Why Give a Damn:

Last week we fessed up to the fears we have about starting a new business. This week’s post continues where that left off and explores perhaps the most persistent trigger that will bring your fears on: when someone says “no” to you.


The authors of this post, Andrew Missingham and Ben Gallagher, are problem solvers who specialize in strategic planning, prototyping and facilitation. In this post they are documenting the launch of their company benandandrew.com

Understanding and acting on a “no” can be more valuable than blindly accepting a quick “yes”.  Tweet This Quote

It’s not a word any of us like to hear, but surprisingly, when starting a business, understanding and acting on a “no” can be more valuable than blindly accepting a quick “yes”. Whilst a positive reaction may seem to indicate a commitment (of sorts) to support, it can often lack detail or edges as to where the commitment starts and ends. If an investor says “yes” to your first pitch, could you have gotten your investor to pay more? Accept a smaller share? Offer services in addition to cash in return for a stake? Recommend other colleagues who could get involved? On its own, a “yes” doesn’t tell you any of that, but the converse, a “no”, can leave more space for you to explore and learn what you’d otherwise only imagine.

When you’re starting a business, your job is to enlist those around you to join in manifesting your vision. So, of course, a big, meaningful “yes” is what we’re all looking for and preparing for as well as we can (as Jeff Hoffman explained in his recent post “The Secret to Getting Investors to Say Yes”). But, you’ve got to be ready for some knocks along the way. Some won’t get you at first and some won’t get you at all. But some will get what you do – and the hardest to win over may turn out to be your most powerful allies (kind of like Han Solo in Star Wars). So get used to hearing “no”, but more importantly, understand what kind of “no” it is, then learn how to get the most out of it so you can move closer to your goal.

Here are some ways you’ll hear “no” and what you can do if you hear them.

“No” can mean:

  • “Not you”
    You’re likely to hear it when you’re the person with something to sell or push, and the listener wants a third party, impartial endorsement. Or the person wants to hear from someone on their level, or already known and credible to them.

    In this case, try getting supporters who can advocate on your behalf. Or get to know your prospect’s network – who they hang out with and where – and enlist via those indirect routes.

  • “Not me”
    You’re asking the wrong person. They might be too junior to make a decision, or even too senior to make a tactical decision about who to work or partner with.

    So try finding who’s the person at the right level for your ask, then appeal to them, or, enlist via someone who can appeal peer-to-peer.

  • “Not now”
    You’ll hear this kind of “no” if you approach someone when their budget decisions for the year have been sewn up.

    Get to know the prospect’s business rhythm. When does their fiscal year run from? When do they take budget decisions, and who’s in on those conversations?

  • “Not yet”
    This often means you’re interesting but we don’t think you’re ready. It can also mean you’re interesting but your prospect is not ready (there’s another project they’ve got their heads in)

    Keep these prospects close and up-to-speed. This is a good “no” to hear, just as long as you continue to work your own timetable, and don’t get sidetracked waiting for theirs to coincide.

  • “Not again”
    We’ve funded something similar. We’ve got that on our investment portfolio. Or it can be government or trust/foundation funding, which favours first time entrepreneurs, and you’re not one.

    So try asking who they’d recommend, or (in government/foundation cases) ask which support you might be eligible for.

  • “Not that”
    We’re a tech incubator; you’re doing craft (or vice versa, or some other similar mismatch). Or, we don’t have the expertise in that area.

    When you hear this response, find out what they do back, or where their expertise lies. Let them know you’ll look out for something that’s the right fit for them. Ask them if they’ll do the same for you. It’s amazing how much goodwill an offer of assistance, rather than a request from support can win you.

  • “Not here”
    I’m at dinner/in a cafe/at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Please don’t pitch now.

    If you ever see someone who you’ve been trying to get through to in an informal situation, be friendly, apologize for bothering them, acknowledge that you know it’s not the right place, but let them know that you’d like to contact their office for a meeting, and ask for the best person to talk to (this has happened to Andrew in the Garden of 10 Downing Street. He and the prospect eventually met and they worked together). Oh, and by all means, write an “elevator pitch” just never, ever expect it to work in an elevator.

  • “Not that much”
    Your ask is over and above our budget (or what you’re asking for is beyond what we think you’re worth)

    Try to find out what their limit is, and how they ascertain value.

  • “Not that little”
    Yep, you’ll hear this more often than you expect. If you go in with a $20k ask, when their investment range started at $100k, you just wouldn’t be significant enough for them to take time to engage with.

    Ask who they know who would be an appropriate scale for your venture. Which seed-fund programs and small-scale incubators they have links with.

  • “Not ever!”
    Been bothering them every day for six months straight? Is it starting to feel like stalking? Some don’t see even this response as hopeless – if you’re this sort of don’t-take-no-for-an-answer kind of person try taking a tip from Dumb & Dumber’s Lloyd Christmas:

    Lloyd: I want to ask you a question… straight out, flat out… and I want you to give me an honest answer. What do you think the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me… ending up together?
    Mary: Well Lloyd… that’s difficult to say… you really don’t…
    Lloyd: Hit me! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
    Mary: Not good.
    Lloyd: [Gulps] You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
    Mary: I’d say more like… one out of a million.
    Lloyd: So you’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeah!

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Understand what kind of “no” it is, then learn how to get the most out of it in order to achieve your goal.  Tweet This Quote

About the author

BenandAndrew

BenandAndrew

As founders of Ben&Andrew, Andrew Missingham & Ben Gallagher create solutions for cultural, for-profit and social businesses. They have a wide range of experience working with creative agencies, brands and cultural institutions including Wieden & Kennedy, Arts Council England, the British Council, BBC and Sony Music, BMW, and Nike Foundation.