Empire Building and the Art of Small Steps
For a long time, I focused on starting big projects. And for a long time, I had a hard time finishing any of them. Sometimes I got overwhelmed, other times I just looked at the faraway goal and thought: what comes next? How do I know which step is the right one?
Only when I studied the art of breaking down big projects into very small steps was I able to make progress.
It’s kind of like mountain climbing. Mountains look impossible from a distance. But if you come to basecamp and just start putting one foot in front of another, all you see is the path ahead. You can’t help but make progress—and as long as you have a trail, you know you’re going the right way.
For the past few months, I’ve been conducting an intensive research project with small business owners. From an initial group of 300, I selected 15 “emperors” who had built profitable businesses with less than three employees.
I wanted to find out exactly how they did it, and the key was to separate the essential steps from the optional ones. The central question was: can you really build a business around something you love to do, without going crazy—or without going broke?
What I discovered was that most businesses are not built from big ideas. Big ideas are good, but it’s more important to look at all of the smaller steps that bring you to the bigger goal.
The practice of daily habits—familiar to everyone in the Zen Habits family—is also crucial. Every day, you get up and do one thing that brings you closer to your goal. If you’re learning to exercise, you do twenty sit-ups—or just two sit-ups, if that’s all you can manage at first. Achieving a flat stomach is much more likely through this method than with a weekly sit-up binge.
The same holds true with the business owners I studied. In a small business, here are the sit-ups you work on every day:
1. Reach out to existing customers – because it’s much easier to sell to existing customers than to new ones.
2. Bring traffic or prospects in – because partnerships and soft-sell promotion can bring in more customers than costly advertising.
3. Create new products or services – because once you have an audience, you need something to offer them. (It also helps if you have more than one thing.)
4. Find a way to expand your reach – because ultimately you’ll want to reach a bigger tribe with your message and business.
More than big ideas, breaking down each of these strategies into specific steps grows and nurtures a healthy business over time. The step-by-step business system is also much easier than the caffeine-fueled startup. Startups tend to fly high and die; a lifestyle business flies at lower altitude, but flies safer and longer.
Going step-by-step, you might climb a mountain, you might build a business, and you might even get a flat stomach.
Today will be gone before you know it. Before it disappears forever, what mountain are you climbing, and what one step can you take to get closer to the top?