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One Door at a Time

Our friends at Basecamp recently wrote an article called “One Door At A Time” about not worrying too much about scaling, and just focusing on what is in front of you.

One door at a time

Entrepreneurs are told to go big or go home. Stop obsessing over scale, and perfect the basics instead.

Last year, I met a first-time entrepreneur who was opening a tea shop. We’ll call him John.

At the time, he had a pop-up shop in my neighborhood. I really liked him, his vision, and the quality and presentation of his tea, so we kept in touch. When he decided to go from pop-up to permanent shop, he asked for my advice.

While we were talking about this permanent shop, which he still hadn’t opened, his attention would often drift to his next shop. And the one after that. And after that. And then building an app to make online ordering easy. And then, becoming the next Starbucks.

Whoa. Hold on, man, I told him. I get it, scaling the business seems sexy. But, I said, that is the entirely wrong thing to think about now. I wouldn’t spend even a second on it. You have a serious challenge in front of you: opening your first real store and getting your first customer (that isn’t a friend or family) in the door.

In getting just one store right, everything is against you. You have to design and build out the physical structure. You have to hire good people to run the shop when you aren’t there. You have to train those people. You have to get the menu right. You have to get the pricing right. You have to get the presentation right. You have to get customer service right. You have to get customers in the door. And then you need to get them to come back.

So much to get right in the here and now. Not down the road, but today.

I’ve noticed that John isn’t alone in his desire to go big. Something’s changed in what’s expected of the entrepreneur. Ten years ago, people were excited to just start a business, to create their own thing so they didn’t have to go work for someone else. They wanted to make a good living, buy a house, and be able to pay for their kids’ college.

But now, entrepreneurship seems like a sport. And the score depends on scale. How big can you get? How fast can you get big? How much power can you amass in the shortest possible time?

There are lots of forces pushing this scale-it-up, go-big-or-go-home mirage. Business schools are guilty of pumping pipe dreams into students’ heads: If you follow this framework, you can become the next Howard Schultz or Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. Media worship of super-fast-growing companies — many of which are actually terrible, money-losing companies — fuels the fire. Reality TV and social media make it look like everyone can afford a $5,000-a-month studio apartment in San Francisco.

This narrative is out of whack. Your teenager may enjoy doing school plays, but you’d be irresponsible to urge her to move to Hollywood and try to become a movie star overnight.

If she is serious about acting, you might encourage her to audition for local roles (or head to a slightly larger city where there’s more opportunity), and build a reel and a reputation, which, hopefully, over time, would allow her to replace tips from waiting tables with paychecks from acting jobs.

Yet many entrepreneurs believe they can rush right to the top. Skip the fundamental work, and just scale, baby! One store is for losers; if you want to make it, you need 100 stores. This kind of thinking is poisonous. It sets entrepreneurs up to fail from day one. It’s like telling aspiring basketball players that all they need to practice are flashy dunks. Free throws? Dribbling with your left hand? Passing? Playing defense? Ha! Whatever! We know how that advice would turn out.

So, back to John. His ambition is good. And it’s good that he has a vision. But he would be much better off focusing all that energy on store number one, pouring everything into making it a destination people can’t ignore. Only then, once there is a line out the door, is it time to think about doing it again. One door at a time.

Well said, Jason.

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