Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

Steady yourself, those world-changing thoughts are not productive

Written on 13th February, 2011
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Whilst building my latest startup, which I’m glad to say is picking up nicely, there have been times when things have started to go a little crazy. It might be being featured in a big blog, lots of tweets about us in a short space of time, a big influx of signups or a few consecutive people upgrading to a paid plan. When this happens, it is very easy for your thoughts to drift off and to start thinking of the bigger picture possibilities for the startup long into the future. I’ve realised that part of the process of an early stage startup is to steady yourself when those occasions arise, and to stay focused on the immediate tasks such as making sure customers are happy, improving the user experience or working on upcoming features.

Why do we start to “think big”?

I’ve been trying to think about why it is that these thoughts emerge especially at times when some “minor successes” occur. It seems that most of the time, it is a result of a chain of thoughts, each a step further than the previous. Before you know it, you’re thinking about how your startup is going to change the way something is done in a profound way. It often happens when you’re with someone else and neither of you stop the chain of thoughts. It may be healthy to be ambitious, but often these thoughts occupy more time than they should and stop us doing the real work we need to do to get anywhere near to those thoughts becoming reality.

Before conquering the world…

It is easy to look at the success stories of the world and think they started at the top. Let’s try and question that and think how all successful ventures or entrepreneurs started with something small. Facebook started just at Harvard. Google started as something used by just a few at Stanford.

Richard Branson may be trying to bring space travel to the masses with Virgin Galactic, but he started out with a magazine called Student. The spiral of success is what you should focus on - trust that with each achievement you will be more informed and better positioned to tackle the next, slightly bigger challenge. Don’t go for space travel right away. It took Branson 38 years.

My thinking here is reflected by Mark Suster who conveys a similar message very eloquently in his recent post titled Why Entrepreneurs & VCs Should Focus on Basecamp, Not the Summit.

Is it so bad to have ambitious thoughts?

I personally love to think big. It’s something I almost pride myself for - there is a lot I want to do, and I truly believe I will achieve it. I think it can be argued that it is healthy to have ambitious thoughts. Perhaps depending on the type of person you are, you either think big too much or you don’t think big enough. It is those of us who think big too much who need to pay attention to this the most. A certain amount is definitely healthy, but beyond a point it becomes a huge time sink, and could actually stop you reaching your goals.

How to steady yourself and keep moving forward

In the recent months, being able to become aware of when I have these world-changing thoughts and being able to stop them in their tracks before they stop me moving forward has been something I’ve found myself needing to do time and time again. This applies to everything, too - keeping your initial product minimal, going for smaller press before you’ve built up momentum, or even realising you can get started without waiting for perfect conditions.

Working with others can help a lot. I’ve been delighted to have a great pro-active friend join me with my latest venture. However, it is worth noting that if you’re working with someone else, one of you needs to stop those thoughts before they take up a lot of time. Inevitably the discussions start, and they’re fun, but then comes the time to get working again.

In the end though, no one else is going to do it for you - you need to stop thinking about changing the world, and do the nitty-gritty to get one step further. I’ll certainly need to come back to this article to remind myself.

Have you experienced a similar thing? How do you handle it? Is it really a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC

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