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Learn the discipline of saying no

Tom Lovelace

In the early days of a business it’s exciting to push new initiatives and challenges. But as your company grows, you need to fine tune your focus, writes Brian Halligan for Harvard Business Review.

As co-founder and CEO of the marketing and sales software company HubSpot, Halligan reveals that he prided himself on being a “yes-man”, trying everything he could to win more customers and ensure that his products were a good fit for the market they were aimed at.

“A popular, core feature of our product was our website grader. Looking to expand our reach and impact, I was quick to say ‘yes’ to a Twitter grader… and to a Foursquare grader (yes, that was hot at the time)… and to a press-release grader. If someone had a marketing grader idea, chances are I would say ‘yes’ to it.”


As the business expanded, however, he found that the energy required for growth was being diverted in too many different directions.

Halligan quotes one of his board members, Lorrie Norrington, who told him he needed to “add the word ‘no’” to his strategic vocabulary.


Determining the best new initiatives to choose when you are at the scaling-up stage is tricky unless you put a framework and some ground rules in place.

1) Make a written plan. Declare your mission, the new ideas you are pursuing this year, your method for tracking their progress and the options you are choosing to leave on the drawing board.

2) Clarify your target customer. Early on at HubSpot they had established two key buyers for their products – small business owners and marketing directors of mid-size companies whose priority was inbound marketing, turning strangers visiting the website into regular customers. Halligan made the decision to make the marketing directors the clients that would drive all future sales, marketing and product development efforts.

3) Don’t be afraid to delay future initiatives. The US-based HubSpot was attracting so many overseas clients – 300 in 30 different countries – that a European office was clearly on the cards and team members were working on the logistics. Halligan felt it was too risky to push forward with this project at the same time as shifting tack to a single target customer.

4) Be firm and stick by your decisions. At this stage there is no room for hedging your bets. There will be advocates for the initiatives you choose to reject or delay, and some of them will do their best to change your mind. Don’t let them. Equally, there will be naysayers who don’t agree with the priorities you’ve picked. Don’t reopen the debate.


In the period of transition from startup to stage-up it’s easy to be tempted by great new ideas. Setting some principles around growth and putting your plan in writing should set you up for saying “no” as well as “yes” to get the best results.

As Halligan says: “The discipline of saying ‘no’ has paid big dividends for us.” And they did get that European office in the end.

Source Article: The Art Of Strategy Is About Knowing When To Say No
Author(s): Brian Halligan