“[T]he unscalable things you have to do to get started are not merely a necessary evil, but change the company permanently for the better… if you have to work hard to delight users when you only have a handful of them, you’ll keep doing it when you have a lot.”
Companies in the age of Silicon Valley unicorns face a dangerous temptation. They want to start building their products to accommodate millions of users when they only have five. It’s understandable but wrong – just as what might technically work for five users won’t work as well to get you even a hundred users in the first place.
YCombinator founder and startup advisor Paul Graham famously coined this counterintuitive advice: “do things that don’t scale” From Airbnb to Stripe, startups have taken that advice as gospel.
One common thread running through the ideas we share at Praxis is how to act entrepreneurially in your own life. That’s why I’ve decided to rewrite Graham’s advice for young people in startups rather than just those starting startups.
Now the good advice for startups is not perfectly analogous to good advice for startup employees, but the similarities are strong enough. Still, I don’t claim to be worthy to tie Graham’s shoes, let alone rewrite his article, so if you’re on this page, spend most of your time leaving this page to read his original post. Consider this to be a work of fan fiction from a dedicated acolyte.
“You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.”
Graham’s first point dispels the myth that user acquisition happens automatically. What does that mean for you as an ambitious young employee?
The first thing to realize for all of this advice is that you are selling a product – your time and creativity – and that you do have users – your employer and coworkers.
Once you’ve taken that first step, you’re going to be in a different position when looking for work. We’ve been taught that if we accumulate the right features. It’s wrong. You have to sell.
Key Takeaway: Don’t just build a great LinkedIn profile and online presence. Don’t just build a sterling business reputation. Go out and find problems you can solve for people. That is the way to finding a job where you can create the most value.
“Almost all startups are fragile initially. And that’s one of the biggest things inexperienced founders and investors (and reporters and know-it-alls on forums) get wrong about them.”
So, you’ve gone out and “recruited” yourself great work. Awesome! Don’t rest on your laurels. I have only two years of startup experience, but sometimes I catch myself thinking like I’m set for life and like there are no challenges I can’t face. I am wrong.
That delusion is worse if I start acting like I have the experience and knowledge. It makes me insensitive to opportunities to learn, to grow, and to be more valuable to the people who are paying me.
Key Takeaway: Be realistic about your potential for growth in the first years of your career, but take an active approach in creating strategies to help you grow your impact in your job. Big companies start out as little, fragile ones. So do careers.
“That’s one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can.”
Creating value should be your lived-out mantra. Take time to do extra things. Get flowers for a coworker who has worked especially hard.
Doing this takes some creativity and a willingness to empathize with people. It takes the creativity to see options other people don’t consider because they’re “extra.” But that “extra” attention to detail is what makes employers, employees, and your company’s customers choose you every time. Delight = loyalty.
Key Takeaway: Making the time and effort to delight your customer and your fellow coworkers is not optional – it’s essential.
“…[Y]ou can and should give users an insanely great experience with an early, incomplete, buggy product, if you make up the difference with attentiveness.”
For a tech company selling hardware or software, success is all about the user’s experience of the product. Since you’re the product, that means your employer (and their stakeholders’) experience of the value you bring to your organization.
Similarly, you need to focus obsessively not on what “features” you can provide (Photoshop skills, accounting knowledge, proficiency with CRM software, etc) and more on the benefits your “features” can create. If you have the flexibility and creativity that comes with a value-focused mindset, you’ll blow past any misconceptions or judgements about your own inexperience.
Key Takeaway: Experience is subjective, so you can’t count on your resume to create the right impression of your work. Understand what makes your employer and stakeholders tick and deliver it.
“It’s always worth asking if there’s a subset of the market in which you can get a critical mass of users quickly.”
Graham compares growth to a fire. It’s much more effective when it’s contained and controlled. A company like Facebook grew effectively because it limited its focus to just a few college campuses and built specifically for the student culture there. People loved it, and more campuses demanded it, until now it’s hard to believe that Facebook is for college students anymore (you know you’ve been ignoring that friend request from your Aunt Sally for too long).
