Ask an Expert: Think Big!

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Q: I would like to share a real estate trick I learned many years ago: See where your city is expanding into, buy land about 10 miles beyond that, and wait. It will go up in value eventually.

A: I think you are on to something with even wider applications for small business.

Not long ago I was down in Los Angeles and I heard a radio story about a small animation studio that started up in the 1980s. The studio was begun by two guys in West L.A. After a few years, things were going fine, but not great. What they really needed was a big client, and of course the biggest client in animation is Disney.

Yet even though they were a tiny studio, and Disney was not their customer, they figured they had a better chance of catching the big fish if they were at least in closer proximity to the giant studio. So they moved their entire operation (such as it was) over the hill to Burbank and set up shop there. Within a few years, they had met enough people from the studio that Disney decided to give them a shot, and now, 25 years later, Disney is still their biggest customer.

As I see it, the lesson is that thinking and playing small leads to small. Thinking and playing big leads to big.

I once had a j-j-j-job (see, I can’t even type that word without shaking!) which required that I list all leads on index cards; one lead per card. So each day I would take out of my little recipe box the index cards with the leads I had already generated, as well as a few more cards for those that I would generate that day during my cold calling.

One day, my boss came in and looked at my method. He went to the storage room and handed me a two-inch stack of blank index cards. “You have to set yourself up for success, Steve. If you have a ton of cards, you are telling the universe that you are open to getting a ton of leads. And vice versa.” It was a little woo-woo, sure, but he made a valid point.

So the question is: How big of a game are you playing? Are you playing to win, or are you playing not to lose? Are you playing just to keep the doors open, or are you playing to bust the doors off their hinges?

Several times in my column I have mentioned my admiration for my hero, Buckminster Fuller. When Fuller was at his lowest, after losing both a child and a business, he had an epiphany. To paraphrase – “I have been most effective in my life when I have worked for the greatest good for the most people.” So that is what he dedicated his life to. By committing to play the biggest game he could, he figured he would be the most effective possible. And it worked. He became a world-renowned futurist, architect, poet, mathematician – “The planet’s friendly genius.”

Maybe it means creating a world-class website to take the place of that thing you had done by your niece in the 2000s. Or maybe it means targeting some big-fish clients – clients that are beyond your capacity today, but clients that would force your business to expand into its potential. Or maybe it means bidding on a government or corporate contract. Or writing that book you always wanted to write.

After Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, he and Paul Allen started to build the nascent Microsoft. Gates heard about an opportunity to bid on an operating system for IBM’s newfangled personal computers. Gates pitched IBM, got the contract, except there was one problem: Microsoft had not yet built an operating system. What did he do? Gates went out and found an operating system for sale – DOS – bought it, and then licensed it to IBM.

Talk about playing a big game.

Today’s tip: Today, there are more computers running Microsoft Windows than there are cars on the planet. (