I don’t believe this to be a "must have" in order to be an effective contributor in a start-up environment. I do believe, however, that if you want to play a leadership role, that seeing the larger context must become a default perspective for you to take. For some it is a natural thing, while for others, they have to work at it.
When I think about the UW Business Plan Competition that I competed in 3 years running, I see how our team’s inability to see the larger picture was a pivotal part of not placing in the top 3. Being a person who gets excited about new products and services, I took the approach of thinking the larger picture was a generally accepted fact, and that focusing first on the product was the way to go. I understand now that you must get everyone on the same page about the broader context before you can properly convey how big a business opportunity really is.
The winning plans always started by convincing the panel of VC & technology judges that there was a market for their product or service. Some would illustrate a market gap, or an underserved segment of consumers; some would show an industry languishing from a lack of efficiency. Once you convince investors of a certain market dynamic, this paves the way nicely for telling them how your product/service is going to address this need.
When Jobster was a 5 person team working out of Ignition Partner offices, we actually spent much more time refining our view of the industry based on research, both primary and secondary. We understood that having a thorough & accurate snapshot of the market would help us make better decisions about how Jobster could effectively enter it and gain quick traction. Those learnings would set us up for the next 18 to 24 months.
If you don’t look at the larger context today, how can you start?
First, decide which industries you naturally follow. You should not only include markets you are interested in, but also the industry you are in today (whether you like that industry or not!). Stay informed about the current topics, news, trends, and debates going on in those industries. Include the industry in which you work today, so that you can draw connections to your daily work & priorities. For me, I follow social networking, real estate, mobile technology, the start-up scene, and the VC markets.
Secondly, leverage online tools & technologies like RSS readers and content subscriptions to deliver information directly to your desktop. Tools like bloglines or Google Reader will help. This will set you up for a daily routine of scanning current events. Set up some email alerts when certain keywords come up in search rankings.
Lastly, review your news & blog sources on a monthly basis; add newly discovered ones as you find them. Blogs inherently track back to their sources of information, so I oftentimes will follow the news or commentary back three or four layers to see if I can find another solid source of information. About 1/3rd of the time, I find another source to add. If the subject matter is riddled with debate, I will try to find multiple sources that talk about the issues from multiple sides.
Keeping a top level view of what’s going on is enjoyable once you have done it for a while, because you start to see connections or analogous situations across disparate industries, systems and processes. Once you are seeing those relationships, you can start making educated guesses about where are particular market might be going next. Your ability to spot a market gaps & opportunities will sharpen as well, because you will have seen similar conditions in another context.
Entrepreneurs are familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch. These are simply a very concise description of their business opportunity. These are used to easily convey a business idea to an investor roughly in the time it would take to ride the elevator with them. For practical purposes, this is a powerful, 2-3 minute summary of your business idea, plan, and need.
I have found elevator pitches are useful beyond fundraising as well. If you can describe the industries you follow in an elevator style summary, this can become very useful at work, business networking, as well as talking to investors. Not only does this prove to yourself that you are informed, but it easily demonstrates to others that you are a bigger thinker; this can do nothing but build your credibility and “personal stock price.”
Early in my career at Andersen Consulting(Now Accenture), I made a point to make sense of the larger business objectives of the projects I worked on. At the time, I merely wrote code for very small pieces of a much larger CRM system. I remember distinctly having dinner with my colleagues at the time, and casually discussing the project with them, talking about how this software project would positively impact customer experience & sat for the client (who at the time was being hammered in the press for poor customer service). Just months out of school like myself, my co-workers would give me the “deer in the headlights” look. They clearly were not pushing themselves to see the larger purpose of the code we were writing.