Paul Graham in his famous essay - Do Things That Don't Scale - suggested that founders do things manually to understand the intricacies & complexities of each market.

Here are examples of Doing Things that don't scale in Action
  1. AirBnB

    Via Zurb

    Paul Graham looked at their plans for Airbnb and asked them the simple question, "Where is your market?"

    The founders said that New York seemed promising. To which Paul, gesturing wildly with his hands, said, "Your users are in New York and you're here in Mountain View."

    The founders were dumbfounded, saying they were in Mountain View for Y Combinator.

    Paul repeated himself. "Your users are in New York and you're here in Mountain View." After a pause, he added, "What are you still doing here?"

    At that moment, the duo realized that they didn't have to do things just to scale. Up until then, they had the mentaility that things that scale were the only things worth pursuing. As Joe said:

    It wasn't up until this moment that Paul Graham gave us permission to do things that don't scale. It was in that moment that everything changed. He taught us the beauty of doing things that don't scale.

    So they dashed off to New York and met with their hosts, learning that they had a slew of features they wanted, which they would never have learned had they stayed in Mountain View. The biggest lesson was giving themselves permission to do things that don't scale. A philosophy that continues to this day at Airbnb.

  2. Stripe

    Startups building things for other startups have a big pool of potential users in the other companies we've funded, and none took better advantage of it than Stripe. At YC we use the term "Collison installation" for the technique they invented. More diffident founders ask "Will you try our beta?" and if the answer is yes, they say "Great, we'll send you a link." But 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.

  3. Buffer

    In the early days and even to this day, I have made an effort to do things that don’t scale. I’ve found that there are two key characteristics of “things that don’t scale”:

    They help you avoid development before validating it’s required

    This is certainly a key factor, especially in the early stage of a startup. Any time you can save on an activity which you haven’t yet validated as beneficial is worth doing manually until you can no longer do it manually.

    Doing it “manually” gets you more benefits than if automated

    I think the more important characteristic may be that when you do the task manually to begin with, you actually get more benefits than if it was automated. For example, emailing someone personally and taking care to read a little about their interests and find something to relate to, will give you a much higher response rate and trigger fascinating and useful conversations.

  4. Pinterest
    Ben Silbermann noticed that a lot of the earliest Pinterest users were interested in design, so he went to a conference of design bloggers to recruit users, and that worked well.

  5. Boatbound

    1. Meeting people in person has made a huge difference. Any owner that was willing to meet us, we’d take them to coffee or lunch or drinks or just chat. These were people who already had their boat listed on our site, so we reached out to them and asked if they’d meet up with us whenever we were in their area. We’d be in that market for several weeks and would dedicate a big portion of time to those meetings.
    2. When there are big events at Fort Mason, our team will go and hand out hundreds of coozies.
    3. Every weekend of the boating season, a group of us (i.e., most of us) go out to the three major marinas in the SF Bay Area (and sometimes up to Marin and Sausalito) to surprise our renters at the dock with goodie baskets that we put together for them.

  6. DoorDash
    From Startup Class - 

    We decided to create a simple experiment with restaurant delivery. We spent about an afternoon just putting together a quick landing page. When I went on the Internet, I found some PDF menus of restaurants in Palo Alto. We stuck it up there and added a phone number at the bottom, which was actually our personal cell phone number. And that was it. We put up the landing page and called it This is actually what it looked liked (PowerPoint slide): It was super simple, ugly, and honestly we weren't really expecting anything - we just launched it. What we wanted to see was just would we receive phone calls, and if we got enough phone calls, then maybe this delivery idea was worth pursuing.

    So we put it up there; we weren't really expecting anything, and all of a sudden we got a phone call. Someone called! They wanted to order Thai food. And we're like, “This is a real order; we're going to have to do something about it.” So we're in our cars and we're like, "We're not doing anything right now, might as well swing by, pick up some Pad Thai, and let's try to see how this whole delivery thing works." And we did. We delivered it to some guy up on Alpine Road I remember. We asked him, "How did you hear about us, what do you do?" He told us he was a scholar, and then he handed me his business card and told me he was the author of a book called Weed the People. That was our first ever delivery. It was like the best delivery/worst delivery you could ever ask for.

    And then yeah, the next day we got two more phone calls. The day after that we got five, then it became seven, and then it became ten. And then soon we began to gain traction on campus through which is pretty crazy, because think about it: This was just a landing page. You had to look up PDF menus to place your orders and then call in. This isn't exactly the most professional-looking site, yet we kept getting phone calls; we kept getting orders. And that's kind of when we knew that we were onto something. We knew we found a need people wanted when people were willing to put up with all of this.

    I think another key point to remember is we launched this in about an hour. We didn't have any drivers; we didn't have any algorithms; we didn't have a backend; we didn't spend six months building a fancy dispatch system – we didn't have any of that. We just launched because at the beginning it's all about testing the idea, trying to get this thing off the ground, and figuring out if this was something people even wanted. And it's okay to hack things together at the beginning.

  7. Flickr
  8. Groove
    Here are 6 areas where doing things that don'e scale has helped Groove, a help desk software firm

    1. Understanding why people use/bought your product
    2. Customer Development
    3. Content Promotion
    4. Community Engagement
    5. Onboarding/Nurturing
    6. Winning every last customer
  9. HomeJoy

    So an example of this is that when we started Homejoy, we started with the cleaning industry, and when we started we were the cleaners ourselves. We started to clean houses and we found out really quickly that we were very bad cleaners. As a result, we said okay, we have to learn more about this and we went to buy books. We bought books about how to clean, which helped maybe a little bit. We learned a little more about cleaning supplies but it is sort of like basketball, you can read and learn about basketball but you're not going to get better at it if you don't actually train and throw a basketball into the net.

    And so we decided that one of us was going to have to learn how to clean. Or at least get trained by a professional. We actually went to get a job at a cleaning company itself. The cool thing was I learned how to clean from training the few weeks that I was there at the cleaning company, but the even better thing was that I learned a lot about how a local cleaning company works. In that sense I learned why a local cleaning company could not become huge like Homejoy is today. And that is because they are pretty old school and they have a lot of things that are done inefficiently. Such as booking the customer and optimizing the cleaners' schedules was just done very inefficiently.

    If you are in a situation like mine where there is a service element of it then you should go and do that service yourself. If your thing is related to restaurants you should become a waiter, if it is related to painting become a painter and kind of get in the shoes of your customers from all angles of what you are trying to build.

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