Great Ideas for your Small Business:
Think BIG – It Doesn’t Cost Any More than Thinking Small
I learned an important lesson from all the entrepreneurs I profiled for my “Succeeding in Small Business” column before starting my own multimedia communications business: It doesn’t cost any more to think big than it does to think small.
When I was working in the garage behind my Sun Valley, California, home I wrote “THINK BIG” in four-inch high, black vinyl stick-on letters on the battered file cabinet beside my desk. Visitors would always laugh at that message, but it really inspired me to follow my dreams and create a successful media company.
No matter what kind of business you have, you should always strive for the biggest accounts, the biggest deals, or the biggest network of dealers. Thinking big motivates you to do the best work you can and to operate at a higher level professionally and personally. So much depends on your mental attitude, and if you feel and act confident, you will be more successful in life and in business.
I started thinking big from the moment I quit my job to start my own company, and it has led me in some astonishing directions. Thinking that I could provide custom small business–oriented content and event production services to the biggest companies in the world was pretty audacious. But after creating and syndicating my own small business radio show, we landed a major contract with American Express to develop a small business resource center. Soon after that, we were providing high-level consulting services to Wells Fargo Bank and coproducing a national book tour to promote the first edition of this book with three corporate sponsors.
Thinking big also led me to the creation of Back on Track America™, a national coalition to revive the small business economy. The morning of September 11, 2001, my friend, Vanessa, had taken the train from Manhattan to Pelham to meet me for a quick breakfast before flying home to Cincinnati.
When we stopped in the taxi dispatcher’s office to ask if we could leave her luggage there, we found out that the air- ports were closed because planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Vanessa came home with me, and when she had no luck finding a car to rent, I suggested she call Amtrak. “The trains will start running again much sooner than the airports will reopen,” I predicted.
Vanessa was able to get the last seat on a train leaving New York for Boston the next day. From Boston she would make her way West, eventually returning to Cincinnati (by car from Dayton). That night, I did my biggest thinking ever: If I could get Amtrak to give me a train (or at least free tickets), I could take a faculty of small business experts around the country to shore up the morale of small business owners already suffering from the recession before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The “back on track” phrase came to me that night, but it was our CPA, John D’Aquila, who suggested adding “America.” With the perfect name and a simple premise, I went into a manic phase that lasted three weeks.
I called every person I knew and asked them to join what soon became a national coalition of big and small companies, business associations, and business experts willing to volunteer their time and brainpower to get the nation’s entrepreneurs back on track. I convinced speakers to talk for free and producers to cut their day rates. With the help of my friend and colleague, Linda Denny, we obtained free hotel rooms from Wyndham Hotels and VIP receptions across the country from Club Corp., which owns clubs and resorts around the United States.
America Online, our biggest client, provided an enormous amount of online marketing and public relations support for six stops on the tour. They also paid for a press party in Union Station in Washington, D.C. Fleet Bank rented an off-Broadway theatre for the first event in New York City and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Although every event included workshops, a reception, and a community Town Hall–style meeting, each was different, crafted to reflect the specific needs of the community.
SBTV produced the tour at cost, paying the operating expenses with modest contributions from our biggest corporate clients and by selling memberships and newsletter sub- scriptions at Back on Track America™ events.
The idea was so big that people understood it right away. When one person said yes, it inspired me to keep asking for bigger and bigger favors. I asked a composer friend to write a song, “Back on Track,” which we recorded in Hollywood and distributed to radio stations. Another friend, who designs high-end custom jewelry, agreed to design a railroad track pin for sponsors and supporters.
If you look at why some entrepreneurs attract money and support while others never get anywhere, it’s because the successful people aren’t afraid to take risks, and their bold thinking attracts others to invest in them. Microsoft founder Bill Gates never graduated from college but managed to start the most successful software company in the world because his big thinking predicted that people would want their own easy-to-operate personal computers. Michael Dell started building made-to-order computers in his dorm room and continues to lead the industry by providing reliable hardware at a fair price. They both had a simple but big idea and never stopped trying to make more money and serve more customers.
One of the secrets of thinking big is being able to clearly express and articulate your vision. When Amtrak agreed to provide transportation, for example, everyone got the message that Back on Track America™ was going to be a very big effort to revive the entrepreneurial spirit across America.
When America Online, part of the biggest media company on the planet, said yes to promoting the initiative to its members, other companies raced to get on board. With such solid support, Back on Track America™ reached thousands of veteran and novice business owners across the country with our message: “Bringing Spirit, Strength, and Prosperity Back to America’s Entrepreneurs.”
So, don’t be afraid to think big even if you’re small. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
How to think big
- Once you’ve perfected your idea on a small scale, figure out how to grow it to the next level quickly before someone with a similar idea does.
- Engage other big thinkers to help you. Ask successful industry leaders to serve on your advisory board or act as informal mentors.
- Enroll your employees in the concept by sharing your vision frequently. Ask them how they would improve the idea or concept.
- Pitch your story to the media. Once someone reports on your idea, it’s much easier to attract new investors and supporters.
- Be open to evaluating what is working and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to regroup and change direction if necessary.