Keeping the Big Idea Alive

Lately, I’ve been thinking about big ideas and how hard they are to work on.

I’m not talking about how hard it is to solve fundamental problems in science and engineering (although those are certainly hard). Rather, I’m talking about how hard it is to actually commit to working on big ideas. I think most entrepreneurs dream about changing the world in a meaningful way (and hopefully making a lot of money in the process), but if you look around Silicon Valley it often seems like the majority of entrepreneurs aren’t working on big and meaningful problems. Why is that?

I think we often start out with a big idea idea in mind. It’s what gives us that jolt of adrenaline when the idea first comes to us, and powers us through many hours of sleepless nights as we flesh out the details. It causes us to excitedly tell all our friends at every opportunity, and to eventually build a team, incorporate a company, and get started.

But then something happens. When we’re in the muck of trying to make a company work, we find we need to continually narrow and narrow and narrow the focus of what we are working on, until we have something very small and concrete that we can launch to the world. It’s impossible to ‘boil the ocean’ as they say — to try and work on something too big from the outset. So we set out merely to establish a beach head, and expand from there.

Then we discover our first hypothesis didn’t quite work as planned. We learn from our customers, we iterate and pivot, and before too long we find that we are now all-consumed with just solving this one damn thing. It’s no longer about solving a big change-the-world problem, it’s just about getting something working. The big idea seems lost.

Let me illustrate with two of the companies that I started. The first, Omnisio, set out to revolutionize online education. I’d read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Danny Hillis’ paper on “Aristotle” — the knowledge web, and man did I want to build the the Primer. Wouldn’t that be cool? And yet, after testing, pivoting, and iterating we ended up launching a video player with annotations and synchronized powerpoint slides. Would we have gotten back to the big vision had we not sold to YouTube? It’s hard to say — the realities of trying to survive as a startup and pay rent are very real constraints.

The second example is Inporia. We founded the company with a grand vision of changing the way commerce is done online. There hadn’t been any groundbreaking innovation since Amazon launched in 1994, we figured. Surely we could build some amazing technology that would change the way people shop online forever. Since we had no prior experience, we launched several experiments that explored the space — everything from machine learning and personalization (, to massive data gathering and analysis ( And even a pure game, called Fashion Blitz. We ended up with a mobile app for browsing and buying fashion called Kaleidoscope. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great app and judging by user feedback we nailed the UX and built something that users absolutely love. But it was a far cry from changing the way commerce is done online.

How can we retain the big picture? How can we work on truly big ideas? Am I being too hard on myself, and impatient? (It wouldn’t be the first time.)

I actually started this blog post more than two years ago, and I stopped at this point because I didn’t have many answers. I wrote the post to help me think through the issue. In the two years since I’ve started a third company — one that so far appears to be doing quite well — and I have some new insight on the topic.

I think the solution is to keep two realities in mind simultaneously. By that I mean keeping a relentless focus on doing everything necessary to stay alive in the short term, while at the same time keeping the ‘big idea’ in mind and making sure you are moving toward it.

This is not easy and requires a some skill in managing one’s own psychology as an entrepreneur — this is a topic I plan on writing much more about on this blog.

It may be possible to drop the first reality and focus only on the ‘big idea’ if you are independently wealthy. Elon Musk and Richard Branson come to mind as people who are working on some particularly audacious projects, and they are fortunate enough to no longer need other people’s money to make their ideas happen. At a company level, Google is an example of a company that can afford to work on big, audacious projects (self-driving cars, glucose sensing contact lenses) because they have an awesome cash cow in their search advertising business.

Without that luxury, for example when running a company backed by venture capital and faced with a runway that is rapidly diminishing, there is significant pressure to focus on the short term and just get something working with the hopes of raising additional capital, even if it is at the expense of the original big idea. Maybe it is necessary to get one tiny thing working first, something that makes enough money to pay the bills and finally free us to work on ‘the big thing’. Yet even this is hard and requires tremendous discipline. If you have something that is making money, and can be improved to make even more money, it is very hard to ignore it and spend your time working on something that may not show a return for many years.

I’ll end with a story from my latest venture. We started with the big idea of transforming the way work is performed by deskless workers, whose state of the art technology today is often paper and a clipboard. The release of Google Glass gave us an exciting platform that we could use to deliver information and communication to this class of workers. It turned out that wearable computing hardware is still too early to be practical in a wide variety of situations, but customers saw tremendous value in running our software solution on “traditional” smartphones and tablets. We are earning significant revenues on these form factors today, and this gives us the resources to continue as a business and allows us to pursue the same ‘big idea’ we began with. We are slowly putting the building blocks in place to make our big idea a reality, and continue to aim to put “a dent in the world” by improving the lives of deskless workers globally, irrespective of the hardware platform our solution is delivered on as technology progresses: mobile & tablets → wearables → a chip in your head, etc…

Lesson learned: Do whatever is necessary to stay alive in the short term. And when you feel stuck in the muck keep the big picture in mind to keep your passion alive.

By the way, we are hiring.