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What the company bigger than Boeing or Disney can teach us about starting with one thing…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #40 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You should start with one thing!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Reliance Industries, India’s largest company, owns 234 subsidiary companies from grocery stores to gas stations. It grew by focusing on just one thing in its early days: trading yarn.

It’s 1958 and Dhirubhai Ambani just launched his company, Reliance Commercial Corporation, which focused on trading commodities like polyester yarn.

How did it become a conglomerate with over $106 billion USD in annual revenue? Here’s a quick breakdown of Ambani’s path to building India’s first Fortune Global 500 company:

  • 1958: 26-year-old Dhirubhai Ambani starts his own yarn trading company in Mumbai, India’s capital, after working for the export/import business, A. Besse & Co. Ltd. The company he founded is called Reliance Commercial Corporation.
  • 1966: (8 years since the company’s founding): Reliance buys knitting machines, starts its first textile factory, and expands from yarn trading to yarn production.
  • 1980: (22 years since the company’s founding): Reliance makes its first expansion beyond textiles—to petrochemical manufacturing (which is used to create synthetic textiles, further complementing the company’s presence in textiles).
  • 2002: (44 years since the company’s founding): Reliance expands into telecommunication by manufacturing fiber optic cable systems and mobile devices.
  • 2004: (46 years since the company’s founding): Reliance joins the Fortune Global 500 list as the list’s first Indian company.
  • 2006: (48 years since the company’s founding): Reliance enters the retail industry.
  • 2009: (50 years since the company’s founding): Reliance begins producing hydrocarbons in their newly discovered gas reserve, “making it the world’s fastest greenfield deepwater development project.”

Fast forward to 2024, and Reliance Industries controls over 200 subsidiaries as India’s largest private company. Just to give you a sense of how big it is, if you were to walk down the streets of Mumbai as I did a few years ago, chances are you’d see a dress store, a cell phone store, a gas station, a jewelry store, a bank, and even an air conditioner brand that all look different… but that are quietly all run by the same parent company: Reliance Industries.

From petrochemicals and gas reserve companies to commercial retail and hydrocarbon production, the conglomerate also ranks 88th on the Fortune Global 500 list, outranking the likes of Boeing, Disney, and Tesla.

So, the next time that you look at a company (or a person) whose success seems out of reach for you, remember the early days of Reliance Industries and how its founder started with just one thing—and focused on it for 22 years.

>>>About the Ambanis, Asia's wealthiest family. Indian industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani (pictured in 1985) founded Reliance, a corporation that manufactured textiles. It would eventually expand into petroleum sales and real estate.
Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries, in 1985. Image via Chron.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You’re more effective when you focus on just one thing.

It took Reliance Industries’ founder 22 years to venture beyond yarn manufacturing into petrochemical manufacturing. It took another 22 years to branch into telecommunications.

(Fun fact: What Ambani did actually has a term: “backward integration,” the process of doing one thing really well… then taking over a partner. For example, if you’re a burger restaurant, you might start off buying burgers from a local farm—and then “backward integrate” by buying out the farm that used to supply you meat. It takes time—like 22 years—but it happens.)

As someone who has a hard time focusing on one thing for even 22 days, Reliance gave me a much-needed reminder: The companies, people, and things that are household names today don’t just end up that way overnight. Chances are, they got started at least a decade ago in what I like to call “The Ten-Year Rule.” And they didn’t just start a decade ago—they also focused on just one thing for a decade (and likely for longer).

Sure, connections and cash can open a lot of doors, but the lesson remains: Success takes focus… and time… and focus… and time.

Trying to build something big or to reach a certain level in your career… and feeling discouraged because you aren’t seeing progress? Try this:

(1) Think of your number one long-term goal.

  • E.g., “I want to lead the private equity practice at my law firm” /  “I want to create the biggest recruitment platform in the world” / “I want to own this big house in this city”

(2) Ask yourself, “What are all of the steps I need to take on the path to reaching this goal?” Be as detailed as you can.

  • E.g., “I need to go above and beyond in my current work”... “Get promoted to Senior Associate”... “Apprentice under this senior partner”... “Build subject matter expertise in this area”... “Become a key point of contact for this client account”... “Build enough trust and relationships to inherit this partner’s client relationships”... (plus all of the micro-steps along the way!)

(3) Trace your way backward from this big goal, find the very first item that you can start with now, and… start.

  • E.g., “I should try to not just do the legal research, but also present the findings.”

If you’re trying to make progress, you’re more likely to actually make progress if you focus on one thing—rather than scatter your energy across a thousand things. Had Ambani started with not one business but 200 businesses, he would have had 24 hours ÷ 200 = 0.12 hours or 7.2 minutes building each business each day (and this is assuming he isn’t sleeping or eating). It’s not hard to imagine how little progress he would have made this way.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: Call me slow, but, had I not focused for 3 years—day and night—just on writing my book, The Unspoken Rules, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten it done. And had I not focused the last 3 years on speaking at companies, schools, and nonprofits, I’m not sure I’d be a (mostly) full-time speaker today.

Choose one thing!


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