Finding the courage to say no

In this month's column, Sarah Dunwell explains why finding the confidence to say no can do wonders for your start-up – and for you

This was the hardest lesson I learned in the start-up phase of my business. I know it’s hard because on this I have made just about every mistake there is to make, so I really am speaking from experience!

When I started my business, like every entrepreneur I wanted to make it a success. Because of this driving ambition, particularly in the early years, I said “yes” to everything: every meeting; every business opportunity; every event. We ran a cleaning contract for 12 months and we’re a food business – that’s how hard it was for me to say no!

The reasons for saying yes to everything were good and I think that is really important. I wanted us to be business-like (we’re a social enterprise), to make money, to establish ourselves and build a brand but often, as I look back, we were busy with the wrong things. Why? Because I found it hard to say no.

And so, after a few years of not feeling able to say no I am learning to do it when appropriate. I think it comes down to saying no in these three key areas:

Saying no to things outside the business

When your email inbox is full of invitations to network, to go to conferences and to assess businesses opportunities, it is tricky to steer a path through this. Now I have a clear picture of our priorities and where I want to take the business in the next month, the next year and the next three years.

Because of this I know my mission and what will lead to its success. So I have a framework and within that framework I can make an initial assessment as to whether this opportunity is worth my time or whether I should just hit delete!

Saying no to those inside the business

When you start a business, I think it is great to surround yourself with the right people – people of passion and action who can get things done and drive things forward. The problem with that? They are all like me! One of the hardest things to lead is that journey that says, ‘these things were right to do then but they are not right to do now‘.

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I have to help people to say no, when I know they really want to do something, and to model in my behaviour the guilt-free way of saying no. It is amazing the liberation that comes when people can start to free themselves of the compulsion to say yes to everything.

All of this starts, of course, with…

Saying no to myself

This is infinitely harder because so often the reasons for saying yes to everything are all mixed up with some great motivations and some that are not so great. I want to do what is right for my business but so often I feel compelled to say yes to something because it will keep me busy. And why am I busy?

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredibly long hours, the crowded schedule and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important.

If I say no to something will I ever be asked again – to do business with that person, to go to that event, to speak at that conference? Well I guess that is a risk, but then again it is a smaller risk than saying yes to everything and going bust or burning out. Well, fractionally.

Sarah Dunwell is the founder of the award-winning social enterprise the Create Foundation, an organisation which provides training and employment opportunities to marginalised or vulnerable people. For more information, visit:


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