Think Big, Start SmallSocial Sciences
“Most of the people I know who call themselves entrepreneurs aren’t entrepreneurs at all – they’ve started businesses, but they’re still employees. And often, they’re employees with high risk, high hassle, low pay jobs working for a boss who’s so demanding and unreasonable that almost anyone else would have quit a long time ago. That boss is themselves.”
Dr. Jared Mitchell was a true entrepreneur. While still a surgery resident at the University of Michigan, he had developed a regimen of vitamins and mineral supplements that seemed to help many of his patients recover more quickly after surgery. Although it took a long time for the mainstream medical establishment to accept him and his insistent calls for doctors to pay more attention to nutrition, emotional health, and spiritual faith in the healing process, he quickly gained a following among the younger residents and medical students.
“Contrary to what most people think,” he continued, “real entrepreneurs are not particularly concerned with making a lot of money. It’s certainly a nice by-product of their success, and more important, it’s the fuel they need to keep building their dreams, but it’s not the end goal in itself. The thing that drives the true entrepreneur is creating something of lasting value, and leaving an enduring legacy – building something that keeps growing long after they’ve left the scene.”
Even before he’d finished his residency, Dr. Mitchell’s Total Health Prescription, as it came to be known, sparked a sort of revolution within the hospital. Because there were no prescription drugs involved, it did not require a doctor’s order. Therefore, anyone could recommend it to a patient. Increasingly, nurses, residents, even medical students were doing just that. Mitchell began packaging his “prescription” in a simple box containing seven bottles of pills, a book, and several audiotapes. He priced it at $18.95, and in the first month sold over a thousand of them.
“The other thing entrepreneurs do is relentlessly seek leverage. With every new idea, with every relationship, they’re asking themselves ‘How do I multiply this?’ They have a gut level understanding that they themselves are the biggest bottleneck to building something magnificent, so as quickly as possible they begin setting up systems and structures that allow them to get themselves out of the way of their own success.”
By the time Mitchell had finished his residency, his company was selling over a million dollars a year of Dr. Mitchell’s Total Health Prescription. This was especially remarkable because it was being done with no advertising, no sales force, and no retail presence. It was all by word-of-mouth.
“After sales took off in those first couple of months, I knew we had tapped into something huge. I even had some of the drug companies come along asking about licensing the system. It was quite an ego builder. In fact, that was my biggest challenge in those early days – keeping a reign on my ego so I didn’t get carried away and grow too fast. I had a big sign printed up that I hung in my office – it’s the one on the wall over there:
Charlie had noticed the sign, now properly framed, when he came into Mitchell’s office. He’d been referred by Wilma Osterberge, a Saint Johns classmate who was now one of the top distributors for Body Spirit, the name Mitchell had chosen for his company. Charlie had read everything he could about Jared Mitchell and Body Spirit. This was a meeting that could put The Courage Place on the map.
“When the drug companies tried to buy me out, the two things they promised were promotion and delivery systems. But the price I would have had to pay would have meant total loss of my independence. I could have made a lot of money, but I would have no longer been an entrepreneur. I went out and hired a big time consultant, someone who specialized in business strategy. He came back with a report that essentially said the only way I could avoid being eaten alive by the drug companies, who could have quite easily developed their own product line, was to grow as big as possible as fast as possible. That brilliant advice cost me twelve grand.”
“So what did you do?” Charlie asked.
“What any good entrepreneur would do: the exact opposite of what he recommended. For the next year, I went underground. I deliberately downplayed the product, even made it difficult to find.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Two reasons. First, I wanted any potential competitor to think I’d crashed and burned, that I’d surfed a fad right into the beach. I even hired a publicist to plant stories in the pharmaceutical trade press about how I’d had to lay off half of my employees, which was a real joke, because back then I didn’t have any employees. But they bought it hook, line, and sinker. The buy-out offers went away, but so did the threat of being stomped out before I could get my roots down.”
Although he was sixty, Mitchell could have passed for forty-five. He was dressed in Dockers and a denim shirt with the Body Spirit logo over the breast pocket. His office looked like it had been furnished with a weekend trip to Home Depot. Nothing pretentious, partly because Mitchell was almost never there.
