The Big Power of Small Ideas

This is the first post in a series about the power of small ideas.

In this article we’ll talk about why it’s important to realize that small ideas can have as much or more impact than big ideas.

In the second, we looked into how to re-envision your projects as a series of complete, smaller ideas making them easier to launch and manage.

Next, we discussed 2 ways to stay aware of our projects’ progress and keep them on track.

Finally, I brought in a real example of small ideas at work with a recent project at Tumble Design.

I've loved big ideas my entire life. They are inspiring and exciting. I identify with them.

In school, I made up for average grades by taking small projects and turning them into big, impressive ones. From third grade on, this was my reputation among teachers and friends.

So, when I dropped out of College, all of my ideas were for projects that revolutionized this or that industry, that would have huge communities and complicated dynamics that made them interesting, beneficial, unique and fun.

But time after time, these big ideas crashed and burned. It was hard for me to consider, let alone admit outright, that, actually, small ideas are much more powerful than big ideas.

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Small ideas get finished

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To date, the most successful project we’ve had at Tumble Design is the modest Nice Translator. We made NT just for fun on a whim. It took about a week to get the first full version running and went live soon after. These days it's pushing about 700,000 pageviews a month. Why? Because it launched.

It was much more barebones on that fateful November day in 2008 when I paid for $50 in Stumble Upon Ads. But no one cared because it did something useful, unique and it existed.

Since it was such a quick project, we still had a ton of steam to keep the ball rolling. Instead of being ready to celebrate out of relief when we shared it with the World, we were just gearing up for action. We could keep the momentum going because we weren't trying to move a boulder.

On the flip side, our would-be sister site of Nice Translator, Transissimo, was a huge idea that aimed to revolutionize the human translation industry. We invested every ounce of ourselves and months of work into Transissimo, but no amount of code could get us out the hole we dug by not launching for 6 months.

Once you’re in that hole, working harder does not get you out of it. In fact, I get the impression from Kevin Rose in this video that this is the exact hole Digg got into and why they stagnated after so much success.

Transissimo was an unfortunate casualty but taught us an incredibly important lesson: big ideas are heavy, they want to sink. Small ideas are light, they want to fly.

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Small ideas are flexible

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Ideas are composed of mental images. Images for how things will look, how things will work, how things will connect, how something in the future could be.

These images appear in our head describing an idea in progressively more detail. At first, this is great. What starts as just a flash of insight begins to grow and more images and ideas spawn around it.

The trouble is that, as an idea becomes bigger, the flood of images turn a free-flowing idea into something rigid. Something that can’t adapt and evolve over time.

Although pieces of the original idea may not exist yet, they begin to feel defined. At that point, it’s incredibly difficult to look at new information and redefine that piece to be most effective for the current, real circumstances.

We spent a ton of time thinking about every facet of Transissimo, but could only work on so much of it at once. Since it was such a big idea, we were defining components of it that we only got to months later. By that time, the parts we actually built evolved naturally and struggled to connect with the fantasized bits. That’s about the time things began to feel really constricting.

If I read this a few months ago, I would have thought, “Eh, I’d find a way to be flexible in that situation.”

But I would be missing the point. The point is that small ideas are innately flexible. You don't have to waste time figuring out how to be evolve, you just do.

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Small ideas are easy to communicate

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At some point, any great idea will need multiple people involved to become its best. Remember all those images you had associated with your idea? Well, working with others means everyone else on the project has their own images associated with it and they're probably considerably different than yours.

Someone who you’re telling your idea about for the first time has no images associated with it, so you’re responsible for communicating them in the clearest, truest way.

I often remind myself that when expressing a project to someone for the first time the idea is only as good as you communicate it.

Once again, Transissimo schooled us. In my head, everything connected, it was perfect, it made sense, it made translation exciting and fun. When I tried to share the details with others, time and time again, it just fell on its face. There were so many components, so many parts, so many gotchas, so many "but wait, there's more"s.

This made it very hard to communicate to people, most of whom rarely think for a moment of their day about translation.

Big ideas have lots of images and many of them are somewhat fuzzy. That makes them inherently difficult to share with others - even if you are describing them clearly, the person on the other end will probably stop listening well before you get to all of the parts.

Small ideas are concise, clear and contained. They want to be packaged up and given to someone, they want to spread.

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This is about the time where me from a few months ago would be thinking, "But I want to be working on ideas that can have some real impact on the world!" I associated big ideas with powerful ones and small ideas with weak ones.

These days, I'm noticing that the perceived size of an idea really tends to not have a huge correlation to  its impact. What does? Whether or not it launches, how well it matches a need and how well it's executed.

One last thought is that, even the ideas that look biggest on the outside were carefully composed of much smaller projects in practice. In the video above, Kevin Rose talks about the different 'trains' of development they're using now to launch things more quickly. What are trains? Small, approachable ideas that will actually launch!

Don't get me wrong: I will be responsible for carrying many enormous ideas to fruition in my lifetime, but I'll do them one small idea at a time.

Don't just read, take action!

  • Re-evaluate the projects you're working on now. Why aren't you going to launch tomorrow (if you are, congrats!)? Do you actually have more work to do, are you stalling or are you just digging yourself into the hole.
  • Divide a project you're working on into two parts and launch the first one twice as fast!
  • Fully explain what you're working on to someone who's never heard about it - if they start yawning before you feel they have a full grasp of what you're doing, it may be time to rethink your scope.
  • Give yourself a tiny weekend project and get it live before Monday.

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