Don’t Forget to Look Up Occasionally

Image courtesy of Sakeeb Sabakka.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time but I couldn’t find the context for what I wanted to say. Reading “You Don’t Need a Master Plan — You Just Need to Start”, I realised what it was that I had to share.

This advice stands out from the article:

“Not every billion dollar business starts with a billion dollar idea.”

Just starting something will get you far closer to success than endless planning. However, you’ll get bogged down in the details if you don’t stop and consider the landscape from time to time. I want to tell you a story of how I felt like I was making progress but was just staring at my feet.

I was part of a team of intrapeneurs in a large automotive company. We were tasked with finding new business opportunities, however tenuously they related to the main business. We were free to do whatever we wanted, the only restriction being that we couldn’t use the company’s name. We had to act like we were a startup.

We chose to validate whether people would grant people one-time access to their vehicle. To limit our liability we ran a pilot program with managers of the company who had company cars. It let us avoid the legal and logistical nightmare of recruiting real people before we knew if our product had any chance of working.

Six weeks later, we’d tested and refined the proposition, listening closely to the people in the pilot program. We had, what we considered, a product which was worth rolling out to a larger group of people!

We’d acknowledged that the initial pilot had targeted a very specific audience — they were all managers for the same company who had company cars — but they were overwhelmingly excited by the service we were offering. Even if we had to change the product after we released it, there were enough people who fit the archetype that we could bootstrap with paying customers from day 1.

It came to the end of our test and we went to report to our investors, hoping to secure funds for a wider roll-out of the product. We felt prepared. We knew how our tests had been limited. We knew how we would launch and secure paying customers.

The pitch went ok but the only thing our investors wanted to know was how we could adapt the product to cater to a much wider audience. We were convinced that we could continue to iterate step-by-step but it wasn’t enough for them.

We’d neglected to stop and consider our long term plan. Testing MVPs and iterating a product helps you find the next step but doesn’t tell you if there’s a much better route altogether.

Our investors told us to look up from time to time, instead of looking at the ground directly in front of us.

I thought about Elon Musk’s master plan for Tesla.

  1. Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

It provides a map from 30,000 ft. It doesn’t give instructions to complete each step but it does give a frame of reference for every question you’ll need to answer en route.

Will this decision get me closer to the next step of the plan?

Not everything has to be a billion dollar idea that changes the world to be worth doing. You can create value on a far smaller scale. The first step is the hardest but you’ll find it much easier to reach your destination if you have a map to where you’re going. Don’t just follow your feet.

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