I’ve been thinking lately about doing the impossible, which has brought me to the next topic in my A-Z series. This blog, representing “N,” is “Never Say No The First Time.” How many of you are thinking that sometimes you need to say “No!” to establish boundaries, for instance. Or maybe something along the lines of, “I would never get anything done if I didn’t say no.”

Well, this “never say no” is different, and especially relevant to the many young entrepreneurs that I know and support. Their world is different from mine, and so full of stimulus that many have told me they have to say no just to survive.

So let’s discuss another key component of the idea of “never say no;” there is no such thing as “black and white.” There is an old saying that goes, “the older you get the more shades of gray you see.” Ultimately, you realize that nothing is simply black or white and everything is a shade of gray. Thankfully, I am not totally there yet, but I do see things very differently than I once did. I find it more and more difficult to deal with people who only see things in black and white absolutes. So for the purpose of this blog I hope we can agree on the idea that there is very little black and white and almost everything is a shade of gray. With that thought in mind, when you say no, you are saying no to all the gray areas that go along with the proposition–without remembering that there might be very positive morsels within that gray.

In business and life, my recommendation is never say no without first analyzing all the gray that surrounds the question or proposition. I often say, “Let me ponder that,” or, “Can you give me more info to make the decision?” Or even, “Can I think about this at another time?”

My wife is preparing to go to her 40th high school reunion and in their Facebook group, everyone was asked where they worked when they where in high school. I was absolutely amazed at how few of those businesses are still around. Sadly, I would say 80% of the 50 or so businesses named are no longer around–which got me thinking about the word no and business.

Could it be that saying “No!” is a symptom of failing companies like Polaroid, which never thought the digital imagery business would catch on and then filed for bankruptcy in 2007, just as digital imagery was taking off. I would bet the farm that there was a Polaroid executive who said, “No!” in there somewhere. As a result of saying “No!” the leading company in the photographic field since 1948 doesn’t exist today other than as an administrative shell to sell and license patents.

Knowing that every business exists within multiple shades of gray, why would you ever say no to any idea or business strategy? Of course, it is important to say no to situations that could be illegal or immoral, but other than these exceptions I have never understood why any organization or business would answer with a distinct “No!” when it comes to business strategy or exploration.

Now, I totally understand that timing, resource allocation, etc, can make something impossible or outside of a budget, but that is different from saying “No!” That’s saying “Great idea, but the timing isn’t right. Can we keep it on the docket for another time?”

Saying a flat “No!” is stereotypical for rigid, legacy-type command and control businesses where the fear is greater than the appetite for change or something new. Entire industries are being built right now based upon stepping in and saying “Yes!” where others have always said “No!”

Take school newsletters for example. My colleague, Jeff Smith is right now working on a method to automate school newsletters. For a number of years, the workload for teachers and school boards has been so great, that when asked if they could publish a newsletter, the typical answer was a resounding “No!”

By developing a system that automates the entire process–combining social media, classroom news, and calendars, the school newsletter can be made with almost no effort on anyone’s part. The response to the automated school newsletter has been so great that the demand is already overwhelming the new company. This is the kind of problem you want to have, and it all started from looking for opportunity where others have always said no.

When we were developing our natural pet nutrition company, Pet Promise, I can’t even count the number of times we were told “No!”
“No, you can’t get high quality ingredients at a competitive price.”
“No, you’ll never get distribution in those stores.”
“No, people don’t care what their pets eat.”

While we were told “No!” over and over, we never answered our own challenges with “No!” In fact, our team mantra was always, “Say yes first. There is always time to say no.”

The result? We became one of the top brands. We led the way to a new natural pet food category that is incredibly successful. The value propositions we established continue to lead the entire industry today.

Now, answering with “No!” is different than using no as a way to explain clarity. In the Pet Promise campaign, we promised certain “no” qualities to our customers. These were:
NO Animal Byproducts
NO Rendered Meat or Chicken Meals
NO Added Growth Hormones
NO Antibiotic-fed Protein Sources
NO Factory Farm Meat or Chicken

In other words, using no to describe what something is not is a powerful tool. Responding immediately with “No!” as an answer in a world of gray can be toxic. Using the concept of “no” as a research tool is also valuable. Consider this: One of the fastest ways to find an opportunity in a company is to find some young, aggressive people in the organization and ask them what they would like the company to do, and have even tried to do, but were told, “No!”

How do you do this? Go to the nearest Starbucks and hang out. I was at the AT&T headquarters in Dallas, Texas, and went to the lobby Starbucks, which was a busy, caffeinated, epicenter of all things AT&T. The conversations were incredible, and many of them orbited around things they wanted to do but had been told, “No!”

While sipping my coffee that day, I realized that no just may be the most destructive word in business.

So the next time someone asks you something, rather than letting “No!” be the first thing that comes to mind, take a pause and realize you might be about to miss an opportunity. Instead, answer with encouragement and explanation:

“Yes, lets put this on next year’s plan.”
“Yes, but we’ll need to explore more fully before we make a decision.”
“Yes, could you put together some market research on it?”
“Yes, how could we make this happen?”
“Yes, when you’re finished with your current projects, give it a try.

The wise leader will replace the most destructive word in the world with the most powerful: “Yes!” “Yes” is the most powerful word in the world and the most uplifting and positive because in all of that sea of gray there might just be an “Ah-ha!” moment that wouldn’t be realized if you said no.

So before you go to bed tonight, try this: Respond to a question to which you’d typically answer by saying “no” with a thoughtful, “Yes!” Practice using the world’s most powerful word right now.



Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust. –Zig Ziglar