Durham Makes It Big by Thinking Small

We Durhamites love our town. It’s undeniable. At the suggestion that the area still needs to grow into a better version of itself, we cast a sidelong glance, purse our lips, and feel sorry for the person who is blind to how fantastic Durham already is. With such eager supporters, it might seem as if Durham were on a permanent path to greatness. Truth be told, we’ve come this far because of good old-fashioned moxie. We are where we are thanks to the very real ingenuity of the individuals, families, philanthropists, activists, bloggers, athletes, artists, huge technology companies, and tiny neighborhood businesses that have stuck their necks out for Durham over years and decades. Our countless small initiatives managed to come together in harmony and built something big -- a wonderfully gritty, smart, and impassioned community.

Up to now, we’ve kept that trend going by being both creative and prolific in our efforts to kickstart and sustain budding projects, and by being willing to take the right risks at the right time. It can feel as if we’re on an unstoppable roll, with The Cookery opening its food business incubator last month, the Bull City Startup Stampede giving new downtown businesses a leg up through the end of May, and this summer’s scheduled renovation of the old Chesterfield Building on the corner of Duke and Main, which promises to add a fresh spot for mixed-use space to the downtown revitalization. And that’s just to name a few reasons why Durham is the envy of personality-deficient towns and entrepreneurial-wannabes everywhere.

With so much buzz in the air, it’s easy to assume we can ride the wave forever. But here’s the rub: Doing more of what’s worked in the past doesn’t guarantee success. For a new project to catch on, it should be conceived carefully. And to be innovative, it should offer something clearly better. Continuing to churn up tiny, effective waves of influence is how we will end up buttressing this vibrant city of ours. In other words, to make something great, we have to remember to think small.

I got to thinking about this a little while back when Chris Heivly, executive director of seed-stage investment program LaunchBox Digital, said that the “big picture” of Durham has to develop organically out of everything we do. As Heivly told Durham Magazine on 6 April: “I don’t want to be the next Boston, the next Austin, the next anything. I want to be Durham.”

The man makes a good point. So to help keep Durham a thriving, authentic place, take a closer look at your latest project idea. Is it small enough to work on its own merits, producing immediate results? Is it digestible enough? Those are the questions to ask, because the short-term is where it’s at. Being precise and timely, small ideas can be developed, tested, and implemented while they are still relevant and inspiring. Smaller thinking lets you act in real time and effect tangible change. Right now. Any long-term, lofty effects you want it to have on the character of Durham are just icing on the cake.

With that in mind, if your project needs a fresh start, try sketching out how you would begin to experiment with a small idea. Identify a current and pressing issue with local implications, and use these tips to help get the process started.

Don’t burden your idea with fluff.

Take the lines of your favorite car. Maybe an Aston Martin does it for you. What about that particular year makes it more beautiful than any other? I’d be willing to bet that the designer followed one small idea, and it paid off.

Translation: Start by articulating the problem you’re trying to solve. Dig deep and jot down a word or short phrase that sums up your purpose. Refer back to it whenever you feel yourself getting lost in decision-making.

Just go.

Before I left to spend a year of college in Freiburg, Germany, a favorite professor told me, “If anyone asks you to go anywhere with them, go. Just go.” That kernel of an idea was both simple and inspiring enough to put into action, and through a series of small moments, it led to a richer, more colorful experience.

Translation: Experiment. The beauty of small ideas is that you can test out new waters constantly. And if something isn’t working, you can let it fail without worrying about having wasted months on it. Go, and go often.