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Breaking down complexities to think like a startup
  • 25 July 2018
  • Rebecca Delaney

Breaking down complexities to think like a startup

This year, National Startup Day is Tuesday, July 31. As someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, whether you aspire to start your own business, or already have done so – National Startup Day is a day for celebrating the importance of small businesses in job creation, of the fire it takes to chase your dream and overcome challenges.


So what are ways that you can sharpen yourself to keep thinking like a startup? Let’s take a moment to learn from some of the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs about how they nurture and grow their companies.

Consider Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceXTesla and several other visionary startups. This visionary serial entrepreneur uses the mental strategy of first principles thinking, as noted in an article on First principles thinking is a concept taken from physics and is an effective way to break down complicated issues and look at challenges from a new perspective. Aristotle coined the phrase and described it as "the first basis from which a thing is known."

For example, when Musk decided to try and become the first to launch a rocket to Mars, he quickly learned the cost of such a rocket that could make the journey would be prohibitive. Purchasing a new rocket would cost him approximately $65 million—so instead of buying a rocket or taking time to find a cheaper rocket, he took the first principles approach and broke down the problem to its most basic parts and worked up from there. He started solving this problem by asking "what makes a rocket expensive?" and began investigating what materials were required to make a rocket, such as aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium. He then looked into purchasing these parts and materials and built it himself for a fraction of the original cost thus starting his company, SpaceX. Later, Musk applied this thinking to the battery packs for Tesla cars.

You may not be launching rockets to Mars or building electric cars, but this mental strategy can be applied across all businesses. Experts say first principles thinking helps spur innovation and creativity. When faced with a challenge, ask yourself questions to get at the most basic problem you are trying to solve. Force yourself to question everything you think you know about the situation, thinking about it from different functional perspectives. This can be difficult, and many people struggle with not being able to refer to what exists now or how it was done in the past. We have been conditioned to reason by analogy (the opposite of first principles thinking) and often follow "best practices" or beliefs approved and passed down by people in our field or business.

In his biography Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance, Musk says, "It's rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They'll say, 'We'll do that because it's always been done that way.' Or they'll not do it because 'Well, nobody's ever done that, so it must not be good.' But that's just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up."

As you get ready to celebrate National Startup Day, take some time to tackle those nagging problems in your small business and apply first principles thinking. Maybe you are debating spending money on a marketing campaign to find new customers, or are thinking of expanding, or moving office space. Reduce these issues down to the most basic truths that underlie them. For example, do you need more customers to grow your business, or could your current customers become bigger clients and spend more on services? Why do you need to expand your office space? Could your staff work from home or from a co-working space?


It’s also a good time to look for ways to connect with your local elected officials to help them understand your impact on the local community.

The first principles thinking strategy can be used in all areas of your small business and can lead to some creative solutions that can make your business stand out from the crowd and propel it to the next level.

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