Startup general interest

Thinking big and doing stuff properly

By October 22, 2012 9 Comments

I’m just back from an inspiring few days at Dublin Web Summit and then F.ounders, both in Dublin. Many of the conversations and talks there revolved around the importance of having big ambition and of doing quality work. Paddy Cosgrave’s F.ounders and Web Summit are great examples of both. Delivery of high quality conferences characterised by an extraordinary attention to detail have enabled them to grow in three years from nothing to 4,000 people in Dublin last week and conferences around the world, and they have ambitions to go much further.

The notion of big ambition is an interesting one. It’s important but sometimes misunderstood, and occasionally gets in the way of success.

A reminder of the pros. Big ambition should equate to a big opportunity to make a difference to the world and to make a lot of money. That’s exciting and motivating for founders, and makes it easier to enlist support for your mission from investors, new employees and customers and will get you talked about on blogs and at cocktail parties. Powerful stuff.

But big ambition on its own isn’t enough. Without a credible plan to get there it’s just talk. The emperor’s new clothes, if you will. Focusing too much on the big vision and too little on the plan is an increasingly common mistake at startups. Big visions are fun to work with, everybody wants to talk about them, they get you invited to talk at conferences and meet with investors. Working on the plan is harder work. It’s the daily grind of working out the detail of what customers want today and how to sell it to them, it is thinking through the knotty issues that might turn out to be roadblocks. This work is at least as important as the big stuff. The plan will iterate and change as the company develops but unless you have a good one you don’t really know if your big goal is achievable or even if the steps you are taking today are taking you towards it.

So far I might just be talking about good execution, but there is more to it than that. The best companies combine big ambition and a great plan with a commitment to quality. This is what I mean by ‘doing stuff properly’ – it is really getting inside the mind of customers and going the extra mile to really delight. Good examples include Zappos’s legendary customer service, Steve Jobs’s almost maniacal obsession with great product design, and, as many of us were saying in Dublin at the weekend, the way Paddy and his team worked hard to make every element of the F.ounders experience top notch.

I will elaborate a little on F.ounders as I think the idea of bringing an Apple like obsession with detail to a service product is interesting. Much like Apple has worked on every element of the customer experience from retail stores to packaging (with the exception of iTunes…..) everything at F.ounders had been thought through and done well. That started with having a team at the airport who greeted everyone and organised transport into town (the Apple ‘open the box’ experience) and included high quality guests and speakers some of which were unannounced (e.g. Bono), dinners in interesting new places, thoughtful seating plans to make sure everyone met everyone else, and small details like printing a book of photos for all the guests in time for distribution at dinner on the final night.

The final thing I want to say about big ambition is a little counter-intuitive. In today’s fast moving markets it’s often hard to know at the outset just how big your true opportunity is, and the smart play is not to let your investment get too far ahead of your current best guess outcome (note best guess, not best case). Betting too early on a billion dollar outcome and building up a big liquidation preference can turn what would otherwise have been a decent success into a failure.

The trick, of course, is to find the right balances between big vision and focus on execution, between quality and cost/efficiency, and between really going after your dream and getting too far ahead of reality. Signs that you might have got the balance wrong include people being impressed with the detail of what you are doing but not getting excited (not enough ambition) and lots of people getting excited about the vision but poor conversion into employees or customers (plan not strong enough).