October 2015

September was a bumpy month for the stock market. The excitement (as well as gains and losses) shook market watchers out of their stupor. For example, in September, share prices for Google were considered a bargain at $600. Astounding, isn’t it? In a world where $600 can still take a person relatively far- to London and back for instance, or cover the cost of a month’s rent or mortgage- that same amount could only purchase a single share in a technology company. That’s a bit like the financial equivalent of standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon- the sheer size of such a company (when compared to very human scale items like plane tickets or rent) is difficult to fathom.

But before Google became an international technology colossus (and a verb!) it was a lowly research project undertaken by two doctoral students at Stanford University. From there the company moved into a friend’s garage where the cost of a single share today could well have covered the company’s monthly overhead. Humble beginnings, you see. But humble beginnings aren’t exclusive to Google. Apple and Amazon.com were also famously founded in garages (in California and Seattle respectively.)

Then there’s the Yankee Candle Company, started by a teenager named Michael Kittredge in his mother’s kitchen in 1969. Young Mr. Kittredge funded his little venture using money he earned from a part-time job. In 2013 the company was valued at $1.75 billion.

While the list goes on, I won’t. The point here is that it’s all too easy to look with awe and envy at marketplace behemoths, their high stock prices, and international clout, and think that it’s unattainable. This would be an opportune time to remember that limitations are often self-imposed. The Amazons, Googles, Apples, and Yankee Candles of the world didn’t enter the marketplace with the swagger and influence that they command today. Those companies were labors of love grown in garages, basements, and kitchens across America by average people armed with an idea, a plan, a bit of start-up capital (garnered from a part-time job, if necessary), and a “think big” mentality.

All too often, we hear complaints from would-be (and even current) entrepreneurs. Excuses why their business ideas won’t work, why something can’t be done, or why their business growth is limited by their area. If the founders of blue chip companies thought that way, the business landscape would look very different today.

For example, when Steve Wozniak designed the first motherboard for the newly founded Apple Inc. in 1976, typewriters were king in offices and households around the world. Few people had ever heard of computers much less had interest in spending $2700 (in today’s dollar) for one.

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos began his little online bookstore in 1994 America was shopping at brick and mortar stores and the internet was still relatively unknown. These entrepreneurs did not focus on “what is” but rather on “what can be.” They were focused on the big picture.

And since we’re on the subject, a word more about limitations. I’d like to share an article that I recently read comparing the rigors of naval engineering to residential architectural design. The piece is concise and insightful on the subject of design, but it also offers a certain parlay into business:

“… restrictions create the need for ingenuity. In boat design form must follow function because there isn’t  room for the extraneous. The aesthetic of functionality forces beauty in design.”

The author concludes that in boat design, and I argue in business and life as well, we would be well-served to confront challenges head on. Finding solutions to business-related issues (much like the space restraints and seaworthiness standards that naval architects contend with while striving to create something of beauty) does more than simply allow us to move forward. Overcoming those obstacles gives us experience and eventually makes us into better contractors, architects, engineers, and business owners. It gives us another perspective and for that alone, the process ought to be embraced.

Once we purge our minds of what we believe we can’t do, the sky’s the limit. Just ask Apple, Google, and Amazon.

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