“My company lost over a hundred thousand dollars that year, but it was the most profitable year of my life,” he continued. “I interviewed hundreds of patients who had used my system, and the doctors and nurses who had recommended it. What worked? Why did they like it? How could I make it better? I hired a student from the art school to help me design better packaging, and kept working on making the formula more effective.”
“I went to Oregon and talked to Phil Knight at Nike to find out how they had lined up all of the greatest athletes and top coaches behind their shoes. Then I went out and did the same thing. I gave truckloads away to key opinion leaders in my market. I went to Denver and talked to Dave Liniger to find out how RE/MAX had defined a new standard of excellence in the real estate profession. Then I went out and did the same thing. I set incredibly high standards for anyone who wanted to be associated with my company. But the most important thing I did was study the companies that were successful in direct consumer marketing. Companies like Amway and Mary Kay were revolutionizing product promotion and distribution with the oldest form of commerce: my coming to you and saying ‘Hey, Charlie, I used this product and it really works. Why don’t you give it a try?’ And then you try it and you like it and you go sell it to Wilma. And Wilma tries it and likes it and sells it to Rudy. And the network grows.”
Mitchell shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “What’s revolutionary about these models of direct consumer marketing is that the good companies have figured out a way to also give me as a distributor a financial incentive for getting you signed up with the company, and for rewarding me whenever you buy the product. One day I was sitting by the lake, just quietly meditating, and the picture popped into my head, full-blown and full-grown.” Mitchell smiled, as though recalling something that had happened just yesterday. “That’s how I would organize my business. I didn’t need professional sales reps and I didn’t need a slick ad campaign. My customers would be my sales force, and my product would be its own advertisement. I recruited five of my best supporters and rented a cabin on the Upper Peninsula for a week. I taught them all about the product, how to sell it, how to recruit other distributors. We talked about the incentives and compensation systems being used by all the various companies out there, and picked the elements we liked best to design our own. Today, those five people are all multi-millionaires, but of course, I wouldn’t have chosen them had they only been in it for the money. They’re all just as involved today as they were in the early years.”
Mitchell took a long look out the window, and Charlie got the impression that he would rather be out running the trails than working in his office. “It took another nine months before we were ready to really start building the business. We had to develop computer programs, build up a product inventory and a system to manage it, and a million other things. I was on the road pretty much non-stop, mostly recruiting hot-shots like Wilma to be our pioneering crusaders. By deliberately staying small, we were able to build the foundation on which all of our future success would be built. And we’ve held onto that philosophy even as we’ve grown. You know how some multi-level marketing companies promise untold wealth in ninety days or less – often without working?”
Charlie smiled. His fax machine spit out offers like that all day long, and his spam filter choked on them. “Well, we promise our new distributors that it absolutely will not happen to them. During their first year with the company, they are allowed to recruit only five new people.” Mitchell smiled. “Hey, it worked for me, and I believe in staying with what works. Anyway, during that year, we expect them to spend a lot of time with their sponsor learning about Body Spirit – and not just our products, but our philosophy and our values. Then we expect them to spend just as much time working with the five people they have sponsored, teaching them the same things. We ask an awful lot of them in that first year, and they’re hardly making any money at all. But by the end of that year, they have built a team that is ready for explosive growth. Are you familiar with John Wooden?”
“The great UCLA basketball coach?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah. Everybody remembers him for winning, what, ten or eleven national titles in twelve years. They’re less likely to recall that he was at UCLA for 15 years before he won his first title. He had to build that foundation. To think big, but start small. Do you know what the first thing was he taught his players how to do at the beginning of each year? Now, keep in mind, these were the hotshots – high school All-Americans from across the country.”
“No, but I’d guess it probably had to do with defense.”
“Nope. He taught them how to put on their socks. That’s right! He’d watch them do it, rolling them up their feet just so until they got it right. He didn’t ever want to lose a big game because one of his key players got a blister that kept him from performing at his peak potential. That’s thinking big and starting small.” Mitchell picked up a folder from the coffee table. “I’ve read your proposal, Charlie, and I’m intrigued. I think you’re really on to something here. The Courage Place is a terrific concept and I’d like to help you. I’m just not sure how we can do it.”
