November 20, 2006

Think Big! - By Sanjay Anandaram

I remember reading an Akbar and Birbal tale many years ago. In this story, Akbar and Birbal wager on something. Akbar tells Birbal that if he (i.e. Akbar) loses, he could give Birbal as much gold as he wanted since he was the emperor, but what would Birbal give Akbar if he lost? Birbal said that if he lost, the first person who comes to the royal durbar the day after the loss would be asked to name the highest number he could think of. And Birbal would give Akbar as many gold coins as the number mentioned. Sure enough, Akbar wins and asks Birbal to prepare himself for the following day when he’d have to pay Akbar a huge sum in gold. The next morning, a beggar is the first person to come to the royal durbar and upon being asked to name a big number, says “100”. Birbal with a knowing smile promptly hands over a bag of 100 gold coins to Akbar. He later mentions to Akbar that for someone like a beggar who has to struggle for survival, the sum of 100 gold coins was an unimaginable amount and was the highest number he could think of. Knowing that the beggar was always the first person everyday in the royal durbar, Birbal was confident of his ability to pay.

This story came back to me recently when some of us were at a national business plan competition organized by a premier management school. Most of the business plans were very innovative and had been prepared with a great deal of thought. However one recurring theme emerged as we sat in on presentation after presentation. And that was the incredible ability of these bright smart people to think small! How small? Well, how about wanting to be a Rs 100 million (approx. $2.25m) company in 5 years? This from a team of management students from a top school who one would have imagined would have higher and bigger ambitions.

I don't know if it is part of our DNA or eco-system or both but the innate capability to "think small" appears to be pervasive. And the resultant outcome is that we do things "small". We've encouraged people through the years to think and behave small like the beggar in the story thanks to the largely self-imposed resource constraints. A look at our industrial policy over the years, especially the reserved list for the small scale sector, is enough to illustrate the point. By operating in a resource starved environment, we have learnt to make do with less. The worst thing that has happened to us is that we have learnt to dream very small dreams, sometimes have no dream, goal or ambition even. We are paralyzed with inaction and self-doubt when there are resources to be deployed. We employ constraints based reasoning, i.e. we impose constraints before we decide the goals and our ambitions. We also assume that the constraints are somehow unchangeable and try and fit our ambitions and desires within them.

Fortunately, the last decade or so of economic reforms has brought in global brands, global processes, global awareness and global scales to some of our thinking. Capital is no longer a severely scarce resource at least not to the smart team of entrepreneurs. So why do we continue to think small? Why cannot a team of entrepreneurs think of the globe as the market, think of the globe as a sourcing platform, think of becoming a $1 billion company? So if capital is no longer a scarce resource, what is holding us back from thinking big?

The scarcity is in our imagination and will power that we continue to think small. The ability to think big on global scales is what makes a world class entrepreneur. Look at the examples around us – entrepreneurs who could and did think big were the ones who created Reliance, Bharti, Pantaloon, Infosys, and many others not just in India but around the world. These entrepreneurs have focused on their goals and ambitions and worked diligently to remove the constraints that could hold prevent them from achieving their big dreams. Why should our dreams be constrained?

So what does all this mean for an entrepreneur today?

Focus on large market opportunities. Focus on fast growing market opportunities. Focus on dominating that market opportunity. Ask: what does it take to dominate the market opportunity? Capital availability is the easy part. The hard part is building out the product/service, hiring globally scalable talent, and penetrating global markets. Capital will make this happen in large part. And the ability to think big (obviously backed by a clear focus and execution plan) will make the capital happen!

Remember to reach for the stars if you want to reach for the tree-tops. Those who are happy trying to reach the tree-tops are unlikely to get their feet off the ground.

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at The views expressed here are his own.