Rule #38:
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.


So What?

“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.

5/13/2009 04:50:20 am

While reading this I thought of a simple idea.

Research a 15 year history of children's fads. IE: Webkinz, Tamagachis, cup stacking, etc..

My hypothesis is the market is created and branched from certain "ports" if you will. I know it's not Des Moines, IA and not Santa Rosa, CA. But where do these products start to take off from? NY or LA or MIA?

If this theory proves correct, it would be simple to set up a consignment purchase/sell through website to only carry items that are meeting the data trends. One person can successfully monitor several areas around the country and target vendors.

If there isn't localized areas, (incorrect hypothesis), then some student had a great learning experience in writing a research paper.

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5/13/2009 05:31:19 am

Those are two very inspirational examples. I tend to forget about the the simple ways of doing things and start to figure out more complex and costly ways. You published this at a perfect time for me, I can refresh and focus again on the meat and potatoes of the task. Thanks Tim!

Best,
Janis

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Bryce
5/13/2009 09:05:10 am

Articles about entrepreneurship and how to get started seem to abound. But, not matter what, they come back to having drive and jumping in. This is another great motivator telling me that you can get started at any level, not just big picture and big VC money.

Tim, you are a constant source of inspiration and insight. Thanks again ! =)

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5/13/2009 09:05:26 am

Articles about entrepreneurship and how to get started seem to abound. But, not matter what, they come back to having drive and jumping in. This is another great motivator telling me that you can get started at any level, not just big picture and big VC money.

Tim, you are a constant source of inspiration and insight. Thanks again ! =)

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5/13/2009 09:09:36 am

test... was broken

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5/13/2009 09:22:11 am

Great story. I think the only way to really last is to find something that you either love doing or care deeply for. The only thing that makes up for staying up all night is waking up excited to do it again.

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5/13/2009 09:27:29 am

I think that it is a blessing from God to be able to help people. I hope that at some point of my life I will be able to do it as well.

Stories like the one of Muhammad Yunus are helping a lot ... especially in these times ... in a time in which we are to believe that the individual cannot change much, if anything.

Thank you very much for sharing.

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5/13/2009 09:45:14 am

Great excerpt Tim. I look forward to reading the book. By the way, I'm curious as to where you are taking this site...

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5/13/2009 01:20:15 pm

Tim, great story and great site. Looking forward to reading more!

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5/13/2009 02:22:36 pm

It's great to see a post about Dr. Yunus's social entrepreneurship theories. We've been attempting an application of those ourselves in our project - as said earlier, articles about entrepreneurship tend to abound, especially those advocating focusing on the monetary benefits. Unfortunately it's often to the exclusion of social awareness.

It's good to see someone advocate for entrepreneurship with an eye for giving back and effecting change. Our method involves linking products with charities - with success, charities are freed from the burdens of fundraising. Link products with charity microdonations (or "collaborative microphilanthropy") and, well, hopefully Dr. Yunus would be proud.

Hope you're doing well, and best regards,

Daniel

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5/13/2009 02:40:54 pm

It's great to see a post about Dr. Yunus's social entrepreneurship theories. We've been attempting an application of those ourselves in our project - as said earlier, articles about entrepreneurship tend to abound, especially those advocating focusing on the monetary benefits. Unfortunately it's often to the exclusion of social awareness.

It's good to see someone advocate for entrepreneurship with an eye for giving back and effecting change. Our method involves linking products with charities - with success, charities are freed from the burdens of fundraising. Link products with charity microdonations (or "collaborative microphilanthropy") and, well, hopefully Dr. Yunus would be proud.

Hope you're doing well, and best regards,

Daniel

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5/13/2009 04:12:11 pm

Tim,
I'm an entrepreneur (internet marketer) that has had to restart after biting off the wrong type of business at first. This post is much appreciated, providing context and validation that the restart was the right thing to do...as you stated go with what works & change when needed. I'm modeling you as far as scalability, moving towards lifestyle by design... thanks for the examples you have set.

Forrest

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5/13/2009 09:48:42 pm

Very inspiring and shaking story. I want to congratulate you for such a great article and initiative to bring at the light such issue and lesson along it.

Proverty is number one obstacle in human lifes. Little help, if done by all of us, can bring huge diffrence to people who needs it the most. Giving a hope is what makes people change and realize their potential.

Keep on posting great stuff.

