I know what it’s like to be both driven and limited by my own vision. In 1991, after my first book was released, I saw a need for a better way to help readers find books of interest, including mine. My book, The Epicurean Laboratory, was on the chemistry of cooking. Unfortunately, it ended up in the cookbook aisle of the bookstore, as opposed to the science aisle, where most of those who would consider this book interesting would find it.
This problem inspired me to start a multimedia company that helped match books with buyers. I developed an interactive kiosk for use in bookstores that allowed shoppers to look for books by subject, author, or title, and called the product BookBrowser. (Note that this was 1991, several years before web browsers were invented.) Though I had no experience running a technology company, my goal was to develop and deliver the product, and build an organization that was successful enough to be sold in two years.
That’s exactly what happened: I built the business and sold it two years later. In retrospect, there was substantially more potential for this business than I had imagined. My limited goal, however, limited the opportunities I saw. If my goal had been to build a large, sustainable business, I would have been much more likely to create new opportunities, hire people who were able to help me scale the venture, and push through the challenges that precipitated the sale of the company. All founders face obstacles. However, only those founders who envision a future where those challenges have been resolved have a high probability of successfully addressing them. As Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”
Those who can’t visualize a path to success are doomed to give up long before those who know that they will find a solution. My colleague Steve Blank, who has been on the founding team of eight companies, says that he creates a vision for what he wants to accomplish and then methodi- cally removes all the obstacles in the way. When I look back on BookBrowser, I recognize that there were many ways I could have removed the challenges I faced before I sold my firm. Back then, though, I was limited by my view of what I could accomplish. My vision for the company and for myself framed the scope of the opportunity for me.
The great news is that what we envision for ourselves is completely malleable and can be altered in an instant. That’s what happened to Ann Miura Ko. Ann grew up in Palo Alto, California, the daughter of a scientist, and assumed that she would become a doctor or a research scientist. She studied electrical engineering at Yale, and while there, she took a po- sition in the dean’s office, doing administrative work to help pay for college.
On a winter day in 1992, the dean asked Ann if she would give a tour of the engineering school to a visitor. During the tour, her guest learned that Ann was from Palo Alto and offered her a chance to shadow him at work when she returned home over spring break. Ann asked him what he did, and he said that he was the president of Hewlett Packard. Intrigued, she accepted Lew Platt’s invitation.
While shadowing Platt at Hewlett Packard, Ann got to see him in action, running meetings, and making decisions. At one point, Lew suggested that they get a picture together in his office, with Ann sitting across from him on a white couch. A few weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail with the photo of Ann and Lew, plus another photo taken the same week in the same room. This time, instead of Ann, Lew Platt was sitting across from Bill Gates, president of Microsoft as they signed a joint agreement.
Ann looked at the two photographs taken from the same angle in the same room, with both guests sitting on the same couch. At that moment she saw her life differently. The walls of her future opened up, and she visualized herself as the leader of a global company. She was bright and driven, but had never considered that she could play out her life on a global stage. Everything changed in that instant.
Flash forward to 2015. Ann is now a partner at Floodgate Fund in Palo Alto, which she cofounded with Mike Maples in 2010 after earning a Ph.D. in engineering at Stanford. She spends her days guiding early-stage startups that are having a global impact, and has been recognized as one of the most influential leaders in Silicon Valley.
As Ann’s story illustrates, most people don’t question the stage on which they live, or don’t feel comfortable expanding the scope of their impact. Yet a single instant can change their view. A conversation, a book, a movie, or even a photograph can shift your perspective on how you envision your life unfolding.