The Founder’s Paradox: How to Say No When Big Customers Say Yes
September 6, 2018

The Founder’s Paradox: How to Say No When Big Customers Say Yes

by Brian de Haaff

It is harder to say “no” than it is to say “yes.” This is not just my opinion. There is significant research devoted to this concept. Acquiescence bias, social desirability, whatever you want to call it — we all feel a primal urge to say yes. This is a fundamental human trait. It makes us feel good to make other people happy.

If you are a company founder, you naturally want to share what you have built with as many people as you can. You will want to say yes, often — especially to really big customers. But should you? Maybe yes. Often no.

You want every potential customer to find value in what you do. But that is impossible and trying to make it so will likely result in fewer customers benefiting from your effort.

We have a very set process for how we do business at Aha! — it is necessary to have these frameworks in place. We are #13 on Inc.’s list of fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. and now serve more than 200,000 users.

The processes we put in place help us to both streamline customer adoption of our software and keep our team focused. So far, our approach works exceptionally well for our team. And it works for almost all of the companies that are interested in what we do — from Fortune 500 enterprises to mid-sized companies and startups.

Note that I wrote “almost all.” There are companies who want something fairly different than what we offer or how we operate. As a result, our team is not afraid to acknowledge that our software and the way we work may not be perfect for everyone. We are okay with it and will respectfully say so.

Just because someone has money to spend does not mean you can solve their problem or make their way of working any more right than yours.

This comes up often for SaaS companies. For example, when a prospective customer really thinks they need a one-off enhancement in order to fully adopt the software. Or when a current customer tries to steer product development towards their unique needs. In the short-term, saying no to this demanding customer may seem foolish. This is where visionary founders must use their ability to see into that longer-term future and recognize what the majority of customers really need.

Here is what it looks like: When the organization chases these requests, it can lead to a disjointed offering that serves only a handful of demanding users — not solving for a comprehensive customer base.

Add to this the reality that every large company has a different way that they procure software and onboard new tools. Individualizing to every customer is time-consuming and taxing on the team. And demanding requests often mean that the core value you offer will never be enough. Customizing everything can work for a consulting company, but it is rarely the right approach for high growth and becoming a lasting software company.

Aha! is simply one tool among many that a large organization will vet, purchase, and use over the years. While we would love to solve for all of their needs, it is not possible to satisfy the unique demands of one customer while still serving our other 5,000 customers well. We want to delight and serve the collective whole — while remaining true to the vision we have for the company. We also want to honor our team and enjoy the journey that we are on.

There is no doubt. If you provide a service, you must also provide a framework for trying, buying, and using it. And it needs to be a repeatable process if you want to efficiently grow.

This means that you must also build a methodology to say no when others say yes. I suppose it will not surprise you that I have thought about this quite a bit. I have built out a process below for how to say no when a big customer expects you to say yes — it is just the way my mind works. I hope our approach will serve you well too.

Value exchange takes two Start here to understand what value exchange truly is: Companies sell and customers buy. Then, go a bit further. Know that to create the most value, you and a like-minded customer must have a two-way exchange. Operate from this place of value coming from both sides and flowing freely — you can be confident in saying no when the value is not there.

The future is known Where are you taking the business? This is essential for any company leader. But it is truly imperative for founders to instinctively know what is right and what is wrong for your business. To do so, you must deeply understand where you want to be in the future and why. It is the foundation for your framework.

Principles are fuel You need an engine that helps define how you will and will not operate. The fuel for that engine is your principles. For us, it is The Responsive Method (TRM). The tenets of TRM guide our team and our customers as well — it is shared widely on our website and we do not simply pay lip service. We live TRM. People know what to expect.

Draw the lines Knowing what you will never do is as important as knowing what you will do. Now, I am not advocating for rigidity or pendency. But be clear about the red line that is never crossed. Also define the areas where you have some wiggle room and are willing to compromise. Healthy compromise is a form of kindness.

Remember that it is a big world There is abundance for everyone. One customer represents only a small fraction of the millions of potential customers who will appreciate the value you provide. Go back to the beginning. Get right with the value exchange, where you are headed, and the principles that fuel you.

There are would-be customers who will cost you more than the value they provide. And there are many others who will love what you do — exactly as you do it. Find them.

And if that customer who keeps saying “yes, we need this” — pushing, pushing, pushing you in opposition to the framework you put in place — is a really, really big company? Well, I will tell you what others will not. The opportunity cost is real.

It is entirely your responsibility to say no when you are overpaying for the value they will create for you. And most likely, they will never truly value what you provide anyway.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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