The Other Side of Scale

We know it’s important to do things that don’t scale, but what does scale even mean?

Scaling a lemonade operation t0 10 lemonade stands is insane; scaling a fast food joint to 10 locations is child’s play.

Thus scale isn’t only relative to the business, it’s relative to the growth channel.

How most people define scale:

Propensity of X to be infinitely or automatically replicated.

The missing half:

…the maximum N times that X can be done.

Advertising is perhaps the poster child of scalability, particularly in the digital format where “scaling” literally means clicking a button.

Compare ads with Quora, a community of people doing the least scalable thing imaginable — writing.

No two answers on Quora are alike. It is the aggregation of our world’s sharpest minds, sharing expertise and ideas, for free. It’s amazing.

But if Quora were like advertising, and there was an unlimited supply of folks wanting to know more about your expertise, then there would also be an endless supply of competitors willing to pay to share it (ads).

Here’s what happened after I wrote about product usability:

Did I answer every question about usability? Yep. Did I become a “market leader” in the subject? Apparently, yes.

And what all this cost:

  • 2-3 hours
  • 15-20 questions
  • $0

“Propensity to be infinitely or automatically replicated the maximum [47] number of times that [writing about usability testing] can be done.”

Could you answer every question about your area of expertise?

Alternatively, can you show me an advertising campaign that gets better results with fewer resources?

TL;DR — Rethink scale. Stop advertising. Thanks.

Startups Are Easy

A few weeks ago I saw the viral video of Mark Zuckerberg being interviewed in the early 2000’s.

To put it bluntly, he had no vision.

Today, Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. In 2004, Mark called it a directory for college students.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you see founders like Zuck, Kalanick, Houston, Chesky, etc create world-changing companies.

You might become introspective, asking:

  • Could I ever do that? No.
  • Am I lucky enough to come up with a great idea? No.
  • Will I ever learn to code? Hell no.

And you’re wrong.

First, you’re wrong if you think you’re not capable of great things. I have a learning disability that most people don’t know about or won’t believe if I tell them, and I’m learning more every week at 26 than I ever did in a semester of college.

Second, you’re wrong if you think new ideas matter. Ride sharing, sub-letting, and even collaborative storage are all concepts older than our grandparents. Look it up.

Third, the notion that you should write code to build a technology company is just a clever way to be a quitter. What you do need is expertise about a customer and their pain points; someone else much less talented than you can push buttons on a Macbook.

Startups Are Easy

Today’s success stories do share one thing in common: a great team.

But how great do you really need to be?

Are the companies that perform 100x better than their peers, really 100x better teams? Are the products with better prices, or user experience, or UI, or support, really 100x superior to what their neighbors are building?

The answer is no. (They’re maybe 1.25-2x better, I know because I’ve seen it.)

Since most startups fail, the “startups are hard” narrative makes sense. It’s called Confirmation Bias.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

See, the right team and the right product and the right market at the right time are all it takes.

And remember, right != perfect.

Because history tells us that if all you do is the right thing at the right time, you can drop out of school, do keg stands at your home office, have zero vision, teach yourself Chinese, and still make billions of dollars.

Startups are easy.

How to Get 1% Better

One of my favorite bloggers, James Altucher, notes that if you improve 1% per day your value doubles every 72 days.

Think about this — we can become 500x versions of ourselves in < 2 years. (Double every 72 days, x9 cycles, 2^9 == 512).

Here are a few areas I want to 500x:

  • Speech
  • Programming
  • Physical health
  • Sleeping
  • Dental health

And here’s what I’m doing to improve 1%:

  • Calling out other people when they say ‘like’ to encourage accountability (yes this is unsolicited)
  • 10-15 hours /week of online courses
  • Running on treadmill or Metaconda, 7 days /week
  • Olly, a new OTC gummy for better sleep
  • Crest white strips, 30-45 mins /daily with no ‘off’ days

Some milestones from last week, in the same order:

  • Started teasing my girlfriend for saying ‘like’ and now she’s calling me out when I do it
  • Built my first single-endpoint API from scratch
  • Beat my 5k personal best, clocked 22:41 (7:18 /mile)
  • Went to bed before 1am, twice
  • Teeth look… whiter

This post started with a different title, ‘Bacterial Thoughts.’

I was going to write about when cynical ideas enter our headspace and discourage us from taking action / making tough decisions / standing up for ourselves.

