Scale or Say No

New York Times Building

There’s a growing symphony of voices from our more well known friends that publicly demands cash for time, whether that be for a call, a lunch or a day. The underlying tone of these statements is anger towards frequent requests for time from their communities. But in reality, this problem should not be pushed back onto the community. Instead, social media “stars” should learn to scale or just say no.

Friends, let me say as another person who is just inundated with requests for free and paid uses of my time, I empathize. But let’s not allow success to become an excuse for the poor-mes or brash statements.

Allowing oneself to feel victimized by success is not really an accurate way to look at things. There are no victims in this, only volunteers. We have blogged, checked-in, and tweeted ourselves into this position, one we wanted from the outset.

Really, these are opportunities, great choices on how to spend our time. Building intelligent systems to scale our work, or to better select the opportunities we really want and say no to the rest is the great entrepreneurial challenge here.

Ways to Mindfully Say No

Teaching one to scale a business takes years of operational and management experience. Book smarts will only get you so far, much less a blog post. However, it is easier to talk about mindfully saying no.

Brash statements about wasting one’s time generally hurt the larger conversation and can violate community trust vested in someone who they thought wanted a relationship. In essence, what may be a statement of frustration or an attempt at a boundary becomes a brick wall.

Now I am not a master at the art of saying no gracefully. I have gotten better over time, and I have learned methods at knowing when to do it. Here are some that I use:


One aspect of building value online is the requests it creates, the source of tension that has inspired this post. These are leads and opportunities, some to help, some to network, some to speak (free and paid), and some for tangible business opportunities.

Like a good salesperson, I qualify time opportunities. How much time does it require? If a lot, where will that time come from? Is this important for my family or community? Will it benefit Zoetica? If it’s at the cost of my personal well being, family or business, I usually say no.

Saying no really means saying no. For example, I am sorry, due to workload we cannot respond to this RFP. Or, I am sorry, I am expecting a baby this fall, and have decided not to travel for the remainder of the year.

People are not necessarily going to be happy about a no. However, again prioritizing time expenditures — my most valuable resource — is crucial. Offering replacements or other suggestions can help, but again, I’ve learned to try to be as polite as possible, and accept that someone may be disappointed.

Setting Expectations in Social Media

I try to set expectations on social networks. When on Facebook or Twitter, if you correspond with me publicly I will respond no matter what. I am not on Twitter during the weekends and most nights, but can be found on Facebook periodically during off hours. In addition, I remain committed to blog four or five times a week.

I have no commitment to be present at any time on my other social networks, intentionally. I show when I can or feel like it. A choice to do well in some social networks versus others.

The remaining time belongs to family and business. Another choice.

Off Social Network Access

Online I do not publish my phone number anymore, this is strictly a client or existing relationship contact method. So this means almost all in-bound opportunities come electronically. I appreciate that there are people who have larger communities than me who respond to almost every email.

I have stopped doing this. In fact, I just started using AwayFind as an autoresponder to all in-bound emails. It’s my intent to set a polite expectation that I won’t respond to every contact. It’s important for me, someone who receives hundreds of emails everyday, to reallocate email response time to actual client work, book writing, and most importantly, family.

My bacon account response (geoffliving [at] for PR people, pitches and social network contacts is set for a daily response. That daily responder says:

“Thanks for contacting me. I’m only able to check email a few times each day. Because of the high frequency of pitches and requests I receive, I am unable to respond to every email. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

My work/client email responds once a month, and swaps out some of the language for a statement that offers a phone number for timely situations.

My friends, I only have my experience in this matter. But let us not cry foul about an overabundance of opportunities to be of service to others – paid or unpaid. Instead, let us be grateful for quality problems, the kind that when approached mindfully yield rewarding personal and/or financial results. Just my $0.02.



  • To be in a position to pick and choose opportunities that are a “best fit” is an immense privilege, and also a notable achievement. Certainly not something to complain about!

  • Indeed, and to complain about it publicly really shows growing pain, or a lack of clarity about our interconnectedness as a community, and one’s role in it. An overdeveloped sense of entitlement, perhaps.

  • Geoff, Thanks for sharing some more of your thoughts. I know the “incident” that likely spurred this post but I have started to see more of this type of complaining occuring more frequently by others, a disturbing trend.

    Honesty is always the best solution. Maybe more painful up front but helps set expectations that everyone can work with going forward.

  • >>An overdeveloped sense of entitlement

    End of story.

    And you’re right. All it takes is a polite way to say no.

    That said, I’ve complained about the way people ask also. Perhaps it’s worth noting there’s a polite way to ask as well.

  • @Kevin: I’d agree that there are individual asks that seem to lack, shall we say, tact. I have complained myself about them in the past. Now I just see them as self qualified pitches or requests that aren’t good for me.

  • As someone who’s work involves asking a lot of busy, important people to do stuff for which they will not be financial payment, I really appreciate a timely, polite “no.”

  • Great post! Good advice. I definitely need to work on these as well – especially the saying no piece.

    The art of saying no can be hard – it is also good to understand what lies behind one’s reasons for saying yes when it should be a no. The “No, given my other responsibilities right now, I can’t take on anything else.”

    Also, taking care ofyourself is not a bad reason to say no either —

  • Beth: As you know, we both struggle with this. Part of it comes from scrapping as bootstraps and fighting to the current position. We feel like we have to take everything on because of where we have been. And in the future, we may have to again. This is no easy thing.

  • Solid advice. Another option…Why not, instead of just saying no, you just pass it along to someone else? I’m sure with networks like yours, and those of the people to whom you’re referring, you know of plenty of people who are smart, and capable, who would appreciate the opportunity.

