Do Things that Don't Scale (Tyler's Version)

Worth it, but so glad I don't do that anymore...

Most people are familiar with the common startup adage, “do things that don’t scale.” 

It was made famous by one of Paul Graham’s legendary essays that he published back in 2013. I highly recommend giving it a read if you haven’t before.

But if you’re too lazy to read it, I’ll attempt to summarize it in my own words…

  • From the outside looking in, people view successful companies as large, optimized entities that acquire customers at scale, provide value, and spit out revenue. They speak in units of millions (or billions)... so individual users don’t really matter at that scale. They’re all abstracted into some larger equation where the conversion rate is X%, the CAC:LTV is Y, and monthly churn rate is Z%. That’s just what a scaled business is. 

  • As a startup founder, you could identify a potential user and shoot them a cold email or reply to their tweet. There’s a chance they might respond positively and be willing to jump on a call with you. But that’s a whole lot of effort for just a single user. 

    • If you spent that much time and effort just to acquire a single user… best case scenario is only growing by a dozen or so users per week.

  • Or perhaps you identify a user on your platform that’s struggling to utilize it properly and is likely going to churn. You could reach out to them personally, learn more about their background and intended use case, provide a demo, give them a free few months to make up for their troubles, and offer your contact info to reach out if they have any further issues.

    • But if that’s the approach you took to prevent churn for every user, you’d likely never have sufficient time to accomplish anything else. 

  • So if your goal is to build a business with millions of users and these strategies quite literally “won’t scale” to get you there… why even put in the extra effort? It’s much easier and more scalable to dump money into Facebook ads or invest in 1:n growth tactics. 

  • But there’s beauty in the struggle…

    • Learning — you’ll learn far more about your target market and product by actually speaking to real users (or people considering your product)

    • Relationships  you’ll convert casual users into superfans who know you by name and recognize that you give a shit. 

    • Muscle memory — sitting on the sidelines is much easier, but these tactics convert your default muscle memory to action.

    • Progress — some progress is better than no progress, and one new user is far better than zero. 

    • Compounding — these things in a vacuum don’t scale, but the continuous learnings and repetitive actions begin to compound results.

Far too many people assume that successful companies always experience some crazy level of growth from inception. But the first few years of any startup is often messy and full of laborious tasks that just need to get done.

To quote Paul Graham directly, “a lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don't…actually startups take off because the founders make them take off.”

But doing things that don’t scale isn’t limited to just acquiring users...

Building the “good enough” solution vs the “perfect solution” often saves you time and complexity so you can continue to block and tackle other priorities.

The “good enough” solution may not scale, but progress beats perfection. And in the early days of a startup, progress and momentum are the most important things you can optimize for.

In reflecting on how beehiiv has been able to achieve the success we’ve had so far, I could probably reference a few dozen stories that embody this philosophy. 

But no one has time to read a few dozen stories, so here’s one for the road…

Manually approving every single user 

In order to prevent spam and abuse, most email platforms require some sort of verification process to ensure new users are legitimate and not a threat to utilize the platform.

We learned that the hard way almost immediately after launch, and desperately needed a solution. The ideal “scalable” solution was to build a fully automated system to verify new users. 

But we were juggling a handful of other mission critical initiatives, user complaints, feature requests, etc. … and the automated solution would require several weeks to build. 

So instead we spent a few hours building a simple form where new users would input their…

  • Twitter handle

  • LinkedIn profile

  • URL to their newsletter archive

  • a description of their newsletter

On the backend there was a dashboard I could access to review every submission and manually approve or deny the request. Users weren’t able to send emails or fully utilize the platform until I manually approved them. 

As miserable as that band-aid solution was — I ended up turning it into a growth hack. I would follow and connect with every single user who submitted their Twitter and LinkedIn.

Not only did every new user get a personal touch of connecting with me directly, but if they followed me (which most did), they would see all of my building in public content about the company’s growth, milestones, and new features. I was simultaneously building personal relationships with new users and converting them into fans who would follow along with the journey.

From the LinkedIn inbox

Don’t get me wrong, even when I sugarcoat this as some brilliant growth hack, it totally sucked. New users were unable to utilize the platform until I manually approved them. Knowing that I was very literally the bottleneck to their onboarding, I lived with a constant state of anxiety and stress for over a year.

  • The first thing I would do when I woke up at 5:30am was review and approve every new user who signed up overnight. 

  • In between meetings I’d jump over to the verification dashboard and approve as many as I could prior to my next meeting. 

  • Every single night before going to bed I’d spend an hour manually onboarding new users. 

I went to Oktoberfest in 2022 and would come back from the beer tents piss drunk and just sit on my laptop and approve new users for an hour. 

Pressing a button 500x is more fun after a few beers

The point of the story… 

  • This was probably the least scalable solution for this specific problem, but it did in fact solve the problem and allow our team to allocate bandwidth to other core initiatives. 

  • It allowed me to directly connect with thousands of our earliest adopters, communicate and build real relationships with them. 

  • It growth hacked my personal social channels, which allowed me to build in public, which has continued to compound and pay dividends today

We eventually transitioned to VAs owning this process, and ultimately to fully automated verification systems. But at the time, we consciously chose to do something that didn’t scale and it served its purpose in spades.

If you enjoyed this post or know someone who may find it useful, please share it with them and encourage them to subscribe:

Credit: @architecture.wave

I don’t think it’d be possible to feel an ounce of stress in an office like this.

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Turn on, tune in, drop out. Click on any of the tracks below to get in a groove — each selected from the full Big Desk Energy playlist.

Some of my favorite content I found on the internet this week…

  • Recently added Acquired back into the podcast rotation and really enjoyed their interview with Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek (Acquired)

  • Twitter is the best place on the internet during big events and it’s not even close. Here’s a thread of the best Super Bowl memes (Twitter)

  • Thoroughly enjoyed Jack Appleby’s Super Bowl ad coverage. I’m a sucker for creative marketing and loved the Disney+ ad (Twitter)

  • Am patiently awaiting someone to offer me $1M for Big Desk Energy. Seems like everyone else who uses beehiiv is getting their newsletter acquired…

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