The Habits of Successful People: They Start Small

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handsThe other day I was listening to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and and I found it amazing how this book, which has now sold over 15 million copies, originally started:

“I prepared a short talk. I called it ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ I say ‘short.’ It was short in the beginning, but it soon expanded to a lecture that consumed one hour and thirty minutes.”

After giving this talk for some time, Carnegie found that the attendees started discussing their experiences and some “rules” emerged. Eventually the talk became a course, and there was a need for a textbook of sorts. Here’s how the now famous book became a reality:

“We started with a set of rules printed on a card no larger than a postcard. The next season we printed a larger card, then a leaflet, then a series of booklets, each one expanding in size and scope. After fifteen years of experimentation and research came this book.”

I found that absolutely fascinating – the book came out of a short talk and a few notes on a postcard-sized piece of card. Interestingly, I think a lot of the really big successes start like this.

The dangers of “big”

The challenge for a lot of us is that when we go about our lives, we interact with so many “big” things and we forget or don’t even know how they originally started. It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today. We also all have big aspirations and want to get there fast.

I’ve personally made the mistake of trying to jump to “big” too soon many times before: the goal of my previous startup was to kill the business card, and we struggled to execute effectively on a much smaller scale. I think there are probably countless other examples out there where founders try to have an immediately huge vision.

Great things start small

What I’m starting to notice more and more, is that great things almost always start small. Most of us know that Richard Branson started the Virgin brand with a student magazine, but Virgin is just one of many examples which shows that the reality is counterintuitive: actually, the best things we know and love started as tiny things.

I’ve found that if I look into my own life, I find similarly that some of the most important achievements I’ve made started as little projects. Buffer itself is a great example: it started as a two-page website, and the short blog post describing this process has turned into a talk I’ve given more than 30 times.

Make it smaller: you’re more likely to succeed

One of my most interesting realizations from this thinking and from seeing many examples is that we probably should think and execute on a smaller level. If we do this, we’re more likely to succeed. I wrote about this previously, in the context of not trying to change the world right away. I was pleasantly surprised when Paul Graham wrote a comment in the discussion on my recent article which suggested similar:

“Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.”

Start everything with an MVP

I think Eric Ries really nailed this concept with his notion of the Minimum Viable Product. The great thing is, we see that even historical successes like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, started as just a short talk and a few notes on a small piece of card. That was the MVP, and it was a perfect way to start. And if the content in this smaller form hadn’t resonated with people, my guess is that the book wouldn’t even exist.

I believe that we could and should start to think about everything beginning as an MVP, starting much smaller than we might currently think about it. Andrew Chen has a great example: decide what blog posts to write based on Tweeting the potential headline. I think there are countless other opportunities for this too, in all areas of life.

Have you thought about the relationship of big thinking to success? Did something work out better when you started smaller? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

This is the 9th article in our series with advice on building a business, company culture and life-hacking from Joel, CEO here at Buffer. You can grab all posts here.

Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’

  • http://www.calebstorkey.com/ Caleb Storkey

    Love this Joel. Simple and sweet! The beauty in enjoying what is small, more often than not leads to discovering those sweet spots that are found in the quiet place. Humble beginnings allow for stronger foundations, which give greater space for wiser decisions. And where a year here or a year there can be lost in diving head deep into a start up, wiser decisions aren’t to be under-estimated. They save those years. Perhaps there’s merit in embracing being small until you have no option but to grow big. Love Buffer- and pleased to see your ongoing rise as a team!

  • Diego Palmeiro

    It’s great to read this! I recently wrote something similar on http://smalltimeentrepreneur.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/just-get-started-already-with-little-steps/ which was my first post ever and helped me start my blog. I’m happy to see your story of starting small and other examples I didn’t know about. You’re a huge source of inspiration so thanks for sharing!

  • Sandy

    This makes so much sense, Joel and small projects are so much easier to achieve.

