Are you willing to say no?

Founders that say yes to everything fail because they fail to create at all. Instead, they surrender to the original villain of the deep.

Are you willing to say no?
Photo by Elisabeth Arnold / Unsplash

Soft technologies, like money and software, are malleable: flexible for the purpose of finding fit in a problem space. Need a buck? There's a shape for that, probably a cotton bill or a gold-hued coin. Need $100,000? There's a shape for that too — a bank wire. $1,000? Now we really have a lot of options. Do you need that with some sort of guarantee? How about a cashier's check?

Like money, well-written 🐙 software is also desirable. If money is the claim check on society that allows you to command the movements of people — which sounds a lot like power, software is the promise of work performed for fewer resources — the sudden acquisition of power through automation.

Both are also broadly applicable: legal tender accepted everywhere; software written in a general purpose language, compiled to run on a common architecture.

This superfecta of malleable, desirable, generalizable, and applicable makes software companies that sell software tooling access-risk startups 🐙 — which explains why OpenAI's technology breakthrough may have been guessing 🐙 what was beyond any reasonable token count horizon, but their commercial breakthrough (the thing that made them valuable) was the Chat interface.


Now take a founder dead set on building a company of value, slip this alchemy into their pocket (just software, perhaps software and money?!), and place them in front of a needy customer.


My god — anything is possible.

That feature? Yes. That option? Yes. By next week? Yes.

But you need it to integrate with this? Of course!

Unlimited power.

We can do that.

(Cue self-destruction in 5, 4 ...)

Say No, Frodo

Separation is at the heart of creation. The willingness to define what is and what isn't; where the light stops, where the darkness begins; where the land stops, where the waters begin; what's in scope, and what isn't.

Founders that say yes to everything fail because they fail to create at all. Instead, they surrender to the original villain of the deep:

Chaos (noun)

a state of things in which chance is supreme

especially: the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms

Have you ever worked in a "confused, unorganized state of primordial matter"? Does it feel like your startup exists in a state where chance is supreme?

That's because someone won't create, won't separate, won't say no.

That Hurts, No?

To be the originator of order, value, and distinct forms, we have to learn to say no. Despite the powers at our disposal and the immense desire to conjure them to make it happen. (Do you want to make, or do you want to make-it-happen? These are not the same.)

They may not want to hear it. You may think you are doing them wrong. You may think you'll lose the deal.

But your customer exists in a state of relative chaos. They need help. They need you to build order. To do that, you must be willing to explain: "that's an interesting approach, but we've learned that's not the best way to solve this. Let me show you a better way."

See, that barely hurt! Did you even see the no?

Behind and underlying these boundaries is an even deeper truth: "we can't really solve it that way, because if we did, well, we wouldn't have a product company, because no one else thinks of it like that."

Product company. I should have asked: do you want to build a product, or a service? A service says yes, enters the fray and solves through action — the high waters of chaos be damned.

A product sets itself apart and creates value by embodying a repeatable, re-usable, predictable structure. It says yes in distinct places and finds one thousand ways to say no.

A product that always says yes is a castle without walls.