Start With Small Victories

Start with Small Steps
Start with Small Steps

Entrepreneurs, Product Managers and other otherwise intelligent people often get distracted by their ambition. Everything from Disney to these Out of the Box management (I mean leadership) books keep hitting you with hyperbole about dreaming big. Which is only OK if you also have the discipline to think and act small.

Take Google. They have the monster mission of “Organize the world’s information.”

But their two monster products accomplish much smaller missions.

  1. Search product:Enter a search term and receive a list of matching links
  2. Advertising product:
    1. Buy advertising to appear for certain keywords
    2. The flipside: provide space on Web Pages for advertisers to put their ads.

Each of their products has one simple value proposition for each target user. Nothing particularly original. With Google’s well deserved reputation for excellence and innovation, you might think that they invented something new and amazing. But their excellence comes from taking an established solution to a well known problem and doing it better.

Unqualified Reservations’ excellent post about Wolfram Alpha got me thinking about this. Wolfram Alpha’s mission is to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” Ambitious, but so is Google’s stated mission. But Wolfram Alpha’s first version doesn’t successfully solve enough of a problem for enough real people. It’s demo-ware.

Since I found the article through Joel Spolsky, I’ll contrast it to Spolsky’s Stack Overflow. Both products are designed to answer natural language questions. Wolfram tries to do it on any topic. Overflow limits it to one subject (programming), though Wolfram does limit it to questions that can be answered within structured data. Wolfram tries to answer automatically, with neither user refinement of the question nor humans on the other side answering. Overflow gives the user a list of search results. If the user rejects them all and decides to post the question, the Overflow community tries to answer it.

Wolfram is trying to be a destination site. Overflow considers Google their home page, though in parallel they’re building up a loyal community.

Wolfram’s first version has little practical use, and doesn’t even serve as an impressive demo. Overflow’s first version is phenomenally successful.

Which product has the better chances in the long term? No question in my mind that the answer is Overflow. They successfully solved a small problem that lots of people needed solved. They’ll keep tweaking a real product with a real user-base, try to scale their solution. Wolfram tried to solve a massive problem whose complete solution is impossible and whose partial solutions may have very little commercial value. It will impress the engineers. Maybe.

If I may interject political thoughts for a second, politicians from both parties would be much better off understanding their limits and solving smaller problems. I admit that I was thrilled when the US went into Iraq to liberate it from a despotic group that was tyrannizing Iraqis and sending $25,000 checks to the families of suicide bombers. But they overreached. Politicians and product people all need to fight their urge to overreach, whether in nation-building or in taking increasing control over parts of the economy.

But I digress.

Google Search’s killer feature is that they return links to Web sites matching your search query. People need this, and it monetizes brilliantly. They do it better than anyone, and they’re phenomenally successful.

Stack Overflow’s killer feature is that their community provides answers to questions about computer programming. People need this, and it monetizes well. They do it well, and they’re quite successful, and will probably become more successful.

Wolfram Alpha’s killer feature is that they provide answers to questions that can be answered from structured data. They do not do it well. They will never do it perfectly. People may never be satisfied with the solution they provide. It may not be monetizable. They have quite an uphill battle.

We’re all taught to dream. We’d have a better chance of realizing our dreams if we learned how to think and act small. I hate to break from the Disney script, but reaching for the sky is only a good idea if you can first identify the smaller, achievable milestones.