Start By Saying NO So You Can Say YES

How can you start with NO and then move to YES? The proper, decent, sane business approach would be to start with one or more YESes (just to stay positive) and then, when the need arises, with NOs. That’s just good customer relations and ultimately good business.

You would probably think so but I would beg to differ (I tend to differ on many things ☺). My focus is not selling sodas, toothpaste or cars here — my concern is the creative business of digital products on the web. In this realm, the rules are somewhat broken (actually a whole lot, but what the hell, it’s the web right?).

In the web realm the rules are somewhat broken, actually a whole lot!

The creative world, and more so the digital one, is for me a place where old ways are much less prone to hold you down. So, if you need to break things to make a change for the better, go right ahead. Be as funky as you like, but don’t lose your focus!

With this perspective of the web, we feel free to challenge us and our customers to shift to a different mindset:

  • One that is focused on quality and not quantity who can bring joy to all parties involved.
  • And one that embraces NO and is wary of YES.

I’ve summed this up to “Start by saying NO so you can say YES”. Allow me to explain this in some more detail before you start saying “100 NOs to you. This can’t be!”

You Only Have So Many YESes

Let’s say you present the designer with a brand new challenge: the next big thing. You lay down what you expect from the product and how much should it cost. From the start you have done the same thing you are going to complain later on — you have started with a series of NOs. It must not cost more than this, it must not take more than this, it must do this but not this, and so on.

This is perfectly reasonable as the whole deal with being creative is tackling a series of external constraints as beautifully and wisely as you can while trying to solve a problem.

Unfortunately for the designer, and you alike, he can’t abide by your NOs without introducing some of its own. It’s a game of mutual respect.

Being the professional in the house, a designer has a much deeper understanding of the bigger picture than you. He understands much better the relationships and implications between each of the parts that make the project tick. That’s his job after all.

One should not think that the designer will take a NO or a YES lightly. He knows well the benefits and traps of both, and he has learned through years of experience to tackle them elegantly.

The YES is actually the devil in the house

But as with anything with a deadline and a budget, you can only stretch so much. A YES is usually the costlier option and it should come attached with a series of NOs to keep everything in balance. The YES is actually the devil in the house, having much more implications and ramifications than a NO. Adding things can be far more damaging than removing them.

So, dear customer, please be wary of hearing (or wanting to hear) too many YESes. You (and us) will be paying for them big time in the long run. Show NO some love from time to time.

Learning The Power And Beauty Of A Proper NO — The Hard Way

PixelGrade started with mine and my brother George’s freelancing experience but due to the rigors and constant turmoil that come with relying on small, frequent projects/clients, we’ve decided early on to steer to a more agency approach in deciding what clients and what projects we would take on. In about half a year we were filled with projects and doing just fine.

We’ve had a couple of clients that asked us for custom web apps, built from the ground up to their specific needs. It was a little out of our league but we’ve never been shy of taking on a new challenge, as long as it felt rewarding professionally and monetarily. This is where things get tricky.

At that time, we just welcomed a new team member. Backend developer with all the bells and whistles. He was so prolific at learning new languages and techniques that we felt confident we could handle the projects. With a solid experience on freelancing and a man that promised a lot — wouldn’t you be?

We were eyeballing the prospects of trying our hand at some web services for some time but lacked the expertise on the backend. So we thought: What a way to learn — let’s do it!

We were confident and everything went quite well at the start. We’ve detailed as much as we could with our clients, made a plan, budgeted the time plus something extra for something unforeseen and the client agreed to our price.

About half way through things started to deteriorate. On the one hand, we kept missing our internal deadlines due to our blind focus on getting everything right and a constant search for doing things even better. On the other hand, the clients started to push for new features or change what we have agreed upon.

Inexperienced and eager to impress we started making concessions to the plan and said YES to these, thinking that was a one off. Boy were we wrong!

These projects swiftly spiraled out of control becoming a burden as they were over budget and seemingly never-ending. Luckily our other smaller, regular projects were keeping us afloat. But it was infuriating that we were supposed to make money on these big projects, not bleed us dry.

Why haven’t you quit? Just tell the client that you can’t go on with his project.

NO NO NO. We would not do that. We gave our word and said YES. So it will stay a YES because our clients were counting on us. If it’s one thing we hold dear, is not letting our clients down, even if we disappoint ourselves. We are grownups. We live with our choices and face the consequences. So quitting is not part of our thinking.

With much delay and money lost we’ve completed those projects, loosing a team member in the process (the details of the internal struggle generated by those projects will probably make the subject of a different story). Seeing our colleague leave was probably the hardest thing to stomach.

So how about saying NO? We could have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble and misery by having the gut to say NO both to our client’s extra requests and to our own inclination to put personal ego before “getting shit done” (now there’s a poster in our office with this mantra).

You might say: “well the best thing for you would have been not to accept those projects in the first place”. I would disagree. Taking on those projects may well be one of the best things we have said YES to.

From the utter failure that they were (for us as a team, as the web apps turned out just fine) we’ve learned more than we could’ve hoped for. It was the hard way for sure. Even better, we won’t forget them so easily.


So there you have it. A short story about dancing in the creative world of YES and NO, or NO and YES, how the title implies. Do yourself, and your project, a favor and don’t take NOs personally.

We are in this together and we all want the same thing.

If you have any thoughts or questions, hit me up on Twitter @vladpotter. I would love to hear your take on this.