Bullets and Cannonballs

cannon balls.jpg

Cannonballs

Or Bullets?

The best thing I heard this week came from the Tim Ferris Show, episode 361, with Jim Collins.

There were a lot of great things in this episode, but the one that stuck with me is Firing Bullets, then Firing Cannonballs.

Collins explains how companies decide what chances to take and how some companies figure it out by firing bullets and others by firing cannonballs.  The ones that fire bullets first are the most successful companies.  The ones that fire cannonballs first are the ones that don't last

From Collins' own blog:

Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die. But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live. 

He goes on to apply the model to Apple and the iPod:

By 2002, the iPod remained a small part of Apple’s overall portfolio, accounting for less than 3 percent of net sales, meriting neither a separate line item in Apple’s financial statements nor a mention in the opening paragraph of the company’s business description. The iPod was a very cool bullet, but a bullet nonetheless.

Still, Apple had increasing empirical validation. People loved the iPod; customers loved iTunes for the Mac; iPod sales more than doubled in a year; the music industry faced severe challenges from growth in illegally downloaded music; and Apple employees wanted an easy way to download music without stealing. 

So, Apple took the next step, launching an online music store and working out a deal with the music industry to offer individual songs at 99 cents. This, too, succeeded, and Apple had more empirical validation. Millions of people would rather buy music than steal it, if easy to access and fairly priced; people were clamoring for iTunes for their Windows-based personal computers; and Windows had an installed base of more than one billion personal computers. 

Finally, with all this empirical validation, Apple fired the big cannonball. 


I'm a big believer in small steps, small bets, and making small, consistent progress in order to achieve a result.

The world doesn't reward this.

The world wants the big bet, the risk it all, go for broke gamble. 

Go big or go home.

But that's not my nature.

I’m methodical. I’m consistent. I show up every day and put in the reps. I don't want to see big gains. I want to see results over time.  

Over time, lasts.

One time, doesn't.

When I heard Collins explain firing bullets, it gave me a whole new mental model.

Small steps are great, but you may not be heading in the right direction.

Small bets are wise, but you are still guessing and hoping it pays off.

But firing bullets, you are taking aim and firing, then correcting if you are off. 

You are re-calibrating.  Taking the previous result into account and then readjusting your aim, and firing again.

You keep firing bullets.  You keep firing ideas.

You keep firing until it hits, and then you fire the cannonball.

I wish I knew what my cannonball was.

But until I do, I'll keep shooting bullets, and seeing if I hit anything, and adjusting my aim.

Instead of feeling like I keep missing, I'll use the mental model of bullets to keep on going, until I figure where to fire my cannonball.