Most entrepreneurs who start their own business have a grand vision of what their business will become. That dream drives entrepreneurship and pushes the founders to give up everything and make huge sacrifices to start their own business.
However, most companies that start out with a big vision rarely live up to it. The most notable companies in the world are often “accidental companies” that started out simply doing something better than what was currently available and often didn’t know their own potential. The companies that focused on modest improvements to their customer experience became huge, and those that tried to deliver on a grand vision melted away.
Part of the startup DNA dictates that only if you make a big dream can you change the world. You are told to have big, hairy, bold goals and lofty vision. But thinking big in the start-up phase creates a temptation to make plans that look good on paper and rarely deliver on promises. The worst part is that the most promising ideas, which often seem small but deliver real customer value, are ignored and pushed aside in favor of big plans that go nowhere.
Transformational companies don’t start with a big vision:
Companies and innovations that have revolutionized our lives rarely started with a big vision. They just did something better.
Google started as an academic experiment by two PhD students to understand how web pages are connected and to develop a better index for the web. The idea was that you could determine the importance or rank of a website by looking at how many web pages link to it and how many web pages link to each of them.
Initially, this was not even a commercial initiative. Building the world’s leading search engine and one of the most valuable companies in the world was far from anyone’s imagination. Search results were simply a by-product of the index they created. When Google’s founders realized their search results were superior to other search engines, they were willing to sell their company for less than a million dollars to Excite, one of the leading search engines of the time. However, Excite refused.
As we now know, Google became very big. The “big” didn’t happen by executing a grand plan, but simply by improving the user experience. In other words, it made for a big one Experience Delta or the difference between the current experience and the new one. The business model (based on ad revenue) that has created more than a trillion dollars in market value wasn’t part of the startup’s grand vision, but as the company increased its value to society, society figured out a way to make it reward company.
Likewise, the printing press was developed simply as a way to ease the tedious process of printing. The huge success of the printing press was the longest of all long shots. If the idea had been presented to a venture capital fund, it would have been laughed out of the conference room. Who would invest in a product that facilitates book printing if most of the population cannot read? The total addressable market was virtually zero and would remain non-existent for years to come, because that’s what people need to become literate. But this invention boosted literacy and transferred power from the elite to the wider populace, making it one of the most influential creations of all time.
Uber started with three cars to provide a better service than a taxi, not to become a verb for the “uberization” of every industry. Or when a few roommates felt the pain of the high rent on their San Francisco loft, they decided to sublet their living room and offer an air mattress and homemade breakfast. Three visitors to a nearby conference accepted their offer and Airbnb (originally known as airbedandbreakfast) was born. There was no grand vision to create the largest home sharing network.
If you’re an aspiring founder, remember that most great opportunities come as something very small. The key is learning to recognize how each opportunity changes experiences and then building products that deliver a better experience. Once you do this, even on a small scale, chances are you’ll find the right opportunities that grow into the big game changers you’re looking for.