Never Say No

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces. 

When I first announced that I was going to try the dangerous (yet exciting and potentially lucrative) world of entrepreneurial self employment, a friend who had long tread this path gave me some sage advice: “Never say no,” he told me.

What he meant, I assume, is that a private consultant or contractor cannot afford to plant any seeds of doubt within the minds of actual or potential clients. So when someone comes to me and says, “Do you know anything about so-and-so,” and I really know very little about the topic, it behooves me to couch my response in such a way that I nonetheless project a degree of confidence or even some marginally related expertise. In short, I may not know the topic well, but I have the intelligence and capability to learn about it in a very short period of time.

It’s important, though, never to lie or misrepresent oneself. It is possible to admit to shortcomings while nonetheless proceeding with the acquisition of relevant skills and expertise.

A couple of weeks ago, I agreed to give a lecture on bioterrorism in a political science class at the University of Florida. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to give authoritative input on this topic. I was living in Washington, DC, around the time of 9/11, after all, and media types were all in a flurry trying to find anyone who could spell anthrax correctly, let alone discuss its weaponizability with a degree of lucidity.

The problem is that I am not an expert on bioterrorism. I have never worked in the field, nor have I ever had anything to do with the military or national security, though I’ve written a couple of articles cursorily about the topic. (For the curious, those articles can be found at and

But a consultant who is flexible and creative can mine his own stores of experiences to find places where his true areas of expertise overlap with those of the topic in question. In my case, there was a clear common ground between bioterrorism and epidemiology; they both have to do with health risks to large populations!

As a result, I was able to both guide my media connections in Washington, DC, and the class in Florida fairly authoritative input into this complex and volatile topic. The lesson? Not so much that one should “never sat no”, but rather that we each have within us skills and expertise that may be more relevant to a client’s need than we may at first suspect.