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Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and[…]

The business expert recalls his experience with Muhammad Yunus who never started off saying he would win the Nobel Prize.

Question: How do you start small to achieve big things?


Alan Webber: The way my mind works is I have an experience and I try to extrapolate from it what I learned. The think big start small lesson was really taught to me by Muhammad Yunus. I was in Sweden to interview him, ended up spending about 3 days just glued to his side, soaking up his wisdom.

At one particular moment, he was in a group conversation with students at a very interesting school called The Chaos Pilots, it’s a school for social entrepreneurs in Scandinavia, headquartered in Aarhus, Denmark branch in Stockholm and other places and he was addressing the students. And they were all were young, smart, committed, bright young people, men and women, and they all had a question on their minds that they were a little embarrassed to ask and finally one woman gave voice to the question and the question was, “I look around the world so much needs changing, where do you think I should start?” And Yunus told the story of the Grameen Bank but the punch line was start with whatever is closest at hand, don’t think you’re going to change the world, think I’m going to help one person, that’s what he did with the Grameen Bank, it’s a famous story now, he’s told it so well and so many times.

A woman sitting in her front yard, weaving furniture and yet in poverty, she obviously has skills, she’s obviously working and yet she’s impoverished, how can this be? And when he found out more, he found out about a loan shark and effectively the woman was a wage slave and he had to do something about it.

So what I wrote in “Rules of Thumb” was Muhammad Yunus didn’t get up that morning committed winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he didn’t get up that morning even committed to started the Grameen Bank, he saw a woman suffering and he could not help her. And so the tendency in venture capital circles in American big, powerful, type-A personality circle is to say, “Think big, start big, get big or go home. If you can’t get big, don’t bother. Scale is everything.”

And Yunus’ lesson is: that’s completely wrong, start with something you can do, start small, touch a person, fix a specific problem, if it works, keep on doing it, if it doesn’t work, try something else but start, do it. Don’t just delay because you can’t solve all of the problems at the same time.


Recorded on: April 23, 2009