You’ve heard the adage that the best leaders frequently say, “no.” But it’s one thing to hear the advice and another to experience it. I didn’t believe in the power of that phrase until I actually started saying “no” with intention. As a result, I watched my revenue grow threefold while clocking half the hours and enjoying my work far more than before.
I also think that advice needs a caveat: Saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way isn’t always a bad approach. Especially when I was transitioning from working in-house to starting my own marketing consultancy, The Lane Collective, saying “yes” to new projects and people was a learning opportunity, helping me suss out the work I really wanted to do. Plus, it was a confidence boost to prove to myself that I could get a full roster of clients.
But about nine months in, I realized that defaulting to “yes” was no longer serving me. I was constantly task-switching and bandwidth constrained. It seemed like no matter how much I hustled, my revenue seemed to stay the same. My work was suffering—and so was my personal life. I was so burnt out that I was considering quitting this independent career altogether, even though I loved the work.
After deep reflection, I realized that it was time to reorient myself in relation to my work. Naturally, my goal was a thriving marketing business—but “thriving” began to take on a more well-rounded meaning. I wanted my work to enable a more full life, one with more room for hobbies, and more mental and emotional space for loved ones. After all, I believe that my work’s purpose should enhance my broader purpose, not become it. I decided that if I was going to do the work, it had to work for me, too.
That meant things needed to change
A wise independent consultant once told me, “the things that get you to your first $100,000 are the same things that will hold you back from your next.” If saying “yes” is what allowed me to get my business going, saying “no” is what helped me grow to new heights. Here are some things I started saying “no” to and the measurable effect this shift had on my business success and my personal wellbeing.
I Said “No” to Certain Types of Clients
Something had to give, and I realized I needed more room to focus on specific, aligned engagements. That meant letting go of some amazing clients who just weren’t going to be a fit for the future of my business. I started culling my client roster, and I mean seriously culling: I let go of 70-80 percent of the clients I was working with at that time.
I wanted to focus on tech-enabled startups at the earliest stages who were ready to grow. I had about 10-15 clients at the time, and less than a third matched that profile. So, I did the scary thing and let go of all the rest. That meant parting ways with clients I really liked. It also, of course, meant turning away a lot of revenue.
They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but that was simply not the case for me. Working with wonderful yet unaligned clients meant that I couldn’t attract those who were a better fit. Letting them go opened up that space, and, amazingly, the “right fit” clients found me pretty quickly afterward.
Reducing my client load also opened up time to strategically think about the kind of business I wanted instead of getting buried in the day-to-day tasks. I built an inbound process so I could better judge whether new potential clients would be the right fit, and I still turn down about 90 percent of inquiries to this day.
But the clients I have are those I feel lucky to work with every single day, which has made a phenomenal increase in the amount of mental space and enthusiasm I have for the work.
Being a #startup #founder is incredibly difficult, partly because when you’re building one company, you’re actually building two: the one you have, and the one you want 💥
— kinsey wolf (@kinsey_wolf) May 27, 2022
I Said “No” to Tasks Outside of My “Zone of Genius”
I also began saying “no” to certain types of tasks within my client contracts.
As is common for many marketing consultants, especially early-on, I was doing a little bit of everything: social media strategy, content strategy, content writing, and even helping out with paid media when a client was in a pinch.
And while I could do all of these things, it wasn’t the most efficient use of my time, or how I could provide the maximum value for my clients. Plus, it often wasn’t the most energizing work for me to do.
My superpower is translating an idea into action, so I decided to focus on fractional CMO work. I shifted from being a one-woman show to the “collective” model I have today. Now, when a client needs full-stack marketing support, I have a network of marketing experts I can introduce them to.
Strategists tend to be expensive executors. It’s far more valuable to my clients to work with expert partners when necessary, and more junior people for execution as applicable. Plus, focusing my services has allowed me to continue to build my expertise in that area, so that I can provide more value to clients and raise my rates.
Perhaps most importantly, spending more time on the tasks I love most has dramatically improved my energy and enthusiasm—I can’t remember the last time I dreaded my work.
Great advice I got early on in starting my business: you don’t need to worry about making money. That will come. Focus on being ruthless about where you spend your time and energy.
— kinsey wolf (@kinsey_wolf) March 29, 2022
I Said “No” to Charging By the Hour
Around this time, I began researching different pricing models for independent contractors or freelancers. One idea really stood out: value-based pricing. The idea, in a nutshell, is that you price your services based on the value you’re creating for your clients. Like most consultants, my value is my expertise, not my time.
Moving away from hourly contracts was the most difficult, but also one of the best changes I made. I was terrified. Charging by the hour felt safe. But like so many things that feel safe, it was also limiting.
I shifted my contracts to a project-based approach, focused on deliverables and results instead of hours worked. I was able to grow my income by focusing on high-value deliverables; these are the ones that are the most aligned with my zone of genius, and most critical to my clients. I found that my clients grew to prefer this approach, too. It’s measurable, predictable, and quality-driven in a way that hourly contracts simply can’t be. Win-win!
I’ve found that not only do clients like the ease of project-based agreements, they also like the value-add. I’m on their team in a way that an hourly contractor can’t be, because I’m motivated by results just like they are. Almost every client has asked to grow the contract, even without my needing to pitch anything.
I Said “No” to Burning Myself Out
Due to the state of my wellbeing when I started this process, I had the intention of working half the time and making double the money, which frankly felt impossible. But I was burned out, working 60+ hours a week, and giving too much of myself to too many clients in a way that was draining my love for the work.
Miraculously, saying “no” more helped me achieve that goal, and then some. I now work about 25-30 hours a week and am making close to three times the revenue. I have four or five anchor clients at a time, plus capacity for one or two strategic sprints per month with new clients. Sometimes I fill those slots, and sometimes I don’t so I have more time to, say, go on vacation and actually unplug (another goal that once felt impossible).
Giving time back to myself has ultimately helped my business grow, too. I have a friend who always says, “When you work for yourself, you are your own business.” That means taking care of your own needs isn’t just “self care,” it’s what allows you to show up as your best self in your work.
When you say “no” to one thing, you’re saying “yes” to something else. For me, saying “yes” to a more fulfilled life and career required saying some difficult “nos” along the way. Was it worth it? Absolutely. In the end, saying “no” was freeing for me, allowing me to commit my energy to things that have the greatest impact in and out of work.