Mitchell dropped the folder back onto the table, and Charlie’s heart fell with it. “It’s the old brush off,” he heard Gollum say in the back of his mind, and reminded Spike to get to work. Mitchell pulled a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it across the table to Charlie. “Bill Keys is one of my original five. Now he’s down in Austin, Texas. I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of faxing him a copy of your proposal, and he was just as intrigued as I am. He said that if you can’t get something like that going in Austin, which is a very progressive community, then your idea is DOA – dead on arrival. Won’t work anywhere. But if you can get it going in Austin, he’s pretty sure that Dallas and Houston will fall in line, with San Antonio coming on next. After that, there’s probably a dozen smaller cities like El Paso and Galveston where he can see it working.”They’d been talking for over two hours, and Mitchell still showed no sign of being in a hurry. Nor did he seem to be carried away with excitement. He was just there, totally present, acting out the values upon which he had built his business. Thinking big but starting small. “If you really want to make this happen, Bill Keys will pick up his sword and shield and stand there beside you. But if you’re only at ninety-nine percent, don’t waste his time or yours. Go back to the drawing boards and keep working until you are at one hundred and ten percent.”
“How will I know?” Charlie asked.
“Good question. Terrific question! The answer depends upon how much of a
price you’re willing to pay. There’s a paradox: starting small will require a massive
effort on your part. If Bill pledges his team to your support, are you willing to do
whatever it takes,” and Mitchell emphasized each of the last three words, “to make The Courage Place-Austin a model for your success everywhere else? Are you willing to sign a one year lease on a studio apartment in Austin so you can go down there for weeks at a time? Are you willing to spend every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffee break spreading your contagious enthusiasm for the project? Are you willing to buy yourself a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots and develop a taste for country music? In other words, to do whatever it takes,” and he again emphasized those three words, “to lay the foundation for explosive growth in the future.”
Charlie thought for a moment – what seemed like a very long moment. Mitchell sat silently, conveying no hint of impatience. “I’m not sure,” Charlie said at last.
“Good,” Mitchell replied. “That’s the answer I was hoping to hear. That means you’re thinking. When I say ‘think big,’ too many people hear the word ‘big’ but don’t hear the word ‘think.’ The thinking is the first step. Why don’t you give Bill a call and see if you can set up a time to go down and meet with him and some of the members of his team. I think you’ll find it very helpful.”
Charlie nodded, sensing the interview was near its end.
“By the way,” Mitchell said, “you won’t have to rent an apartment in Austin.
Bill has a gorgeous home with a guest house I’m sure he’d be more than happy to let you use any time you’re down there. Which I hope will be a lot. It’s big enough that you can take your family with you if it doesn’t interfere with the kids’ school.”
Mitchell stared at Charlie, as if looking for some particular inner quality. “Your business plan is risky, Charlie. Nobody has ever made anything quite like this work before.” He paused for a moment, then smiled. “That’s why I like it. It’s unique and it’s daring, and I believe you can pull it off. I want to help you because your success will be good for the future growth of Body Spirit. But most of all, I want to help you because you’re setting out to do something important – very important. There are a lot of frightened and hurting people out there, who are so blinded by their fears they don’t see the opportunities all around them. The Courage Place could be a resource center for those people, a sort of health club for the soul. I want to help you make this happen because you’ll make a big difference in this world.”
Mitchell looked at his watch and stretched. Charlie couldn’t believe it was
almost noon, and that one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs had just given him three hours from a crazy schedule. Charlie pushed forward in his chair, preparing to leave.
“I’ve got to catch a plane for LA at two-thirty,” Mitchell said, “but I’m not going anywhere on an empty stomach. Can I buy you lunch downstairs? If you’ve got the time, I’d like to share with you some of the basic principles that underlie the Think Big, Start Small philosophy. It’s not as simple as it seems.”
“If I’ve got the time,” Charlie exclaimed. “You’re the one whose got to be in six cities in the next five days! I’d be very grateful for your advice, but at least let me buy lunch.”
“Whatever,” Mitchell replied, and reached for the sweater draped across the
back of his chair.
