Think big


In Founder’s Dilemmas, we had a panel of entrepreneurs come into class to give us general career advice as aspiring entrepreneurs. Tony Tjan was one of the panelists, and he said something that stuck in my mind. To paraphrase his words: “Go for the big idea. It’s the only way to make the rollercoaster ride that is starting a new venture worth it. Don’t riff on other people’s ideas- don’t tell me you’re making the Instagram of X industry. Make the next Instagram.”

This quote stayed with me because like any MBA that reads TechCrunch on a regular basis, I’ve had ideas for startups. And, to be honest, most of them sucked. I just had to do some thinking and analysis to understand that they sucked. Thus far, my ideas have mostly been two-sided markets in small to medium sized industries. The limited market size wasn’t what made my ideas bad, but I was aware that even if they worked, they wouldn’t have a hugely significant impact on the world. They might have solved some inefficiencies, or created value for a portion of the population, but they wouldn’t have been game-changers. I doubt I could have raised any funding for them.

Maybe I’ve been thinking too small; it’s simply easier for me to think of potential solutions to smaller problems than it is for big ones. But, from what I saw at the business model exercise we had in the hives, maybe we’re all thinking small. The pitches I saw seemed to be riffs on existing business models or established platforms; everything I saw struck me as a small to medium sized play. Nothing seemed revolutionary, or like a twist on an existing concept that made complete sense and gave me that “aha!” moment. Like my own startup ideas, I thought they were small in their overall potential for scale and impact.
That said, in defense of my startup ideas and those that I saw in the business model exercise, one part of me does think it’s really hard to tell how big your idea really could be. For example, to go back to Tony’s quote, did Instagram ever think it would become a one billion dollar business? Would Tony have invested in them? Seriously, who knew a non-monetized community based around posting “artsy” photo filters could be worth so much? And did Brian Chesky and his co-founders ever think that air mattresses on the floor would become a global, billion-dollar or more operation? I wouldn’t have thought so. Fred Wilson didn’t.

Why is it so hard to come up with BIG ideas? As Harvard MBA’s, shouldn’t we be the ideal people to have the vision needed to come up with revolutionary products and services? Or are we so general management focused that we lack the domain expertise needed to see potentially huge opportunities? Lack of domain expertise didn’t stop the Plastiq founders from coming up with a big idea, and I hope that it won’t stop any of us either.


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