On today’s episode we’re going to talk about the value of thinking small. Recently we had a session at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco, and it turned out to be a rather intimate affair. We don’t mind small crowds, but there are businesses out there who would find a small turn out (less than 15 people) distressing.

During this episode we’re going to tell you why having small projects that don’t have this massive audience can actually be a good thing. We tell you how starting small is a good way to connect with your audience. Always be prepared for the massive media success, but when it isn’t there is a cool dynamic change that can make the event special. Our event in San Francisco, may have been small, but it opened up new opportunities for questions most people wouldn’t ask at a larger event. That small event had big value.

Today’s points:

  • Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco
  • How there were organizational issues and how we responded.
  • Why every person is worth your time.
  • Everyone has an audience.
  • How small events actually create value.
  • How to be prepared for anything in a small event.
  • How small events are easier to personalize for an audience.

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Steli Efti: Hi everyone, this is Steli Efti.

Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.

Steli Efti: And in today’s episode of the Startup Chat we’re gonna talk about the value of thinking small. Maybe ways to do things in your business that don’t always scale or have massive reach or impact, and what the value of that is now, and how to think about that in a world where everybody’s just pointing into how do you scale? How do you grow? How do you do things that are impacting as many people as possible? How do you automate things and all that stuff? And the reason why we’re even considering to explore this question is that yesterday we were invited to give – to do a Q & A session of the Startup Chat at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco and it kinda went down in very unexpected ways. Right, Hiten?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, absolutely. We had room for about 40 people and we got there – Steli was about five minutes late because of traffic and Uber and all that stuff from South Bay. I was about right on time after finding some parking and I walked in the room – the elevator was full. There was like five, six people. I didn’t know what to expect of how many people were gonna be there. I had a feeling there weren’t going to be as many just from the vibe that I got. But, then I walked in and we literally had less than about 15 people in the room. And yeah, we – Steli and I have no problem with that. We roll with it.

One thing we said actually before we started was like, if it was just the two of us, that’s great. We would’ve turned on the recorder and just went for it and it would’ve been fine. But, there were 15 people in the room and we actually decided not to record it and had a – I think Steli, you used this word when you were describing it to your family. But, it was the word intimate and it was a very intimate sort of experience. And we didn’t record it unfortunately – or fortunately and we got into a lot of interesting topics that we’re not gonna share just because it was very intimate and the whole concept was that we weren’t gonna share it. And I think we – you and I both probably got a ton of value out of it and it got us really thinking about this.

One thing I’ll add is that I don’t think we can mention this topic without really mentioning Paul Graham’s essay on – what is it? Do things that don’t scale?

Steli Efti: Yep.

Hiten Shah: Because it really talks – speaks to the point of doing – not having to have a grandiose plan or thinking super big about something and instead realizing that – the line I like to use is actually everything that’s big now, started really small and started with baby steps and someone just taking action. Just like this podcast, we started with a baby step and recorded three episodes on a whim, starting with the first one where we tried to name it – name the podcast. And so, we – I think you and I really believe in this, but we’ve never really talked about it in this way where it’s like there’s actually a lot of value in starting small or even doing things that are small and to getting all caught up in making sure there’s a lot of people there or there’s 100’s of customers, or 100’s of anything.

And instead, knowing that it’s the baby steps that help you progress and also, small is good.

Steli Efti: Yeah, there’s a quote that I really love. Obviously, one question that people ask us – one person asked us is, what are the unique and not well known quirks of each other that we’ve uncovered over our 150 episodes of the Startup Chat. So, we gave some like analysis about each other and one of them that Hiten said is that Steli really likes quotes. So, here you go. My quote that I really love about this is that the great arises out of small things that are honored and cared for. And to me, that’s – that is something I try to remind myself every day of. Caring and honoring the small things with great love. It is really where greatness arises out of.

So, I wanna dial back a little bit first because I think there’s a lot to unpack form yesterday’s event. So, yes there’s a venue right. There’s a 40-person venue that the Lean Startup Conference has booked for us to do a recording. Now, when I arrived there – here are my very blurry expectations, right? My expectations are that the conference has promoted this to a degree where maybe 40 people show up, maybe just 20 or 30 people show up. My expectation is that we’re gonna – they’re gonna record this. They – I thought they would set this thing up to record it and we show up there and not only is at a totally different venue – they had the wrong address apparently publically posted and shared in their programs.

So, a lot of people have difficulties finding the place even. It was at the very last day and it was after all the sessions are over, like an hour or so later at 7:00 P.M. So, it’s not the perfect time. There’s nobody there recording and people have difficulty getting in because there’s a code, so somebody volunteered to stay at the door and tried to help the people that found it. Some people were tweeting to other where the place is. It’s not perfectly organized. I’m late. This is not the ideal setup.

