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How to start small but think big: 5 steps for creating the future

Photo of Aly Juma
by   Aly Juma

It seems like startups are everywhere nowadays. Every individual is working on their own business and are self-appointed CEOs and founders.

There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s great that people are striving to create businesses from the ground up. I fully understand the appeal, being an entrepreneur myself. What we could benefit from is a more mindful approach of what we hope to create from our startup. We should think about how our startup will change the world or create the future, not simply exist.

This is the premise of Peter Thiel’s must-read book Zero to One. In the book, Thiel explains how startups today are aiming too low, only striving for incremental change. They aren’t thinking big enough. They are trying to improve on one, things that already exist.

His argument is that we need to think bigger and pursue ideas that will change the world and shape the future. We need to go from zero to one, from nothing to something. This is where disruptive innovation happens.

We asked for flying cars, we got 140 characters.

This isn’t a slight against Twitter, but rather making a point. We don’t need another social network or another messaging app. What we need are big ideas that disrupt industries, change behaviors, and create new possibilities.

We need to push the envelope.

.  .  .

This sounds all well and good, but how do you go about pursuing disruptive innovation? Startups are in fact in the sweet spot where such innovation can happen. They are the perfect size, not too big for bureaucracy and small enough to experiment, break rules, and make things happen.

So how do you create the future? These 5 steps will lead you there and it all begins by looking forward.

1. Look forward

How else can you create the future, if you don’t think about it. This is a method that is championed by computer scientist Alan Kay, where he pushes you to glimpse into the future and how you expect things to be. Not 5 or 10 years ahead, but 30 years forward.

What do you see? What will change? How will we live? Don’t worry about the details at this point, but just take in the big picture. Don’t question why or how, but get a grasp of the what.

Ask yourself, what can you create that doesn’t exist today? What can you make that has no competitors? What markets are yet to be created? What problems have not been solved?

Then bring this vision back to the present and find the piece of it that you can start working on today. The problem related to this future that also exists today. This is the problem that will drive you.

2. Learn the rules

Now that you have your problem and hopefully a place to start that makes sense, it’s time to learn the basics.

You need to learn the rules of the game you’re playing, so when the time comes, you can change the game, and you can break the rules.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
Pablo Picasso

There is a difference between breaking rules with intent versus with ignorance. Understanding what you are doing matters, especially when it comes to the consequences of those decisions.

3. Start small

The problem is defined and the rules are understood, now you need to start small. Take that single value proposition that you can solve and focus on it 110%.

To truly grow big, you need to first find that foothold, that niche that you dominate. From there you can pursue the bigger picture, but not a moment before.

The funny thing about vision though, is that for startups, it is a moving target. Most startups end up doing something completely different compared to what they set out to do. So don’t let your vision hold you back, just follow the path it paves.

Don’t get too attached to your original plan, because it’s probably wrong. Most successful startups end up doing something different than they originally intended — often so different that it doesn’t even seem like the same company.
Paul Graham

Focus on your core idea and do it 10x or 100x better than anyone else. Disrupt that industry, market, or vertical. Then you can think about what’s next.

4. Think big

What your startup was at the beginning and what it is today are very different. At this point, you pretty much need to reassess where you are and where you can go. Look forward again, think big, and see how you can change the game.

Having a vision is a great driving force and it should always be incubating in the back of your mind, but you shouldn’t be married to it. Let it transform and adapt as your startup does the same.

The key is to have this bigger idea in mind of where you want to go.

5. Become a platform

Once you establish yourself on your core value proposition and find your foothold, it’s time to grow. Your goal should be to go from solving a problem to empowering others to solve the same problem, to create a platform.

This is the larger goal that is born out of successful startups and where they all strive to be. Dominate your market, then empower the market. Become something bigger that changes the game. Something that creates the future.

.  .  .

The world needs startups. They bring change, innovation, and progress. Startups are important. So while they may be difficult and stressful and challenging, they also serve a greater purpose.

It is important that you also think about that purpose when you’re setting out to create something from nothing. Are you trying to add to one or are you trying to achieve it?

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