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Doing Things That Don't Scale
Sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves
Hey, I’m Ben! I write weekly about how to grow products and companies. I go deep on growth strategies, how to build products users love, and what actionable lessons can be learned from what best-in-class companies are doing and industry experts are saying.
Happy Tuesday, everyone!
When I think of advice often given to founders, one of the first quotes that comes to mind is “do things that don’t scale”. Paul Graham (cofounder of Y combinator) is notorious for giving this advice and wrote an excellent essay on it. One of the beautiful things about this piece of advice is that it has so many applications; it could be relevant to your sales process, what is happening with your MVP under the hood, and so much more.
In this article I will go through several examples of high-profile companies and the things that they did at the beginning that didn’t scale but did play a key role in helping them grow.
This is probably the most popular startup story around doing things that don’t scale. It was also the first example cited in Paul Graham’s original essay.
After operating for over a year Airbnb was still struggling to grow. Their prices were lower than hotels but there was still a disconnect with consumers where they weren’t booking rooms on the platform. The founders took a hard look at all the listings on their platform and made a discovery:
“We noticed a pattern. There's some similarity between all these listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites. It actually wasn't a surprise that people weren't booking rooms because you couldn't even really see what it is that you were paying for.” - Joe Gebbia
Essentially, Airbnb had a merchandising problem; nobody wanted to book a property on their platform because they weren’t confident in the quality or safety of those properties.
Airbnb set out to validate this hypothesis. They flew to New York and personally took professional-grade photos of every Airbnb property in the city. These photos fixed the consumer confidence problem and the revenue impact was immediate.
Is flying to each of your hosts’ homes to take better photos for them a scalable solution? Probably not. That said, it made the difference in their ability to get early users and helped them build out a playbook for success they could share with their hosts.
Buffer is a SaaS company that provides marketing tools focused on helping brands grow their audiences. They are a great example of a company that both did things that didn’t scale and also validated their product as quickly as possible.
In the early days Buffer allowed members to pay to upgrade from a free to a paid plan before even implementing an automated way to handle that upgrade. Founder Joel Gascoigne handled the entire process by hand:
“When someone upgraded, I received the standard "someone sent you money" email from PayPal and then rushed to the database to manually upgrade the customer. Sometimes I got there fast enough, sometimes I didn't.” - Joel Gascoigne
You can find a great article about how Joel approached building Buffer here.
I’ll admit that hacky solutions like this make me nervous whenever customer money is involved but nevertheless, this is a great example of doing something that doesn’t scale.
Groove is a customer support app focused on startups and small businesses and their founder Alex Turnbull embraced the “roll up your sleeves” mentality of doing things that don’t scale.
In the beginning, Alex talked to users all the time (as every founder should) and used their feedback to shape the product. As they grew though, he had to take a step back and focus his energy on other areas of the business to help support their scaling. Eventually they hit a wall and were seeing one of their core KPIs slip further and further from their targets, so Alex got back to talking to customers.
Alex sent an email to every single Groove customer asking if they had time for a quick chat to talk about their experience with Groove. He received an overwhelming response; FIVE HUNDRED user interviews were scheduled in a 4-week period. This took about 100 hours total, which equates to about 4 hours a day for 4 weeks straight. Spending all of this time with customers made all the difference in shaping their product direction into one that their users will love.
Alex wrote in-depth on this experience and what he learned here if you want to go deeper.
Every startup has done something that doesn’t scale. Success doesn’t come from sitting back and putting your feet up; you have to do the work. Don’t shy away from things that don’t scale, lean into them. Embrace them. Use them to inform how you build the things that do scale.
Thanks for reading,
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