Learning to say ‘NO’ at SaaStock

As entrepreneurs, so much of our time is focused on making the impossible possible. There’s a beauty in crafting something out of nothing and forging a new future.

Saying ‘YES’ to these new and exciting opportunities is easy, of course. However, the most important word many SaaS founders learn to say along the way is ‘NO.’

‘No’ is the only way to chip away at bad ideas so you can focus and find success.

It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Resources are limited. Good ideas are limited. There are so many times that business leaders need to say ‘no.’

Throughout SaaStock at Dublin’s RDS, there have been plenty of examples from speakers and attendees about how ‘no’ opened up more doors than it closed.

Saying ‘no’ to features

There are very few Dublin startups that carry as much clout globally as Intercom, so co-founder Des Traynor’s talks are often a highlight at any event.

Traynor says that saying ‘no’ was a critical part of Intercom’s development. “It’s tough, but necessary. Otherwise, the company would be bogged down with mediocre (or worse) features that don’t improve the product,” he says.

The discipline of ‘no’ has also helped prevent Intercom from chasing every trendy technology. He jokes that  if Intercom had followed the “it” technologies, they would’ve pivoted the entire company multiple times toward gamification or artificial intelligence. Instead, they stayed true to their goals and values.

“We’ve seen the value of being consistent and having one core brand,” says Traynor.

Luckily, the need to say ‘no’ decreases over time, according to Traynor. As the product gets better, there’s less of a need for new widgets.

Of course, plenty of SaaS companies have had to say ‘no’ to new features.

Siobhán Hasner, managing director of Cork-based Hire Hive, says that in the recruitment industry, there are so many different ways companies hire employees, they simply cannot tweak the product to match each niche demand.

“It is so important for us to just keep focused,” says Hasner. “If you don’t do that, it’s so easy to go off into tangents. You start building things that may be helpful for one customer. Who knows where that will get you?”

That level of discipline pays dividends when it comes to adding the features your company REALLY needs.

For London-based Pusher, which develops infrastructure for developers, ‘no’ has been an integral part of decision-making according to COO Sylvain Giuliani.

Since their product is used by so many different types of companies, the requests can be overwhelming. Pusher had to say ’no’ to requests about chat infrastructure that could bog their system down. In fact, Giuliani said, at first, they recommended some of those customers to use other companies.

Now, Pusher is retargeting with a multi-product approach, including some of those chat features. Sometimes ‘no’ leads to a different kind of ‘yes.’

Saying ‘no’ to investment

Giuliani says when Pusher was starting off, they initially thought of going the traditional investment model of seed, Series A, Series B, etc. Pusher went in a different direction.

“We said ‘no’ to that path,” says Giuliani. “We wanted to be in control of our destiny.”

That gave the Pusher team more control, but also less capital and financial flexibility. Still, according to Giuliani, that is a blessing in itself. By having less cash around, they had to be sure about every decision the company made.

“That constraint is very healthy,” says Giuliani. “It makes you sure you are fully convinced, and you do your due diligence with everything you do.”

Saying ‘no’ to helping others

In the list of human needs, shelter and community often take place as some of the most critical.

It is in our human nature to want to offer shelter to those who need it. That’s especially true for organisations that provide space and mentorship for young startups.

Yet, still, the word ‘no’ matters incredibly.

Patrick White, managing director of Canadian B2B SaaS accelerator L-Spark, knows limited resources require difficult decisions. That means turning away potential startups.

“We have to think, will we be able to drive the company from A to B,” says White.

In those scenarios, finding a flexible participant is as imperative as finding the perfect business idea.

“We’ve had some awesome companies with really shitty entrepreneurs,” White says.

Saying ‘no’ from time to time helps the entire community thrive.

Steve Morrin, who is launching the Huckletree co-working space in Dublin, says they’ve also had to say no to potential clients at their London spaces.

Morrin says the right companies will thrive working alongside other startups and companies.

Saying ‘no’ to customers

This might be the toughest situation – turning away potential customers.

Krish Subramanian, CEO of Chennai-based Chargebee, says when his company was young, they actually told big customers like AB Inbev ‘no.’

Subramanian says he knew at the time that Chargebee was not capable of providing the service that the massive beer maker needed.

“I don’t think we’re ready to solve the problem for you yet,” recalls Subramanian.

That decision paid off since it allowed Chargebee to build the products right without the rush to bring in money fast. Today, AB Inbev is one of Chargebee’s many happy clients.

The downside?

Of course, there’s one little caveat to saying ‘no’ –  you may live to regret it. As a founder, you need to live with your decisions though.

At SaaStock,Rory O’Driscoll of Scale Venture Partners stood on the stage just moments after Intercom’s Des Traynor.

O’Driscoll passed on investing in Intercom early on. He admits that seeing the company’s success is a constant painful reminder.

Still, that ‘no’ and so many others have had – and will continue to have – a happy ending.

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