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  • Writer's pictureJohannes Mutzke

Thinking Small to Build Big: The Overlooked Art of Scaling Success from Humble Beginnings

When you see a house, building, or monument you don’t usually think of it in one of its earlier states. For example, a construction project, blueprint, an idea, or, going further back, one of MANY ideas. 

Photo: Casey Allen

The same thing often happens when we look at wildly successful companies – Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, etc. We see them in their “state of success” which often obscures the long, winding journey of small beginnings and trial and error that got them there. Consider Airbnb’s initial business of renting air mattresses


Only seeing companies in their successful state creates a trap for visionaries and innovators. For most of them, it’s easy to think big (the ultimate company), but very hard to think small (the next prototype). This is especially true for those who love “big ideas” or come from mature organizations where most of their daily life deals with things that are already “at scale.”

 

Here are some of some things that might happen when we think too big because we can’t think small enough:

 

  • Prototyping Too Much: when we only see “big” it’s hard to break down our idea into the “next smallest critical assumption” that needs to be tested. This often leads to a failure to prototype “partial ideas” early enough because we only want to show the idea once it’s completely built out and “fully baked” (i.e. big!)

  • Customer Feedback: the above then often leads to discounting or ignoring customer feedback along the way because “they (users) don’t understand the full idea”. This creates blinders that compromise the improvement of the idea because input isn’t heard and incorporated early on (when there's the most flexibility)

  • Resources – “Too big, too fast”: the consequence of all this is that excessive amounts of resources are spent (money & time) building out the idea “to scale”...and most of that effort is wasted. Fundamental changes “at scale” (when cement has been poured) are often impossible or extremely costly and would have been far easier when the idea was still small and moldable.

 

The following quote from Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) is a great summary and challenge if you're innovating: “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

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