It’s time to build…small things

Founder Collective
4 min readMay 27, 2020

By David Frankel, Managing Partner at Founder Collective and on the board and/or first check into @pillpack , @seatgeek , @olo , @coupang, and many more.

It’s time to build,” is the new tech mantra and rightly so. We are unequivocally beset by challenges that require action but the best founders always seem to solve problems by maniacally focusing on:

💼 Use cases
🏅 Talent
🛣️ Go to market

We don’t have *a* health care problem or *an* education challenge.

We have thousands of them.

There’s a temptation to play Alexander and try to concoct a solution that will cut through the Gordian Knot.

Ambition is admirable but never disregard complexity.

🐁 Start with a small, nagging problem.

Maybe even a problem that seems trivial. Use that as a wedge.

Imagine how much you would learn organizing something as inconsequential as a “Zoom Trivia Night” for your family, block, school, or house of worship?

💼 Small problems lead to use cases

Prioritizing on small problems forces you to focus on use cases.

  • Do you use the event to raise funds?
  • To address social isolation?
  • To galvanize action around a political cause?

Each of those motivations would require a slightly different “product.”

🏅 Small problems highlight the need for new talent

  • Who will be the emcee for this event?
  • What kind of script would it follow?
  • How do you make it more fun than Netflix for all participants?

We’ll need some broad-minded product managers to meet these requirements…

🛣 ️Requires fresh thinking on Go to Market

  • How do you build hype and fill seats?
  • What can be done to sustain the community afterward?
  • Who might sponsor such an event?

Old commercial playbooks no longer work — new ones need to be written.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a $100M revenue startup emerge by productizing that hypothetical. A Tough Mudder for troubled times. I predict this pandemic will mint many successes that follow the “tech + community” dynamic that powers Peloton.

The current situation should be activating your entrepreneurial enzymes!

The bias should be to act on them, rather than a retrenchment to the world of planning. There’s only so much that can be reasoned out in this environment. The Brave start to experiment & execute.

Urging small scale action in the face of global challenges seems crazy, but re-read this classic Chris Dixon piece, “The next big thing will start out looking like a toy.”

When Eric Paley seed invested in Uber, it was a niche luxury. Up until 2014, the NYT was writing about it as a novel indulgence for young partiers. It ended up having a reasonably profound impact on urban mobility and “ownership.”

Have a big vision but also plan to use all possible tools at hand to advance it. Including the smallest ones. Many of your ideas will seem inconsequential or silly — Beware of ignoring those impulses. Linger on them longer. Think them through.

Start by asking: “What can I build with the tools currently at my disposal?” There is no proof that capital intensive remedies have a greater probability of success.

Thomas Edison is credited with saying: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I’d humbly paraphrase: “Great startups are missed by most people because they can often look trivial in their early days.”

One example: education

Take education. You could spend a year trying to get up to speed on academic research, developing a perfect product that embodies it, and attempting to go to market. Or you could try to pull together a digital summer camp alternative that will launch in four weeks.

The first effort will invariably be flawed but If you can actually engage kids for a few hours a day, you may just have a license to build out eLearning products for the fall and beyond.

In my experience, it seems that almost every $1B company started out as a $1M company which started out as a $1K company.

I think Harry Stebbings made an astute point noting that the great companies that came out of the ‘08–09 financial crisis were fueled as much by emerging technologies, as the “resourcefulness” that the macro conditions forced on founders.

In that spirit, we should be clear-eyed about *why* this may be a great time for entrepreneurs:

🍄 New use cases are popping up almost daily

📉 CAC’s are at decade-long lows

🎓 The world has changed — there are no experts

🦥 VCs will be slow to overfund competitors

🌌 By all means, please aspire to make a positive “dent in the universe.”

🔭 Apply your talents to the biggest challenges we face.

🍍 But don’t let ambition blind you to the low-hanging fruit all around us.

⚙️ The journey to a $1B company starts with a single prototype.



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