Summary: Success in a start-up can often be achieved by thinking big and going after very ambitious goals. In this article, I will describe a three-step process for entrepreneurial achievement: First, establish a baseline of your current goals. Then, elevate your thinking to what seems impossible. Finally, retrace a new baseline that represents the sweet spot between the old baseline and “Beyond-Possible.”
The virtue of seeing as a novice.
Five years ago, when I joined Rocket Internet as Managing Director for one of their portfolio companies, I had a reputation for being very ambitious and sometimes even asking for the impossible from my staff. This mindset was driven mainly by my determination to win, but also in part by my lack of knowledge about practical limitations in our sector. Still, setting impossible targets drove our staff to think outside the box and come up with novel approaches to achieve more. As a result, we overtook the competition and became the market leader for e-commerce in five countries in Asia, recently even selling the company to Alibaba Group.
Looking back, I’ve learned that lack of experience can sometimes be a virtue. Without a well-defined set of expectations regarding the boundaries of the system you are operating in, you have the opportunity to disrupt an industry with a fresh pair of eyes.
Another well-known example of this phenomenon is when Elon Musk transformed the space travel industry by building a re-usable rocket, something that was conceived of as impossible at the time. Of course, now we know that this innovation gives SpaceX a huge cost advantage over other missile operators.
“Crazy” is the root of transformation.
People with “crazy” ideas who hit the sweet spot between how things are conventionally done and what is conceived as impossible are the ones driving human progress. From the outside perspective, these entrepreneurs move beyond conventional and increase the scope of what then becomes possible in the process. In doing so, they can sometimes make the kind of impact that Steve Jobs famously termed “a dent in the universe.”
There is actually a very famous sports story neatly emphasizing this:
On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4-minute mile. Before this landmark race, it was widely believed to be impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes. In fact, for many years, it was believed that the 4-minute mile was a physical barrier that no man could break without causing significant damage to the runner’s health. Within two and a half years, ten runners had broken the 4-minute mile, and within four years the mark was lowered to 3:54.5.
So, what happened to the physical barrier that prevented humans from running the 4-minute mile? Was there a sudden leap in human evolution? No. It was the change in thinking that made the difference.
While this story is very inspiring, it lacks actionable take-aways for moving beyond possible in everyday start-up life. Therefore, I’d like to introduce a practical three-step approach to move “Beyond-Possible” in a structured manner:
To put this into practice, let’s look at three different situations in a start-up setting:
- Deriving operational targets and KPIs
- Designing user experiences that customers love
- Finding new start-up ideas
Deriving operational targets and KPIs
Deriving operational targets and KPIs is one of the most obvious use cases for the “Beyond-Possible” framework. It can help you to rationalise how and why higher targets can be achieved. As a result, you can get more output with the same level of cash and time investment. And as a plus, if you do it in a workshop format with the team, you can achieve a strong buy-in from your staff since they will perceive the new baseline as logical and achievable.
I’d like to give you two real-world examples from the past couple of weeks:
First, I had a meeting with the founders of one of my portfolio companies to discuss their business plan. They presented their target to reach $250K in monthly sales by the end of the year. Using the “Beyond-Possible” framework, I asked them why they can’t achieve $1 million in monthly sales, drilling down to a level of detail that included how many people they would need to hire and what kind of efficiency gains they would need to realise. Now, 500K, twice as much as their original target does not seem so distant anymore. This could potentially lead to a big uplift in valuation for the next round.
Second, I had a meeting with the founder of a lead-gen oriented business referring a variety of services. We discussed a potential investment in the company as well as their operating plan. The fraction of value they currently capture with selling leads seemed very low to me, so I challenged the founder to go from EUR 60 APR to EUR 500 APR. We then identified 2–3 low-hanging fruits for further monetisation potential and the business is now on track to significantly drive up the unit economics on a per user basis.
