Think Small Win Big

There’s another way to create the next really big thing, think small.

Many of today’s digital innovations didn’t start as “category killers” –disruptive innovations that radically changed a landscape resulting in enormous wealth creation and recognition for its creators. Rather, they emerged from the starting line as “category thrillers” – innovations that delighted customers, partners, investors, and even friends and family within a category, and grew from there resulting in both bank credit and screen credit – enormous wealth creation and recognition for its creators.

In fact, it may be far easier to take the category thriller path to innovative success rather than hoping for a jackpot with your vision of the huge category killer. For an individual or a team who is currently charged with pressing the digital envelope, there are some pivotal ways that thinking small can win you big:


  • Ride the horse in the direction it’s running.

    Look at what’s working, e.g., what’s giving value to customers. Now, make it better. This “iteration approach” clearly identifies what customers already like, allowing you to ride that momentum to success. Friendster, inevitably paved the way for MySpace, which inevitably paved the way for Facebook. Those iterations became opportunity horizons for those founders as they addressed improvements that were made visible by their predecessors.

  • Where’s the pain?

    Look at what’s out there that’s frustrating customers and fix it. This “solve a problem” approach was the seed that turned into a pearl, creating YouTube. Founder Chad Hurley shared with me that YouTube was created because Chad had the “irritant” that he couldn’t quickly and easily upload videos of a party he wanted to share with family and friends. Not only did Chad and his partner, Steve Chen, thrill folks like themselves by solving this problem, but the founders must have been mighty thrilled with that “irritant” becoming the pearl which Google acquired for $1.6 billion.

  • Who needs this? You will!

    This approach creates a core market of passionate users, thrilling them with a particular innovation. Despite the naysayers and the lack of initial financial success, the mission and the madness of the founders persevere, continuing to kindle these early evangelizers by letting them advocate the benefit of their experience. Twitter for example, never existed. There was no perceived need for it. Vocal naysayers claimed no one would want to communicate in just 140 characters. This economy and elegance gestated from a tiny market to become a unique and powerful voice for social intercourse and business success. (Twitter’s estimated value is between $8-$10 billion – not bad for a “no market” result.)

  • If it ain’t broke, break it yourself!

    Instead of venerating the past, challenge your own incumbency. Because if you don’t, someone else will. Amazon decided to cannibalize its formidable hard and soft cover book business by supporting an enterprise directly competitive to it, selling digital books. They saw their principle investment not in ink and paper, but rather in connecting authors and audiences in an ever more efficient and compelling manner.

  • Look left and right before you cross.

    That rule that your parents taught you applies to digital innovations, too. Where are the adjacent markets and is there opportunity there? This “find the white space approach” has generated new opportunities for businesses like Apple who seemingly had exhausted their product innovations. By deciding to move into the “white space” of a retail environment, Apple expanded its offerings while providing everything Apple stood for: its products, a shopping experience, free workshops and tech support at their famous Genius Bars. Ingenious indeed!

As they say, size matters. But, bigger isn’t always better!

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