creating a sustainable business that doesn’t have to win the lottery before it delivers value back to your shareholders.

We’ve been incredibly careful about how, where and how much we’ve raised to build Dressipi. It’s meant that we haven’t had the working capital or the fancy offices of companies who chose the VC route but for us that’s been a liberating experience. Instead of having to chase growth and scale at all costs, we’ve been free to focus on our core goals of building a solid business with reliable revenues. This approach means we’re far more likely to achieve a successful exit that all stakeholders – including shareholders, employees and partners – are happy with.

Shorting the speaking circuit

One of the best things about being an entrepreneur somewhere like London is that there are loads of events to help you get inspiration and grow your network. But there is a flipside to this: going to all of them would mean never getting any work done.

If we wanted, my co-founder Donna and I could be at a different forum, panel or networking event every night. Again, experience has taught us that it’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things in a piecemeal manner. So we were careful to pick the events and opportunities that were most relevant to what Dressipi did. By focusing on events attended by retailers instead of those on the startup circuit, we could use our time to meet new clients and grow our business, not just our profiles.

While it might seem difficult when you’re starting out and want to please everyone all of the time, the word ‘no’ can actually be a very positive word for an entrepreneur. Approached in the right way it’s less a refusal than a pause. It gives you the chance to stop, think about what you’re doing and decide whether saying ‘yes’ will help your business grow in the right way. 

Sarah McVittie
Sarah McVittie

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