But I don’t have a cure.

I don’t know how to expel bad thoughts. Thanks to a little-known learning disability I look at letters and see numbers and sometimes need 5 minutes to read a page in a book because I’m balancing vowels and consonants for each sentence like there’s a master grammar conspiracy (explanation of this in a separate post if demanded).

I can’t tell you that another coffee will give you the energy and focus you need to succeed and I certainly can’t claim that a good night’s rest will provide clarity. I’m not a lifehacker with 7 Awesome Tips to help conquer your to-do list, nor do I even care about your to-do list.

I own 3 computers because I hate walking around with a book-bag. Last week I didn’t respond to emails from 2 good friends because “I didn’t feel like it.” My ideal weekend is at home, alone, updating my Mint account and avoiding people. I’m voting for Donald Trump.

My brother and I haven’t spoken in months because “I don’t feel like it.” I owe thank-you cards to several people for Christmas gifts but I didn’t buy any thank-you cards until last night. Last night I watched Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal and in the movie his wife dies, and he doesn’t feel sad. Often I think I would feel that way if my wife died, because sometimes I wonder if I even have emotions.

Everybody at my company is great but if it were up to me I’d work remotely and never go to any of our meetings because I hate meetings. A few people I used to look up to lost their minds so I had to unfollow them. Yes, when I look up to someone the highest praise I give is a Twitter follow.

Most of these sentences start with ‘I’ because I care about myself more than you. If I go to my high school reunion it will be to see how fat the skinny people got and how much richer I am than the smart people. Most people probably share this sentiment but won’t say it out loud. I will.

So no, I’m not perfect. But I’m getting better.

Are you?


On User Onboarding

Yesterday I did a product huddle with one of our portfolio companies.

They’re in a somewhat regulated industry and customer privacy is a chief concern shaping their product.

Like most passionate teams we’re convinced that once prospects experience the ‘aha’ moment of our offering, they’ll convert / pay / evangelize to help disrupt an industry.

But we’re not there yet.

Because to provide this kind of experience, we need a lot of information.

We need to know intimate details about a customer’s sales, purchasing power, and business relationships. We need to know if the prospect is a decision-maker, aka credit card holder, and we might even need to hop on the phone to vet you.

These requirements do not a great first user onboarding make.

In discussing this issue, the idea of eventual vs immediate needs was born.

What information do we need immediately, before we can grant the user that aha experience, and what do we need eventually, before we can follow through on the promise of that experience?

With this approach to user onboarding we’re going to trim down the form fields, time investment, and prospect headspace as they consider our solution.

Indeed, the last thing we need is friction between pain and relief.

Don’t Change My (User) Behavior

Working in venture capital means all kinds of founders pitch me their solution on a daily basis.

It’s funny because I don’t have a business card. I stay home as often as possible. I don’t even make the investment decisions. But I exist near the waterfall, and founders want to get rained on.

Perhaps the worst kind of pitch, though, is when the product requires a change in user behavior.

It goes something like this:

“Everyone is doing ____, and it’s stupid/inefficient/expensive/bad/unhealthy.”


“Yeah. And we’re going to change that.”

There is a fine line between providing a better way to do something, and a new way. Uber? Better way to hail a taxi. Airbnb? Better way to find a place to stay. Dropbox? Better way to store files.

Uber doesn’t ask you to ride on a motorcycle. Airbnb doesn’t tell you to sleep in a tent (although at this point there are certainly tents on the platform). And Dropbox isn’t a network of well-trained carrier pigeons. They’re all just superior forms of the things you already do.

My buddy David used to tell the story of a large college campus, where the best strategy is to let the students’ natural trails serve as the blueprint for paved sidewalks. Let the student shape the path.

The same principles can be adopted in software. What do your users already do, why do they do it that way? How can you inject your solution into their existing workflow, instead of creating a new one?

Zoom, a popular meeting tool, knows that when you want to create a conference call you’re likely in the middle of sending a calendar invite. So instead of requiring users to log into their website to generate a link, they provide a Chrome extension that overlays Zoom in your Google Calendar.


With this simple, 1-day-of-code tool, Zoom users are empowered to use a Google Hangout alternative, while in the midst of creating a Google Calendar invite, every time they need a conference call component to their meetings.

Zoom is Smart. Be like Zoom.