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The Benefits of Thinking Small (2010) (eladgil.com)
124 points by allenleein 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments





I wonder why so much of the business writing suffers from survivorship bias type writing - what wrong lessons are we all drawing every day because of that. The esp dangerous ones are probably the ones that sound right but are wrong.

I am a big fan of startups, those who build and innovate. I even like the strategic advice that VCs/ex-founders give about building a business.

However, any writing of the style: "Facebook, Google, Zynga, Twitter did [x] when they were small -> So you must do [x]" doesn't resonate strongly with me. It has this underlying promise of 'if you did [x] you will become Facebook' - which ignores a vast multitude of other factors that went into making an FB. It is worth thinking much harder about how much of [x] is actually right on a strictly case-by-case basis -- depending on what one is trying to build, the problem one is trying to solve and for who.

Sometimes one has to take a different approach and build several features/product bundles in order to sell.

One approach probably is to find some overriding truths that are close to being immutable: such as,

1) make something people want (I haven't seen a counterexample to this yet)

2) nothing happens until somebody sells something (This puts focus sharply on building what will sell)

3) articulating 'why now' to the best available clarity is important in my view (even if to explain why a bigger scope may be needed now than in the past - e.g. if one has to build an HR system today, they would probably need to build a payroll integration as a feature; this wasn't true before 2013-14)

The problem of course with these that they sound super generic that they cease to be of value after a point.


I always say that there's a difference between "because of" and "in spite of".

I remember a hamburger restaurant that opened up. It had very good hamburgers and was very popular. The staff were always singing. It was a singing hamburger restaurant. About a year after it opened, I noticed a lot of other singing hamburger restaurants opening up. They all failed miserably -- mostly because their hamburgers weren't very good. After about 2 or 3 years the popular hamburger restaurant folded. They still had really good hamburgers, but the singing was really annoying and eventually nobody wanted to go there any more.

Interestingly, around the same time I heard of other singing hamburger restaurants in other cities. I always wondered if it was some horrible cargo cult fad, or if it was just a coincidence.


Such a great comment. I will use this hamburger example from now on to make the point I was trying to make! :)

This type of thinking is everywhere. “X did Y and succeeded, so I should do Y.” It’s why lots of startup founders wear the same outfit every day, why Trump’s Republican opponents tried calling him names, why people buy Michael Jordan branded basketball shoes.

Yes this annoys me. It’s even worse when X does Y long after they became successful and everyone starts saying they need to do Y to succeed. Well Y wasn’t what made X successful!! I believe that kind of thing is just touted by consultants in Y to make Y seem with paying for. (Eg whatever the latest Agile incarnation might be).

I for one often miss the focused, relatively small companies that are good enough to later become something bigger.

Facebook was really fun back when it was all about your profile, your friends list, and posting on other people’s walls (this was before News Feed). Communication on it was more personal and not at all about self-broadcasting or gaining an audience.


I am a fan of the book 'start small, stay small' ( https://amzn.to/2JcmFnp ) , but at this point it's a bit dated. Has anyone written anything similar that's a bit more relevant in 2018?

For most of us, success is likely to be via something smaller rather than shooting for the moon with some VC-fueled rocket.


maybe the books from the founders of Basecamp, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson? Not sure if they're more recent, and also reeks a bit of survivorship bias, but what book doesn't.

What was so good about start small, stay small is that it's so concrete - that's also why it's a bit dated. The 37 signals guys tend more towards handwaviness.

Can't believe they left Apple (well, ok, Woz) out of that 'started small' list. Not to mention Hewlett and Packard. Or Emile Berliner.

Related: Dave Packard's 11 simple rules. (for human relations) (1958) https://web.archive.org/web/20080517004825/http://www.hp.com...


I totally disagree that Google's success is due to 'thinking small' their success is because they understand that to boil a frog you have to increase the temperature slowly: first build a useful service without ads (which were really painful with slow modems) then when you have 'killed' all your competitors start adding a few ads then increase the number of ads..

