The Art of Saying No: Why This 25-Year-Old Entrepreneur Turned Down a Chance to Be on Shark Tank

We’re told that startups should say yes to all opportunities, but sometimes it’s smarter to say no.

December 21, 2015

Three years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to compete on Shark Tank, a reality show where aspiring entrepreneurs make business presentations to a panel of investors.

My company was a year old at the time and I was still trying to figure everything out. I honestly didn’t feel like we knew what we were doing. But appearing on Shark Tank was such a good opportunity that I had a hard time turning it down.

The team and I spent the next month weighing our options. We didn’t need the money, but who would turn down a chance like this? But the excitement we should have been feeling was missing. Instead, we felt anxious and unprepared. Still, for some reason, we felt the show was the “right thing” to do.

We signed the paperwork, and all that was left was for us to fly to California and compete. Two weeks before the flight, one of my mentors called me out of the blue. We talked about what had been happening in each other’s lives, and naturally the conversation landed on Shark Tank. I told her how heavily the decision had been weighing on me.

When I was done, she asked, “If one of your heroes were in this same situation, what do you think they would do?”

I decided not to participate in the show. Although my team was disappointed, they understood why I made this decision. Because of this “no,” we were able to focus on becoming the best we could be. Our focus and dedication led to a TEDx talk and a story in Entrepreneur Magazine, which connected us to McGraw Hill publishers. They’re publishing our first book The Big Fish Experience in January 2016.

The whole experience taught me five very important lessons about the art of saying no, and how to work through my gut feelings- an important trait for any entrepreneur.

1 – Saying “no” requires you to practice effective decision making

The further you get in your career as an entrepreneur, the more important it is to understand what to say “no” to on a daily basis. Effective decisions mean making the distinction between critical or important.

Takeaway:

It’s important to create a balance between working on the business and working in the business. I divide my tasks daily into critical and important tasks. A critical task is a task that needs to be done today, for the success of the company. An important task is one that wouldn’t be detrimental to the company if not completed today.

Classifying your day-to-day activities as either critical or important will help to keep you steadily moving toward the goals you have set for yourself. For example, is working on your pitch for a big client opportunity tomorrow more important than sending out the company newsletter today?

2 – Saying “no” requires clear focus and constant attention to your “why”

I asked myself about five times why we should go on Shark Tank, and each “why” showed me why I shouldn’t. I just couldn’t pull the trigger and say no to the big opportunity despite the answer being obvious by the third “why.”

Takeaway:

Great opportunities will come your way all the time, but the best entrepreneurs know to stay vigilant and focused. Before every big decision ask yourself “why” at least five times. Remember: at the end of the day, you as an entrepreneur are measured by your decision-making. I always tell my team that we get about 20 “big” opportunities a year, and my job is to find the top 1-4 opportunities to pursue. From that crop, one or two will succeed and the others will falter.

3 – Saying “no” requires focusing on your eulogy rather than your resume

The more you say “yes,” the more bullet points you get on your resume. But, if you limit those bullet points and only say “yes” to the right things, you’ll find yourself with a more impressive eulogy.

Takeaway:

Instead of worrying if an opportunity will look good on your resume, think about what people will say about what you did. This is how you build a reputation, not a resume. Focus on the right opportunities – not every opportunity.

4 – Saying “no” requires you to have clear, documented goals

I believe that a written goal is a goal you must own and commit to. I recommend SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timed) tied with a purpose.

For example, say, “I want to live longer and be healthier” can be tied to, “I want to lose fifteen pounds in 3 months by doing anaerobic exercises three times a week while eating only X amount of calories a day.”

The more specific you are, the clearer your path is to getting your goals done.

Takeaway:

Having clear, written goals make it easier to notice distractions. Keep your goals somewhere you can see them everyday, so you never lose sight of what you’re working towards. I keep my goals on the bathroom window and the fridge- two places I go to every day.

5 – Saying “no” requires you to see long-term versus short-term

When you say “no,” it’s because you want to invest in the long-term. Saying “no” is a risk because you may be sacrificing short-term pleasures for long-term outcomes.

Takeaway:

I recommend writing pros and cons on a board. When making decisions, remember to envision what “no” can do for you in the long-term versus what “yes” can do for you now.

This sounds simple, but it’s very important to distinguish the timing of when you pursue an opportunity. For example, if you wanted to create a new app for your startup, you need to ask if it’s the right time to shift focus and what would happen if you do it now vs. the future.

Pros and cons can be “pro: market opportunity exists” or “con: expensive development costs”. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make sure that your ship gets to it’s final destination with the least amount of detours.

The big picture

Although it can be a risk to say “no,” it opens the door to more opportunities than you can imagine. When Shark Tank asked us to appear on the show, it felt like the right thing to do because it was so high profile. But the timing wasn’t right as we weren’t ready to compete.

After turning them down, I focused on improving the company. I had one big goal: to rid the world of bad presentations. Appearing on Shark Tank unprepared wasn’t going to help me accomplish that goal. Because I said “no,” I had time to create and refine my processes and develop a reputation that I’m proud of.

I used to view the word “yes” as a sword that can conquer any opportunity thrown your way. But not all these opportunities may be right.

I see the word “no” as a shield that can protect you from the wrong opportunities. Having both of these words in your mental arsenal is essential in being the best entrepreneur you can be.

So what weapon will you wield in your next big decision?


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Kenny NguyenKenny Nguyen // The Hustle
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