Is this what "doing things that don't scale" means?

Have you ever had one of those realization moments that feels simultaneously uplifting and also super embarrassing that it took you so long? Well, after far too many years of riding this rodeo, I think I JUST figured out what "doing things that don't scale" means. :)

I keep having these somewhat unique ideas. For forum software. For virtual coworking rooms. For accountability tools. For (I swear it's not just another) todo lists. For mental health conversations. For event software.

I get excited about these ideas because they're things that I'd be absolutely stoked to use with myself and the 4 people who follow me online. Because they are ME. Because they are filled with my personality and my bubbly spirit and my smile. And they're all ideas that could work together for the 5 of us. And maybe for a couple hundred other people who are just like us.

But then there's this immediate instinctual twitch in my brain - maybe stemming from the need to be important - that thinks about how to tweak the offering to sell it to 4 million people instead.

Twelve minutes later I'm swimming in anxiety about how all the pieces won't work together. Now my 6 unique ideas can no longer be combined, because nobody at scale would possibly want to use all of these things at the same time. So instead of one hyper-tailored project I now separate them into 6 different projects.

Then, aside from being unable to pick one, I ironically get depressed about how these made-for-everybody solutions won't make a big enough impact.

I had a really wonderful call with @jonathanoron the other day in which he passed on this idea (he gave credit to the source, but I forget): If you were to unplug your project, how much would people be bothered, on a scale of 1-4? Don't even talk to people who are 1s and 2s.

That's stuck with me.

I KNOW that I can build something that is THE favorite tool of 1 person. Or 10 people. Or 100 people. An absolute 4 out of 4.

So why the hell do I keep trying to build things for millions of people?

Well, it's because, delusional or not, I really, truly have faith in myself that I CAN make a project that is a 4 for millions of people. And I want to live up to my capabilities and to my expectations of myself.

But building something for 100 people doesn't preclude me from ever being able to build something for a larger audience. And logically, it does quite the opposite.

I always thought "doing things that don't scale" meant deferring the automation of your emails until you have a thousand users.

But I just realized that maybe it also means: "if you want to build software for communities, start by building a community."

tl;dr Trying to give myself the permission to keep thinking big, but start acting small.

  1. 7

    And don't forget that the grass is always greener on the other side. Having millions of users sound great, but it also brings different and extra stresses.

    Not that I have direct experience with that, but for me even dealing with thousands put me off. Though it wasn't just the numbers that put me off, there were other factors in play too.

    I'd love to catch up and chat at some point.

    1. 3

      This. One of the best quotes I've ever heard on business:

      Success means you get better problems.

    2. 3

      Millions vs thousands vs hundreds of users - this brings to mind Five ways to build a $100 million business and Most startups should be deer hunter, relevant reads recently recommended to me by @matteomosca

    3. 1

      I'd love to catch up and chat at some point.

      'Twould be most wonderful!

  2. 2

    Current mood! love this.

  3. 2

    i never understand why folks put the tl;dr: at the bottom of the post...


    love this so hard! i love the introspection!

    you want things to start small... it's impossibly-difficult to manage scale day #1... i mean, that just makes sense.

    but, you learn all the good shit in the beginning... and if it can work for one person then it can definitely work for 2... and so-on.

    the top of the ceiling to that model is going to vary, but, i'm not sure that matters.

    1. 1

      LOL. What an interesting cultural phenomenon about the tl;dr.

      the top of the ceiling to that model is going to vary, but, i'm not sure that matters.

      It might matter, but I think it's certainly not worth worrying about. If for example I'm making $1mm a year from 1,000 crazy-enthused fans, and that's my hard cap and I can't go any higher? Yeah... I'll happily take that problem.

      1. 1

        yes. that's true.

        you can always move horizontally (across different markets / sectors) with a product that works. land... and expand!

  4. 2

    I wish IH has bookmark feature so that I can save this one @csallen.

    I kinda had the similar mindset like old you before. Always thinking to make something like Airbnb, Uber, something really big serving millions of ppl. But it quickly drained out of all my energy because there is absolutely no traffic even though I thought the website and everything looks good. I was never aware unicorns all started with small community, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube all the same. I thought they are just a one night success miracles, but they really took years to thrive from the very small communities in the begining.

    Well said Patrick!!!

    1. 2

      😍😍 Community 😍😍

      Enough said!

      1. 1

        Same here Rosie 😍

  5. 2

    I've read and re-read this post 4-5 times!
    I love every word of this post.
    I'm literally writing a blog post about this topic as we speak, following many such conversations I've had lately.
    I think you've hit the nail on the head, something grandiose has to start out small.
    And more importantly, if you aren't talking to 100 (or 10, or even 1) users, how are you going to know what you're getting right and what you're getting wrong?
    Here is the post you're referring to BTW: https://coda.io/@rahulvohra/superhuman-product-market-fit-engine

    I'm honored that I got to share some time with you, and from our brief chat, it's apparent that you are a visionary - you are going to build great things!
    Waiting to see your next big, starting small, venture!

    1. 2

      My heart!

      Thanks again Jonathan! And I can't wait to read your post :)

  6. 1

    🙌 great post and this story is worth telling on a stage. I'd love nothing more than seeing your product go from 4 delighted users to thousands of evangelists!

  7. 1

    Yeah I get until that boat as well and it really sucks. Like really! I’m trying to get more into the mindset that I only want to build things for 100 people. That’s all that matters! Those are my people.

  8. 1

    Yeah, thinking too big leads to inaction and that's bad. It happened to me sooo many times 😅

    PS OMG you are identical to David Luiz (soccer player)!

  9. 1

    Man, great revelation you had there! It's indeed eye opening when you wrap your head around it . We tend to think that we need to find something to target those millions, but in reality, if you think to just build something that a few select ones will love, it will indeed have what it takes for more people to actually get in love with it.

    I will really REALLY suggest that you take a read of "This is Marketing" by Seth Godin. It walks along this line of thought and really manages to turn your head around on how you should approach building a product but starting always with whom you serve!

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