Make No Small Plans
My notes on the book by the co-founders of Summit
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Summit is a community and event series like no other.
I attended the Summit LA19 event in downtown Los Angeles in 2019 and was blown away, both by the caliber of speakers and the caliber of attendees.
One moment I'm getting introduced to Kimbal Musk, Elon's brother, the next I'm talking with a YouTuber with 2 million subscribers, and then I'm watching talks by Ray Dalio, David Bonderman, and Jimmy Chin, followed by a live taping of the Masters of Scale Podcast with Reid Hoffman and billionaire Robert F. Smith.
I even recorded a podcast episode at the event with an incredible social entrepreneur and conservationist.
It was amazing.
When I saw the co-founders had written a book about building Summit, I had to read it, and it didn't disappoint.
Make No Small Plans is filled with fun stories, lessons, and inspiration.
I highly suggest reading the entire book, and to give you a taste, I've pulled out my favorite quotes, with a few notes from me.
If you want to read the first book in my Book Notes series, take a look at Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making.
Let's get to the highlights.
Each numbered bullet point is a direct quote from the book, with my commentary indented in bold.
Some people are destined to invent. To invest. To run for office. We have always had the burning desire to create impactful gatherings and build a community of entrepreneurs, creatives, and makers. We wanted to introduce them to new ideas. To inspire them. To help them succeed.
I feel this to my core! This is a great lesson on self-awareness, understanding what is the best use of your talents.
Our destiny was to build a community - to support a scene of entrepreneurs that would come to define a generation of world-changing businesses. But at the time, we were all just looking for friendship. We were a crew of college dropouts and eccentric creatives who found solace in supporting each other’s wildest ideas.
So we decided to take a risk. And then we kept on taking that risk again, and again, and again. We repeatedly pushed all our chips into the center of the table, and each time the wins outweighed the numerous losses. That didn’t make it easy though. Bold ideas challenge our identities. They threaten what we have and what we know.
No risk, no reward. It's important to note that taking a risk doesn't guarantee success, but taking no risk is in itself a risk.
Elliott was making some sales, however, and he was happy to be building a business with his dad. But the grind felt meaningless, and it made him wonder if this was what he’d been put on the planet to do.
Elliott is one of the co-founders of Summit and at the time he was selling real estate ads. Not the most glamorous role, but sometimes in those roles we get the wake up call to do something meaningful, something I also felt after spending a summer in college landscaping.
When he reviewed the avalanche of nos on his notepad, he had an epiphany: No one he reached out to thought his idea was interesting enough. He was thinking too small, and his intuition now pointed him toward something much larger. Summit Series was born the moment Elliott realized he need a more inspiring list of names.
Elliott called a second time, and again Joel didn’t pick up. But after Elliott bombarded him with Facebook messages, Joel finally gave in.
It's amazing how many people don't utilize a thoughtful follow up (Or two) when trying to reach people.
Their assistant refused to let Elliott’s calls go through time and again, but Elliott kept trying. Finally, in exasperation, the assistant passed him on to Josh.
Throughout the book you'll notice a trait the team showed again and again - persistence.
Elliott double backed to Joel Holland. But instead of asking him to fully commit, he posed a different question, one that would later become the bedrock for Summit Series’s strategy for growth: Elliott asked him if there was anybody else he knew who might like to come.
If he could get four yeses, he could get twenty. There’s a critical tipping point of momentum for anything in the world, whether it’s physics of business.
But perhaps Elliott had learned the biggest lesson of all. So many people are frightened to throw an event, set up a meeting, or even send an important email unless it’s perfectly crafted - as if you shouldn’t put yourself out there unless everything is flawless. Elliott understood in that moment that the most important quality an event can have is space for the unplanned - room for the spontaneity and randomness that create sparks.
With Ryan on board, Elliott no longer had to worry about logistics, something he wasn’t very good at. That left Elliott with the time to do what he did best: cold-calling strangers.
I think about this frequently at VITALIZE Venture Capital - how do we put each team member in the best position to succeed?
“Someday, is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.”
This was a quote from Tim Ferriss, referenced in the book, and I love it.
Brett Vouched for Elliott because he’d realized that the qualities needed for success aren’t surface-level. So what if the guy didn’t seem to have an off switch? He delivered on what he said he was going to do, and he worked harder than anyone Brett had ever met.
We were four guys in our early twenties with no big-business experience, no savings, and no fear. The recession might have demolished our chances of stable, traditional careers - not that we would have been satisfied with day jobs anyway - but it also gave us the chance to create a new kind of community out of the rubble.
There are opportunities in every downturn.
We assumed they’d find the value of the relationships they’d forge well worth the ticket price. What we didn’t realize was that it’s hard for people to be critical of your product when they’re getting it for free.
Start with the people in your circle and spiral out from there through referrals… Ten people had bought tickets to the Aspen event. They were happy. Brett suggested we reach out to those ten, pick up referrals, and rebuild from there.
In thinking about growing VITALIZE Angels, this passage resonated with me because, especially when it comes to growing a community, your current members are the key to everything.
Sometimes you can push and push and get nowhere. Sometimes a better solution to a problem is to step out of the mud you’re in and think bigger. A quantum leap sure beats crawling inch by inch, and the White House - and all the doors it might open - was a very long way from that retirement condo.
In that moment, we realized the power of brand co-opting. Nike leveraged the aspirational nature of elite athletes to position its brand as a leader in the space. It dawned on us that we had one of the most prestigious brands at our fingertips: The White House. What if we ran the same playbook?
The right partnerships can take your business to the next level. Are you actively seeking these out?
