How saying “no” can grow your business

- July 20, 2020 5 MIN READ

Last week I was tapping away on my laptop, deep in the ‘zone’. Finally, I was clearing my plate of a few projects that had been hanging around for a little too long. A message notification popped up from a personal trainer I had used in the past. My curiosity piqued, I opened her message. She was asking if I did copywriting. I don’t. But man, was I tempted to say yes!

Here I was again, torn between wanting more work but not wanting to take on a project that wasn’t aligned with my core services. Can I write copy? Yes. Do I love writing copy? No. Every time I accept a copywriting job I procrastinate, I doubt myself and I regret ever saying yes. Plus, I was already flat out trying to get through my current workload. So why was I even thinking about typing yes?


Truth is, this is a very common challenge for small business owners. Especially in the early stages of getting a business going. Without a steady flow of sales or projects you feel like you need to say yes to anything that comes your way. Having a potential client come to you is much easier than going out looking for them yourself. Any client, any project…they are all helping to get your name out there, right? They are all expanding your portfolio and helping you gain experience, right? And what if you don’t get another sale for weeks?

It seems counter intuitive, but being able to say no to some opportunities will actually help your business grow because it will bring you clients and work more closely aligned to what you really want to do. Consider these examples:

  • The earring designer who says no to a local market stall site because the market attendees are not her target now has time to launch her new range via her website

  • The personal trainer who refers an existing 1:1 client on to a colleague so she can focus on running group sessions

  • The business coach who repositions her business to focus on only helping start-ups in the first three years of their business

  • The virtual assistant who only works with other working mums because they understand her need to set (and keep) boundaries around her working hours

  • The business writer who says no to a website redesign project now has capacity to take on a new blogging client (yep, that one is me)

Being ‘picky’ about what to take on will not limit you. Getting clear on what you will (and won’t) do opens up new, more fulfilling opportunities. Megan MacNeill, personal branding specialist, puts it perfectly; “Saying no is as important as saying yes. We start a business because we have a dream and a goal, [but] this can be derailed very easily if we take on clients that don’t align with what we have set out to do.”

The benefits of saying “no”

“When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one” – Meredith Hill, Author

Not everyone is your ideal customer. Nor do they need to be. There is a specific group of people out there who need the product or service that only you can provide. Likewise, not every problem is your responsibility to solve.  Get specific about who your customers are, what solutions you will offer and how you will provide them. Then there will be a higher chance you and your ideal customer will find each other. The more you are thinking about, talking about and delivering the work you love to the clients you want, the more likely it is that the right kind of opportunities will come to you.

Building clarity around your values, service/product offerings and target market will allow you to build a stronger, more consistent brand. Alex Thomas, a work health and safety consultant, went through multiple rebrands before realising “… my personality, my values and my way of doing things was my point of difference, and that by just being myself, I would attract the kind of clients that I genuinely wanted to work with. It worked. As the saying goes, ‘your vibe attracts your tribe’.”

Saying no to opportunities that aren’t aligned to your business will free you up to spend more time focused on delighting your ideal clients. This might mean delivering an outcome early, providing extra value, expanding your skill set or researching your market more thoroughly. “The biggest impact on my business has 100% been the ability to concentrate my efforts on the clients I do want to work with and giving them my all,” says Megan.

On a personal level, practicing saying no can improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. Many business owners feel overwhelmed by all the things they could or should be doing. Or they say yes to too many things and end up burned out. Being focused on what you will and won’t do within your business reduces decision fatigue and offers a level of protection for your time and energy. Andrea Chamberlain, from You Can Create, is a self-confessed empath and people pleaser who often finds it difficult to say no. When she is assessing a new opportunity, she is guided by what creates positive outcomes. “Things that cause me to be anxious are not healthy and increase my doubt…Will it increase my satisfaction or will it cause me upset?” she asks. Setting and sticking to boundaries is critical for her. Similarly, our mental health can be impacted by interacting with clients who aren’t a good match. As Megan explains “…there are some people you will never please even with your best work because it was never going to work”.

It isn’t realistic to think you will always be able to say no. Alex acknowledges “Sometimes you just need to put food on the table and say yes to the jobs that aren’t that glamourous. View it as a means to an end, a learning process, and an opportunity to refine your services nonetheless”. When you are stuck in the middle of a project you wish you hadn’t agreed to it is important to reflect on why you aren’t enjoying it – is it the type of work, the client, the short timeframe, or another factor? You can use these experiences to give you the confidence and motivation to say no next time.

Tips for getting better at saying “No”

Saying no is not easy! Even if you have a healthy funnel of ongoing work, you might feel guilty for turning people down. Or you feel uncomfortable saying good bye to an existing client. The good news is that, with practice, it becomes easier. Here is a collection of tools and tips that might help get you on the right track. Remember, practice makes perfect!

  • Understand who you are in business. Know what your values are, follow your intuition and be brave enough to not engage with a client who ‘doesn’t feel quite right’. Alex Thomas, Alex Thomas Pty Ltd

  • If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”. Derek Sivers, Anything You Want

  • If someone is making a request via a phone call or in person, ask them to send you the details via email. That way you aren’t put on the spot to respond straight away and you can take your time to properly consider whether it is right for you and respond appropriately. Andrea Chamberlain, You Can Create

  • Build a network of people who provide the services/products you don’t, or who work with the markets you don’t serve. That way you can direct people to someone who is a better fit for what they want.

  • Honesty is always the best policy – “really sorry but I don’t think we are a good fit.” Otherwise a simple ‘I don’t have capacity to take anyone else on at the moment’ would do. Technically true – we don’t have the mental capacity to take on people who pull us in the wrong direction. Megan MacNeill, Relevant

  • Look at it from the position of taking an opportunity from someone else…by saying No I’ve opened a window for another. Being a people pleaser, this is a rather convenient method for saying No. Andrea Chamberlain, You Can Create

  • Be prepared for difficult conversations with those you don’t align with…have a one liner up your sleeve, like “I’m so incredibly thankful for the opportunity, but I don’t think a) we’re quite the right fit, OR b) my services are exactly what you need…Remember, you’re less likely to attract the wrong kinds of clients if your branding, marketing and service provision is reflective of those you seek to attract and the problems they’re trying to solve. Alex Thomas, Alex Thomas Pty Ltd

This post was written by Katrina Tite for Big Ideas Rural and is republished here with permission. 

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