Mitchell led Charlie down the stairs to The Burger Bar, a little restaurant in the lobby of his building. “The usual, Jerry?” The waitress acted as though she either didn’t know or didn’t care that she was speaking to one of the wealthiest men in the state, and Mitchell responded in the same fashion. “Sure, April, but could you tell Wally to put real peppers on this one, not those wimpy little pickle slices he used last time?”
“Sure thing,” the waitress replied, “fire alarm number three. And how about for you, honey,” she said, looking at Charlie.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have the same,” he replied.
April rolled her eyes, then made a note on her pad. “Good grief, another lunatic. Where do you dig these guys up, Jerry?” Without waiting for a response, she walked back toward the kitchen.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Charlie asked.
“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” Mitchell replied. “Just a grilled ham and cheese with tomato slices and a big wad of jalepeno peppers laid on top, and a cocktail made of carrot, cucumber, and prune juice. You know the old saying: you are what you eat?” Charlie nodded. “Well I figure if that’s true, I might as well eat something interesting.”
As they ate, Mitchell outlined what he called the ten commandments of Think Big, Start Small. “The first commandment,” he began, “is to start with yourself and your own core values. I would guess that, when you think of the person you would ideally like to become, there’s a pretty big gap between that ideal of the future and where you are today.”
“Oh, not too big,” Charlie replied. “I’d say it’s bigger than the Grand Canyon but smaller than the Pacific Ocean.” Both men smiled, and Mitchell said, “Keep it that way, Charlie. The day you think you’ve arrived, you’ve lost the game.”
Mitchell pulled a card out of his wallet and handed it to Charlie. “These are the Twelve Core Action Values. Have you ever heard of them? I use it as sort of a personal compass – am I being the person I want to be, and am I doing that things that are most important for me to do.”
“Well, I’ve seen lots of values statements, but this is the first I’ve ever seen this list. May I make a copy?”
THE TWELVE CORE ACTION VALUES
Know who you are and what you want; master your ego, emotions, and ambitions; and believe yourself capable and deserving of success.
Be honest with yourself and others and honor your commitments.
Keep your attention anchored in the present here and now, and keep it centered on the positive.
Make fear your ally and always act with confidence and determination.
Make adversity your teacher and never give up on your dreams.
Believe that you will be supported in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance and expect a miracle.
Define your purpose in life and perform your work with love and enthusiasm.
Dream magnificent dreams, transform them into memories of the future, plan for their fulfillment, and keep the dream alive when the going gets tough.
Concentrate your essential resources on your key priorities and avoid distractions.
Pursue your mission with passion, bring joy into the lives of others, and have fun in what you do.
Share your blessings, help others succeed, and have a compassionate heart.
Ask for help, build a team, help each team member be a winner, and create an enduring legacy.
“Why don’t you keep the card. I work my way through that list every year, one action value per month. It’s an idea that I believe was originated by Ben Franklin, to take one virtue per month and apply yourself to it. This is May, so for me it’s Perseverance month. That’s why I’m spending so much time on the road. I’m going after the potentially big clients who have turned us down to see if one more big push won’t bring us the business. The only way you’ll ever get across the Grand Canyon, or the Pacific Ocean, is one step at a time. So even with your own personal development, Think Big, Start Small is the best approach. Every day you make what seems like tiny little improvements. You may not even see the changes as they occur but one day you look around and realize that everyone else is looking up to you. Then, of course, you’ll know it’s time to cycle through the program again to become even better, because you’re carrying a lot more responsibility.”
Charlie put the card with The Twelve Core Action Values into his shirt pocket, and realized that it had been sized perfectly for just that purpose – so someone could get into the habit of pulling it out regularly. “The second commandment is that thinking comes before getting rich. You mentioned Alan Silvermane; he’s been a terrific mentor for me. He often mentioned his association with Napoleon Hill, and why he called his self-help classic Think and Grow Rich – not Grow Rich and Think – for a reason, but every day I meet people who have it reversed. They think they don’t have the time to think because they’re too busy trying to make a living. It’s like putting up a building first, and then going back to draw the blueprints. You’ve got to pay attention, critically observe, see the obvious opportunities that everyone else is walking right past, ask the apparently dumb questions that everyone else is afraid to ask. Then you start thinking in ways that no one else is thinking. That’s when you start walking down the road to becoming rich.”