  • http://www.madalynsklar.com Madalyn Sklar

    Such a great article, Joel! I started my GoGirlsMusic.com community over 18 years ago as a small idea to bring female musicians together. This was back when the internet was new. I saw it as a way to bring people together. It grew steadily over the years and now we are an amazing, large community of like-minded musicians. There’s no competition among the artists. We have the, “we are all in this together” mentality. Reading your article made me reminisce on how my little idea grew into something awesome.

  • Kamil Barbarski

    Nice article about starting small. I agree completely with the MVP approach and reachable goals in the short term. But what about a powerful vision in the long term? A friend of mine wrote this article (http://buff.ly/1lJ6kIw) which sais that starting small is right but a big and strong vision makes you achieve big things. It’s also a common success philiosophy that if you thing big you get further, maybe you don’t achieve the full goal, but you come closer to then with a small vision.

    • Saadeddin Ishtaiwi

      Fantastic post Joel, and great comment from Kamil,
      I believe in Starting small with big clear vision

  • Andrew McClelland

    I liked the article, Joel. There seem to be so many examples of concepts blossoming when they start out as a passion -someone just doing what they are interested in. It’s fascinating that so many scientific breakthroughs have come from mistakes or accidents. I also think it’s interesting to consider the difference between inspiring ideas (the big vision picture that a few here have spoken about), versus grandiosity. Pretty much everything I’ve done that has been successful has come from small steps, with no particular end-goal in mind, other than to do it well, and enjoy the ride. I like the concept of ‘get the foundations right, and the structure will likely be a lot more robust’. On the Carnegie book start, I used to run short courses with adults and teenagers, and over a 10 year period, I generated hundreds of handouts and developed many tools for change and growth. I was looking at the BIG folder one day, and thought “that’s a book sitting there”. Plans are under way. :)

  • http://www.mwills.com.au Michael Wills

    Great post Joel. I almost need the core philosophy of this approach plastered up around the place to keep it front of mind. I tend to get too ahead of myself and think “it needs to be at least thissss big”, which can often overwhelm.

  • http://www.digitalfanclubs.com Digital Fan Clubs

    My new company is so lean, and as such, so much more focused than my last startup. It started with a very simple idea – taking the old fashioned idea of the fan club and making it digital, mobile. It was an idea born out of my last, much bigger and heavily funded startup. I like the freedom of being lean. But one thing I’ve noticed is that there is a point when lean can be too lean. Telling investors you can get to cash flow very quickly, that there are no employees, that it is immensely scalable and that it doesn’t require much investment – doesn’t sound as sexy as I would have thought. And I can’t tell if I have become addicted to lean and forget how to think huge. Lean sounds so good, but the transition from MVP and first customers to fully operational is a bigger leap that I would have thought. It’s almost as if investors love the idea, but only respect the dropboxes of the world. Maybe it’s because I’m in Europe with a very conservative investment ecosystem. Maybe if I was back home in Silicon Valley it would be different. Any thoughts?

  • http://newinternetorder.com Azalea Pena

    Hello Joel, this article resonates with me because I was always a believer in starting small. At first, I thought it was more about the smaller risk involved as opposed to always going big. I’m someone who tends to err on the side of caution so I always start things small in whatever I do. And through experience, it paid off for me well. But looking back now, I think the secret to the success of starting small is that you are able to look into every single details with attention and from that, grow the project or business better.

  • Aaryan

    An Awesum Post!!!!!!! Thanks Joel. :D

  • http://nichediver.com/ Brandi Young

    Thanks for the reminder to start small. This is such a hard thing for me. As a developer a great deal of my value comes from being able to design and build all-encompassing systems for my clients so I tend to think on those terms. When it comes to my own projects I have to force myself to break them up into smaller (releasable) chunks. When I don’t they never see the light of day.

  • Rakesh Pandey

    Good idea.

  • http://www.top-soccer.com/ Ricky Douglas

    Hi Joel,

    This is a really well written article. I believe everyone who has read this
    (including me) and the ones to come will definitely take away some valuable lesson from this piece. Your article just gave the extra boost I need to work harder and stick behind my vision for my site sportingentrepreneur.com

    Thanks you very much for sharing!

    -Ricky