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When Big-Picture Thinking Holds Startup Founders Back

Ambition is healthy, but too much daydreaming can take your focus off what your company needs right now.

When Big-Picture Thinking Holds Startup Founders Back
[Photo: MOSO IMAGE for Shutterstock]

While building Buffer, there have been times when things have started to get a little crazy.

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It might be being featured in a big blog story, seeing lots of tweets about us, or noticing a big influx of signups or upgrades. Whenever that happens, it’s easy for my thoughts to drift off, and I start thinking of the big-picture possibilities for us far into the future.

But while it’s healthy to be ambitious, those thoughts tend to suck up more time than they should and stop us doing the real work we need to do in order to get anywhere near those thoughts becoming reality.

Here’s what I’ve learned about finding the right balance when it comes to thinking big.

Why Do We Start To Think Big?

I’ve been trying to understand why these thoughts emerge–especially at times when we hit on minor successes. Most of the time it’s a result of a train of thoughts, each one going a step further than the last. Before you know it, you’re thinking about how your startup is going to change the way something is done in a profound way. It often happens when you’re with someone else, and neither of you puts a stop to the runaway conceptualizing.

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I’ve realized that part of the process for early-stage startups is to steady yourself when these occasions arise, and to stay focused on the immediate tasks–like making sure customers are happy, improving the user experience, and working on upcoming features.

The Startups We Know Today Started Small

It’s easy to look at others’ success stories and imagine that they started at the top. Let’s try and question that and keep in mind that all successful ventures and entrepreneurs started with something small. Richard Branson may be trying to bring space travel to the masses with Virgin Galactic, but he started out with a magazine called Student. Google started as something used by just a few at Stanford. Facebook started just at Harvard.

For comparison, here’s a picture of Buffer’s very first version, which also looked equally scrappy:

Focus On The Next Point, Not The Peak

The spiral of success is what you should focus on — trust that with each achievement you will be more informed and better positioned to tackle the next, slightly bigger challenge. Don’t go for space travel right away. It took Branson 38 years.

My thinking here is reflected by entrepreneur-turned-VC Mark Suster, who conveys a similar message very eloquently in his post, “Why Entrepreneurs and VCs Should Focus on Basecamp, Not the Summit“:

My goal: Basecamp. From there we’ll figure out whether to go for the summit, whether to sell or whether to look for adjacent mountains. See, the funny thing is that when you get to basecamp 1, you often find out that there are bigger opportunities or maybe just an easier route to climb on an adjacent hill.

Is it so bad to have ambitious thoughts?

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I personally love to think big. It’s something I pride myself in — there’s a lot I want to do, and I truly believe I will achieve it. I think it can even be argued that it’s healthy to have ambitious thoughts. Perhaps, depending on the type of startup founder are, you either think big too much or you don’t think big enough.

But it’s those of us who think big too much who need to pay attention to this the most. A certain amount is definitely healthy, but beyond a point it becomes a huge time sink and can actually stop you from reaching your goals.

How To Steady Yourself And Keep Moving Forward

Time and time again, I’ve found myself needing to become aware of these too-big, world-changing thoughts and stop them before they stop me from moving forward.

This applies to lots of other things in your business, too — keeping your initial product minimal, going for smaller press before you’ve built up momentum, or even realizing you can get started without waiting for perfect conditions.

Working with others can help a lot. However, it’s worth noting that one of you needs to stop those thoughts before they take up too much time. Inevitably the discussions start, and they’re fun, but then comes the time to get working again.

In the end, though, no one else is going to do it for you — you’ve got to stop thinking about changing the world, and do the nitty-gritty things it takes to move one step further. I know I’ll certainly need to come back to this article to remind myself of this.

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Have you experienced something similar? How do you handle it? Is thinking big necessarily a bad thing to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.