In tech startup land, success comes with the ability to say ‘no’. A lazer focus should keep you on track, moving towards your strategic goals rather than being distracted by shiny opportunities.Big clients asking for specific features? No. A pivot that looks like richer pickings from the other side? No. My mate told me Bulgaria’s really hot right now. You should try… No.At Weirdly, we’re totally on board with saying no.In some cases, we’ve even had to say no to the customers who are paying us money, because we know, long term they’re not the ones we need. We've been known to take turns, just to get some practice in:“Hey Dale, do you want a…” “No.”“Hayden, you look really lov…” “No.”And then, at the last Flounders Meeting, Josh Robb (@pushpay) said something that didn’t just strike a chord, it exploded the whole guitar. He described startup life as feeling like you’re standing next to a bunch of burning buildings.There is too much to do and not enough time or money or expertise to do all of it at once. Every day problems crop up that are Most Important And Urgent Ever.So you’re stuck, surrounded by burning buildings, trying to save them all, trying to solve all the issues. After a while, once you’re sweaty, exhausted, covered in soot and singed hair, you realise something: you can’t save them all.
At some point you have to choose which building to save, and which ones you have to be ok with burning to the ground.So, when we say “no”, it’s not just to opportunities. We also have say “no” to solving problems.Say, for example, you’ve decided to focus on growing sales for the month. You’re coming up to the final few months of runway, you’re about to raise and you need another spike in sales growth to get you into a better investment position. So you’ve got the whole company dedicated to filling and resourcing the sales funnel – from the product team to the marketing crew.Suddenly, you realise there’s a massive, gaping hole in your customer care process. Whoof! The building across the street just burst into flames. Your users are starting to grumble. Your customer success manager is manually updating 5 different spreadsheets and a collection of free tools to track issues and keep users happy. It’s hugely inefficient and not as effective as it could be.This is when the “no” comes into play. Your instinct will be to turn the tap on full and slosh across with the road with your bucket. The panicked instinct to respond means you’ll forget all about the plan you set with the rest of the team: To focus on sales.Too bad. The fire in your smoldering sales building has started up again. You had a good setup to deal with that one – a human chain of bucket haulers, maybe a couple of garden hoses. But instead of doing a great job of putting out that fire, you've abandoned your plans and rushed to solve an issue that suddenly seems much more urgent.The thing is, if you keep running from fire to fire like this, three things happen:
Letting houses burn is a part of growing a business fast.True, you’ll have to rebuild them at some point. There will be a price to pay. But this is the reality of startup – you’re juggling elephant-sized passion with teacup-pig resources so you’ve got to be ruthless about where and when you spend your attention.At Weirdly, this challenge is really relevant. There are things we want to do, things we need to do, and things we can do. That last list can only ever have three items on it so making the lump-in-throat choice about which buildings we’ll save is the first, difficult step.Then it’s about having the strength to focus hard and say ‘no’ as we let the other burn.
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*Edit: We originally credited Lance Hodges with the whole "Burning Building" metaphor. While Lance DID drop some wisdom bombs at that particular Flounders meetup, he didn't drop that particular one. Sorry Lance, we still think you're the smartest fella we know.