If you want to think big, start small.
I’m sitting in Stockholm in the open room that serves as the catchall meeting space for the Swedish branch of the KaosPilots—“the best school for the world.” More chairs are set up than usual. There’s an inner circle of chairs for the students and a second, outer circle for friends, family, and supporters. Today is a special day: Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus is visiting the KaosPilots. These young students are paying their own tuition rather than attend one of Sweden’s many state-funded colleges because they want to learn the skills of a social innovator. Who better to learn from than Muhammad Yunus?
Yunus isn’t one for speeches. He sits quietly at the front of the room under the banner with the playful KaosPilots logo and invites questions from the students. He’s so downto-earth, honest, matter-of-fact, and authentic that it takes only a few awkward opening questions from the slightly awed students before they forget that the man dressed in his signature Bangladeshi vest is the founder of the Grameen Bank and a genuine Nobel laureate.
Yunus goes around the circle inviting each student to ask a question. Finally, one student asks the question that many have been thinking.
“There’s so many things that concern me, so many problems that need working on,” she says. “I don’t know where to start. Global warming, poverty, AIDS. Where do you think I should start?”
It’s the question of a generation that genuinely wants to change the world. But in a world that needs so much changing, the biggest problem is getting started.
Yunus’ answer is simple, direct, and practical.
“Start with whatever is right in front of you,” he advises. “Start with whatever is within your reach. That’s how I got started. With one woman who needed a little bit of money to get out from underneath a loan shark.”
He takes a few minutes to recount the grassroots origins of what later became the Grameen Bank. A famine struck Bangladesh shortly after the country gained independence. One morning, in the village of Jobra, Yunus came across Sufiya Begum, an impoverished woman, sitting in her muddy yard crafting small stools out of bamboo. Yunus asked her why, despite her hard work, she was still living in poverty. The answer: she could borrow the money to buy the bamboo for her furniture only from a loan shark who also bought all she produced at a price he set. She was in virtual economic slavery. After a week of research Yunus learned there were forty-two other people in the village in the same circumstances. Together they owed the loan shark less than $27—a small sum, perhaps, but more than they could afford. Yunus went to the local bank to see if it would provide loans to rescue the families from the loan shark. The bank said it couldn’t loan money to those people—they were poor! Finally, with $27 from his own pocket, Yunus freed the forty-two families from the loan shark. It was the first small step toward the birth of the Grameen Bank.
It’s a familiar story, but hearing it from Yunus’ own mouth makes one thing profoundly clear: Muhammad Yunus didn’t set out from home one morning with the goal of ending poverty in Bangladesh or raising tens of millions of people around the world out of poverty. He wasn’t thinking about starting a bank or a social movement. He certainly wasn’t game-planning how to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He saw a woman in a village who needed help and, as he told the students in Stockholm, “I could not not help her.”
It started out, in other words, as a solution in a petri dish, like so many other world-changing social projects. What it offers is an instructive model for crafting solutions that work, one that applies equally well to for-profit and not-for-profit entrepreneurs.
Start small. Do what you can with something you care about so deeply that you simply can’t not do it. Stay focused, close to the ground, rooted in everyday reality. Trust your instincts and your eyes: do what needs doing any way you can, whether the experts agree or not. Put practice ahead of theory and results ahead of conventional wisdom.
Start small. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, change what you’re doing until you find something that does work. Start small, start with whatever is close at hand, start with something you care deeply about. But as Muhammad Yunus told the KaosPilots, start.
“Get big or get out.” That’s conventional wisdom when it comes to venture-capital-backed Web start-ups.
There’s another model emerging today, one made smarter, faster, and in some ways inevitable by the Web. Think of it as the Muhammad Yunus approach to change.
It starts with small experiments undertaken by people who aren’t experts—which may be their key advantage. They don’t accept what the experts have already decided: for instance, that you can’t loan money to poor people. They don’t know that it takes an ironclad business plan before you can launch your project. They don’t know that bigger is better. They do know that they’re determined to make a difference.
It’s a model that Yunus personifies, one that he spreads wherever he goes and whenever he speaks. On one occasion he spoke at Stanford University and in the audience was Jessica Jackley. She heard Yunus talk about using microfinance to change the lives of people who were poor but had untapped entrepreneurial skills. That speech was the start.
In 2004, when she and her husband, Matt, had been married only a few months, Jessica flew to East Africa for the Village Enterprise Fund, interviewing entrepreneurs who had used grants of $100 to $150 to start their own businesses. Matt joined her for two weeks and filmed some of the interviews. What they saw convinced them that even the smallest loans could make a huge difference in the lives of poor people living in Africa.
When they got back to San Francisco they went to work, figuring out how to build a microfinance bridge between people who wanted to help and people in rural Africa who needed help. Finally, after a year of sometimes frustrating discussions with experts, they decided that the best way to begin was simply to begin. In March 2005 Jessica and Matt launched their beta site. They raised $3,500 from about thirty-five people to make loans to seven Ugandan entrepreneurs, a Yunus-like beginning. Six months later, every loan had been repaid.
In October 2005 Jessica and Matt announced the world’s first peer-to-peer microlending Web site: Kiva.org. In year one Kiva.org got $430,000 from 5,400 people and made loans to 750 people in twelve countries. Two years later Kiva. org had grown to a total of $39,536,810 spread over 55,935 loans, with funds coming from 329,406 lenders. Seventy-seven percent of the loans went to women entrepreneurs, and the repayment rate was 98.45 percent.
“With Kiva we had huge dreams but we were practical about getting started,” Jessica says of starting Kiva.org. “We knew we had to begin with something specific and doable. In fact, I think that’s the only way to start, period—small, specific, and focused. We’re still a relatively small team, so we can be nimble, responsive, and innovative. Sometimes to address the big injustices in the world lots of tiny, context-specific, tailored solutions are appropriate.”
I could have told you the story of Cameron Sinclair and Architecture for Humanity, or Sasha Chanoff and Mapendo International, or any one of the 150 nonprofits that are started every day in the United States as young people turn their attention from making as much money as possible to making as much change as possible.
Get big or get out?
How about start small and stick with it?
Contributed by: Alan M. Webber, co-founder of Fast Company Magazine and former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review.
Excerpted from his new book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning At Business Without Losing Yourself with full permissions.
To Think Big, Start Small
Tim Ferriss is an author and angel investor based in SF. He is known for drinking Malbec and the book, The 4-Hour Workweek.