    “I’d love to help but I’m inundated with work. You should reach out to so-and-so though.”

  • I think someone made the perfect statement on your Facebook profile when we were talking about this the other night, Geoff.

    These are (generally) the same folks that advise to connect with and follow everyone, and to be open and not close doors on your fans/community/followers (delete where applicable).

    Can’t have it both ways. Set the stall out to be “premium” from the off, or manage your scalability better.

  • Great post. Love the idea of a mindful no.

  • Qualifying the prospect and time cost-benefit analysis is critical in any enterprise, no matter its size or its mission.

    I fall under my own bus frequently on the “pick your brain” thing, and am hyper-aware of not expecting anyone else to allow me to use implements on their thinking parts.

    What I particularly like about this post is its “business brain” approach – one that is sorely lacking in social media thought leadership. Givers do gain, but you have to know when, and HOW, to ask for a give-back.

  • Oh wait a minute. I think I’m confused here. When you were talking about “demands on time” the other day – I didn’t realize you were responding to “requests for payment for ‘picking your brain’ requests” inclusive of that.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding that – but given your first paragraph, I don’t think so. (Please let me know?)

    If that is the case? Then I have to say that these are two different issues.

    Let me say quite frankly that I can bring to this discussion literally hundreds of bloggers (especially mom bloggers) who can tell you that the phrase “pick your brain” presages every request or call that really means “get you to work for me for free”. Not necessarily from friends, or even people who have established a legitimate relationship with the person in question – but from those who have at best a tenuous connection via a social platform like Twitter and DM to say “do you mind if I give you a call and pick your brain?”

    What kind of calls are those? “Who would you recommend for this kind of project?” and “Would you mind introducing me to your friends X, Y, and Z and see if they want to be part of my new campaign?” and “I know that you’ve done X – can you tell me how so I can do it?”
    The people behind those calls will very much be presenting the knowledge gleaned from these calls as their own when it comes to their paid jobs or to making their own profit from it.

    These bloggers? Not “social media stars”, In fact… far from it. Most of them are so far down the alphabet that D-list looks like it’s in the stratosphere. That’s why the people who call them get away with saying things like “can I pick your brain” and they don’t feel comfortable saying “no, that’s you asking me to work for free…” because they are afraid that saying No or requesting pay for that will get them blackballed from future opportunities.

    Long before I was a blogger, or the phrase ‘social media’ had been coined even, I responded to my genuine community with “anything I can do to help? Just let me know” and meant it (and still do) and replied to those trying to get me to make them look smart, informed, or connected by pretending to be friendly when they *really* were just trying to use me with “of course, I charge x-rate/hour for that sort of thing.”

    I agree 100% with you on the fact that more people need to learn to say no effectively – but I don’t agree that requesting to be paid for information or expertise is the same thing as whining about being in demand.

  • You are right that this is something that is learned and not necessarily taught in books. And it requires learning to say no, and possibly turning your business into a real business, instead of running it as a self-employed person. And it takes a change of mindset for both of those.

  • So true, Danny and Casey. These requests are a result of our own actions.

    Which brings me to Lucretia. When someone calls you or reaches out to you privately, then you have an absolute right to request for payment. It does not give you license to publicly spray your rates all over the social networks, dropping your rocks on the table in a mannerless brash way, crying foul because you have too many contacts.

    The issue with complaining about the dilemma of any blogger, famous or not, is that you put yourself out there. That was a choice. If that brings requests and inquiries, like it has me and you and thousands of others — that’s a part of the game.

    If it’s that much of a burden, perhaps you should consider ending your social media presence. Or possibly removing email and contact methods from your blog. While everyone knocks Seth Godin, his commentless non present approach seems to resolve a lot of this. Otherwise, grin and bear it.

  • Pingback:Return of the Jots! (…and other PR Blog Jots) « Media Bullseye – A New Media and Communications Magazine

    […] Wah, Wah, Wah – Geoff Livingston – There isn’t much more annoying than publicly complaining about the pitfalls of success.  Case in point, social media “stars” who complain about all the requests they get for their time.  I don’t think anyone should work for free, and I can imagine that getting flooded with emails and not having time to even respond to them all, much less fulfill everyone’s requests would be a somewhat annoying side effect of success. I still can’t muster up much sympathy, and agree wholeheartedly with Geoff: get over it, and figure out how to say no. Because complaining about it on Twitter kind of makes you look like a jerk. Or to quote that 20th century philosopher Chandler Bing, “Oh no! My wallets too small for all my twenties, and my diamond shoes are too tight!” Or, as Geoff puts it: “Allowing oneself to feel victimized by success is not really an accurate way to look at things. There are no victims in this, only volunteers. We have blogged, checked-in, and tweeted ourselves into this position, one we wanted from the outset. Really, these are opportunities, great choices on how to spend our time. Building intelligent systems to scale our work, or to better select the opportunities we really want and say no to the rest is the great entrepreneurial challenge here.” […]

  • Hm. Thanks for the reply Geoff. I’ll think about what you said.
    Personally, I will never take my phone number off of my site.
    Every single call it has ever resulted in is one that I really appreciated having. Even tho some of them were calls that started with “I’m calling you because I can’t find any way to get ahold of person X who is a friend of yours, and s/he needs to be aware of this think that is about to seriously impact his/her life negatively…”

    I agree that spewing isn’t okay. It’s one of those “if you don’t want people to call or email you? Then don’t put it out there” situations.

    I just don’t necessarily think the paid/unpaid thing is the same issue. But I may be wrong.

    Either way – this is such a thought provoking post. Thanks for taking the time to put it out there. :)

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