What I've Learned In Business: The Power Of "No"

This is the first post in an occasional series about what I’ve learned from running a business.

When I started Phillips Media Relations in 2004, I was quite hungry for new business. I started my firm without any business lined up and worked 18-hour days in an effort to attract a few clients.

I was elated when I got my first contract in December 2004. The total amount? $1,250. That amount covered two full days of training, two weeks of detailed preparation, dozens of handouts, and commuting to a training location 100 miles away. In the end, I probably averaged $3.00 an hour for that work. But it didn’t matter. It was my first sign that the business might work, and I was thrilled.

Once I had activated that “hustling for work” switch, I found it difficult to deactivate it. I said “yes” to almost every project—sometimes below my usual fees—because I was nervous that there might not be another paycheck behind it. Plus, I didn’t feel like I had permission to set my own terms and decline work that didn’t quite fit.

As the business continued to grow, I traveled any time a client called. For years, I regularly confronted flight delays, busy car rental counters staffed by a single clerk, and hotels that lost my reservations. I never complained about my harried schedule to clients. I shut up, put my head down, and did what needed to be done to make sure my clients were delighted with my work.

But that came with a cost. Over the past few years, my heavy travel schedule has been making me increasingly miserable. I love being at home with my wife, like the routines we fall into when I’m at home for longer stretches, and like being able to put my suitcase in the closet for more than a few days at a time. And yes, I know I’ve been very fortunate that my business has taken off and that this is a nice problem to have — but that knowledge doesn’t provide me with much comfort when I find myself on the third plane in a week.

The solution might sound obvious to you—travel less—but my instinct to continue working hard to attract new business remains as strong as it was when I earned that $1,250 contract back in 2004. So I’ve had to actively work to deactivate that switch and prioritize my happiness and physical and emotional well-being instead.

It took me a long time to learn the power of “no”—that I had permission to turn down work, negotiate terms, or set my own terms altogether. If you’re struggling with something similar, keep these things in mind:

You’re allowed to decline work—even if you’re passionate about the client or topic—if the travel requirements aren’t a good fit with your home or family life.

You’re allowed to accept fewer engagements that require travel and to carefully select the ones you do. 

You’re allowed to turn down work if it isn’t personally satisfying to you or if it conflicts with your own beliefs.

You’re allowed to request alternate ways of doing the work.

I haven’t fully found the right balance yet, and have a feeling this will remain the single most challenging part of my professional life for the rest of my career. But identifying the problem and taking steps to correct it feels like a critical first step.

Have you experienced something similar? What lessons have you learned – and what advice would you offer me? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.