The Art of Saying No For Business Owners (without losing your sh**)


“I can TOTALLY do that,” I told the client.

I lied.

I was three months into my new business and learning on the fly, to put it mildly. Up until this client, my entire portfolio was made of mock suites created for no one (which is 100% fine and a great way to start. Dig more into that here.) Fate would have it that my first customer would also be my most high maintenance customer to-date. And my inexperience didn’t make the process any easier.

When you first take the plunge into the dicey world of entrepreneurship, there’s a tendency to say yes to every request that lands in your inbox. This is usually fueled by:

  1. Eagerness to make your business boot, scoot n’ boogie
  2. Desire to put something other than ramen on the table
  3. Fear that passing up on work will mean it won’t come your way again

The first two are rad motivators, but the last…now that’s a no no. But we all do it when we’re first starting out, and I could have been the ringleader of this club.

Saying No Out of Fear Does You and Your Business a Disservice

When we say no, it can be terrifying. As a new business owner, you’re likely already dealing with impostor syndrome. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it can be summed up as having thoughts like, “I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT I’M DOING,” or, “I’m a total fraud and they’re going to find out at any minute,” or, “ I’mOneBigFreakinFailureWho’sGoodAtNothing.” Sound familiar? When you suffer from impostor syndrome (like so many of us do at the beginning), saying no can feel like raising the curtain on your big secret. That you’re not cut out for it.

In truth, saying no means quite the opposite. When you realize you’re in over your head, saying no can be the most big-girl, badass professional decision you make all year. It shows wisdom, self-awareness, and confidence.

Maybe you’re sitting behind your computer thinking, “But C-Money, if we always say no, how will we grow?”

Knowing When To Put On Your Big Girl Britches Or Tie Them to A Stick and Wave the Flag of Surrender

Fabulous question. To which I’d answer—it’s all about knowing when to say no, and when to grow. I’m a big believer in baptism by fire. The legendary Amy Poehler says that great people do things before they’re ready. I believe whole heartedly that she’s right. BUT, you’ve got to learn how to look at a situation that will completely sink you and do more harm than good, versus a sitch that will nudge you out of your perfectly fitting skin.

In my example, saying yes really hurt my business. I bit off way more than I could munch, and in the end it left me with an angry client and a potentially damaged image with a wedding planner I really respect and want to maintain a great relationship with. I thought taking the job would put me a step ahead, when instead I jumped about three football fields back.

Spotting the Clients You Should Avoid Like the Plague

The goods news is that the longer you do this, the more you begin to recognize the red flags. To save you time and tension headaches, here are a few questions I’ve learned to ask myself along the way:

-Does this client have unrealistic expectations? Does it seem as if they don’t grasp the reality behind the work I’ll be required to do?

-Can I find the answers I need by doing my research and reaching out to other industry professionals?

-Has this been done before, or am I going to have to completely pioneer it with little resources?

-Does the deadline allow me enough time to do the research/learning it will take to make this job a success?

If you get a resounding “no” to any of those, it may be a good idea to politely turn on your heal and jet. And most importantly, don’t worry. Saying no does not mean that work will never come your way again. Have faith in yourself and what you’re working toward—more work will come. If you’re putting in the hustle to make the dough, the bread will show up eventually. I promise.


Here’s the part where we get it done, honeybun. Down in Cajun country, lagniappe is what we use to say a little something extra. For us, that means crunchable takeaways to reflect on and execute. Set five minutes aside this week to:

  1. Ask yourself if you have a hard time saying no to potentially risky clients and vendors?
  2. Reflect on what is driving your impulse to say yes to clients or jobs you know you shouldn’t.
  3. Mull over any situation where you’ve taken on too much. What were the warning signs?
  4. Figure out how to politely decline potentially high-risk jobs.
Answer: You can start by stealing this: Hi [client name]! Thanks so much for reaching out. First, congrats on your [engagement/new business venture/project]! As grateful as I am that you thought of me, I’m afraid that at this time, my current workload won’t allow for me to take on this particular project. However, I highly recommend [peer], and am happy to pass your information along if you would like.
Thank you again for reaching out,
[Your name]
  1. Make a list of information you need to be able to confidently take any job without batting an eyelash. Maybe you don’t know where to buy wax seals. Maybe you don’t get paper weight. Maybe you don’t know which online printer to trust for price and quality. Make a list.

Then ask me in the comments below. I’m here for you, chère.