196. Startup Maxims: Do Things That Don’t Scale

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This is probably my favorite startup maxim of all. It ties in with the Lean Startup Methodology, and is core to figuring out what you should be building and for whom.

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“Do things that don’t scale.” This is another classic piece of startup advice. And like a lot of great startup maxims, it’s over a decade old. Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote this in July of 2013, and yes, a link is in the show notes. This article is definitely worth a read if you haven’t read it ever, or even if you haven’t read it in a while.

He spends most of his time talking about doing things that don’t scale as they relate to customer acquisition. Have a narrow market. Do manual installs with users. Work one-on-one with your customers. Do whatever you need to do to sit beside your customer and experience the product through their eyes, side-by-side with them.

So much of building a startup is experimentation, getting feedback so that you can experiment and build. If you think about the lean startup methodology, the essence is to build, measure, and learn. Eric Marcoullier talked about this in last week’s episodes in two different ways. He talked about overbuilding as the number one killer of startups. If you build too much, you can’t take it out to market.

This ties in nicely with another startup maxim that I didn’t cover this week, and that’s the one from Reed Hoffman. “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” The second part of Eric’s advice is around measure. If you have too many features, you can’t measure what’s working and what’s not working.

Bringing this back to do things that don’t scale. This is such a great piece of advice because when you’re doing things that don’t scale, you are hands-on with your users. You are out doing the sales; you’re out gathering information in the field. As you suck in all of that information, you can pour it into just a single direction for a single feature to solve that single problem, which is the white-hot center of your user’s pain.

Starting out, yes, you absolutely have to do things that don’t scale. I think of all the startup maxims, but this one holds its weight the best.

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