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BIG IDEAS

Why the World Needs Big Ideas

With so many businesses thinking small, true audacity and vision mean more than ever.

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Sixteen years ago, Gigi Mander founded Outsource Resource International, a one-person business that markets other companies' products overseas. For her second act, she intends to eliminate world poverty.

Mander, who grew up in the Philippines, dreams of buying hundreds of acres of farmland, starting in either Asia or Africa. On that land, she would install irrigation systems that recycle water and erect green modular housing, schools, and clinics. She would then relocate poor peasant farmers to these "sustainable villages," provide them with seeds and modern equipment, and sell their crops through the network of brokers and companies she has cultivated over years of marketing products as diverse as lingerie and coal all over the world.

But the word dreams is not strictly accurate. Mander has been pursuing this plan for five years, building a bench of experts from people with whom she does business. She recently completed a business plan and is starting to hit up her network for introductions to potential investors. "I'm an extremely positive person," says Mander, whose company is based in New York City. "I know this sounds big, but to me, it's not intimidating."

Jim Collins famously urges leaders to pursue BHAGs: goals that are big, hairy, and audacious. Mander's goal with this new venture, which she calls Global Farming Industries, is vast, hirsute as a yeti, and arguably quixotic. But you've got to admire the hell out of her for trying. At a time when tens of thousands of entrepreneurial mind-hours are devoted to the invention of apps, and the long tail grows ever longer with increasingly niche products, the return on investment of taking on huge, complex challenges isn't obvious. Why tackle things most folks can barely wrap their brains around when you can make millions pushing the penny?

The world's most confounding problems are solved in increments and iterations; that is one rationale for entrepreneurship. Still, society needs its visionaries. The past two decades have given us people like Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is revolutionizing commercial space travel and may someday make it possible to inhabit other planets. Wendy Kopp, who launched Teach for America with the goal of eliminating the academic achievement gap between poor and rich children. Craig Venter, who with Celera set out to sequence the entire human genome and is now developing synthetic life.

The serial aerospace entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis believes the number of wildly ambitious entrepreneurs is rising because technology lets people think and work on a grander scale. Diamandis is co-founder, with inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, of Singularity University, an interdisciplinary institution for graduate and executive-level studies where students are challenged to improve the lives of a billion people within a decade. "We're living at a time where if you build a platform or a great product or a service, you can touch a billion people," says Diamandis. "If you can achieve that, why would you want to do anything less?"

Collins observes that mediocre organizations cannot pull off BHAGs any more than mediocre athletes can win Olympic medals. Ambitious goals force entrepreneurs to strengthen their skills by swimming against the tides of disbelief and discomfort. Their organizations become similarly tough and toned.

More provocatively, Collins suggests that people leading and working in such companies experience time differently from those engaged in less ambitious pursuits. On one hand, horizons stretch "to where you are no longer managing for the quarter, but for the quarter century," he says. At the same time, paradoxically, a sense of urgency prevails. "You look at it and say, Oh, my goodness, if we're going to bring the world into the jet age, if we're going to transform education or put a computer on every desk, then we have got to get to work today with a level of intensity that is unrelenting. Because the only way you can achieve something that big is with an absolutely obsessed, monomaniacal, overwhelming intensity and focus that starts today and goes tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day. That's how you do it."

In our Big Ideas series, we profile several early-stage, visionary ventures attempting large-scale change in critical sectors. We took a fairly narrow view of what constitutes a Big Idea. So the potential for riches was not a determining factor; building a multibillion-dollar business may be practically but not conceptually ambitious. Innovation was necessary but not sufficient--we passed over breakthrough inventions unsupported by concrete plans for wide-scale deployment. Finally, making a difference had to be part of the plan. Jack Dorsey and his co-founders reportedly envisioned Twitter as enabling "a short burst of inconsequential information." Kudos for facilitating political upheaval in the Middle East. Zero points for intent.

The leaders of the companies profiled here embarked on their quests armed with certain advantages: Experience. Relationships. Track records. Perhaps most important, they found the problems they want to solve endlessly fascinating. They saw a way that everything fit together. They believed themselves uniquely positioned to do the fitting.

More entrepreneurs should aspire to do the same. Audacity underlies every start-up: the belief that from nothing, you will bring forth something that makes someone's life better. So take that audacity and kick it up a notch or a hundred notches. If you fail, it won't be for lack of courage or imagination. And if you succeed, those successes will be felt around the world.

IMAGE: Illustration by Brett Ryder
Last updated: Oct 31, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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