Big Startups Have Small Beginnings

tree and sapling

What do Facebook, Twitter, DropBox, Groupon, Airbnb and every other company in the world have in common?

They all started as ideas with no customers, no revenue, and no product.

Yesterday I met with a friend to talk startups over a coffee. He’s currently employed at a great company, and is thinking of taking the leap and starting his own startup. For about an hour we ran through his initial list of product ideas, discussing the opportunities and potential pitfalls of each one, eventually zoning in on a specific idea around the college market. Now that we had pinpointed one of the ideas, I finally asked, “When are you going to start?”. He paused. And winced. I could see he was torn, but after a moment he finally answered, “Not yet… I feel like I need to go all-in to really do this idea justice, but I have to admit I’m scared to take such a huge risk and leave my job.”

His response got me thinking about a myth that exists in the startup community. The myth that you’re not making real progress until you’re working full-time on your startup. I started questioning this line of reasoning, and decided to recap my thoughts in this post.

Start Small To See If You Should Start at All

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.” – John Gall

Did you know the founders of Airbnb started by renting out their own apartment, initially hosting three guests on air mattresses for a design conference in San Francisco? They didn’t start with a huge, grand plan to disrupt the hotel industry. Instead, the plan was to figure out how they could pay their rent for the month, so they hacked together a static web page showcasing their “bed and breakfast”, posted it online, and made $1,000 their first week by hosting three guests. That’s it.

One of the mistakes I see new startup founders make is believing that the only way to start a business or new product is to go all-in. Building something new requires configuring many complex parts, and it’s easy to get discouraged by the sheer amount of work it’ll take to start, especially if you’re working full-time. Most people never even get started, instead choosing to wait until the time is perfect. But that’s the thing with startups and life and the everchanging responsibilities we all have that eat up any free hours we might get to work on a fun new product. The perfect time just never comes.

To finish up my story from earlier, I ended up convincing my friend he should not leave his job yet, and instead start by talking to a few undergrads, maybe even test his idea by offering to mentor a handful of students personally and teach them how to gain work-related experience while still in college. It’s not a glamorous way to start, but by doing things that don’t scale, he’ll learn faster than by building out an entire product based solely on assumptions. From those simple learnings he can start to layer on complexity, eventually evolving a more scalable solution if the initial idea proves to be worth pursuing. Airbnb morphed from three guys renting out blow up mattresses into a multi-billion dollar business through the same evolutionary process.

As humans, I think we all possess an internal desire to build and achieve great things. I’m constantly reminding myself to counterbalance that drive with the realization that all big successes stem from tiny beginnings, and it’s ok to start almost laughably small.

What are some samples of projects that started small for you and eventually grew into a success? What are some other methods you use to get going on a new project? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Thanks to Alex Cook, Nelson Joyce, Josh Porter, Rachel Roizen and Derek Sivers for reading drafts of this.

Photo by the talented varintsai

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