This piece is part of a thought-curated series on innovation and collaboration in New York City written by a community of visionaries who are interested in generating lasting economy and social change.
Scaling fast and big is a romantic construct the media loves to propagate for entrepreneurs. We’ve grown up idolizing and celebrating fast-track company founders, such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Hollywood crowned Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook with a movie. The conventional notion makes for good narrative hooks, but that’s about it.
“A key difference between the ‘SDE approach’ to entrepreneurship and the ‘systems/people’ approach is the way you scale your talent or passion. Rather than scaling vertically and building a company with systems, levels and people around you to do the jobs you don’t want to do or are just plain bad at, you scale vertically and look for ways to keep the “business” as small and simple as possible.
“You get hyper-creative and work, instead, to leverage your assets and passion in a way that allows for a substantial bottom line income, but with far less stress and complexity than what normally comes with even a well-executed systems and people driven company.”
Staying small doesn’t mean thinking small. We often glorify big at the expense of our personal happiness. Here’s the truth: You don’t have to be a startup valued in the millions, be a guest on Oprah, or win book deals to earn the title of being a successful entrepreneur. If you don’t want to be a Wal-Mart, or have a wild-eyed need to be the next blockbuster, that’s OK. Not wanting to grow is all right. As a company, it’s important to pause and consider the trade-offs before expanding.
So, what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur while staying a manageable size? Rather than trying to focus on a single big payday or aiming for “big bang” entrepreneurship, focus on the question of how to live the way you want to live now, while running your company.
And focus on the long term.
Stay stubborn on vision, flexible on details. In an interview with Wired magazine, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about the importance of a long term mindset:
“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details.”
Journalist and blogger Venkatesh Rao calls this Amazon’s “game mind”, a form of long term thinking that allowed the company to hone its competitive edge. It’s something worth adopting for startups, too. Don’t build your company around a single product, marketing or sales strategy, but look out to the horizon, “detached from the specifics of business as it exists today.” According to Rao, if you can “look at your own roaring rivers of cash today with a dispassionate eye, not get attached to the great things you’ve built or achieved, and clinically ask yourself, what’s the next game?, you’ve got a game-mind.”
Next: Be a Tortoise, Not the Hare
Genevieve DeGuzman is the co-founder and managing editor of Night Owls Press, a San Francisco-based company that provides creative independent publishing and editorial services for small businesses and organizations. Night Owls Press publishes works on business innovation, social entrepreneurship, the collaborative economy, D-I-Y culture, and education.