How I Built a $2 Billion Company by Thinking Small14 September, 2016 / Articles
There’s a big advantage in starting small. Polycom’s biggest early breakthrough, for instance, came about as the result of a 95-cent book I purchased from RadioShack in 1991. That pamphlet taught my cofounder and me about a nerdy topic known as “acoustic suspension,” a concept that showed us the fallacy in assuming that big sound demands a big loudspeaker.
Using this simple principle, we were able to go small by bringing two separate acoustic environments into a compact space. That tiny shift in our thinking is what set us on the path to selling millions of phones and changing what conference rooms look like today — a path that continues to be built from small innovations, small designs, and small habits.
Over my 25 years at Polycom we’ve had our fair share of big things, but they didn’t happen by making those big things the centerpiece. Big things happen because of small things, which means that if all you do is “go big,” you’ll never actually get to your goal. To help escape the myth of going big, I want to share three small things that I’ve learned make a big difference.
Small innovations. Zeroing in on small innovations leads to big breakthroughs. After all, the hinge for innovation, as cliché as it might sound, is doing more with less. Instead of becoming obsessed with big, ask yourself questions like, “What’s the smallest change we could make in our product, our delivery, our distribution, our organizational structure, or our communication?” Even better are questions that force you to add by subtraction: “What could we take away from those same areas to make them better and simplify the process?”
Small designs. This second insight flows out of the first. However, designs are about what the customer experiences, rather than the innovations that define them.
Focusing on small design isn’t just about reducing size; it’s also about reducing complexity. As counterintuitive as it may sound, every new iteration of our products has been driven not just by making those products do more but also by letting their users do less.
In Creativity, Inc., Pixar’s founder and CEO Ed Catmull describes how the rectangular tables in Pixar’s meetings (its meeting design) negatively impacted creativity early on. Pixar soon moved from using a rectangular table to a square table. Small design change? Yes. Big results? Definitely.
We came to the same conclusion when designing RealPresence Centro, our newest video conferencing solution. Both its external structure and internal acoustics are optimized for meeting “in the round” instead of at formal bowling-alley conference room tables. This is another demonstration of enhancing usefulness by reducing complexity, rather than just adding on feature after feature. After all, the point of any product or physical design is to not be noticed — to become so simple, another kind of small, that the experience feels natural.
Small habits. It’s the small habits that count. These can be simple things like watching the game with friends, getting a full night’s sleep, putting the date at the top of every page of notes. Even thinking about the day ahead while in the shower can be a small habit with big payoff. As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, something as big as a happy life doesn’t happen because we aim for it; it happens almost through self-assembly when we supply it with a variety of good small habits.
Some small habits come naturally, like eating or checking for our keys. Some we develop as time goes by, and we learn what works and what doesn’t.
As I’ve come to understand the importance of collaboration, I’ve learned that one of my biggest small habits happens at the close of every pitch, presentation, or meeting I’ve joined. I’ll think about who on their team is a valuable player, and ask the presenter one question: “What did [that player] think of this?”
Asking that question does two things. First, it forces me to invest in the small but powerful practice of learning the names and faces of the people involved. Second, my leaders are reminded that I expect them to get input from their entire team, rather than make decisions in isolation.
It’s always tempting to try to capture some grand solution in one leap. While that can happen, far more often the best decisions and the best solutions are constructed within an environment of small habits, innovations, and designs. Going small doesn’t mean you can’t go big. It means that when you finally do get big, there is an excellent chance for it to become a brilliantly remarkable big.