Startup Lessons: Sometimes, It’s Better to Say No

Normally, mentor programs have a singular objective: Take a rough idea and a rougher entrepreneur and shape them for success. Typically, the definition of success has to do with a more sharply-focused business plan and a smart strategy for execution.  Even better if the business begins to chalk up milestones and register metrics of growth.

By that definition, my experience with StartOut’s Lesbian Entrepreneur Mentoring Program was not a success.  Yet I would argue that it was a huge win.

According to schedule, my mentee and I met regularly.  We talked about the business and shaped the idea.  My mentee did market research, surveyed consumers, talked with business leaders.  She did everything right.  And in the end, she determined that now was not the time to start the business.  And, yes, that’s a win.

In my experience, it takes more wisdom and courage to say “no” to an idea than to pursue one with unfailing optimism.   In this case, the business idea as it took shape was smart and ambitious.  The entrepreneur was (and remains) passionate about both the social impact and the economic opportunity the concept represents.  But as the learning came into focus it became clear that this was not a business to be trifled with.   This wasn’t a “start small and build” idea; it was “go big or go home” opportunity.  Moreover, the landscape was littered with precursor businesses that tried to tackle the market in half measures.  And therein lay the problem.

The entrepreneur had recently relocated with her family to the Bay Area and had taken on a new job to do so.  The job was an incredible opportunity to learn the craft of business building from inside a growing, yet still very entrepreneurial, company.  With a new and necessary job and a child in diapers, her startup would have to be a nights-and-weekends endeavor, which is hard enough and harder still when you want to build a business of significance.

There is a camp that might have lobbied for her to take the plunge, quit the job, rack up credit card debt, and go for it.   While such acts are the stuff of startup legend, more often that sort of reckless entrepreneurship breeds an environment which takes both more and fewer business risks, ultimately placing business decisions in a context that seeks quick outcomes for unreasonable expectations.  It is, in short, a recipe for failure.

So instead of mounting a damn-the-torpedoes raid on the startup world, my mentee took a breath and made the smart decision to wait.  It was a decision that, on one hand, set her apart from her peers in this mentorship group: While they were launching new businesses, she was not.  It was also a decision that put her right in line with the others: She extracted from the program the tools and guidance to be confident in her business decisions.

By any measure, that’s a win, too.

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One thought on “Startup Lessons: Sometimes, It’s Better to Say No

  1. Interesting, thanks for sharing. Must be tough indeed to say “no” after having done quite some work.

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