The Art of the Small Start

One Grain at a Time

I recently got an exasperated email from a reader who has set big goals, but he has no idea where to begin. Someone must have told him the myth that says you need to start big. And, the myth that if you start anything, you need to know exactly how to finish it and know where it will end up.

I’ve read Guy Kawasaki’s book, The Art of the Start. It’s a popular book, but I feel it misses the big point. That life isn’t defined by epiphanies, big ideas or grand starts. I’ve always felt life is better defined by lots of small starts and finishes. No supreme moments of clarity, just decisions to try something slightly more challenging than the day before.

How You Can Start a Business, Without Starting Anything

When I talk to many of my peers about this business I run, I often get expressions like, “Where did you think of starting that?” The answer is simple: I didn’t.

Yes, I’ve set goals to start an online business before I began. But what I had initially planned is not what is here today. Almost nothing of this current business is how I had envisioned it. Moreover, many of the things I have no problem with today would have been completely outside my experience when I began.

The idea to sell information products came from offering free e-books. The offer of a free e-book came from writing articles. Writing articles was originally practice for the text content in a software program. The software program was spurred on by my practice writing games and reading about online businesses.

Instead of following a straight path, with an obvious beginning, everything here today just, sort of… happened. Many small starts and small projects, evolving a direction as I went. Sure there were grand visions, but none of them actually occurred. Instead something new was created.

So if you’re interested in starting a business, you don’t need to know anything. You just need to reach at the first project aimed in the right direction.

Starting Small Isn’t Scary

If you’re too afraid to get started, you’ve chosen the wrong project. It’s that simple. You’ve picked a project that is too enormous to tackle all at once. A bit of uncertainty or fear is natural in any new situation, but if your fear is seriously holding you back, you need to scale down.

I ignore advice that focuses relentlessly on overcoming your fears. Sure it’s a popular mantra, but I don’t think it works most of the time. A better approach is to learn to manage your fears by choosing the small steps that may feel uncomfortable, but not terrifying.

If you’re terrified of speaking in public, doing improv comedy at open mike night probably isn’t the best route. For most people, they would consistently ignore the task and stay at home. A better approach is to go to Toastmasters and try speaking in front of a group of 10 people who are willing to support you. Little steps make more progress than impossible leaps.

What if You Don’t Know Where to Start?

I think this question itself usually reveals a lie. In truth, most people could at least guess at where they need to start. It’s all the middle stuff that’s vague and difficult. If you want to sell a script to a major movie studio, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that practicing writing is a good place to start. It’s all the middle stuff that connects practicing writing with selling a script that confounds people.

Don’t sweat the middle stuff. Small starts don’t need to be perfectly correct, they just need to move you another step further towards the goal. Once you complete one step, you’ll learn more and be able to take another step.

In Praise of Small Starters Everywhere

Right now, I’m guessing there are one or two of you who are in the process of successfully starting something big. Not just talking about your big idea, but actually putting it into practice. However, for every one or two big starter, there are probably a few thousand people doing nothing at all.

Instead of praising the big starter (who most people, including myself, can’t be), I’d like to praise the hundreds of little starters. People who, one way or another, are tackling something small to move them into an area they are interested. They don’t have all the answers, nor the courage to do everything. But these people, bit by bit, are carving their own path and enjoying the process of where it takes them.

  • Kevin Chan

    How true. If we take baby steps consistently headed towards our goals, we’ll reach em soon enough.

    I also believe that I wrote an article about a similar issue, which is to break big, scary tasks into tiny baby steps and move towards our goals, our dreams, one small step at a time.

    Here’s the link if anyone wants to read it!
    1000 ways to make $1000

    All the best in making all those small starts, and also in taking all those small steps we need to take to go to where we want to go.

  • Duff

    Excellent reminder, Scott. The big things happen as a succession of little things.

    As an aside, I’ve really been enjoying your blog lately. I have been critiquing the field of personal development, highlighting some of the extremes and imbalances. Your blog seems quite sane and balanced in contrast to those I find important to critique.

    Be well,

  • Adam Welch

    Very nice Scott.

  • Faramarz – Anxious Candy

    You are very right in what you’re saying small = beautiful. Most of my business have started very small. Most people are too afraid to do anything and this is why they think they cant start small, the thing is that it doesn’t matter how small you start just that you START

  • Wee Peng Ho

    Well-said. It’s easy to overlook small things but when they add up, hey, you’ve got a big thing! Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Scott Young


    There are a billion and a half self-help blogs all saying the same things. So I try to avoid topics I feel have been written to death already, I’d like to provide a contrasting view to some of the more common clichés I disagree with.

    Then again, it’s not that those billion and a half pieces of advice are wrong, just that I don’t need to be #1,500,000,001.


  • Meghashyam Chirravoori

    I so connected with this..

    Once I was very shy. And I thought, how could I be not-shy and it was daunting to see that a not-shy world felt so different..

    Then I thought – let me consciously face one social situation a day, a situation where I have to stretch myself with respect to interacting with people ONCE before I sleep.

    I started doing it. Suddenly, new vistas opened and life changed almost completely! That was when I realised that if only I put in practice in the smallest possible way – whatever I read or thought about, I could change anything in me.

    Thank you Scott. 🙂

  • Amity

    I recently got an exasperated email from a reader who has set big goals, but they have no idea where to begin.

    subject verb agreement?

    who has set big goals, but they have no idea where to begin

    I think u are learning more, proofreading less!

  • Scott Young


    Good eye. The choice of “they”, I often make, is to avoid the gender bias of using “he”, however, in this case it’s not a problem as the reader, was in fact, male.

    However, I must say, there are few more loathsome grammatical rules than requiring they to represent plural subjects, exclusively. This is not how people speak, as the proposed solutions are either sexist or awkward wordplay to avoid making gender-biased writing.

    So you will excuse me if I continue to gleefully ignore this rule which only serves to undermine the rhetorical force of an article rather than support it. And for fear of inciting a furious debate on the merits of grammatical zeal, this is all I’ll say on the subject.


  • Amity

    Well, Mr Young, All I’ve got to say is that this is a fantastic blog and I am honored to be a part of it. I really don’t care much about grammar, but it was fun to tease you.

    The art of starting small is a wonderful idea. For almost 8 months I’ve been thinking about starting an online business on ebay, but I never got time to study ebay. I keep telling myself that I’ll do it next weekend but that weekend never comes.

    After reading this article what I’ve realized is that I am trying to start and finish whole task at once, that’s why I am not able to begin at all. Your article gave me inspiration to start small. I immediately broke down my ebay research into small tangible goals. I’ve started to spend around 10 minutes learning about ebay & I feel great about it, because finally I’ve started to make progress towards an important goal.

    I am sure I’ll be able to open my own store on ebay by end of this month. Thanks to the art of starting small.