When we set up Marcellus four years ago, we relied on wisdom from people/sources far smarter than us eg. Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’, inputs from Mohandas Pai, Charles Ellis’ book on ‘Capital’ and Paul Graham’s blogs (such as the one highlighted above). Paul Graham is the founder of Y Combinator and is a great source of profound but counterintuitive wisdom. Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’ has lots of Graham in it we feel. In a world where everybody else says ‘look for ideas that scale’, Graham says that the most successful startups do things that do not scale!
There are three reasons why things do not scale confer long term advantage. Firstly, things which do not scale quickly (eg. signing up customers manually one-by-one) discourage other entrepreneurs from having a go at them (because of the time and the effort involved): “There are two reasons founders resist going out and recruiting users individually. One is a combination of shyness and laziness. They’d rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. But for a startup to succeed, at least one founder (usually the CEO) will have to spend a lot of time on sales and marketing.
The other reason founders ignore this path is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first. This can’t be how the big, famous startups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate. If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you’ll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year you’ll have 14,000 users, and after 2 years you’ll have 2 million.”
Secondly, doing something which is small, niche and doesn’t make much money feels not just like a dumb idea, you as the founder also start worrying about the financial fragility of the whole setup. How a founder deals with that state of mind is all important: “The question to ask about an early stage startup is not “is this company taking over the world?” but “how big could this company get if the founders did the right things?” And the right things often seem both laborious and inconsequential at the time. Microsoft can’t have seemed very impressive when it was just a couple guys in Albuquerque writing Basic interpreters for a market of a few thousand hobbyists (as they were then called), but in retrospect that was the optimal path to dominating microcomputer software. And I know Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia didn’t feel like they were en route to the big time as they were taking “professional” photos of their first hosts’ apartments. They were just trying to survive. But in retrospect that too was the optimal path to dominating a big market.” [Chesky and Gebbia went on to make Airbnb the world’s largest provider of accommodation to travellers]
Thirdly, companies that succeed are those that delight their customers over and above any reasonable expectation that the customer might have had: “One is that a lot of startup founders are trained as engineers, and customer service is not part of the training of engineers. You’re supposed to build things that are robust and elegant, not be slavishly attentive to individual users like some kind of salesperson. Ironically, part of the reason engineering is traditionally averse to handholding is that its traditions date from a time when engineers were less powerful — when they were only in charge of their narrow domain of building things, rather than running the whole show. You can be ornery when you’re Scotty, but not when you’re Kirk.
Another reason founders don’t focus enough on individual customers is that they worry it won’t scale. But when founders of larval startups worry about this, I point out that in their current state they have nothing to lose. Maybe if they go out of their way to make existing users super happy, they’ll one day have too many to do so much for. That would be a great problem to have. See if you can make it happen. And incidentally, when it does, you’ll find that delighting customers scales better than you expected. Partly because you can usually find ways to make anything scale more than you would have predicted, and partly because delighting customers will by then have permeated your culture.
I have never once seen a startup lured down a blind alley by trying too hard to make their initial users happy.
But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they’ve never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they’ve been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn’t send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can’t. But you can. That’s one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can…
Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it’s a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good. Making a better mousetrap is not an atomic operation. Even if you start the way most successful startups have, by building something you yourself need, the first thing you build is never quite right. And except in domains with big penalties for making mistakes, it’s often better not to aim for perfection initially.”
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