Do Things That Don’t Scale


Of all of the indispensable essays penned by Paul Graham, the one we are feeling the most is the latest one, Do Things That Don’t Scale. This is one of the things Y Combinator often tells their startups, and a piece of wisdom we have heard before:

In The First 1000 Days of Airbnb by Brian Chesky, Chesky tells the rollercoaster story of the company, from losing cofounders to sleeping on couches, to briefly becoming a cereal company around the time of the 2008 election. However, the most important part of the story is when Paul Graham asks the Airbnb founders where most of their customers are. They replied that they are mainly in New York and DC, and Paul Graham says, “Then what the hell are you still doing in Mountain View?!” and they booked a flight for the next morning. 

At that point, the founders went to New York and started selling their product literally door-to-door. They went to people’s houses and asked, “Do you know how much you could be making off this extra room?” 

That level of hands-on attention is not possible when you are a big company, but the point of “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is that as an early-stage startup, this is perhaps the best thing you could be doing, especially as a company building a marketplace product. 

This sometimes flies in the face of what engineers are naturally trained to do – they are often looking for some kind of technical solution for a human problem, and have a sort of built-in disdain for doing things like calling customers on the phone, or attentive hand-holding. However, these are possibly some of the most important things you could be doing as a young company, and it’s important to break the habit of email-and-text-only communication that has come to define our generation.

The best takeaway of the whole piece is this eternal quote: “Go out and manually recruit your early users, even if it seems tedious and inefficient.

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