The Unexpected Power of Doing Things that Don’t Scale

July 16, 2023 5 mins read

Startups take off because the founders make them take off.

Paul Graham

Dear Reader,

Are you obsessing over the smallest details, relentlessly serving individual customers, working on insignificant tasks so your team can operate at full capacity, insta-responding to every slack notification, buried in customer data you don’t actually understand, trying to understand customer journeys and updating excel spreadsheets through the night?

Is this really the dreamy life of a startup founder? Are you doing it right? Do you feel like an inexperienced novice paddling in the wrong direction without even realizing it? You hear the siren call of scalability, you feel the sting of inefficiency, and you’re just trying to figure out what the f*ck is going on and what you should be doing, where you should focus, and how the hell you are going to get there.

You are in exactly the right spot. You’re precisely where you need to be.


Against the StartUp Grain: The Pitfalls of Trusting Your Gut – A startup is a manifestation of your gut, but as you start to scale (or not scale), this gut instinct starts causing inconsistency in your decision-making.


As a startup founder, your early-stage efforts, no matter how cumbersome they feel and how distant they seem from your dreams of scale, are a testament to the vital role these hands-on, grueling tasks play in the growth of a startup. They are not distractions from the “real” work but the very foundation of it. Only those who have been in your shoes will ever understand this.

These founder led efforts to find and deliver value to your first few customers not only allow us to understand them on a much deeper level but by focusing on individual needs and relationships, we can refine our product based on direct explicit and implicit feedback loops until it truly resonates – a level of insight that’s near impossible to maintain at a founder level as you scale. This intimate, labor-intensive groundwork is the heart of a startup’s genesis.

The obsession with scale that we hear about is a misunderstood emphasis on creating a predictable and repeatable engine for continued and rapid growth, often at the expense of profitability. From your sales engine, your clock speed, your hiring strategy, your support, your onboarding, whatever it might be. It’s not to say ignore scale – if you find something that works, and it’s scalable, seize “it” and run with “it” – the unscalable is in the journey to discover “it”.

Right now, focus on understanding your customers, refining your product, and delighting the people who use it. Don’t (just) focus on the absolute number of users; instead, concentrate on the growth rate. If you recruit a single user, it may not sound impressive, but if you previously only had 10 users, you’ve now grown 10%. Measure the growth in relative terms, not absolute, as growth, at this stage, is progress.

Is it unscalable for a founder to be running customer support chat under a pseudonym? Perhaps, but I’d be wary of the founder who doesn’t. It’s the signals in the noise, the nuances, and the non-obvious insights that make this small effort worthwhile. Tony Hsieh, the late CEO of Zappos, was a great example of this, personally handling customer service calls even as his company scaled, setting the tone for a customer-first culture that became a cornerstone of their success.

Differentiate founder control and unwillingness to delegate from a founders obsession with deep learning and customer understanding. It can be very difficult to tell the difference.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote the transformative playbook “Do Things that Don’t Scale.” A powerful testament to the resilience, dedication, and grit required of founders. It’s mandatory reading: here

“One should focus on quality of execution to a degree that in everyday life would be considered pathological…. It’s not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user. The product is just one component of that.”

Here are some key themes from Paul’s article to consider:

  • Startups grow because their founders make them grow. It’s not a mystical process – it’s laborious, dedicated work.
  • Engaging intensively with a small number of users at the early stages can give a startup a significant advantage.
  • It’s not just about understanding your customers but delighting them. Exceed their expectations, even if it seems excessive.
  • It’s perfectly okay to recruit users manually. Don’t shy away from tasks that can’t be automated at the early stages.
  • Don’t seek to scale too quickly. Focusing on slow, steady growth allows you to refine your startup into something users truly love.
  • You have to earn the right to think about scale, earn the right to think about growth, and earn the right to move forward one step.

Your startup is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Embrace the unscalable tasks. It is through these that you lay the groundwork for your future scale.

Quick reminder, you’re not in this alone. Your team play a pivotal role. Creating a supportive, collaborative, and resilient team culture is an ‘unscalable’ task that yields immeasurable long-term benefits. They will not share your level of obsession, but understanding this and respecting their unique strengths and commitments is part of the non-scalable journey. Talent is a powerful differentiator.

Have an unscalable week?! If I can be of service, you are welcome to schedule a call.

— James

(LinkedIn | Twitter | Tiktok)

Against the StartUp Grain: The Pitfalls of Trusting Your Gut Next: Relentless: The Hidden Ingredient in Every Success Story
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