And I show up there and there’s no recording. There’s a very small group. And that group of people I think at the beginning there was some sense of a – I think they were looking at us to see if we would be upset about this. Like, this is a much smaller crowd. This is not as well organized. This is not some kind of grandiose thing. Should we wait? What’s going on? And as Hiten said, to a certain degree we really didn’t care and this is I think – I thin it has to do with a few things. 1.) is rolling with the punches, right? Not having any massive expectations or not being attached to these expectations. But also, for us – every single person that showed up was special.

For us, having five people that came after a week-long conference at 7:00 P.M. and didn’t find the right address and had to work through everything to get there to sit and meet us and ask us questions, those – that’s amazing. It’s amazing that people care and go through all these hoops to meet with us. So, for us there was – this is not like a, oh well if it’s no 5,000 people it’s not worth our time. Every person’s worth our time. And I think that that comes back to like honoring and caring for the small things.

And then, it opened up opportunities to experiment, right? So, the unexpected thing was that we decided let’s not record this, which made people ask very intimate question, but also because it was a small group – I don’t know. How many people were there? Ten, five, 15? I don’t know. Small. Something along those lines. Because it was a small group, people asked a lot of question. People got the chance not just to ask one question and be done with it, but they kept asking more and more and more questions. And they stayed – I think were there for almost three hours, right?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, we were there for – yeah, almost three hours. I wanna say almost like – two and half hours. Yeah.

Steli Efti: Yeah. So, and if you think about this, two and half to three hours with like less than ten people or ten people, that’s a lot of questions. That’s very – and we went very deep. We had very – I think very honest, very intimate conversations. We shared some things about ourselves and about our thinking that we haven’t shared as publically, and in some cases we explored certain questions we really hadn’t considered before. So, it was – it became a special night.

From something that we could’ve I think judged as like a failure and bad organization, and waste of time – it became a special night. And so I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I think part of it is like honoring everything that’s in front of you and trying to have an open mind and not be as quickly to judge that this is not big enough or not good enough. And I’ll point to something – I’ll let you run with it from there because it reconnects back to the power of thinking small and doing things that don’t scale.

One person in the audience – one of the questions that the audience – one person that was there that asked about what would you do differently – like we talked – they – the people asked us a lot about how we stared this podcast, and how we’re running it, and how we’re growing it, and all these things. And one question was, well what do you do when you don’t already have – both of you guys have – were “famous” already and had audiences, how would you have started the podcast without being famous and having an audience? And we talked about this concept of A.) We didn’t – we weren’t born with an audience, right? We worked on it one person at a time and to the concept that everybody in that room has already an audience.

Everybody has a few hundred people on Facebook they’re connected with. A few hundred people on Twitter they’re connected with. They all have audiences. Their audiences still might be small and intimate just like that room was yesterday, but there’s an audience and if you value these people, and if you create intimacy with these people, and you create value for these people, that audience is gonna grow and it’s gonna be something special. And I think that that’s something a lot of times people don’t think about it that way. They go, I don’t have hundreds of thousands of followers like Hiten, so I cannot start a podcast.

Versus thinking, well I have a few hundred people and maybe out of those, ten or 20 really care and I really care, and I can create value for the. That’s all I need to get started.

Hiten Shah: Yeah, I love that point and it’s really, really, really powerful to start small. It’s really powerful to start with even just one person. I’m sure we would’ve had a lot of fun if it was just one person in the room. You and I probably would’ve rampaged them. We have a lot of opinions, advice, and banter, but it would’ve been fun. And I think a lot of that has to do with, in my mind, just our approach to a lot of things we both do. For me, a lot of this thinking small and doing things like that is just sort of learned behavior over time where I’ve just realized that if I have grandiose plans and ideas, and try to execute with those in mind I totally miss the mark and I don’t learn along the way.

And so, in the same way I think it was actually a lot of – we got more learning by having a small group yesterday because we got everyone introduce themselves, everyone talked about themselves a lot more, and their questions were so – I wanna say so different because they started asking us about our opinions about things that are very personal to us that we usually don’t get. Because we’ve done a few sessions like this and even myself, like I don’t usually get those kinda questions when there’s a lot more people.

I think part of it is you and I probably started being really open to as we kept going through the night and I still remember the last question that really – I’m not gonna blow it up and mention it. We might even probably do a whole episode on it once you and I get comfortable with that question, but I was very – and I didn’t get to say this to you, but I was very much aligned with what you had to say about it and it was one of those answers where I was like – not I can’t believe Steli said that, but this is something Steli and I never talk about it, but it something that both you and I observed. Which again, I didn’t tell you and is something that is a pet peeve that we can’t really talk about too often because it’s likely that most of the world is not in agreement with that. Although, it’s just a very ethical proper kinda way to be.