Mitchell asked the waitress to bring another bowl of jalepeno peppers, saying with a wink that they kept them young. “Third, recognize the paradox that while what will be big tomorrow might seem small today, what seems big today will be small tomorrow. The tiny mustard seed that is small today will, with care and cultivation, grow into a giant tree. That’s thinking big and starting small. But at the same time, the mountain that seems so big and overwhelming today will eventually reveal itself as just a foothill on the path toward even more magnificent towers that were previously hidden in the mist.” Mitchell speared several jalapeno peppers, and Charlie wondered if all the vitamins and supplements had rendered him impervious to pain.
“The fourth commandment is to start small, but to start now. Right now! To be an entrepreneur is to make lots of mistakes, so you might as well get on with it. Try things. Pursue what works tenaciously and abandon what doesn’t work quickly. You’ve heard it said that life is not a dress rehearsal, right? Well, in at least one critical respect, life is a dress rehearsal. Today is your dress rehearsal for tomorrow. No symphony orchestra ever sounded beautiful together without first sounding awful together – it takes hours and hours of rehearsal to transform noise into music.”
“And sometimes not even that works.”
“Oh, nothing. I’m sorry, but my wife is on the board of an amateur symphony, and every performance they do sounds like a first rehearsal to me.”
Mitchell laughed. “Sounds like they need a more entrepreneurial conductor!”
“And about forty new players,” Charlie added.
“Now, what if you were to go to one of their concerts a year from now and discover your wife’s ugly caterpillar band had been transformed into a monarch butterfly of a symphony? Would you guess that the change occurred overnight, or in tiny increments spread out over time?”
“Gradually, of course.”
“Have you ever read any of the work of James Bryan Quinn? He’s a professor at the business school at Dartmouth College.”
“No,” Charlie replied. “The professors at Saint Johns were pretty insular. They mostly had me read their own books.”
“Well, about thirty years ago Quinn did some research that showed the most successful business strategies weren’t developed at some think tank management retreat, but rather evolved out of lots of trial balloons and small marketplace experiments. He called it Logical Incrementalism, which is perhaps another way of saying Think Big, Start Small. At Body Spirit, we’re pretty picky about who we bring on-board as a marketing executive. We probably interview a hundred people for every one we bring under our wing. Now, how big do you think our company would be today if, instead of flying around the country talking to people all day every day, I’d sat in my office drawing up plans for how to snag exactly the right people?”
Charlie just shook his head.
“A lot smaller!” Mitchell exclaimed. “A whole lot smaller. And that’s a metaphor for what you have to do in your business. You have to go start prying open those oysters. Not very many of them will have pearls in them, but the sooner you start opening them, and the more of them you do open, the more pearls you will find. Number six is to dream like a king but spend like a pauper. Especially in the early days of business, you’ve got to be a real curmudgeon. At some point, you’re going to run out of money. That must be one of the ironclad laws of entrepreneurship, like running out of money is some sort of cosmic test you have to pass to graduate from survival stage to growth stage. And when you do run out of money, you’re going to think back on all the money you’ve blown and wish you had it back in the bank. You may not be able to avoid running out of cash, but you can put the day off, and by adopting frugal disciplines now, make sure it’s not so traumatic when it does happen. You’ve probably heard of buyer’s remorse, but have you ever heard of saver’s remorse?” Both men laughed at the notion.
“Number seven is another paradox. You need to be absolutely committed to your mission, but peacefully detached from the outcome. Here’s what I mean by that. From the very beginning, you have to keep that vision of where you’re going – I think you earlier referred to it as your memory of the future – planted firmly in the front of your mind. It has to be a total commitment, that you will do whatever it takes to make that vision, that memory of the future, become a reality. But at the same time, you have to be flexible about how you get there. There will be many apparent setbacks, some of which will be genuine reversals and others which will turn out to be blessings in disguise. It’s almost always impossible to tell one from the other when you’re in the middle of it. You have to have the equanimity to accept the circumstances, and to adapt as necessary, without abandoning your central purpose.”
