Would you tell an aspiring filmmaker to start by making a feature-length film? Probably not. Movies are risky and expensive, and it’s in the filmmaker’s best interest to start small. But what does it mean to start small? How do you know if you’re ready to take the next step?
Successful tech companies have a process for this. They test hypotheses with an early version of the product, tweak the product according to new findings, and scale when they’ve identified something that people really want. I think there’s an analogous approach for creative work, and it starts when creators split production and distribution into levers they can tweak as they grow.
Let’s say I wanted to make a living as an author. I wouldn’t start by writing a book— I’d start by writing smaller works to build an audience, test my ideas, and carve my niche in a world of other writers.
Tweets, blog posts, or other short-form content.
First, I would focus on building trust with an audience by writing about topics that resonate with them. I’d keep costs low, optimize for shareability, and measure success by tracking how my audience grows.
Long-form content, videos, or other small products.
Next, I would start figuring out what sells. I’d write additional pieces for a paying audience, double down on the popular ideas, and measure success by tracking how many casual readers become customers.
Books, articles in big publications, or new pursuits.
After I’ve found my niche, built an audience, and made some money, I would pursue larger projects. I’d have a track record, practice, and a better understanding of what’s likely to sell. This time, I’d measure success by seeing how well the big projects do in hopes of doing more.
When I think of authors who approach their work this way, Julie Zhuo and James Clear come to mind. Clear wrote hundreds of articles before publishing Atomic Habits, and Zhuo wrote about design and management on Medium before publishing The Making of a Manager. Both of them spent years building an audience, experimenting with ideas, and finding their niche— now they’re working on bigger and better projects.
When it’s easy to test ideas with an audience, creators have a better shot at learning quickly and making something people want. Starting small doesn’t mean curbing ambitions— it means building strong foundations, allocating scarce resources, and approaching creative work strategically.
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