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  • Jesse

Do things that don’t scale

If you ever want to know who your true friends are, I have a simple way for you to find out. All you need to do is make one of two requests:

  1. Can you give me a ride to the airport?
  2. Can you help me move?

If you ask, and they say yes, you know they’re not just a fairweather friend. They’re with you for the long haul. There’s a simple explanation for that. Taking someone to the airport, or helping them move, takes real effort.

Because they’re more involved, it means they’re not something you can do for everyone. You have to pick and choose. In business terms, we’d say they’re not scalable. However, for those who you consider true friends, you’re willing to put in the extra effort.

Similarly, though much of business is centered around scalability, there are some instances where it makes sense to put in the extra effort for your customers. Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, very famously gave the advice “do things that don’t scale.” 

Beyond being a catchy phrase, or awesome TED Talk title, the idea of doing things that don’t scale is one that makes a lot of sense. But, just as you need to be selective with giving rides to the airport, or being part of the Saturday moving crew, you also need to be selective with what non-scalable activities you do, and who you do them for.

Why to do things that don’t scale

When you’re first starting out, the main focus of your business is to get customers. The plain and simple fact is no business can survive long-term without them. And sometimes, to get those first customer, you’ll need to do something special to get them on board. 

To be clear, there are plenty of ways to approach doing non-scalable activities. For early users, it may mean offering a discount on service, or some other monetary incentive. However, with limited resources that may not be your best play. Generally, what you can offer that a bigger company can’t is an extremely high level of engagement, and that can pay off in more than one way.

For example, early on, when you’re heavily engaging with your first users, you have an incredible opportunity to learn a lot about your product and how it’s really being used. As Graham says, “In software, especially, it usually works best to get something in front of users as soon as it has a quantum of utility, and then see what they do with it. Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination, and in any case your initial model of users is always inaccurate, even if you’re one of them.”

So, being as hands-on as possible with your initial accounts will help you close those accounts through an uncommon level of service, and it’ll help you learn as much as possible about their needs so your team can continue building both your product and sales materials to suit (one of the key steps to scaling a sales team). 

When to do things that don’t scale

As with helping someone move, or taking them to the airport, the best time to do something that doesn’t scale is both when you can and when it’s needed most. 

When you’re in the early stages of your company you probably have more time and fewer customers, so it’s typically when you have the highest ability to do things that don’t scale. Plus, it’s arguably when you need it the most — in order to secure those initial customers and keep yourself in business. 

For example, when Airbnb first started, their founders rented a camera and went door-to-door to personally take photos of the spaces of some of their earliest users in New York to help grow that market. 

The impact was twofold. First, it was great PR. How could someone not tell the story of how a CEO came to your apartment and took pictures? The second benefit was that the nicer photos separated their user’s listings from places like Craigslist, that typically had lower-quality photos, and therefore helped increase bookings. 

Stripe has a similar story. They’d invite people to join their beta program and instead of simply sending a link and waiting for the potential users to take the action, the founders would personally set it up on their computer for them. 

Again, that’s only something you can do for so long, and most-likely only at the very start of building your business or a new line 

As an added bonus, though, once your company grows past the point of being able to do non-scalable efforts for every customer, you can still use what you’ve built to both land and retain key accounts. 

Who to do them for

The answer to this question really comes down to what stage your company is at. If you’re a very new business, the answer is: everyone. As you grow and get bigger, the answer is to retool these efforts for only your highest-value customers. 

That said, highest-value customer doesn’t always mean “customer who spends the most money with you.” Though that is absolutely one way to measure a customer’s value, it’s not the only one. For example, maybe you have a smaller client, but they’re in a business segment you’re trying to get into. 

In that case, you may spend more time working with that customer to gain deeper insights. Graham mentions building things that make a very useful product for one client usually means you’ll make something worthwhile for a lot of others.

“The initial user serves as the form for your mold; keep tweaking till you fit their needs perfectly, and you’ll usually find you’ve made something other users want too. Even if there aren’t many of them, there are probably adjacent territories that have more.”

How to implement the practice 

Every company is different. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for what, or how, your non-scalable efforts should look like. As I mentioned earlier, Airbnb went and took pictures for people. Stripe personally installed software to make it easier for new users. Esty sent reps out to craft fairs and signed people up for their site in person. 

Though what each company did varied, there’s one thing all their efforts had in common: it was something bigger companies wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do. Essentially, you can win by operating in the margins larger companies don’t occupy. 

So, if you make software, maybe you assign a rep to do a 30 minute intro call when a new lead signs up to walk them through the product. Here at Qwilr, we know it can be time-consuming for teams to get their existing sales materials into the product. So, we have a team that helps convert existing documents into Qwilr Pages to ease this transition.

Bottom line: do something that’s going to be useful for your particular customers based on your product and their needs

Adding value for your customer at no additional cost is one sure way to win with them and land the initial business you need to thrive. As Graham says, “ I have never once seen a startup lured down a blind alley by trying too hard to make their initial users happy.” 

Conclusion

Focusing on the long-term is generally how most companies succeed overall. That said, it can sometimes help to be a little shortsighted and not be opposed to doing things simply because they won’t scale. 

You can’t do things that don’t scale for everyone, forever, but if you do them at the right times for the right people, the effort will pay dividends in your long-term business success.

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