Stefan Wittwer

November 1, 2021

Just start already

You ever had a great idea you never realised? Maybe it was an idea for a startup, a new product or just some exciting project you wanted to work on. Ask yourself, "What is the reason why you didn't see it through?".

If it just wasn't of interest to you anymore, then great. Letting things go is healthy. But in a lot of cases, projects you actually want to work on fizzle out because they never get real.

We get frustrated at the loose, unclear nature of early-stage projects and, in response, try to plan every single detail in advance. In trying to plan everything, you realise how much complex parts are involved in actually realising your goals in the long-term.

And since our first piece of actual work is probably not going to live up to the version we've dreamt up in our mind, we are too afraid to even start making real progress or end up immediately disappointing ourselves. Seeing how much else is left to do, you work on realising the idea less and less, until you eventually forget about it.

But you shouldn't. It's a shame that a lot of projects end up that way – but they don't have to.
Here's how to avoid this:

First, don't overthink things. We tend to get hung up on technicalities way too early. How you are going to target your launch message over six marketing channels just doesn’t matter when you haven’t written a single line of code yet. Scaling problems don’t matter. Most things just don’t matter until you have actually built out your idea. Once you let go of all these imaginary problems that aren’t here yet, you can start to focus on the things that actually do matter right now.

We did a lot of work conceptualising Infinity, the business platform we're currently building at NextBusiness. For over a year, we drew up prototypes for advanced features, made endless plans, thought about different ways to market the thing – but all these things didn't really matter, because we hadn't written a single line of code yet. Only when we actually started working on real designs that we actually implemented, did we start making real progress toward actually realising our initial idea.

Secondly, manage your expectations. Don’t overthink things and don’t get discouraged when your initial work differs significantly with your expectations.

Most exciting projects involve doing new work that you or your team are unfamiliar with. So the first pieces of work you'll deliver probably won't be as good as you think they should be. But here's the thing – the only way to improve is to actually do the work. So even though the initial output might not be as good as you expect, you learn a lot doing it and get better with every step of the way to completing the project. So don't feel like the work you do is pointless if your expectations and the output initially don't match. It's supposed to be this way.

Thirdly, just start small. Trying to plan out every single thing in advance, when you have the least amount of information about the entire project yet, is ridiculous. Most project plans tend to fail rather quickly – and it’s not because you haven’t used the most expensive version of Microsoft Project. It’s because early-stage project planning for most creative endeavors is not more scientific than daydreaming about the future.

Does it really make sense to make up a strategy out of the blue before you’ve actually done real work and better understand the matter? Focusing on planning too early is not only a waste of time, it also stops you from actually getting started, because planning requires you to think about the big picture and milestones way in the future. But humans aren’t good at taking on huge tasks all at once. We tend to be able to work better when the scope is small and tangible. So just start with something small and then work your way to complexity.

One way to do this is to apply the "Cupcake Principle", a theory made by the consultancy Adaptive Path.

The Cupcake Principle states that there are two ways how you could plan out baking a big wedding cake. One way is to start off immediately putting a lot of time in making the cake base. After that, you work on the filling and finally on the icing.

The problem is, if you've never baked a cake before, you probably feel quite overwhelmed on how to start and you only find out at the very end of this long process if you're good at it and if you made the right choices in the beginning.

The alternative way is to start by making a small cupcake. This way, you can start learning and experimenting while the scope and stakes are still low. You'll figure out the problems with your kitchen tools now, instead of right when it matters. And it helps you understand if the base assumptions in your project make sense, say, if the flavours you've chosen mix well together. Only then do you move on to a small cake and later to the wedding cake.

So when starting out on a new project, ask yourself, "What is the smallest possible version of this that I can make, that still delivers some value?". The cupcake may not be a wedding cake, but you can still eat it to find out whether you like it. Similarly, your "project cupcake" should be as small as you can make it, while still including the essential things you need to test out your core ideas.