And these kinda tings don’t come out and you don’t get to learn about people and yourself, and things like that if you’ve got so much weight on yourself of like I gotta make this big. I gotta make sure there’s a lot of people there. And more importantly, when they – you just roll with it. I think another point here is that just be prepared for anything that’s so much more important on a lot of these areas in life than just having all these grandiose expectations of either yourself or others before you’re actually ready for those expectations

Steli Efti: Yeah, I love that. I think that one thing that we might wanna – I want to focus on a little bit here and explore a bit further is intimacy and intimacy being something that is typically like related more in personal life, but thinking about intimacy in business, in your career, in the way you conduct yourself, and the way you create relationships. One thing – I think we’ve noticed in – we’ve done now a few sessions where we’ve done public Q & As that are recorded and then we’ve done – I think at the Micro Printer Conference we did office hours. We did a Q & A on stage, but then we also did private non recorded office hours with smaller groups of people, with just ten people at a time.

And the interactions when you’re around a table and you have a small group of people, and it’s off record, and you have a good amount of time – interaction’s much more intimate, much more close. You get to know these people a lot closer. They get to ask a lot of follow up questions. We get to ask follow up questions and drill them. And it becomes a much more intimate, challenging, and sometimes fulfilling, or deepening relationship. And the impact that you can drive is much – it’s deep. It’s not wide. It’s deep. It touched a few people, but it touches them hopefully very, very significantly versus a lot of people maybe just on the surface.

Versus when you’re on stage, you get to touch more people, and it’s recorded, and thousands of people can watch this, and be inspired or something, but it’s – you are very far removed. We’re on a stage with a microphone. The audience is removed from us. They are down there; we are up there. Everybody gets to only ask a question. They need to be brief and we need to be brief with our answers because there’s lots of people that wanna ask questions. Totally different setting and I think it’s a good metaphor and it relates kind of to how you interact with your customers when you run a business, right? You just send generic newsletters from noreply@companyname to everybody who’s ever been a customer or signed up to anything. You lump everybody into a big audience and you just send one thing to everybody because that scales easily.

Or do you go personally and visit a customer, and bring a little present, and spend an hour or two at their office having coffee, talking to them, talking to the team, the individual user, try to really understand the customer and their world really, really intimately? Versus sending out a survey to everybody, right? And then just looking at the end results in bars and charts. 90 percent of the people that were surveyed said they like this. It’s a very far removed thing. It scales, but it’s very far removed from you looking somebody in the eye and they’re telling you this sucks about your product, but this is what we’re struggling with.

Hiten Shah: Yeah, it’s just a great reminder. You can deal with things in aggregate or in bulk, or you can really take the personal approach and – we’re all humans. We really like it when people take the time to talk to us or focus on us and make things personalized. And I think that it’s easy to forget that especially as you scale. We’ve scaled this podcast. There’s thousands of listener and I think you and I still get the most joy out of a lot of the one on ones that we end up having. Whether it’s someone randomly emailing us asking us something, or telling us how much they liked a certain episode, or even just saying thank you for just doing the podcast. And then us being able to essentially know them and know that we made an impact.

And I think – it isn’t just something that matters to the customer, the audience, or the other person. It actually matters to the creators, right? It’s like an artist makes a painting and someone interprets it in a certain why they didn’t think about, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just an interpretation and it’s something that even the creators and makers can get a lot of value from, which I think you forget over time sometimes if you’re not doing it constantly.

Steli Efti: Yeah, it’s not a one sided road, right? It’s not just like Hiten and Steli were so nice that they gave three hours of their time to this small group of people, even if it doesn’t scale any of their business or didn’t bring them millions in revenue. We got a lot of that interaction. We got to think about questions we’ve never – we didn’t think about before. We got to get to know each other better. We got to know our audience better. We got to get ideas of things to talk about. Today we’re recording an episode, but there’s a few more episodes that’re probably gonna come out of that interaction.

So, it’s a way to generate ideas. It’s a way to gain more insight about our customers and ourselves, and that’s insanely valuable. We got a lot out of that session, more so than just the people like us or more so than just the – we were generous with our time to these small audiences. It was not a we’re above this and we’re just charitable. It was this is as valuable – have 10,000 people in the audience in valuable in one way or another, but having ten people and being able to spend a lot of quality time with them, that was also equally valuable in just different ways for us.

Hiten Shah: Yeah, and it’s just easy to forget if you haven’t – if you’re not regularly doing it and in product development it’s really important to talk to as many customers as possible and actually be personal. Oftentimes, even when let’s say a new CEO comes into a larger company, they’ll actually go talk to – in a lot of these cases, the top 100 customers and just reassure them about a lot of things, or even talk to a lot of customers. And even at that scale when there’s a large company and someone new is taking over and they take the time to go do that, it really matters and there’s a reason they’re doing it.

Obviously, they wanna make sure customers are comfortable in happy, but at the same time they need to understand these people themselves, right? So, you do these things not just for the other person, but you also are doing them for yourself and that – doubling down on that never hurts and it’s always impactful to you and the other person. And I think that’s really our point in this sort of podcast, which is if you’re thinking really grand; thinking that everything needs to be big and grandiose, then just think twice. And think about what would it feel like? What would it look like? What would be like if it was small?

Steli Efti: I love that. Alright, I think that’s it for this episode from us.

Hiten Shah: Later.

Steli Efti: Bye-bye.