The key for using the “Beyond-Possible” framework to derive operational targets and KPIs does not primarily lie in the act of simply setting high targets. The main value comes from analyzing what value-driving levers need to be pulled to make the sky-high target happen. This in turn helps you to understand what factors will most significantly contribute towards reaching a new baseline target that you define. As a result, you will be able to out-maneuver your competitors and drive excess value for your company.
Designing user experiences that customers love
- First, they established the old baseline, which they called a 5-star experience: “You knock on the door, they open the door, they let you in.”
- Then, they go step-by-step around imagining the “Beyond-Possible” 10-star experience: “There’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering [your] name with cars welcoming [you] to the country, and it would be just a mindf**k experience.”
- Finally, they retraced to a middle ground, which is when a host greets you with a bottle of wine and has a surfboard ready because you like surfing.
Generally, the “Beyond-Possible” approach is highly suited for designing customer experiences that turn your customers into brand ambassadors who generate lots of positive word-of-mouth visibility for your company. Obviously, it’s always important to balance impact, feasibility, and costs. Still, there are often low-hanging fruits that can be exploited in an 80/20 manner.
Finding new start-up ideas
I believe some of the best start-up ideas are contrarian or at least unconventional in nature. This is due to two main reasons:
- Due to the efficiency of markets, the best among the most obvious ideas are often already taken and executed upon.
- There is less competition around these ideas leading to the potential to build a monopoly with above average profit margins.
Consequently, you should train your mind to come up with these contrarian, unconventional ideas.
To achieve this, we can utilise the “Beyond-Possible” approach starting with step 2:
To begin with, open up your mind to think about complete bat-shit crazy ideas. As a result of this, you will end up with a large number of really bad ideas, but I promise you will also get some ugly ducklings in there that will become beautiful swans down the line. This line of thinking is actually reflected in studies from MIT and the University of California Davis. Famous author, Seth Godin, also states the importance of producing lots of bad ideas, arguing that it leads to less failure in creative people like entrepreneurs than having no ideas at all.
Then, reflect upon your ideas. You can do this by using the “Element of Certainty” approach that I’ll explain in my next blog post. Typically, you want to avoid at all cost the ideas that are conventionally accepted but actually bad. An example for this would be to open a parking lot now that autonomous vehicles are just around the corner.
The key is to identify those ideas that appear bat-shit crazy on the surface, but are actually good. I call those the “Ugly Ducklings”, because people will belittle you for pursuing them initially, but once the business opportunity materialises, they will admire you for your foresight and vision. An example for this is Airbnb, which failed to raise funding from many famous VCs initially because of their reservations about people willing to share their homes with strangers. In hindsight, these reservations are probably correct, but even if only 1% of people are willing to share their home, it’s still a massive market opportunity.
There are some mental models that can be used to separate the “Ugly Ducklings” from the “Skunks”. One of them is the “Binary vs. Spectrum” mental model I briefly described above. Essentially most people see the world very binary, when the reality is that most things truly move on a spectrum. On a more holistic level, you need to create an accurate vision of the future. How to do this will be a topic for future essays.
Once you have identified a list of “Ugly Ducklings” you want to separate them further into two types of ideas:
(1) Ideas that you want to and can pursue.
(2) Ideas that may be good but are already taken, too early, or simply to too unconventional to be accepted by society or the law.
Two examples for the latter would be a market place for trading human organs or using psychedelic drugs to treat mentally ill patients. Both good ideas if you do the research, but not possible to execute on them right now. Putting aside the second category, the first bucket then represents your new baseline of unconventional start-up ideas, for which a concrete market opportunity exists. If you asked me, I would recommend entrepreneurs in 2018 to look in the fields of FMCG, digital health, mobility and clean energy.
Beyond-Possible: A Winning Mindset
In summary, stretching your mind “Beyond-Possible” is what helps you to achieve the extraordinary results required for start-up success. This works equally for entrepreneurs or students looking for start-up ideas as well as executives who want to push their teams to reach more or drive up things like customer experience.
At my firm, 10x Value Partners, we work collaboratively with our companies on moderating this process to help them to achieve more and gain a valuable edge over the competition.