Thursday, February 19, 2009

PoST Blog - February 18, 2009: Think Small

Today's class was incredibly interesting and engaging. Sep Kamvar began his talk by challenging the traditional assumptions in business that thinking bigger is always better. It is a message that is repeated over and over again in the business press and has powerful advocates such as Donald Trump telling us to "Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life". Yet despite the prevalence of these messages, Sep suggested that doing just the opposite and thinking small frequently has far more potential. Sep started the class by telling us a story of his first startup, Kaltix. Interestingly enough, it didn't start as a story of his startup but rather as a story of his Ph.D. work reading through hundreds of academic papers in an attempt to settle on a thesis topic. While reading through a paper by one of the founders of Google, Sep became captivated by a single paragraph on search engine personalization.

I found it really interesting that it was that single paragraph that occupied his thoughts for the next two and a half years. Rather than trying to pull out the macro trends from all of the academic research he had consumed over the years, focusing on this one small thought eventually led to key insights that in turn, led to remarkable breakthroughs in the way Sep was able to focus on the small details – such as a user’s individual browsing patterns through billions of pages of content, while abstracting large macro trends that eventually led to something much, much bigger.

As an entrepreneur, I also appreciated hearing Sep recount his startup experiences and risks he and his partners took to make Kaltix successful. Despite being three months from his Ph.D., Sep dropped out of school and spent his life savings building machines that would allow him to test the cutting edge technology that he and his partners believed possible. He negotiated hard with Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing and was able to beat out some of the Valley’s biggest companies for exclusive rights to the intellectual property and patents that he had created while working on his Ph.D. He turned down initial offers from venture capitalists, while building a working prototype of Kaltix that increased the company’s valuation 3x over the course of a few weeks. For the next four months, he dedicated his entire life to pursuing this one singular idea – spending so much time each day coding that he had to ice his wrists at night.

Ultimately, the story of Sep and Kaltix and its subsequent sale to Google, helped illustrate the key takeaways of Sep’s “think small” message:

Think small to think new: The idea for Kaltix emerged from Sep’s focus on a single paragraph in a thesis that was among hundreds that he had read while at Stanford. In order to be successful, one needs new ideas – and new ideas come out of thinking small.

Thing small to think deeply: Focusing on large ideas makes it difficult to dive down and explore in any detail or depth. By limiting our focus, and going after something small, we can begin to uncover key details and insights that may lead to something revolutionary.

Be small to think small: Venture capitalists and corporations are almost entirely focused on the “big” ideas and want to hear such ideas from the people they fund. To counteract the tendency to go after “big” ideas, Sep suggested that we try to be small – cutting out all of the expenses and overhead that tend to distract us.

The biggest rewards are often the small ones: Despite Sep’s success of having sold Kaltix to Google for millions, and despite having achieved what most people will never achieve very early in life, I was surprised and encouraged to hear Sep talk about his biggest reward – the five minutes he spent with his mother after selling the company. All of his effort to date had led him to participate in an extremely lucrative acquisition by Google, and despite the financial success, the knowledge in that moment that his mother was proud of him was far more important. This struck me as a fitting reminder to all of us that even though many of our small ideas will become big, successful ideas, the real, lasting rewards of our efforts are often intrinsic.

Sep continued his talk by painting a compelling picture about how the internet has changed our potential for collective storytelling. Now, more than ever before, we have an opportunity to get extremely granular in our stories and life experiences while also being able to show the macro scale of such stories at the same time. The Vietnam memorial in Washington DC is a great example of a story being told on two different scales at the same time – one sees the vastness of the sacrifice and tragedy of the conflict when stepping back and seeing the memorial as a whole. When we get closer, we see the thousands of individual names and stories that make up the larger whole.

Two fundamental changes have allowed us to accomplish the same kind of dual-scale storytelling online. The first change is a cultural one – more and more, people are sharing private stories, feelings and experiences in a public way. Blogs have become more and more popular – giving the public access to granular, personal stories. The second change is a technological one represented by the availability of better, faster visualization tools and techniques. These tools allow us to sift through the millions of individual stories in a search for collective meaning. To clarify the collective story, Sep suggested that we need to add detail, and the web allows us to do this on a massive scale.

Sep ended with an overview of some of the work he is doing with and Because other posters have talked about these projects in greater detail, I’ll just outline the key takeaways:

Tailor the medium to the message: It is important to meet people where they are and tailor one’s message appropriately. Sep shared some powerful images from an artist that chose to display art outside – as a way to engage people in their daily lives.

Be playful: Playful messages helping to engage people. For example, adding some images and a storyline of a cartoon fox to iGoogle was playful and increased engagement significantly on the site.

Bring the work to where people are: Sep encouraged us to work outside the system and make people feel your message viscerally. Images like the “one nation under CCTV” and children pledging allegiance to a Tesco flag create raw emotions in people where they work and live.

Have a point: Ultimately, we are all trying to convey a message and we need to be focused on what that message is. The clearer we focus on that point, the more impact we will have.


  1. I really enjoyed Sep. The single oh-so-true point that will stick with me personally is that what really satisfies us in life are the little things. In this Business School environment that is something that is rarely emphasized. I have known incredibly accomplished people that struggle with happiness. The secret, I believe, is indeed delighting in those little moments.

  2. I enjoyed this class so much! Thanks Jennifer for bringing such a remarkable and genuine speaker. Sep is awesome. He made me feel excited about starting my own business and taking more risks in life!
    I agree with Bree, I have always believed that "those little moments" are the ones that are most likely to define you as an individual

  3. This session was fantastic. Sep's story of persistence pursuing a solution for personalized search was inspiring to me. I wanted to share how this talk directly and immediately impacted our group direction for the BCS project. We have battled the challenge of a moving target from the beginning and this class helped us to focus in on an objective - a beach head if you will. After a great phone call with the President of Tulane University, we went "small" and decided to gather a survey of all of all of the division 1 football coaches - asking them one simple question - "do you support a playoff?" Anonomizing the results to protect the coaches and to encourage participation. Stay tuned!

  4. Sep is amazing! It proves that the story of one individual can motivate others to take action (like posting to this blog!). His story stirred emotions, which in honor of his work, I share with you:
    I feel humble
    I feel moved
    I feel inspired
    I feel fine

  5. I second Andii's comment (in fact, I think we were giving each other looks throughout class like "How amazing is this guy?!"). I felt more humbled, moved, and inspired by Sep than I have in a very long time. The combination of true mathematical genius and such caring, artistic creativity that Sep embodies is truly remarkable. "Be small to think small" - in spite of his incredible accomplishments and dedication to make such a positive impact on the world (and success!), Sep has maintained unbelievable humility. I take that lesson with me into my project to remember - as business school students, it is easy to feel an implicit divide between us and those we are hoping to "help". I hope we can all follow Sep's example and "be small to think small."