Book: Great by Choice – Jim Collins
Concept: Bullets before Cannonballs

In Great By Choice, author Jim Collins asks his readers to imagine their business as a ship at sea. The ship has a cannon and a limited amount of gunpowder. The gunpowder represents your resources, usually time and capital.

You spot an enemy ship. Sinking the enemy ship is your goal. Do you just load up your biggest cannonball, use all of your gunpowder, fire, and hope for the best on your first shot? Do you bet all your resources on that first “big bet” that looks good? If you do, a miss and the sound of a cannonball splashing into the ocean is your most likely scenario. You have now burned all your resources and are out of options as you watch the enemy ship close in.

Collins says that the best approach, and the approach used by the world’s most successful companies, is to first fire tiny bullets that require very little resources to fire. Fire one, watch the miss, adjust your aim, and fire again. The cost in resources of missing is so low that you can afford to take a lot of shots.

Repeat over and over until – Ping! – you score a hit on the enemy vessel. Now, you know your cannon is lined up properly. Load up the rest of your gunpowder and take your big shot. The chances of a hit are high, much higher than if you had just taken that ill-advised first shot without first firing the bullets.

The Power of Testing

What Collins is really talking about here is the importance of testing and validating your assumptions and ideas before making any “big bet”. You want your misses to be on your small bets. Once you have found a small bet that works, then consider the big bet. If your small bets worked, you know your odds of success are pretty good with the bigger bet.

A Real World Example

In the 1970’s, my dad started building two-way radios as a hobby. He wanted to start a business selling and servicing radios. But, instead of going out and buying a storefront and going “all-in” immediately, he began by selling his radios part-time in my grandfather’s tire store. After selling a lot of radios over the course of several months, my dad saw that there was a market for his radios.

So then, and only then, did my dad take the plunge to take out a loan, buy a store, hire employees, and begin selling two-way radios as a standalone business. After making “the big bet”, my dad’s new business generated $1.5M in sales in its first full year.

The Take Away

If you want to start a business, validate your idea any way that you can.  The simple place to start? Talk to people whom you respect to see what they think of your product or service idea. Many startups use services like Google Polls or Kickstarter to gauge market interest in a given product before creating it. The best way to test is begin small-scale selling of your product, like my dad did, though this is not possible for all business types. The method will be different for every product, but, the principle is always the same.

One important note: If cash is not involved in your test, take your results with a grain of salt. My dad’s test was perfect, his future customers were literally buying his product already. Because of this, he knew he had great data.

If he had only asked the tire store customers if they would hypothetically buy radios if he started selling them, the data could have easily been very off. People say a lot of things, but, what they actually spend cold, hard cash on is often very different.

Don’t Fall Into the Trap

It’s easy to fixate on the romantic notion of the “person who always knew that they knew best and defied all the odds” by making a big bet that “shouldn’t have worked” and who built a great business or career. These people make magazine covers. But, the hundreds who think just like them that fail and end up broke don’t end up on magazine covers.

The reality is that most successful people use tactics like “Bullets Before Cannonballs” to quietly stack the odds in their favor before making their big bets. You can never guarantee success in any venture, but, you can slant the odds of success in your favor by testing and building momentum first.

The next time you have an idea that would have major time or cash investment involved, find ways to test and validate before making the big bet.

Have you ever knowingly or unknowingly used the “bullets then cannonballs” approach in your life? If so, how? Let me know in the comments or by emailing me at trey@fiveminutebookclub.