When I moved out to Los Angeles after college, I thought it would be fun to set an audacious goal for myself. So I figured what better activity to pursue in sunny California than the great game of golf. I had some extremely rudimentary skills (“skills” would be a stretch), having taken an introductory golf course in college (tuition well spent), but I would generally average a triple bogey over 18 holes. For those of you who don’t speak golf, that’s not good. Heck, that’s not even good enough to be called bad. Pathetic would be more apropos. Not knowing any better, I figured why not shoot for the stars, so I set my sights on becoming a scratch golfer within two years (that’s the very high end of the amateur scale). I realized this would take an enormous amount of time and effort on my part and I was prepared to make the sacrifice. So I enthusiastically signed up with a highly rated instructor and set off on my journey.
Try as I might, this was a failed journey from the get-go. On the surface, a golf swing looks like such a simple thing to master. Professionals look like they’re barely making any effort. But appearances can be deceptive. There are a lot of body movements that have to be coordinated in perfect harmony for that little ball to go in the right direction and at the right distance. Given my lofty goal, my instructor wasted no time. He gave me direction on how to hold the club, how to position my feet, how to move my head, how to turn my hips, how to bend my knees, how to pull back my arms, how to straighten my elbow and how to angle my shoulders. And that’s just for the backswing. It was a lot to digest. But I was determined. So every week I would take a lesson, practice on the driving range and play a full round. Week after week. And after six arduous months of this routine, I wasn’t one bit better than the day I signed up. Not one iota. I hadn’t shaved even one measly stroke off my score. Here I was aiming for the stars and I hadn’t even left the ground. I put away my clubs in disgust vowing never to touch them again. Or so I thought.
My hiatus lasted about ten years and I was finally itching to give it another shot. But having suffered from the ignominy of my first failed attempt, this time around I had a much simpler goal of just not being embarrassed on the golf course. If I could simply swing my club and actually make contact with the ball instead of a wad of grass, that would be progress. I found a new teacher who, after witnessing my golf swing for a few minutes, uttered just one suggestion: “You’re not breaking your wrist. That’s why you’re not getting any distance. Learn to break your wrist.” I responded in disbelief: “That’s it? There’s got to be a lot more I’m doing wrong. How about the rest of my body?” He was steadfast: “Just try focusing on changing your wrist action. Practice that movement over and over. Don’t worry about anything else for now.” I was skeptical but I obliged. That’s all I focused on every day that first week. And, believe it or not, it actually worked. In just one week of adjusting and repeating one single facet of my swing, I had made more progress than over the 6 months I had spent trying to master the game a decade earlier.
I was elated but dumbfounded at the same time. So the very act of my aiming so high originally is what actually led to my devastating results? I guess I was trying to do too many things exceptionally well all at once and in turn I did all of them poorly. But once I narrowed my focus, I was able to quickly see results. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I had been aiming too high. Thinking too big. I should have aimed low. Thought small.
Amazon is a $100+ billion revenue company. Today they sell just about anything and everything, from e-readers to original television shows to on-demand cloud computing services. It’s a behemoth. But that wasn’t always the case. In 1994 Jeff Bezos quit his Wall Street job to launch Amazon.com with just one single product category – books. Not music, not toys, not kitchen appliances. Just books. In fact, if memory serves, their original tagline was “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”. Had their original business plan called for their selling just about every kind of merchandise known to mankind, let alone publishing e-books, streaming movies, hosting websites, and providing a slew of other services, they would have never gotten liftoff. There would have been way too many areas of expertise to master and too many product categories to launch all at once. They would have had a mediocre service at best and very little traction. All the money in the world probably wouldn’t have helped accelerate their business model. It’s not just about capital or resources. It’s about capabilities. It takes time to build them. It takes time to master them. It’s only after you master these capabilities (in Amazon’s case, product sourcing, inventory management, site design, merchandising, product search, transaction processing, fulfillment, customer support, etc.) that you’re able to deliver an exceptional service. That service excellence helps to build brand equity which eventually allows you to transcend any one product category. But this all takes time. Amazon may feel like an overnight success but remember that it’s 22 years in the making.
Let’s look at Google. I remember the day they launched as just a clean simple search engine. Today it’s hard to keep up with everything they’re doing. They’ve got driverless cars and smart thermostats and broadband services and the list goes on. But back during those early years, there wasn’t even Gmail yet. It was a better search engine. Plain and simple. But boy was it ever better. It would be years of improving upon that search engine (faster, cheaper, higher quality) and gaining a loyal following until they finally began to expand beyond their core. That strategy may seem obvious today with the benefit of hindsight. But remember that back then there were no pure search engines. The search game was considered long over by the time Google came out from hiding in the labs at Stanford. All search engines had aggressively expanded to become “portals” whereby the search function was relegated to a small and shrinking piece of a much broader homepage strategy. Nobody really cared about search anymore. The R&D budgets at Yahoo and Excite and AOL and MSN were focused elsewhere by that time. But along comes Google with a much improved search algorithm and focuses 100% of their capital, resources and energy on it. And it paid off handsomely. They didn’t just do search. They owned search. Do you realize how few brands in the world have become so ingrained in everyday culture that they can be used interchangeably with the generic product? Think Kleenex and tissue. Xerox and photocopy. And now Google and search. It took a lot of time and a lot of focus to get there. But once they got there and became the dominant search engine, well… The rest as they say is history.
With all the talk of unicorns and millennial billionaires, it’s hard to not want to think big. It’s hard to not think about becoming the next Facebook or Apple. But you have to start somewhere. If you start out trying to be all things to all people day one, you’re going to fail. I don’t care how much money you raise or what kind of talent you’re able to attract. So figure out your niche, one that you can own. Be patient. Mastery won’t happen overnight. But once you’ve built an exceptional product, have a loyal customer base and a distinctive brand, expansion will be easier than you realize. But for now, if you want to be successful, dream big. Really big. But think small.