A decade ago, I was a fresh-out-of-college entrepreneur trying to convince a Sri Lankan tea seller to make a deal with me. It wasn’t going very well.
I wanted the seller, who owned a boutique tea company, to become a supplier for the loose-leaf retail tea business I was trying to get off the ground. I could sense the man’s skepticism—in fact, his first instinct was to refer me to his distributor—but even so, he heard me out. Rather than a flat-out “no,” be basically told me, “not yet.” Eventually, I managed to convince him to give me a shot.
This ended up being the right decision for both of us. His teas helped fuel my startup’s early growth, and he now enjoys a huge contract as one of the suppliers to DAVIDsTEA.
The experts like to claim that learning to say “no” is one of the most crucial leadership and career skills around, and they aren’t exactly wrong. But in my experience, that will only take you so far. There’s a subtle art—and power—in turning someone down while keeping the door open (a type of conversation I’ve been on both ends of by now). It’s an investment. It’s a calculated risk. It’s a networking tool. But it isn’t always easy to get right.
Right now, I’m preparing to launch a new food venture. I recently reached out to a potential supplier of a crucial ingredient a few weeks ago, and they basically said to me, “There’s no way you’re going to do our minimum, so this won’t work.” I hung up the phone and found myself thinking about that early deal I almost failed to strike with the Sri Lankan supplier so many years ago, if it weren’t for his thoughtful “not yet.” Here’s what I’ve learned since then about defaulting to “not yet” whenever I’d otherwise have just said no.
The Logic Of “Not Yet”
What’s so powerful about this two-word phrase? Saying “not yet” isn’t about procrastinating. It’s not just a tool for delaying a decision—far from it. Instead, it makes room to start a dialogue and build relationships, which is what every successful entrepreneur needs to do. Giving a hard “no,” on the other hand, is a way to terminate a relationship or forestall one from starting. What’s worse, some people reject proposals in a way that makes you feel you’re not good enough for them. This adds insult to injury, and in the end, everyone loses.
I’ve been guilty of this myself on some level. Several years ago, I met up a few times with an entrepreneur for breakfast at a cafe in Montreal. He had an idea for an app that would provide spaces where on-the-go urbanites could meditate or stretch. I didn’t think it had legs and never took it seriously. I basically said “no” after a few conversations, and the discussion ended there.
That idea was iterated on a few times and eventually became Breather, an app for renting small, easily accessible office spaces by the hour to busy business travelers. If you haven’t heard of it, you might soon. The business has attracted a loyal following in its native Montreal and expanded to New York in 2014. Late last year, Breather closed a $40 million round of additional funding.
In retrospect, it would’ve been so easy for me to set some milestones for follow-ups or to offer to check out the founder’s pitch deck when it was ready. Instead, I mumbled a few platitudes and let the connection lapse. It’s hard to see the business logic in that.
Getting Better At “Not Yet”
You obviously can’t consider every half-baked idea that crosses your path, and not every email from some random person asking you to transfer funds is worth a reply. For that reason, the first step in embracing the “not yet” mentality is being selective about who you respond to in the first place. Personally, I’ve learned to have no shame about hitting “delete” when it’s clear after a quick glance that a given message isn’t worth my time.
The real judgment comes in once you’ve whittled down your inbox to those that are worth your time—including requests, offers, and opportunities you’re planning to reject. It’s crucial to approach those with respect and a sense of responsibility. I’ve found that as a leader, if you simply shoot someone down, you send a message to that person that they aren’t valued. Simply swapping a “no” for a “not yet” not only leaves the door open a crack, it also requires you to explain your decision and provide context. This forces you to make better, more informed decisions overall.
In the early days of DAVIDsTEA, for example, I hired an exceptional assistant. Long story short, she was ambitious and began clamoring early on for significantly more responsibility. In this case, I was smart enough not to say “no.” Instead, I explained that she had tremendous potential but just needed a little more training and experience.
The goal isn’t to discourage people, it’s to redirect them toward the best use of their talents and energies right now—always keeping in mind that it’s impossible to know what the best uses of their talents and energies might be later on. Recognizing that is humbling; as a mentor, leader, or prospective business parter, you simply can’t anticipate who your most valuable employee or biggest customer will be down the line, you can only make educated guesses.
That executive assistant went on to become my VP of marketing and completely changed the course of our company. Today, she’s the cofounder in my new venture.
That’s the power of “not yet.” It’s sad to say, but I’ll probably never do business again with that supplier who snubbed me a few weeks back—but not out of vindictiveness or wounded pride. They’re simply no longer on my radar as worthy potential partners. That bridge has been burned before even seeing if it was worth crossing together.
It may get good ratings when high-powered business moguls crush entrepreneurs’ hopes and dreams on reality TV shows like Shark Tank or The Apprentice. But in reality, it’s just bad manners, bad karma and—most importantly—bad business.
David Segal is an entrepreneur, speaker, and retail thought leader best known as the cofounder of DAVIDsTEA, which launched in 2008. Follow him on Twitter at @_davidsegal.