The parallel in your early career is how you focus on your goals. If you try to be everything to everyone, you will fail to be effective. If you succeed for a short while, you will burn out. Giving yourself some freedom to specialize means you can create a more distinct value to your employer, and it means you have more time and attention to give toward perfecting it.
Key Takeaway: Find your niche and fill it. Then and only then you can move on to the next one.
“You can tweak the design faster when you’re the factory, and you learn things you’d never have known otherwise.”
“Meraki” was the name of a networking company rejected by Graham’s YCombinator fund. He uses the company’s name to describe other scrappy companies that did what a cash-strapped Meraki had to do in its early stages: assemble its product by hand.
Doing the hard stuff yourself definitely isn’t scalable, but it will give you unique perspective and understanding of your work. The Meraki equivalent for a young employee is walking into a company and doing the manual, time-consuming tasks that no one wants to do. In my own experience, working on technical support during hours I’m not doing marketing work has given me a much better insight into my company’s customers and product.
Key Takeaway: Put in the initial investment of work to learn the most difficult parts of your company’s job. You’ll do your job better as a result.
“If you can find someone with a problem that needs solving and you can solve it manually, go ahead and do that for as long as you can, and then gradually automate the bottlenecks.”
Graham points out that online payments provider Stripe got its start before it even had software – the cofounders were manually signing up customers for credit card processing accounts as they came in. They were Stripe’s software.
This has useful implications for employees. There’s always an incentive to simplify, reduce, and automate your workload. There’s always an incentive to find new tools to do that for you. But following these incentives won’t build your skills in breaking down problems and creating your own solutions – a skill you’ll need to have when more complex work comes your way.
Key Takeaway: You don’t need to have a system early on. You just need to do it. When you’re young, cheap, and time-rich, build your skills and confidence by doing things by hand.
“As long as you can find just one user who really needs something and can act on that need, you’ve got a toehold in making something people want, and that’s as much as any startup needs initially.”
Graham’s YCombinator team often advises early-stage startups to spend inordinate amounts of time focused on one customer – not just providing a product, but actively consulting and building based on that one client’s feedback. A similar piece of advice I received during the Praxis program was to go into my company every day thinking as a consultant might. What can we do better? What processes are holding us back?
While there are limitations to this approach (you don’t want to be a busybody), dedicating some time early on and throughout your first job to understanding your company’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement will put you in a better position to do your job in a way that meets real needs.
Key Takeaway: Study your company like a consultant. Don’t provide a generic product with your labor – tailor your work to your company’s needs.
“It’s easy to see how little launches matter. Think of some successful startups. How many of their launches do you remember? All you need from a launch is some initial core of users. How well you’re doing a few months later will depend more on how happy you made those users than how many there were of them.”
It doesn’t matter that much what you’re broadcasting to the world when you’re just getting started. There’s no use in putting “Entrepreneur and Writer” on your LinkedIn profile if you haven’t started a company and if you haven’t written anything. The best thing you can possibly be doing is building.
Graham also criticizes the tendency for startups to seek growth by partnering with big firms. In fact, this rarely works. You might consider that the same truth applies to where you start your career. It’s true that you might be able to take a higher salary if you start at a more established company, but you’ll probably have fewer opportunities to create extraordinary value and see extraordinary growth as you would in a startup making something that people want.
Key Takeaway: How and where you launch your career matters much less that what you do with it.
“…[W]e should try thinking of them [startups] as pairs of what you’re going to build, plus the unscalable thing(s) you’re going to do initially to get the company going.”
As someone navigating the career world, you aren’t just your current job title. You are the skills you bring to any job. Those skills – soft and hard – are your product, and they’re the analogy to the first axis of Graham’s “startup vector” idea.
You don’t know yet what the shape of your future product is going to be, but you can already start to follow some of these guidelines building it in unscalable ways.
We consider Praxis the YCombinator for the startup of you. If you want to explore how to think and work like an entrepreneur, apply for one of our monthly classes. We’d love to hear your story and help you get started with building your life and career.