How Silicon Valley made me think small

"How did moving to Silicon Valley change you as an entrepreneur? Did it made you think bigger?"

I had just wrapped up my talk for a startup event in Greece, and a young entrepreneur asked me this question. Everybody in the room leaned forward to hear my answer. I could see by they look in their eyes, to them, Silicon Valley was this magical place where startup dreams come true. I thought for a moment.

"No. Quite the opposite. Silicon Valley made me think smaller, but act bigger."

When I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, I was full of big ambitions. I wanted to change the world, revolutionize education, change the way recruiting works on a global scale. My challenge wasn't thinking bigger.

My mind was completely in "think big" modus. My plan was to launch this amazing education platform, scale rapidly and then three years later see my face on the cover of Time magazine.

I wasn't thinking small enough

My grandiose visions made me neglect the importance of taking small steps. I didn't do all the little things required to build the momentum that makes big things happen.

I fell into one of the six strategy traps outlined in Playing to Win:

"The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: developing high-level aspirations and mission statements that never get translated into concrete where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems. Remember that aspirations are not strategy."

I encourage you to think big and act bold - but remember how the small things you do day in and day out are what ultimately create the big accomplishment.


There is power in thinking big. But there is magic in the small steps towards that big dream.

Giant startups start out small

Most of the humongous startups we see today where tiny and hyperfocused at inception.


Look at how Facebook started out. Mark Zuckerberg didn't start out with a big vision of connecting people all over the world or creating the largest social network in existence. Facebook came into existence from a "hot or not" game for Harvard students.


Look at the early beginnings of Khan Academy. It was just a guy who uploaded little math tutoring videos to YouTube for his cousins.

These videos didn't have a high production value. They weren't brilliant, they weren't particularly innovative or disruptive. They were pretty simple, straightforward, and almost dull videos - but random students found and watched them, commented, shared. Even teachers used them in the classroom.

Salman Khan kept putting these little videos on YouTube, and it grew into this massive organization that is now helping millions of people all over the world to learn, has Bill Gates as an ardent supporter and it put Khan on the Time 100 Most Influential People 2012 list. By doing the little things, he built something that massively changed education for millions of people.


Airbnb is now a multi-billion dollar company. But it started out because they wanted to make a bit of extra money to pay the rent.

When I heard about AirBnB very early on, I was thinking to myself: "What a stupid idea! Here am I, trying to change education, and you guys want to do an air bed and breakfast?!"

And I wasn't the only one. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky recalls how their idea was initially received in startup circles: "When we came to the Valley, no one even wanted to invest in Airbnb. One of the reasons was they thought the idea was crazy. People thought I’d never stay in a stranger’s home. That’s creepy."


When I heard about Dropbox, I thought: "What a ridiculous idea! Who cares about file sharing? I want to change education around the world, and they want to share files?!"


Yahoo could have bought Google for a million bucks in the early days. They had the money, they were the most popular website on the internet... but they thought search was just a small idea, that it didn't matter that much.

My past self would have dissed my present self

If I had spoken with someone working on a sales communication platform, I would have secretly thought:

"Pfff... sales software? Seriously dude? I'm working on changing education forever, revolutionizing how people get jobs, build an open global world school that empowers everyone to teach and study everything. And you're doing sales software? Who gives a shit?"

Well, thousands of salespeople and founders give a shit. Thousands of companies where I now make more of a difference today than I ever made with my global education revolution startup.

Today I'm doing something less glamorous, but I'm making a bigger impact than ever before in my life, and it's because I've discovered the power in small things.


Action steps

Ask yourself every day: How can I make a big difference today? What are small steps I can take consistently every single day to build momentum toward my big goal?

It's great to have a big vision - a north star to navigate the long journey. But you move towards your destination inch by inch.


Update June 9, 2015: I've discussed this blog post with Hiten Shah (from KISSmetrics, CrazyEgg & HelloBar) in the most recent episode of our podcast The Startup Chat with Steli & Hiten. You can listen to it here.

Among other things, we discuss:

  • the difference between doing something small vs doing something meaningless
  • what you should do before you spend time trying to solve a problem
  • when to stop working on a project.

Hiten has a fascinating framework on 'thinking too small' vs 'thinking too big', and I think you'll enjoy the episode.

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