Three Small Ships

My favorite entrepreneur was born in 1451. His story of entrepreneurship reminds us of just how little the founder’s role has changed over the past five hundred years. When it comes to the business of “Big Ideas” there are some fundamental truths that have endured the test of time.

With all of the press lately, it’s tempting to believe that there is something inherently modern about entrepreneurship.  Yet, the essential processes required to move an idea forward are not new and they are not complicated.  In fact, by looking back we can better understand the fundamental nature of today’s startups. It’s actually an age old story that always starts with the same small steps built on the seminal initiative of an individual. We call these individuals – founders.

To illustrate, let me tell you a story you already know. It’s a story of world class entrepreneurship. It’s a story that reminds us of the deep patterns that have shaped entrepreneurial initiatives over the centuries.

It starts with a young guy named Chris and his big idea. Pay attention now.  What I just said may be the most important part of the whole story – not how it ends, but how it starts.

Chris had an idea; a very big idea. He’d been a sailor who had bounced around from harbor to harbor for most of his young life. He was a student of the stars and fascinated by maps. The talk in the harbors and the bars was about burgeoning trade routes over land to the east. But Chris had a different idea. He wanted to sail west to the Indies. It was a big idea. So big he knew right away he would need help. But first, he needed ships. So, he went to find ships.

Note what he did not do. He didn’t go around town looking to find out how many people might agree with him. He went straight for help getting what he needed. There’s a big difference. Chris probably already knew that most people would think his idea was a crazy one. The only thing a market survey could do was prove it.

Columbus had an ambitious plan based in part on this map by Toscanelli. The light blue map in the background shows just how wrong he would turn out to be.

At the point of inception an idea isn’t a company. It’s an idea for an enterprise. But, it’s still just an idea.  Whether it’s a good idea or not can’t be judged easily at this point in time. There is just too much of the process of creating an enterprise that lies ahead. Will it work? What will it need to succeed? Will it survive competition? Can it adapt to change? What will it look like tomorrow? Truth is, like most ideas, Chris probably had what was at best a B- idea. Oh, and he had no ships.

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