THE BLOG
01/26/2015 05:31 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Dear Founders, How to Eat an Elephant

I learned how to eat an entire elephant, and I'm going to tell you how.

As New York hunkers down and prepares for a massive snow storm, my mind wanders back to 1988. I was in the fifth grade, and my entrepreneurial juices were flowing when my town in Maryland got hit with our first snow storm of the year.

I went outside with my shovel, knocking on doors asking if folks needed their driveway shoveled, and in doing so was seeking my first job.

"No" after "no" after "no" after "no" finally brought me a gentlemen who was stepping out of his house, preparing to shovel his own drive. I pulled my remaining confidence out and asked if he wanted me to shovel it instead. As he sized me up, all four feet and 75 pounds of me, he asked me what the going rate was. In fifth grade I knew nothing of market rates. I was so shocked at the "bite" that I quickly threw out the lowest number I could think of that would still get me the job: $3.

The gentlemen smiled at me, offered me $20 dollars for doing a good job, and I was off to the races.

That gentlemen, Mr. Hedges, became my first "employer." For the next seven years, I was his snow removal guy, his yard maintenance guy, and every Sunday I would wash his cars, all the way down to using a toothbrush on the tires. In return, Mr. Hedges showed me incredible loyalty, friendship, and gave me life lessons along the way.

Then came the Blizzard of 1996. It was epic and one of the biggest snow falls in history for the Washington DC area (and Northeast). Many feet of snow covered the streets, only to be hit two days later by another storm equally as powerful. Schools were closed for two weeks.

So as the snow started to taper off, I went to work -- I put on my boots and gloves, grabbed my shovel, and made my way to Mr. Hedges' house. I knocked on his door to tell him I was about to start work, and he told me that he'd be joining me that day, as this massive storm would mean hours upon hours (upon hours) of work. As we met at the garage door, he could see me staring at the mountains of snow, wondering how on earth we'd actually shovel enough to see pavement.

At that moment he gave me a life lesson I carry with me every day.

He said, "Jeremy, do you know how to eat an elephant?" I smiled and said "no." He said, "Easy. One bite at a time."

This bit of advice has stayed with me because it's been incredibly applicable in my studies, in business, and particularly, in the startup world as I work with so many companies on strategy and operations. When companies start out, they often try to capture a massive vertical (and sometimes go horizontal as well), without truly grasping the timeframe and skills needed to eat the elephant. And they try to eat it in one bite.

So I use this lesson I learned in the Blizzard of '96 as follows: new companies, don't try to eat the elephant in one bite. You will lose, quickly. Be very specific in picking a clear vertical that you can win, and create a product that people love. Not like, but love, within that vertical. Crush that vertical. Block out the noise around other things, including press (because it's harder to write good code than it is to write a good press release), and focus solely on taking small bites at winning in the pond you've chosen to swim.

When you create something that people love, you can then scale. Scale is impossible if you haven't first nailed your product. And nailing product requires laser-focus. Founders may feel like they are tasked with eating an elephant all at once -- this is far from the case. The answer is to have a clear agenda of digestible steps (KPI's) to get your product out and a killer (and lean) team surrounding you. No matter what, JUST KEEP GOING. What may feel insurmountable can get done by attacking smaller bites and keeping your eyes on the prize.

I look to Uber as an example -- they have eaten an elephant, but they've done it a bite at a time -- starting in one city as a car service, then a few cities, and slowly they built out a platform that has gone both vertical and horizontal in a tremendous manner. When they started, there was no UberX, there was no UberPool, and there was no Uber Messenger. To be sure, when they started, they started small (as UberCab in San Francisco) and over time built out to 53 countries and more than 200 cities worldwide. One bite at a time, they created a product that people loved, scaled it, and then they were off to the races.

Maybe this is an obvious point, maybe it's one that's overlooked. But as I look outside waiting for the snow storm to hit, shovel ready to go, I'm grateful to Mr. Hedges for joining me that day on his driveway as we ate the elephant, taking our time and being methodical, and jointly succeeded in shoveling him out from the Blizzard of '96.