“My biggest fear is that one day, we will no longer be a startup; we will turn into a big company.”
Think Big. Big is beautiful. Go Big or Go Home.
I find the startup world littered with Truisms around ‘Big’. And I can appreciate the desire to associate with the word. Who starts life wanting to be small and puny? Which child when asked to draw his dream house, draws a hut? Dreams are always big. And for good reason. I googled for the equivalent in ‘Small. ‘Small Lives’ came up. And I quickly closed the browser. Ouch.
Many years back when I was in my advertising career, we tried to acquire a regional company. The company was known for its design skills, the founder was a brilliant artist and graphic designer, and attracted many young cutting-edge designers to the firm. The company was small but did fabulous work. The kind of work that we – sitting in our large multinational office – envied. And desired. We courted the founder. Wined and dined him. Made a big offer to acquire the company, where cash was one big part of the offer. The bigger carrot – at least according to us – was that we would make the founder the head of design for the acquiring firm. And hence give him an All India platform to display his wares. This was the breaking point. The founder walked away. And the reason he gave stuck in my head forever. “I prefer to remain small.”
My co-founder Vineet Gupta can speak for hours on the pioneering digital marketing company he founded – 22 feet. He can tell you about the fun they had working on brands, the websites they launched, the cutting-edge content programs they created, and most importantly the team that he built. His passion will shine through in his words, you will walk away wanting to have been a part of that cause and that movement. Now ask him to speak about the acquiring entity, which he went on to head once he sold his company. I will be surprised if you get more than a few words from him.
My contention is that Big is not always beautiful. Thinking Big is not always a good thing. I see many founders falling in love with the idea of being big, being the biggest in the category, the biggest in India, the biggest in the world. I see metrics being shared – number of transactions flowing through our platform, the size of the workforce. I see some of them trying to expand their business too early, launching markets before stabilising their core business. The aspiration to be big – like I said – is very understandable. But it’s when you are small, that you can aim for perfection. You can correct the mistakes you are bound to make. You can evolve your culture. You can pay attention and create your core team – which will serve you when you become big. I think we should learn to be small BEFORE we become big. There is a beauty and simplicity about smallness that will never come again in your journey.
And then there are categories and businesses where you should continue to be small. And remain small. Because you can make a dent in the world being small. By ONLY being small.
Take us, for instance. Spring Marketing Capital is a marketing consulting firm with an investment arm. We will never work on all the companies in India. We will never be an army. We aim to make about 15 investments in our fund life. We aim to work on about 20 companies every year – investments + consulting. We aim to put together a team of around 35/40, a few good people – we are already 28. Our investment strategy is based on our marketing expertise. And hence capital is only one part of our offering. The other, more important part, is our bandwidth. And we need to guard that. By being small.
Modest ambitions? Playing for small change? Nope. Our business model calls for us to be small. To be nimble and agile. To be involved in every brand we partner with. To go deep. And we can only do that if we are small.
So what does being small mean for us? We say ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes’. We carefully choose the brands we work with. We are slow in hiring. We take time on decision making. We look for the ‘few’. The few brands that we can make a difference with. The ones that will allow us to make a dent in the universe. We try to craft our work. We stay personally involved in the brands we partner with. We try to get to know each founder who comes our way. We pursue the small.
I would urge you as a founder to figure out your aspiration, your life stage and your point-in-time objective. Do you need to be small now? Do you need to perfect your product? Do you need to spend time with the key members of your team who would define your future? And, does your business and category actually call for you to be ‘small’ forever? Can you build a meaningful business that way? When Whatsapp was acquired, it had 55 people working for it, 32 of them in the product team.
I am reminded of a quote from the biggest startup brand we work with — Byju’s. By all indications, Byju has massive aspirations. And has delivered on many of them. Has built arguably the largest education technology company in the world. And still says: “My biggest fear is that one day, we will no longer be a startup; we will turn into a big company.” Go figure.