A famous catchphrase in startup circles is to “do things that don’t scale”. It was a phrase made famous by Silicon Valley VC Paul Graham in this 2013 article and it is preached in startup incubators (including Y-Combinator, co-founded by Graham) all over the globe.
But what does the phrase mean? Why is it so important? And what have we learned from it at our lawn mowing startup, GreenSocks?
What is “doing things that don’t scale”?
“Doing things that don’t scale” means doing things that are not feasible to keep doing once your startup business grows bigger and bigger – usually because they are too labour-intensive for the founders’ time.
The most common example of non-scalable startup activity is to go out and recruit every single customer personally. This might be achievable at first, but unless you’re the Energizer Bunny on steroids, it’s not something you will be able to sustain if you are planning to build a business that serves 1 million (or even just 1,000) customers.
Why is it so important?
Because it forces you to get close to your paying customer. And as they say, there’s no point designing an amazing product or service, unless you are solving the need of real customers who will pay you for your solution.
If you’re a desk geek or introvert who feels as small as a daydreaming garden gnome, talking to customers might seem daunting at first (because it’s highly possible that they might diss everything you’ve spent the last six months working on).
But, don’t let that stop you. Stop hanging around waiting for customers to come to you. Jump up and meet them on the footpath or go on an expedition in search of them, because getting close to your customers will help you better understand the needs of your customers and better understand how to improve your product. And this will ultimately help you attract, engage and retain even more customers!
In the words of Paul Graham, “The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get.” It helps you to not just design a product that perfectly solves your customer’s current problem, but it also helps you pre-empt what your customer might need in order to solve their next problem.
Some famous examples?
Anna Vital put together an infographic on this very topic. The following company examples of non-scalable activities were included:
Stripe – Took potential users’ laptops and installed Stripe on the spot
Airbnb – Went door to door taking photos of hosts’ homes
Wufoo – Sent handwritten cards to users
Pebble – Assembled their first one hundred watches by hand
Viaweb – Used their own software to build stores for clients
Or if you’ve got time to watch a video, check out this one (below) featuring the founders of DoorDash and TeeSpring, who both recommend that your startup does things that don’t scale for as long as possible.
Our GreenSocks experience?
I could tell you that we’ve been following Paul Graham’s principles at GreenSocks because we’ve calculated our moves perfectly and know exactly what we’re doing. But I’d be lying.
Like most founders, we’re following Paul Graham’s principles because we’re running on a shoestring budget and we have not choice but to start by doing everything ourselves. (Paul Graham’s principles just help us feel better about doing it all ourselves!)
What we’ve learned (so far) by doing things that don’t scale?
On a more serious note, doing things that don’t scale has been a blessing in disguise. If we’d outsourced the early-stage, labour-intensive, manual tasks and customer liaisons that we’re doing now, we never would have learned:
1. When talking to customers, the decision to book another lawn mow had nothing to do with the offer of a discount. (Our initial assumptions were wrong!)
2. When talking to lawn mowing providers after every completed lawn mow, their feedback has helped us better price each mowing job on our online booking system. (And we learned that our initial pricing was surprisingly accurate!)
3. In visiting suburbs to personally curate original suburb content, there are lawn mowers everywhere! On footpaths, in gardens, on roofs, in stores and in museums. (And I’m convinced that we would not have found some of these gems if we had outsourced our Brisbane suburb content or just repackaged other people’s content.)