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Notes: Do Things that don't scale

Vik Duggal
Vik Duggal
• 3 min read

In 2013, Paul Graham wrote an essay titled "Do Things that Don't Scale". I summarized it for myself. This will likely apply to any makers, creators, and existing and future founder. Here are my highlights.

  • One of the most common types of advice we give at Y Combinator is to do things that don't scale. A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don't.
  • The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can't wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.
  • You'll be doing different things when you're acquiring users a thousand at a time, and growth has to slow down eventually. But if the market exists you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods.
  • Almost all startups are fragile initially. And that's one of the biggest things inexperienced founders and investors (and reporters and know-it-alls on forums) get wrong about them. They unconsciously judge larval startups by the standards of established ones.
  • It's even ok if investors dismiss your startup; they'll change their minds when they see growth. The big danger is that you'll dismiss your startup yourself.
  • How do you find users to recruit manually? If you build something to solve your own problems, then you only have to find your peers, which is usually straightforward. Otherwise you'll have to make a more deliberate effort to locate the most promising vein of users.
  • You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy.
  • Once you realize that existing conventions are not the upper bound on user experience, it's interesting in a very pleasant way to think about how far you could go to delight your users.
  • What novice founders don't get is what insanely great translates to in a larval startup. When...Jobs [used the] phrase, Apple was...established... He meant the Mac (..documentation and..packaging — such is the nature of obsession)..be insanely well designed....manufactured.
  • What founders have a hard time grasping (and Steve himself might have had a hard time grasping) is what insanely great morphs into as you roll the time slider back to the first couple months of a startup's life.
  • It's not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user...The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get.
  • Sometimes the right unscalable trick is to focus on a deliberately narrow market. It's like keeping a fire contained at first to get it really hot before adding more logs.
  • Any startup that could be described as a marketplace usually has to start in a subset of the market, but this can work for other startups as well. It's always worth asking if there's a subset of the market in which you can get a critical mass of users quickly.
  • For hardware startups there's a variant of doing things that don't scale that we call "pulling a Meraki." Although we didn't fund Meraki, the founders were Robert Morris's grad students, so we know their history.
  • They got started by doing something that really doesn't scale: assembling their routers themselves...Like paying excessive attention to early customers, fabricating things yourself turns out to be valuable for hardware startups.
  • You can tweak the design faster when you're the factory, and you learn things you'd never have known otherwise...Sometimes we advise founders of B2B startups to take over-engagement to an extreme, and to pick a single user [and act as a consultant] building for one user.
  • Consulting is the canonical example of work that doesn't scale. But (like other ways of bestowing one's favors liberally) it's safe to do it so long as you're not being paid to.
  • Another consulting-like technique for recruiting initially lukewarm users is to use your software yourselves on their behalf.
  • There's a more extreme variant where you don't just use your software, but are your software. When you only have a small number of users, you can sometimes get away with doing by hand things that you plan to automate later. This lets you launch faster.
  • I occasionally meet founders who seem to believe startups are projectiles rather than powered aircraft, and that they'll make it big if and only if they're launched with sufficient initial velocity.
  • It's not enough just to do something extraordinary initially. You have to make an extraordinary effort initially. Any strategy that omits the effort — whether it's expecting a big launch to get you users, or a big partner — is ipso facto suspect.
  • The need to do something unscalably laborious to get started is so nearly universal that it might be a good idea to stop thinking of startup ideas as scalars.
  • In the best case, both components of the vector contribute to your company's DNA: the unscalable things you have to do to get started are not merely a necessary evil, but change the company permanently for the better.
Notes