We Can't Grow by Saying "No"

"I'm anxious about this concept of saying "Yes" to things I can't possibly guarantee, like requests from customers or projections with investors. How does anyone get comfortable saying "Yes" when they don't know for sure they can deliver?"

June 26th, 2024   |    By: Wil Schroter

If we ever plan on growing our startup, we're going to have to start saying "Yes" to a whole bunch of stuff that terrifies us.

That's right. We're going to make bold commitments to customers, investors, and even our own staff regarding stuff we're not entirely sure we can pull off. I know, I know, it sounds scary.

Any rational Founder would be asking: "How can I tell an investor we're going to grow to $100 million if I can't possibly see how we'd get there today?" or "How can I tell a customer we can do the work if we don't have enough people available right now?"

It's called "figure it out," and it's been the growth strategy of every successful startup since the dawn of time. It takes some getting used to because it logically feels disingenuous to say we can do something when we don't know we can. But in the world of startups, it's pretty much a "figure it out as we go" type of business that we need to get used to.

Say Yes to Customers

When I was starting my first company, an interactive agency, I was in a client meeting when they asked me and my colleague "We will need to build an e-commerce component, can you do that?" Almost as if on cue we both replied "Yes" and "No" at the same time. I was the "Yes" and my colleague was the "No." It was incredibly embarrassing, but I did a little dance and made it work.

After the meeting, he asked me why I said "Yes" when we clearly didn't have that capability on staff (fun fact: it was 1995 and e-commerce had barely been invented yet). I told him, "How are we going to grow the agency if we don't say 'Yes' to things we don't do yet?" By definition, we're always selling ahead of our capability, so if we don't stretch ourselves to commit beyond what we have, we fundamentally can't set ourselves up for growth.

So what did we do? We figured it out. I immediately went through my (very limited) network hire what would become our first bona fide engineer. Within 3 years, there would be 50 of them, all because we said "Yes" to something that we'd have to figure out later.

Say Yes to Investors

If saying "Yes" to customers sounds stressful, saying "Yes" to investors is even more stressful. In our minds, when we're pitching investors, we often think that what we present absolutely has to come true, just like we said. A Founder would reasonably say "If I can't guarantee I can get to $50 million in revenue in Year 4, how could possibly tell an investor that's our projection?"

We figure it out. We set a goal, something that is big but not absurd, and we figure it out. There's absolutely no way we can know for certain that we will hit $50 million in 4 years — no one can. What we are saying is that is the target; that's what we're working toward, and that's what we'll figure out as we go.

Projections are guesses, plain and simple. We say "Yes" to them because we believe in ourselves and our team to figure out what it's going to take to move toward those goals, and statistically, we'll fall way short of them! That's OK. That's how startups work. But we can't associate uncertainty (which is all we deal with) with "No".

Say Yes to Staff

One of my favorite "Yes" categories is saying "Yes" to staff. This is what I call the "Good Will Hunting Theory," which is a dated movie reference. If you don't know the reference, it's about a kid who everyone thought was a dud, and it turns out he is a genius.

My theory goes that there are some exceptional staff members out there, and if someone would just say "Yes" to letting them tear loose beyond their age, pay grade, or previous experience, they would become geniuses. I make those bets all the time on people, and every now and again, I get a genius. That's because I said "Yes" and dealt with the upside or consequences later. We figured it out.

But the only way to find those diamonds in the rough is to take chances on other people, not just ourselves. We can't grow our startups or our people without giving us an opportunity to go beyond our present limits. When we get in the habit of "Yes" we unlock a whole new world of potential. And that's what this game is all about.

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About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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