Absolutely!

This is how google "evolved":

1. You can put ads on your site just make sure they look totally different from your content, just like we do on google.com. Their ads where on the right-side only.

2. Then they put ads on the top of the search results but they said: "yeah... but the background is totally different so there is not problem". They used a yellow background.

3. Now most people don't realize that top results are ads. All of them.




randop, are you saying we're....both...right...??!

Otherwise known as feature creep. Start with making one thing better than anyone else has done. You're not going to be another Facebook, they've already have a ten year head start.

On the other hand, it might be easy to beat Facebook -- they have 10 years momentum locking them in to a particular course. But the key is that you won't beat Facebook by building the exact same thing that Facebook is building. You have to build something more focused. You have to throw away all the cruft that they've built up over 10 years and identify the core value.

There were impossible to beat spread sheets before Excel, impossible to beat word processor before Word, impossible to beat drawing programs before Illustrator (er... I don't know if that's actually the popular thing right now...) Those loosing applications were loosing customers well before feature parity in their rivals.

That's really the secret in competing against the established competition: don't build the parts of their app that suck, and spend a lot more time perfecting the parts that are great than the behemoth can justify. Work with the rifle like precision of a team of 10, rather than the shotgun like vagueness of a team of 1000. Know what's important, what's not and concentrate on execution.


This certainly isn't "otherwise known as feature creep", and you don't necessarily need to do one thing better than anyone else has done. All you need to do is find an opportunity, and grow from there.

The point he is making is not that you will be the next facebook, but that if you start with a small, possibly non scalable idea that works, who knows what it could turn into. And maybe its better to do this than to try to penetrate the market with big picture bullshit.


So basically not building a ton of features, and sticking to something small? All cleared up!

Does this article try to convey that keep your expectations to minimal when you start with something. Feel content when your product/ service met your expectations and then gradually build your expectations? Because anything that hurts most is our own expectations to begin with. Else, everyone else starts with vision statement of making next Facebook or Google!

The author forgets many counterexamples like Amazon.

Amazon is not a clear counter example to this. Originally Amazon was simply an online bookstore.

> Originally Amazon was simply an online bookstore.

If you followed Amazon history you can clearly see diversification was at their core. Amazon was founded in 1994 and they started to acquire other companies sooner than later [1]. For example, IMDB (movies, not books) was acquired in 1998.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mergers_and_acquisitio...


Jeff Bezos certainly wasn't thinking small. We wouldn't know if he chose to start with books or if was he only thinking of selling books, but he chose books because there was a great demand for it worldwide, they were cheap and there was a great deal of inventory available.

Definitely not small.


He chose books because they exploit the structural advantage of the internet maximally: infinite shelf space for the entirety of published selection, something that would be impossible in a physical store.

I think this advice to 'think small' could be refined to include 'find a small edge, then relentlessly exploit it'.


TLDR: scratch your own itch

Or at least scratch someone's itch. Preferably an unscratched one. In the simplest, most convenient possible way.

Stop scratching my itch

it's possible to not find commercial success if only you have that itch, or if the person that has the itch is not able to make money by scratching it (so they have no money to pay you).

The big ones are mostly state sponsored companies. Facebook and Google became huge because they got a lot of money from state agencies. Mostly indirect via front-companies.

With that they could dominate the market with good servers and pay for good programmers. With that they deliver a very good service "for free", while others could hardly get any money.

They also get some money for clicks and advertising, and also have started dominating the advertising market. But the big money is the hidden support from agencies of the government(s).


I think the money of Facebook mostly comes from ads. I understand that their knowledge about citizen could be valuable for governments and therefore could be part of how they make money. Now, can you prove what you are saying, or is it just a credible but proof-less conspiracy theory?

your post would be more meaningful if you'd actually provide some evidence for those claims.



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