Don’t let “doing things that don’t scale” trap you

The “Do things that don’t scale” mantra for early-stage startups has a flip side; don’t forget it.

The flip side is, “You must also pump enough new customers into the top of the funnel that doing things that don’t scale becomes your biggest problem”.

Otherwise, doing things that don’t scale might become something of a crutch; something you use as a reason to not try growing your customer numbers (sometimes consciously, more commonly unconsciously.)

Photo of a pressure gauge. Doing things that don't scale may keep the pressure low but it also may stop your startup growing. Photo by Crystal Kwok on Unsplash. Start paid marketing before you believe the product is finished, and probably before you think anybody in their right minds would be happy to pay.
Doing things that don’t scale may keep the pressure low but it also may stop your startup growing


But… but… what if we like this feeling of control?

I understand the feeling — while the only people using my product are people I’ve concierged onto my platform, while they’re all friends of mine or friends-of-friends, I feel like I have a lot of visibility. I feel like I can minimise the risk that they’ll be disappointed with the product and leave. I feel like I have control. I’m free to pursue my slow journey down the winding trail towards Product That Will Sell Itself Nirvana.

Which is fine if, in the end, you can make it all the way to Nirvana on your own. Something less than one per cent do, but maybe you’ll be The One. If you’re not, you’re going to need to persuade others to get involved, whether as early team members, advisors, investors, accelerators or incubators, or grant administrators.


OK, what do these others want to see from us?

They want to see early evidence of a growing business. The more months your early-stage startup bumps along near zero on the y-axis, (x-axis is labelled “Time”), the harder it’s going to be to prove you’re building a growing business. Your challenge is not to make runway last longer, it is to show growth within the available runway. To show signs that you might be able to get your wheels off the ground, and not stall once in the air.

To get anybody interested in your startup, you will need some metrics going up and to the right. In decreasing order of impact on others, those metrics are:

  1. Profit
  2. Market share
  3. Revenue
  4. Customers
  5. Waitlist customers who’ve paid a deposit
  6. Free trial customers
  7. Waitlist email addresses; and
  8. Inbound visitors.

Most of us will start at inbound visitors and waitlist email addresses and work back through that list towards profit.


But we don’t have much runway and don’t want to spend our money on marketing

The downside of paid acquisition (compared to those free, non-scaling channels) is that it costs money. It can subtract from your runway. The upside is that it scales way beyond your available concierge time, and when you get it right, and you acquire CAC<LTV customers, it extends your runway.

So you should start experimenting with:

  • Creative
  • Call to action
  • Positioning
  • Channel
  • Frequency
  • Retargeting
  • Pricing
  • Re-engagement


Now. Certainly before you believe the product is finished, and probably before you think anybody in their right minds would be happy to pay to use it.

This way hopefully you’ll ship a saleable product around the same time you finish learning how to market to customers.

One more thing

Don’t worry about losing the customers who sign up for the previous versions. If the internet is good at anything, it is finding more new customers.


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