Do Things That Don’t Scale

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. You build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist.

Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going. A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.

Paul Graham has overseen the creation of some of the most successful startups in history through Y Combinator, so it can’t be taken lightly when he introduces an essay by saying that the piece of advice he gives most during his time there is to do things that don’t scale. It’s something we put a great emphasis on at inVibe and as founders starting a new venture, where there are often times you feel stuck and not knowing how you can get your business off the ground, it’s an essential notion to keep in mind at all times. It’s something that almost always takes you out of your comfort zone, and makes you do something which you probably wouldn’t want to do, but if it’s something that works, it’s always something that get’s your company moving in the right direction, gets that momentum going  and ultimately is highly motivational for everyone involved as it really gets you believing in what you are trying to achieve. A small win can go a long way.

You’re also fooling yourself if you think that none of the successful startups of the last 10 years had to do anything like that at some stage. Airbnb sold Barack Obama Cereal  and made $20,000 during his first electoral campaign to be able to pay their bills, they would have gone bankrupt without that. Stripe went around YC’s workspace and took all the people’s laptops and manually set up merchant accounts to make them use their service. The Doordash founders went and bought and hand delivered their first orders made through their food ordering website. They also kept track of their delivery staff using “Find my iPhone” to figure out who was closest to deliver each order, when they first started scaling up.

These tactics won’t be long term strategies for growth, be replicable on a daily basis, or be the secret recipe for success, but at some point or another they are necessary if you are to survive. The founders of these startups obviously didn’t want to do those things if they didn’t have to, but if doing these kind of things that don’t scale is what gets them to the next level, it’s clear that they are ready to do so, and that’s a part of what makes them the success they are today.

The italic text above is an extract from Paul’s essay from July 2013, he usually publishes a couple of essays on a monthly basis where he offers a lot of great value in what he writes. We try to make it a point to read a few every week and keep up to date with the new releases, but I’d say if I had to pick only one, “Do Things That Don’t Scale” would be the one to read.