Andreas

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5/14/2009 12:10:45 am

Hey,

This rule is much more realistic than the traditional "Thinkig big". No doubt that what put Dr. Yunus ahead is more than the fact of acting but I love his story. This is so inspiring.
There is no direct relation but this reminds me POWER, a book where sad-but-true laws where listed. I would say that one of the law named "Choose your battlefield" is very complementary to this one. One can win only where one master the rules.

The book seems very interesting :)

Be smart,

Michael

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5/14/2009 01:50:29 am

"if you want to think big, start small"

This is exactly the advice my brother and I are following, and it has led to one of the most exciting times of our life. We recently (i.e first day = this morning) have started working full time on an eco, socially focused clothing line. We are huge fans of Muhammad Yunus + Kiva, but we quickly realized that independently, our contributions are limited to what we could afford individually.. so we created a micro brand- HOLSTEE with the hopes that cycling profits from each line through Kiva first could enable a much bigger impact. The shirts are pretty sweet too :-)

keep the good vibes coming, the world needs it.

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5/14/2009 11:16:52 am

Hey,

Loved the article about Dr. Yunus. Found out about the Grameen Bank and Micro-Finance a few years ago when I first read his book Banker to the Poor, but even now he still serves as an inspiration that even a little bit can go a long way.

In fact, inspired jointly by the theories of Dr. Yunus, 4HWW, and other companies such as TOMS shoes, a buddy of mine and I started a social entrepreneurship that focuses on harnessing the power of micro-donations to charity linked with related products. It's really been an interesting ride, hope it's an idea that catches on.

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5/24/2009 08:44:22 am

This was a great read. Tim, what's the main difference(s) between this blog, and your original one?

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5/27/2009 10:50:19 am

Hey all! I am looking for some suggestions/feedback/comments/insults…whatever you have for me.

I started my own dietary supplement company a couple years ago. I still work full-time in corporate hell and have been funding it out-of-pocket. I have dabbled with several products, but my primary focus is a supplement I developed for hangovers called “Revive”. Revive is targeted to college students (of age) as well as young professionals…your typical hardcore drinking crowd. I have tried marketing in magazines, on Facebook and Myspace (which I got traffic just a low conversion rate), have contacted wholesalers, chains and have hit the pavement hard going door to door to liquor stores and bars with the single-serving blister packs.

After thousands of hours invested as well as a chunk of change I am on the verge of bankruptcy- a master’s degree in entrepreneurship is how I look at it from all I’ve learned. I feel like I’m right there. I’ve got all of the means to get it out there…website, inventory, etc….but I’m lost as to how. I believe in what I am doing and the motivation and desire is still 100% but the “know how” is lacking. I am obviously on a limited marketing budget now. Yes, I know I didn’t do things the right way from the start but this was before I read Tim’s book and besides I always learn the hard way…I was that kid who touched the burner to find out for myself despite what Mom told me! I have been exploring some of Tim’s ideas but I’m not sure how I can make them work for me.

Any advice, whether it be streaking a Cubs game with my website painted on my back or telling me to close shop and go pound sand, would be greatly appreciated!

Take care all!
Jake

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5/9/2013 10:26:15 pm

Just do what Tim said: focus on what sells, on those who buy, how your potential customers choose what to do hanging over that fence, who gives them advice. E.g. bribe (just find a way) the convenience store salesperson or a manager thereof, give them a better price and make that your marketing expense. whatever. gotta be heading towards my piece of good advice now or I'll never stop giving you mine )))

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6/2/2009 09:41:07 am

Tim,

Great work and I love the new site design--loads quickly and looks simple and elegant. Keep up the good work!

--Nick Thacker

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6/5/2009 06:38:30 am

Great artilcle. I just finishied Yunus's book "Creating a World Without Poverty" between Yunus and Ferris it makes you think about the American Dream...think and work differently...

Randy Gray

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6/9/2009 04:21:51 pm

I started off with $2k with Kiva but am more enamored with eBay's Microplace these days. Microplace pays interest, and is hands off. So I put $35k in their direction, on which they are paying 4% to 6%.

Meanwhile, Zopa and Lending Club help regular folks lend to regular folks, and cut the bank out. I interviewed the CEO of Zopa last year...

http://www.socialnetworkingwatch.com/2008/07/zopa-ceo-dougla.html

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Mike Bechthold
7/29/2009 07:08:49 am

Thanks to both Alan and Tim for a great stroy. Putting this together with points from Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, I am thinking of ways to do somthing powerful, but starting small and leveraging the right kinds of talent (at just the right time) along the way....

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10/29/2010 05:00:01 pm

How nice to get information from you! I just respond to inform you all the things are wonderful on you page. Thanks a lot!

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