Mitchell took out his wallet and laid a hundred dollar bill on the counter. “I have a friend whose business was forced into bankruptcy, substantially as a result of outside forces over which he had little control. Still, it was a devastating experience for him. He told me later that he had actually contemplated suicide when it happened. But if you ask him today, he’ll tell you that going through bankruptcy was the best thing that ever happened to him or his business. It got him more focused on his priorities, and forced him to compensate for his own weaknesses by building a stronger management team. Of course, in order to pay the salaries of the extra people, he also had to start dreaming a bigger dream, and to raise his sights and aim for a bigger target.” Mitchell laughed. “One of the most closely-guarded secrets of the universe is that bigger targets are easier to hit than little ones, in the world of business as well as in the sport of archery.”
Charlie tried to not eye the C-note on the counter, and wondered if Mitchell was really going to leave such a big tip. In doing his research for this meeting, he’d read something Mitchell had written many years previously, an article arguing that abundance mentality began with a spirit of extravagant generosity, not with visualizing great wealth for yourself. “The eighth principle is that you need to be very careful about who you select to be part of your original core team, because they’re going to have disproportionate influence on your future development. Today, Body Spirit has over 100,000 marketing execs around the world, but guess how many are involved in making the most important decisions: the handful of people who were with me from the very beginning. They’re not necessarily any smarter or more capable than the others, they just happened to be there when we were building the foundation. It’s going to be much the same with The Courage Place. You’ll always have a special relationship with the people who set up your first few shops, with those first few investors who believed in you and your dream when no one else would. Choose those first few people very carefully, Charlie, then take very good care of them, because they will be crucial to your future success.”
Mitchell finished his carrot concoction, and looked out the window as he continued. “I can’t think of anyone who built a more powerful or enduring legacy than Jesus of Nazareth. Two thousand years after his death, more than a quarter of the world’s population looks to him as their savior. For the most part, he built this church on the foundation of twelve men he carefully hand-picked for the job. Commandment number nine is to avoid negative people and petty thinkers at all cost. They will bring you down, Charlie, they will steal your dreams. When the going gets tough, and it most assuredly will, the people I call pickle-suckers – because they look like they were born with dill pickles stuck in their lips – will stand over you gloating like buzzards in the desert. Stay away from them! Go out of your way to be with people who have big dreams of their own and believe in their ability to fulfill those dreams. Those are the people most likely to believe in you and in your dreams, and to help you in making those dreams become real. Just make sure that you do whatever you can to help them in return.”
Charlie made a note to somehow include a pickle jar in his Metaphorical Visualization toolbox. Mitchell continued. “Number ten is more practical, and that’s to build a growth contingency into your every plan. When I was a surgery resident, for a while I served on the hospital Facility Planning Committee. We were designing a new building, and the architect had marked a certain area as ‘shell space.’ There was nothing in it. I asked about it, and he said it was simply designated for future growth. At the time, no one knew what that growth would be, it was just a lot cheaper to build the shell now without finishing the interior than it would have been to add on later. When you start building your business, build in some shell space of your own. Hire people who are smarter and more qualified than they need to be, so they can grow into bigger jobs you may not have anticipated. Get a computer system bigger and faster than you think you’ll need. Do all this within reason, of course; don’t go out of your way to build excess capacity, but when the opportunity presents itself to get it at a bargain price, make the stretch. Eat frozen pizza instead of ordering out for a while. The investment will pay off if you’ve disciplined yourself.”
“Those are my ten commandments of Think Big, Start Small, Charlie,” Mitchell said as he pushed himself back from the table, leaving the hundred dollar bill where it lay. “Just one more word of advice. Don’t just start small; enjoy the small things. A big thing is just a collection of small things. If you don’t take the time to enjoy the small things along the way, you won’t enjoy the big things when they come. If you’re not enjoying the journey, the destination will be a disappointment. Speaking of destinations, I’ve got a plane to catch. You can buy the next time.”
Charlie walked with Mitchell out to the parking lot and watched him climb into a new BMW Roadster. As he drove off, Charlie read the license plate on his sports car: TBSS.