If you want to feel small--really small--take nine minutes and go to YouTube to watch the Charles and Ray Eames documentary Powers of Ten. Looking down at a picnic, the camera pulls back by an order of magnitude every 10 seconds, moving from a human perspective to a bird's-eye view and beyond, the picnic giving way to the city, to the continent, to the planet, to the solar system, and then to the universe itself.
And when the camera reaches its apogee, there you are, in your little office, in your little chair, dwarfed by the scale of everything that surrounds you.
I've been thinking about orders of magnitude a lot recently. At every turn, startups are told to multiply whatever they're doing by 10--at least. Venture capitalists, you see, will invest only if they are convinced that they'll get, at the minimum, a so-called 10X return. In meeting with said investors, startups are advised to expand their puny vision 10-fold. We need to think bigger; we need to consider the impact of our work on the largest scale possible.
The lesson seems to be that if you don't work at 10 times the degree of other mortals, you won't survive. This rush to scale can be a bit unnerving, needless to say. After all, every startup starts small--really small, and necessarily focused on details. It's good to have a world-changing vision, but to get there you have to start with one product that makes life better for just one person. Without that, you're nothing.
Day to day at my startup, Iodine, we're pretty small, just nine of us building a specific solution to a very human-scale problem. Our new app, Start, helps people with depression decide if their medication is working. That's the most simple, straightforward articulation of its purpose, and if you're thinking that doesn't sound like a world-changing proposition, I wouldn't say you're wrong--unless you're someone who is battling depression, or a physician attempting to treat depression in her patients. For those who are, it is potentially a very big deal, given how fraught and messy and inefficient the status quo of trial-and-error treatment is. So that's what we're fixing.
But 10X? Here's our orders-of-magnitude pitch: Start is solving a $210 billion problem. Thirty million people struggle with a condition often subject to inappropriate treatment and inefficient follow-up. Start turns this struggle into data that feeds a benevolent feedback loop to help answer two questions: Is this working for me? And what works for what people? It's a new paradigm to optimize treatment of a frustrating, costly disease.
And another order of magnitude: Start is just the beginning. If this works for depression, it will work for other hard-to-treat medical conditions. Chronic pain, arthritis, hypertension--our strategy can scale readily to reach 150 million Americans, and more than 500 million worldwide. The total addressable market crosses $5 billion, $10 billion, $20 billion.
You want transformative technology? We've got algorithms that translate human processes into software. We're building analytics to predict whether your medication will work in days or in months. At scale, our data will make medicine faster, better, and cheaper by matching the right treatments to the right patients. This is what happens at scale. This is what happens at 10X.
The thing about the 10X framing is that it's tempting to convince yourself that such scale is certain, as inevitable as that depicted in Powers of Ten. But it's important not to be sidetracked by a vision. Yes, we know where we want to go, and we love how big this little thing could be. But right now, the crucial thing for us is to keep plugging away in our little office, trying to build something that ordinary people want to use. Sometimes it's good to think small.