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Dana Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist for over 25 years and has covered the online world professionally since 1985. He founded the "Interactive Age Daily" for CMP Media, and has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and dozens of other publications over the years.
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April 28, 2005

The Entrepreneur's Secret is No

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Posted by Dana Blankenhorn

No-Answer.jpgThe secret to being a successful entrepreneur is learning how to handle NO.

(I don't know where this image originated. It appears to be an old poster of actor-author Dom DeLuise.)

I learned this lesson from an entrepreneurial friend of mine today, and it's so important I had to blog it.

Entrepreneurs bring ideas to businesses and people. They sell these ideas, as businesses. They take a lot of meetings. And most of the time, maybe over 99% of the time, the answer at the end of the day is No.

"You have to turn it into an opportunity," my friend said. You do that by finding someone else -- a money source, another business -- who will either run with your idea, finance your idea, or buy it outright.

And you keep moving.

The difference between entrepreneurs and other businesspeople is that most businesspeople are in the yes business. In a going concern you mostly hear yes. People do come in the door, people are satisfied, you do create systems that wind up giving value for money. If you're not doing this, you're out of business quickly.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are constantly being told no. It's only when they get the yes that they have the chance to build that business they were describing, and this is usually the end of a long, long process. Yet the businesses an entrepreneur launches are often much better than those run by businesspeople, because they've been tested, vetted, and designed to grow fast.

Another point about entrepreneurs is they're seldom wedded to any business. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are anomolies. They got it right first time. Most entrepreneurs are people like Harland Sanders or Sam Walton. They get it wrong a lot before they ever get it right.

My friend has launched four different businesses over the last decade, in four different industries, all of which he had to learn from the ground-up, through repeated rejection. (I call this the no process.) The point is that he kept plugging away, turning no into opportunity, making another run at each door until it slammed shut in his face, then finding other doors, until he finally broke through. And he's broken through several times now.

Serial entrepreneurs like my friend are a special breed. They often get bored once the business gets going. I think it's because they're wedded to the no process, like fishermen or prospectors. Turning no into yes is a challenge. Hearing yes all the time just doesn't feel right. So entrepreneurial businesspeople are always looking to add new, cutting edge ideas to their lines, constantly risking no, knowing that's the only way to a meaningful yes. And when they can't get that in the business they're in, they leave to start another business.

yes.gif (This happy little guy escaped from a NASA Goddard Space Flight site, believe it or not. Yes, he is driving me crazy. Maybe I'm just an entrepreneur at heart.)

I don't think anyone is taught no in business school. I think most business schools teach people management skills, which only come into play once a business is established. Business schools teach yes processes. They should teach more no.

But my friend taught me an important lesson, even a vital one. Learn how to handle no. Learn to accept it as an answer, but never let it be the final answer. Always try to turn rejection into opportunity. Always stay optimistic. Always believe that yes is around the corner.

It just may be.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business Models | Business Strategy | Economics | e-commerce | marketing | personal


1. Russell Shaw on April 28, 2005 02:44 PM writes...

On the other hand, the pix could be of chef Paul Prudhomme:

But 2B fair, he and Dom do look alike.

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2. Dave H. on April 28, 2005 03:55 PM writes...

Nice piece ... I needed to hear this, as I'm getting a lot of "NO!", lately!

I'll keep slogging though.

Be well,
Dave H.

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3. Brad Hutchings on April 28, 2005 05:55 PM writes...

One of my old college buddies blogged this bit about Burt Rutan (who he interviewed recently) yesterday.

Also this week... I was asked by someone to look into setting up a website to sell software. The idea is pretty simple and the benefits to all who would be involved pretty obvious on first glance. Yet I've been hearing a lot of hesitance from should-be participants. While you want someone to eventually say yes, you have to try to anticipate why they would say no. That is even tougher than dealing with the no's, because it can be pretty self-defeating to try to come up with reasons others would say no to your own idea.

Yes, you have to learn to deal with No.

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4. Floyd Kemske on April 28, 2005 05:57 PM writes...

There's an MBA program in Austin, TX specifically designed to train entrepreneurs, called the Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship. I haven't attended it. I just happen to know about it after writing a profile of it (it is the customer a client). But I know from interviewing some of the faculty that the curriculum includes a project that gives the students plenty of opportunity for rejection. So maybe there's one business school training people for the no process. Their website is here:

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