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How to Say No — Protecting Yourself for Fun and Profit

This is secretly a post about saying yes. You’ll see.

When I joined my first startup I interviewed with one of the board members, George Zachary. I was trying to position myself as a manager that, while young, had a lot of potential.

So I asked George what growth would he predict for me as a young manager. Here’s roughly what he said:

Eventually the emotion of saying NO goes away.
People are going to ask you to do work that’s both impossible and unnecessary, ask you if they can work on personal projects, rewrite core systems for the hell of it, etc.
You need to be able to say yes to what you think is right and no to everything else. But when you’re young it feels like a big deal anytime you say no.
Young managers either drag their feet or give in, even when they know better. Look at me, I’m a VC. I’ve said yes 5 times and no 995 times. It got a lot easier to say no.

George has been completely right. The more time I’ve spent as a manager and then as a founder, the more I get asked for things, time, money, resources. And the less anxious I am about saying no.

Any time I feel myself delaying a decision for any emotional reason, I think back to George’s advice. Everyone has emotions, but at the end of the day you need to be able to make a rational decision.

Here are some ways to master turning people down.

#1. Reserve time in your calendar.

I spend most of my day making things. So when someone wants to talk to me, I send them a scheduling link that has very few free spots.

What I’m saying no to, subtly, is the idea that I have time to talk to you today.

I used to lose my maker time to meetings and calls that were scheduled last minute. No more.

#2. Have a canned response

If you run a startup, every other startup will email you asking if they should get on the phone. It makes no sense — none of these turn into real partnerships.

I used to respond with my requirements, something like “We’re looking for partnerships that achieve X & Y.”

That was supposed to be a way to filter out the bad requests. But still none of those panned out. So now I just say:

“We’re in a heads down mode and aren’t doing partnerships.”

The best start to a canned response is always:

“My policy is…”

That’s a classic, it’s not you, it’s me move. It helps to depersonalize your rejection.

#3. Have a shit test

A friend was telling me how much she hates people asking to pick her brain.

“The visual is gross and then they don’t do anything with what I tell them!”

A shit test is to give the other person something a hurdle to jump in order to judge seriousness.

The obvious shit test is money.

“I would love to help you, but before I do, I need you to understand that I am a professional and this is my job. My hourly rate is $300.”

The other shit test is preparation.

Imagine a son of a friend of your aunt wants help getting a job in your industry.

Then you take the meeting and you ask them what sorts of jobs they’re looking for. They don’t know. You ask them what their passion is. They don’t know. You ask them what companies they respect. They don’t know.

They thought you could just tell them what their life path should be without any input from them.

Instead, always, always, always request preparation before giving advice.

“I would love to help. Before we schedule a time to talk, could you send me X, Y and Z.”

If the materials they send over are sloppy, just tell them:

“I’m so glad you sent these over because they help me see that I’m not a good fit to help you. Good luck!”

#4. Repetition

Sometimes people don’t take no for an answer. They start hunting for some crack in your confidence by asking question after question.

My favorite example of this was a friend trying to quit their job. His boss kept coming back with theoretical counter offers, “What if we could…”

Those counter offers were increasingly ludicrous and ended with “What if I could get my investor to offer you their private plane for the honeymoon you and your wife never had?”

I find that these pushy people are looking for a signal that you’re not going to budge and the very best signal you can give is to repeat yourself.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Have a talking point. In the above. “I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’ve received an opportunity I can’t refuse.”
  2. In media, you’re trained to bridge every question to a rehearsed talking point no matter what the question was. In the above, if the boss asked him to add “2+2,” my friend would have responded “Those are the sorts of questions that re-enforce that I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’ve received an opportunity I can’t refuse.
  3. Stick to just one talking point. That’s the magic. People catch on quickly that you only have one answer and then back off.

People who’ve read this far probably fall into a category of people who consider preparation as a virtue. I’m in this category.

And, you may note that there’s a bit of disdain in many of the answers above. “If you aren’t going to prepare, then you’re not worth my time.”


This post is about you being intentional with your time. By saying no to all of these crazy requests you can say yes to something else.

No is the most powerful word in productivity.

Go ahead, ask me for something. I’m dying to tell you no.