Not Everything Has to Scale
Fail fast, make insanely great experiences, build your universe, and be the spark that grows your company.
I can’t recall the number of ideas I’ve seen shot down at startups due to “scaling” issues. To all the would-be startup founders out there, heed my words: not everything has to scale.
“Is it reasonable to assume we can achieve 10x growth with this strategy? How will our servers hold up as usage increases?”
Premature Scaling is the Silent Startup Killer
Startup Genome released a report on why startups fail. After analyzing surveys from 3,200 startups, they concluded that 70% of startups failed because of premature scaling.
Here’s what most entrepreneurs just do not get: the hard part about scaling isn’t the how, it’s the when.
Paul Graham wrote an essay on why you should do things that don’t scale. He argues that startups take off because founders make them take off.
A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.
Still not convinced? Look at these startups who did things that don’t scale.
Figure out Product-Market Fit
Scaling should happen after your product-market fit has been found. Too many early-stage companies focus on building product, and not on the customers.
Learn to Fail Fast
Everything you do from the MVP to your landing page needs to have a build-measure-learn feedback loop. It’s the single best way to gauge if you’re building something people want.
Take eBay for example, their founder Pierre Omidyar went to swap meets, flea markets, and garage sales all over America — and talked to people. Omidyar found out what they wanted and then built the solution: eBay.
Build a Village Before You Build the City
Think of your product like a city. All cities start out as small villages. As the village grows, it constantly builds new infrastructure for its citizens (highways, airports, etc). Founders often think that building the best product means future-proofing it from day one. Ask yourself this,
How would you design and build a city like New York for 50 people?
Don’t over-engineer and scale until your population exceeds your limitations.
When Nick Swinmurn started Zappos, he manually took pictures of shoes, put them on his website, and when someone made a purchase online, he would drive to the nearest shoe store and buy them. Swinmurn wanted to build the village before laying the infrastructure for his city.
Build an Insanely Great Experience
Building a product with all the bells and whistles isn’t what makes your company insanely great — it’s the experience of being your user. The product is just one component of that. Focusing on giving users an insanely great experience means being incredibly attentive.
For example, the founders of Stripe built an MVP of their product riddled with bugs and issues. However, they made up for it by delivering exceptional customer support including fixing bugs at 2 AM.
Over-engaging with your early users is a necessary part of the build-measure-learn feedback loop. This is what makes companies go from good to insanely great.
Build Your Universe One Step at a Time
Did you know the ever-expanding Universe was once the size of a human skull? Sometimes, in order to get big, you have to start small. The most successful startups deliberately narrowed their market focus to achieve perfect product-market fit before going big.
When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, he intentionally limited the site to Harvard students. Zuckerberg leveraged the highly engaged Harvard user base to build-measure-learn and create an insanely great experience for college students. He then expanded his Universe to other college campuses. Then the United States. Eventually the world.
Be the Spark
There’s a universal truth when it comes to growing — the beginning requires something unscalably laborious. Use unorthodox methods to attract users — create the spark that ignites your growth machine.
When Tinder first got started, their co-founder Whitney Wolfe convinced 15,000 sorority girls to sign up for the app during a several-month-long cross-country trip. Wolfe’s unscalable user acquisition model was literally the tinder that sparked Tinder’s growth.
Or when Airbnb first started, co-founder Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia went door to door in New York to recruit new users. They rented a high-end camera and helped their early adopters take beautiful photos for their listings. As a result, more people signed on, put their space up for rent, and told their friends to join.
Once the product-market fit has been found, and you’ve exhausted the limitations of your high-yield marketing channels, you should begin to scale. Anything before that is dangerous and can amplify your problems — not solve them. Until then, do things that don’t scale.