To scale your startup big time, you must scale down your tactics

You can’t allow yourself to miss opportunities that DON’T scale

Sometimes building a fake rocket ship can show you how to fly a real one. Photo by Carlosaugusto77 on Pixabay

The way we think about growth is broken.

“Of course, we shouldn’t do that.”

“It would never scale.”

You will hear that at most startups. You will hear it from experienced entrepreneurs. You will hear it from yourself even when you know better.

It hurts me to remember the many times I’ve said those dreaded words, in one form or another.

“We should write a personal note to every new signup based on what their likes on Twitter.”

“Nah. It won’t scale.”

“Let’s create an artistic infographic to show our customers the whole blog post at a glance.”

“It takes too much time. We can’t do that for every article we write.”

“We should make profiles on Tinder and pitch our startup to everyone who likes our profiles.”

“Ah, wait, wat?”

You get my point.

But this kind of thinking is safe to be expected even from the craftiest — albeit, less experienced — of entrepreneurs.

The ability to assess whether a venture, large or small, will work out in the future is critical. Relentlessly looking for potential problems is what has propelled you through school. “That’s how you got that dream job of yours, remember?” Through thick and thin, it has saved you from unrecoverable mistakes.

In fact, this innate human ability is what kept your ancestors alive. Paying attention to the noise in the bushes.

“Who’s there?” Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

But focusing on “unsolvable” problems at a future that may never come to pass ignores a fundamental truth about startups.

The truth that how something can scale is far less important than having a good reason for it to scale in the first place.

To provide value by solving a real problem for real people out there in the real world.

But, you don’t need to get it “right.” You just need to make it good enough. The marketing OG himself, Seth Godin said:

“It’s possible to do everything wrong and do very well. In fact, sometimes that’s the only way to do very well.”

And attention-grabbing unicorns — companies with at least a billion-dollar valuation, not the mythical kind (well, the news makes them seem somewhat mythical) — have shown that once real problems are addressed, “the how” might not be as hard as one imagines. With external help, enthusiastic customers, and equipped with more knowledge, the once unilluminated path to reach millions of people is suddenly brighter.

“ALL successful startups started from a countable number of users and grew through repeatedly doing things that don’t scale.” — Nitesh Agrawal

What you can’t recover from is having a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

The upside, mind you, of building things that don’t scale is profound.

You not only get to learn from the market on the cheap but also the creative freedom that only comes from child-like play and non-negotiable constraints.

Envision a future to geek out about

Be honest. You love to think of that one big moment you are waiting for: getting a new funding round, selling your company, or being on the cover of Inc. Magazine.

The only thing I like more than winning is not losing. Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

This, of course, could only happen if you succeed. And for that, you must find a big enough problem to solve with a good enough solution.

But you don’t need to settle for good enough. And to find what “good” is, you need to experiment. To talk to customers. To build and rebuild.

But Henry Ford‘s famous adage reminds us:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Entrepreneurship is a “creativity required sport.”

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, has a valuable thought experiment called the 7 Star Design Principal.

How do you get a higher review than the maximum? You imagine a ridiculously perfect user experience, and then, find a realistic middle ground between that and what you already have.

The 7 Star Design Principle gives you the ability to think of what’s not plausible now but would be amazing for your clients. You scale up your dreams and then scale down back to reality.

You use hard-fought customer feedback to address their needs but still build something to delight them. To make them true fans. Evangelists even.

Get an education for (nearly) free

“Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.” — Leonard Cohen

Great startups are created — as is great art — by a mix of tireless devotion and divine-like serendipity.

You can take care of the former and hope for the latter.

Do you feel lucky? Photo by Free-Photos on Pixabay

But people often misunderstand luck. How you see luck is a choice. And luck can be created.

It’s simple, really. Put yourself in situations to get lucky and do not miss your chance to blow when the opportunity arises.

I reject the notion that entrepreneurs are risk takers. They are professional at managing risk and being comfortable in the midst of uncertainty.

You would love the way Kyle Racki, CEO of Proposify, sees it:

“Entrepreneurs look at whether the upside more than makes up for the downside. And they also look at the absolute worst that can happen, what the likelihood of that failure is, and any strategies they can deploy to hedge their bets and minimize the downside.”

So, protect the downside and go ahead and create.

Fail or succeed, learn.

And then, create again.

Stay light on your feet

Running out of money sucks.

You are as if chased by a shark amid violent waves. You can feel it coming. You can’t help but vividly imagine the pain if you end up being too slow.

Your only hope is to reach the shore before the beast catches you.

You don’t control the water.

What you do control are your arms and legs. Your breathing. Your focus.

But it’s the shore or the shark.

Staying alive or getting eaten.

Do you want to succeed as much as you want to breathe? Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

And to survive long enough to succeed, you need money and you need to spend it effectively and efficiently.

The quick-minded entrepreneurs among you are already thinking about the Lean Startup approach.

Is that the right methodology for your startup? For your background, industry, customers?

How should I know?

Maybe Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked (great book, btw) can help you:

My point, however, is that learning about your customers and the market is crucial and you won’t get any of that sweet, sweet learning by being dead (well, your company).

Building scalable things costs time and money (and requires knowledge).

Make yourself a favor and step up on the learning.

And next time, when you catch yourself thinking “This won’t scale,” remember that for your company to grow, you must do things that don’t scale.


A gentle reminder that 👏’s are good for your soul.

And many 👏👏👏 are even better.


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