After seeing some of the most powerful moments happen offstage, Jeff made certain that the concept of the corridor was a large part of our future events. We wanted to provide an intimate space where people could reflect and discuss on the sidelines.
When you can explain your mission clearly, you give other people - and yourself - something to believe in… We could explain that we were building a community of innovators across industries and disciplines, who were also kind and open-minded - people we’d want to be friends with regardless of professional success.
Many business opportunities, we learned, will bubble to the surface with a bit of luck and persistence. You send email after email, make phone call after phone call - and then you get that one crucial introduction. All it takes is one person to change everything. For us, that person was a vibrant, fun-loving Texan who rescued the Aspen event, setting off a series of connections that changed Summit Series forever. Her name: Elizabeth Gore.
It was as if everybody had discovered the double bottom line: doing well and doing good. By the end of the event, we’d raised $250,000 for the UN Foundation, and Elizabeth Gore was ecstatic. She would start other campaigns at future Summit Series events, including Girl Up, a movement to advance girls’ skills, rights, and leadership opportunities. For us, we’d found our sweet spot: We wanted to be the mortar between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds and influence people to use their success to better society.
Just want to emphasize that point: doing well and doing good. Might as well shoot for both!
We no longer saw ourselves as simply a series of ongoing events; rather, we thought of ourselves as providing a platform to foster a community based on thought leadership, collaboration, and kindness. We felt our name no longer embodied our newly defined vision, so we dropped the “Series” and rebranded ourselves simply as “Summit.”
Bolstered by our last fundraiser, we booked two hours of Bill Clinton’s time. We did this without having a concrete idea of how we were going to pay for it all - just enough naiveté to think we’d figure it out along the way.
Elizabeth Gore taught us that diversity of thought makes conversations exponentially better, so we wanted to fill our event with not only entrepreneurs but artists, writers, and musicians as well.
Similarly, we felt that once you leave the comforts of your home, you open yourself up to new opportunities and can stretch yourself to evolve into somebody new. If you stay comfortable, you won’t discover new parts of yourself.
One of those readjustments was calling everyone individually to invite them to buy tickets. We’d decided against sending group emails after the Aspen fiasco, and these conversations allowed us to better understand our audience’s needs.
So much power in the 1 on 1 connection, especially in all aspects of building community.
“If you are going to be a real conference company, you need to have content that repeat customers will want to return to every time. Have you seen other events? You can do your own version, but there is something to be learned there.”
This was a quote from Michael Chasen, Co-Founder and then CEO of Blackboard
We realized that we needed to measure what we were doing and set a benchmark so we could build upon it moving forward. Years later, we’d have warehouses on both sides of the country - encompassing tens of thousands of square feet - filled with stages, seating, tents, massive sound systems, pop-up dinner tables large enough to seat hundreds, and hanging chandeliers.
"You know how people say ‘keep it real’? Well, don’t do that. You have to keep it surreal. You have to go just beyond people’s expectations and sense of possibility.”
This was an incredible quote from Michael Hebb an eccentric chef the founders met.
By design, we didn’t have people in our lives saying, “Can you be more realistic?” Besides, you never know when a crazy idea will work.
We knew we needed a big name to anchor the event. We reached out to an entrepreneur who had been an inspiration to all of us: Richard Branson. And by reach out, we mean we made dozens of phone calls and sent even more emails to everyone in our network who we thought might know him. Finally we were able to get through to him. And then, after three months of persistence and follow-up, he said yes and agreed to give a talk.
The persistence these guys exhibited, again and again, and the caliber of speakers they were able to get for their events is just amazing.
One lesson we learned that morning was that it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, because the day will never unfold the way you planned it. What matters most is how you react to the unexpected moments.
When we reflected on the long-table dinners we’d hosted on Star Island, it was clear to see that deep bonds had formed among our small team and a few guests. What if we could multiply that magic with a hundred guests at our new beach house? And what if we held these meals twice a week? We knew the excitement this would bring to our team. However, we had no idea of the impact it would make on the guests we’d bring together and the ripples it would send far and wide. We’d soon discover that these dinners would be the greatest engine for relationship development we’d ever uncovered.
We didn’t just tell our core supporters about our plans for Powder Mountain - we showed them. We’d carefully crafted a narrative that would create a story, starting with those personalized letters. That had got them to the plane without knowing where they were going, and a caravan of cars had led them to the same spot on top of Powder Mountain where the four of us had first seen the view, exactly as the sun was setting.
The story of how they bought Powder Mountain is impressive to say the least, and you can't help but thing just a wee bit bigger after hearing about it.
We’d learned just how crucial this strategy was when it came to creating momentum. It’s so important to bring your biggest supporters in from the start. Unite the core to move the masses. Those first guests would become our best story-tellers and most valuable messengers, allowing our idea to gain traction and spread out to a wider group of people.
It was around this time that we discovered we were favor-economy millionaires. What does that mean? Well, we believe there are two economies. There’s the cash economy that we all know well, the one build on capitalism, clever marketing campaigns, and retail therapy. And then there’s the favor economy. The favor economy is made up of the relationships you have that allow you to access expertise and opportunities, built upon a foundation of what you’ve been able to do for others. We didn’t have much actual money - but we did have plenty of friends and favors to call in. And those are priceless.
But if your plans are so audacious, so outlandish and big, that if you succeed you will change the lives of your family, your community, and perhaps even the world - well, then you will fight down to the marrow in your bones to keep all that you’ve created alive.
The craziness at the beginning of a business makes for the best stories, even though the maturity and massive growth of the company typically occur afterward.
And so, it’s through all of our challenges, stumbles, and victories that we’ve learned our most important lesson, one worthy of the title of this book - and of the big dream you’re about to pursue. Make no small plans.
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