Do Things That Don’t Scale

Ian Tang
The Bigger Picture
Published in
3 min readFeb 7, 2016


“Do things that don’t scale” is one of the most common advice given to start ups at Y Combinator. (According to Forbes, Y Combinator is the most commercially successful seed accelerator in the world.)

This advice insists that in early stage of start-ups, founders of start-up should focus on doing things manually instead of doing things that allows them to scale/grow quickly.

This advice captures the fundamental irony of building a start-up.

When you hear that advice, you will be thinking, how is the advice helpful? Without doing things that will scale/grow it will not help you reach the goal of building your company to X million or billion dollar revenue.

However, things that scales are the domain expertise of big companies. If there are something that is scalable and obvious, people will already be doing it.

The magic of creating something new, is starting in a place where things don’t scale.

Here is some examples of doing things that don’t scale:

· Running door to door to look for customers

· Attending to customers one by one

· Calling customers up one by one

· Giving initial customers a handwritten thank you note, or even a small gift when they sign up.

The one advantage that every start-up have compared to the bigger companies is that start-ups are small and nimble. This allows start-up to give customers more attention than most big companies can.

When you do things that don’t scale it allows you to see your customers use your products in real time, and you will be able to see a lot of things that you didn’t know were problems before. You get to step into your customer’s shoes and see the world through their eyes, see the pain points they were feeling.

Importantly it helps you validate your product/idea and make sure you deliver values that will satisfy and delight your customers.

Airbnb is the most successful company to use this technique and succeed:

Paul Graham, Co-founder of Y Combinator said

“In Airbnb’s case, these consisted of going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings. When I remember the Airbnbs during YC, I picture them with rolly bags, because when they showed up for tuesday dinners they’d always just flown back from somewhere.”

Joe Gebbia,Airbnb’s Co-founder said

“Customers started using the word love in the same sentence as Airbnb. They started telling their families, friends, and co-workers about Airbnb. And eventually the number of reservations starts to go up”

So why is this start up advice relevant to your life?

Just like Airbnb and many other successful companies, when they do things that don’t scale it helps them build up a group of customers that will vouch for them, fight for them and support them. In turn, helping them achieve massive success.

Similarly in life, one may have a lot of friends. But what’s the point of having a large number of friends when only a few of them are willing to vouch for you? You will be surprised by the number of people who are willing to vouch for you — even people from your closest circle might not vouch for you. However, do not be discouraged but take this as a reflection and focus on doing things that don’t scale in life (ie. Giving people your time, listening to them, showing concern for them, and being authentic)

Ultimately at the end of the day, what matters most in life and in business is to have a group of people that will vouch for you. In order to get there, you have to do things that don’t scale.

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Ian Tang
The Bigger Picture

I speak on Marketing, Social Media, Sales and any combination of the three.