Like riding a bike - 5 tips to breakthrough to business

Kid riding a bike
Kick off the training wheels

When I was a kid learning to ride a bike, I was convinced that I first needed to figure out how to balance. You know... without moving. Fortunately, my mom saw my predicament and one day just pushed me and my bike off the driveway. To my surprise I didn't fall, and pretty quickly I was cruising around the neighborhood on my own. The lesson?

It's hard to get stability without forward momentum.

Similarly, I often notice a key balancing moment when the enterprises I work with go from being just promising ideas to something tangible. In India - for a new venture that promoted soy protein and nutrition - that moment came when our local team went from just talking about soy protein to actually cooking with it in their neighbors' kitchens… hundreds of them. Those experiences, and what it took to make them happen, changed everything: building an initial set of capabilities, credibility, and consumer relationships that actually pulled the business forward.

It's understandable that with so many details to manage in launching a business, you might instead get stuck in my poverbial driveway. But the key is to concentrate less on what your business will look like once it gets moving, and just figure out what you need to do to get it moving. Focus your efforts on an attainable breakthrough that will change everything.

Hacks/Hackers Journalism meets technology

For example, my friend Burt Herman, a long-time Associated Press reporter, is working hard to innovate new models for journalism in the 21st century. Burt and I have been developing a number of business ideas, some pretty exciting, some pretty far-fetched, but the biggest breakthrough for Burt has come from the establishment of Hacks/Hackers: a San Francisco meetup group and website that brings together journalists, programmers, and entrepreneurs working at the intersection of technology and the news.

In the few months since it was established, Hacks/Hackers has thrust Burt in front of hundreds of industry pioneers and given him a platform to talk to anyone interested in what’s happening to the news: whether they be potential partners, technology developers, or investors.


Breakthroughs are particularly good tools for enterprises that rely on creating social capital or movements. Take a look at the startup One Block off the Grid (1BOG), which unites prospective solar buyers into clubs that share information and negotiate better rates. In 2008, 1BOG started with a breakthrough goal of taking one city block in San Francisco off of the grid, eventually adapting it to a virtual block of about 200KW of energy.

The result? With their pilot, 1BOG got 42 homes to "solar up", created $800,000 in local solar installations (at a 48% discount), and generated a huge amounts of consumer buzz and press coverage. Not bad for a summer's work. Since then 1BOG has launched campaigns in seven other cities, and was acquired by Virgance, a San Francisco-based incubator that scales up promising social enterprises and gets them ready for venture capital.

So what makes a good breakthrough? In his best-selling book the "Success Principles", self-help guru Jack Canfield defines a breakthrough goal as “Something the changes your life, brings you new opportunities, gets you in front of the right people, and takes every activity, relationship, or group you’re involved in to a higher level.”

Sage advice. Here are 5 more components of good breakthroughs, based on my own experiences helping get ventures off the ground. Note, while you don’t need all of these, the more of them you satisfy the better.

  1. Makes your idea tangible – you need an easy way to turn your idea into something people can experience, otherwise it's only worth its weight in lawyers. For example, if your idea is focused around spurring local coffee roasting, run a series of events out of friends’ houses demonstrating how to roast coffee and discussing the benefits of doing it locally.
  2. Within your reach – a good breakthrough goal spurs action and pulls you forward, but even something as powerful as gravity relies on proximity. If your goal seems too big, chunk it down. So if sequestering 10,000 tons of carbon is too much, shoot for 2,000: you can pick up the other 8,000 tons once you get moving.
  3. Uses your existing social network – I was one of the first users of Evite, back when my friends Selina and Al were still working the kinks out of it. Not only was I more constructive in my feedback than unknown users might have been, I recommended it to all my friends and family because I believed in Selina and Al. Friends already buy into you, and at the beginning of a venture, that’s really all there is to buy.
  4. Builds a key capability or relationship – if negotiating large carbon deals is key to your business, but you’ve never done it before, find a way that you can practice, even if it means doing a deal at cost. Most companies won’t mind doing some incremental business with you if you promise to handle all the details, and of course learning to handle those details is the whole point.
  5. Busts through key constraints – simply put, constraints are things that keep your business from growing. You know something is a key constraint because once you removed it your business would practically grow on its own. On the flip side, if nothing would change after you removed that constraint, ignore it, it’s not worth your time. To learn more about the theory of constraints and what to do about it, pick up Eliyahu Goldratt’s “The Haystack Syndrome” or “The Goal”.

And of course, if you successfully reach your breakthrough, you can just do it all over again: any time your business (or you) needs a little kick in the rear.