I Promise I’m Not Avoiding You
I’m just prioritizing
Learning to say “no” is probably the most powerful thing I’ve learned in 45 years as an entrepreneur.
It’s a simple skill, but it’s so hard to do. We associate “yes” with positivity and acceptance, but saying “no” can be just as beneficial, if not more. That one word can help you set boundaries, prioritize your well-being, and make better decisions.
As an entrepreneur, saying no was my key to triage and focus. As an early-stage founder, I always had 100 things clamoring for my attention but only enough resources to address a handful of them. That meant saying “no” to everything else. It’s the foundational premise behind the Canada Principle.
Coming up with a list of good ideas is easy. But if you’re shorthanded — and in a startup, you’re always shorthanded — deciding what not to do is hard.
The ability to make those decisions is one of the main things I listen for in an investment pitch. When a founder talks about all the “amazing things” they plan to do, they’re probably expecting me to get excited by the size of the opportunity. But what I hear is someone so distracted by all those “amazing things” that they can’t focus on the one or two that will make a difference.
Saying “no” also means taking a periodic look at what you’re already doing, and deciding what to let go of — something we referred to as “scraping the barnacles” when I was at Netflix. We were constantly testing, adding new features, and trying new pricing plans, but we also knew that each of those was a barnacle. Sure, they’re small, but if enough of them accrete to your hull, they noticeably slow your speed through the water. If you don’t periodically scrape the barnacles, you have to spend time making sure that each new feature is reverse-compatible with that thing you tried last year. To make that price change, you first have to figure out how to placate the customers who are on a different plan. These things add up. Little by little, your pace of innovation slows.
This is a particular challenge in software development, where engineers are rewarded for adding features but seldom rewarded for removing them. At Netflix we were constantly saying “no” to good ideas:
- When Netflix clones launched in the UK and Australia, we said “no” to starting our own international business and stamping them out. Better to wait, and focus on our core business.
- There was a big temptation to do adult content. But saying “no” was the only way to avoid being vulnerable to some district attorney behind in the polls someplace.
- “Rent games,” everyone told us. That was an easy No. Games don’t have the shelf life that movies do.
But probably the closest we came to being fatally distracted was in the fall of 1999, when we were advised to become a movie “portal.” We wouldn’t just be a DVD-by-mail business… we’d be an everything-about-movies business. We’d have reviews, list showtimes, sell tickets. True, none of these things would make us money, but that didn’t seem to matter. “Just build it,” was a common mindset at the time. “You’ll figure out how to monetize it later.”
And for six dangerous months that’s what we did.
For most businesses, the dot-com collapse in April 2000 was a disaster. But for Netflix it was a lucky break. As our funding dried up, we were forced to revert to doing something that made money. We had to cancel our planned IPO. And had we gone public as a portal, it would have been the end of Netflix. Being forced to say “no” saved us.
But that’s business. And while focus, triage, and scraping barnacles are critical skills for an entrepreneur, I believe they’re just as valuable for anyone trying to lead a balanced life. Because everything you say yes to means saying no to something else.
As Ryan Halliday mentioned in a recent tweet, “Taking that meeting means saying no to an hour of reading. Scrolling mindlessly late at night means saying no to a productive morning. The Zoom call means saying no to some deep work.”
For me, learning to say “no” was essential, since I had dealt myself a particularly bad hand when it came to achieving balance:
First, my professional life has been spent mostly at early-stage companies, which require an almost obsessive dedication of time, focus, and energy.
Second, my passion has always been the outdoors, and unlike stamp collecting or gardening, indulging that passion requires making time for multi-day river descents, weeks-long off-the-grid surf trips, and halfway-around-the-world climbing expeditions. You can’t squeeze any of these between a 1:00 meeting and a 3:00 phone call.
But the trickiest balancing act of all was figuring out how to do all the above while staying happily married. (I vowed early on that I didn’t want to be one of those entrepreneurs who was on his sixth company but also on his sixth wife.)
Again, that’s where saying “no” comes in.
It’s a long story, but I maintain this balance in my life by rigidly compartmentalizing. When I work, I work. When I’m home, I’m home. When I play, I play. Most importantly, I force myself to say no. And I have to say it a lot.
This doesn’t come easily to me. I’m an extrovert. I love talking to people. I want to help. But to make everything fit, I have to be ruthless. I constantly ask myself, “Do I need to be in this meeting? Do I need to make this call? Does this email need a long answer?”
I’m at a point in my life now where I have almost complete control over my schedule, so I squeeze my entire work week into three days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) so that I have the other four days free to pursue the other things that are important to me. But to squeeze everything into three days is tough — especially when some of the big projects I’m working on require long blocks of deep work.
That’s why, for the last few years, I’ve had a simple rule: “no non-essential one-on-one.” If you’re one of the (many) people I’ve said no to, it’s not that you aren’t someone I’d love to meet (or Zoom with, or hear your pitch, or review your deck). It’s just that I get thousands of these requests, and if I’m not extremely careful, I’ll have lots of fun meeting people, but not enough time to do the work I really want to do (not to mention surf, run, bike, ski, socialize, read, parent, partner, etc.). Maybe I’m not doing it right, but it’s the only way I know to get some quality work done, fulfill obligations to the founders I’ve agreed to mentor, sit on the boards I’ve agreed to serve on, and have time for the other parts of my life that are so important.
But that’s just me.
No matter who you are, saying “no” is essential for doing good work, maintaining healthy relationships, and taking care of yourself. Saying “no” can help you avoid spreading yourself too thin. Saying “no” empowers you to make informed choices that align with your values and goals. Saying “no” allows you to focus on what truly matters to you, rather than being pulled in multiple directions.
And I promise, it’s possible to say “no” and still succeed in business, and maintain some balance in your life.
So what do you think? Leave me a comment or drop me an email and I’ll do my best to respond. But if my answer is short and it takes a few weeks to get to it? Well, I promise I’m not ignoring you… I’m just prioritizing.
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