Oxygen doesn't grow on trees.

I really enjoyed reading Paul Graham‘s essay “Do Things that Don’t Scale” in which he gives counterintuitive advice, encouraging entrepreneurs to invest time in manual labor at the “larval” stage of a their startup’s life.

Here are several highlights I found interesting (could also serve as a tl;dr summary for the lazy, although I recommend reading the essay in full):

  • The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually.
  • Instead of asking “Will you try our beta?” and sending a link, the Collison brothers weren’t going to wait. When anyone agreed to try Stripe they’d say “Right then, give me your laptop” and set them up on the spot.
  • 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. 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.
  • You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy. Send each new user a hand-written thank you note. Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them.
  • A lot of 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.
  • The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get. When you’re so big you have to resort to focus groups, you’ll wish you could go over to your users’ homes and offices and watch them use your stuff like you did when there were only a handful of them.
  • Some startups could be entirely manual at first. If you can find someone with a problem that needs solving and you can solve it manually, go ahead and do that for as long as you can, and then gradually automate the bottlenecks.
  • The Big Launch is one sort of initial tactic that usually doesn’t work. Some founders seem to believe they’ll make it big if and only if they’re launched with sufficient initial velocity. They want to launch simultaneously in 8 different publications, with embargoes. And on a Tuesday, of course, since they read somewhere that’s the optimum day to launch something. It’s easy to see how little launches matter. Think of some successful startups. How many of their launches do you remember?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: