Billion Dollar Napkin Dreams

In the vast landscape of entrepreneurial success stories, there exists a humble yet powerful artifact—the bar napkin sketch.  

I know you know the kind – hastily drawn diagrams scrawled on napkins in the midst of casual conversations, usually over a brew or two amongst friends. But not all bar napkins are created equal. Some have become the blueprints for billion-dollar enterprises.  

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
– Leonardo da Vinci 

A Sketch That Soared  

It was a fateful evening in 1967 when Herb Kelleher and Rollin King found themselves in a San Antonio bar. With a napkin as their canvas, Kelleher sketched a triangle connecting Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio—a concept that would become the foundation for Southwest Airlines. Little did they know that modest napkin sketch would propel Southwest to become one of the most successful and beloved low-cost airlines in the world.  

Billion Dollar Burgers 

You might recognize Shake Shack now, but in the early aughts, restauranteur Danny Meyer was taking a gamble. He set out to revolutionize the roadside burger stand concept. He skipped the kitschy retro vibe and instead made it modern. Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti recalls the power of the brain dump he and Meyer did as they laid the vision for Shake Shack. “All we ever wanted to do at Shake Shack was to have good people serving fresh food, and to sell a few hot dogs. We put the burger on the menu and the rest is history.”  

The sketch of their original vision still includes many of their offerings today: simple and delicious. And with the release of the company’s IPO this past January, it became a very lucrative idea.  

A New Kind Of Till 

In 2009, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, found himself brainstorming with Jim McKelvey about the difficulties small businesses faced in accepting card payments. Jim was a small business owner and had recently lost out on a big sale (over $2,000) because his small business didn’t have access to payment processing. They sketched a simple square on a scrap—an idea that evolved into Square, a transformative mobile payment company. The simplicity of their napkin sketch disrupted the payment industry, empowering small businesses around the world. 

“Brief and brilliant beats big and bloated”
– Greg Hague 

The Power of Simplicity 

What is it about these doodles that transcends simple ideas and turns them into billion-dollar realities? The answer lies in the essence of simplicity itself. In a world often cluttered with complexity and noise, the napkin sketch stands as a testament to the power of distillation—capturing the core idea in its purest form.  

Clarity of Vision 

The napkin sketch forces entrepreneurs to distill their vision to its essence. It compels them to articulate the fundamental concept of their business in a few strokes of a pen. This clarity becomes the guiding star, aligning teams and strategies towards a singular purpose.  

Ideas Are A Democracy 

The napkin sketch democratizes the ideation process. It doesn’t require a sophisticated drawing board or intricate business plan. Anyone can pick up a napkin and a pen. This accessibility breaks down barriers and empowers innovation from unexpected sources.  

Don’t Think. Just Doodle.  

Ideas captured on napkins are born from spontaneous moments of inspiration. They are not stifled by overthinking or excessive analysis. The speed at which a napkin sketch can materialize translates to agility in innovation—an invaluable asset in a rapidly evolving business landscape.  

Simplify to Amplify  

The astounding success of companies like Southwest Airlines, Shake Shack, Square and more bring a challenge to our perceptions of complexity. It’s a call to distill our ideas to their core. 

In a world that often celebrates complexity, the napkin sketch stands as a reminder that brilliance can be found in the simplest of forms. 

The Napkin Sketch Within You 

Consider this: Each one of us carries the potential for a napkin sketch within. It may not be a literal doodle on a napkin, but it is a raw, unfiltered idea waiting to be expressed. Don’t be afraid to reach for the metaphorical napkin—to capture the essence of your vision before it gets drowned in complexity.  

In the tapestry of entrepreneurship, simplicity is the thread that weaves success stories. So, let us celebrate those simple sketches—the humble beginnings that give rise to billion-dollar napkin dreams.