We talk a lot about scalability in this industry. To be successful, an idea or business must be able to grow. It's the holy and only way.
A system should work just as well with 10 users as it does with 10,000. An idea should be just as efficient and practical in 5 years as it is now.
I have to think this way while building products, marketing those products and hiring people to work on them. In fact, since my businesses are self-funded without any outside investment, you could say I need to be even more thoughtful about scalability.
However, working from the ground up on those businesses has taught me to loosen up on the religion of scalability. It is not your only god. In fact, I can attribute a lot of my success throughout my career to actions that were anything but scalable. They're the small little things you may think are useless or a waste of time.
✹ When I first started out as a designer, I would attend a conference or meeting and write personal emails to everyone I talked to there. No templates, no copy & paste. An individual email referencing what we talked about, ideas or challenges they discussed about their work or inside jokes we had. Those painstakingly written emails led to relationships that got me new projects, introduced me to more people and ultimately changed my life.
✹ When I built my first product, Semplice.com, I emailed every talented designer I’d ever met (and many more who didn’t even know my name) introducing them to the tool. I’d sit down with many of them in person, one-on-one, showing them what they could do with it. I would arrange meetings with small New York studios, hike into Manhattan and share a presentation I made custom just for them. Those initial 5 people I won over told their friends and co-workers, and 5 turned into 10, and 10 turned into 20. Do the math over months and I can attribute our thousands of users to those initial few.
✹ With all three products I co-own (Semplice.com, mymind.com and carbonmade.com) I still do customer support alongside our support team. This may seem like the most unscalable practice possible. How can a co-founder think big for a business when it’s down in the weeds every day? Why not leave this work to the people you hire for it? Yet many of my ideas for my products have come directly from conversations with our customers. And when our customers realize they are interacting directly with a founder of the business, it means a lot. One conversation like this can turn a passive customer into a lifelong advocate of our product.
✹ I’m still working directly within our design tools with our designers every day. Some might call that micromanaging. And it’s certainly the opposite of scalable. If we were a bigger team, it might not be possible. But continuing to design keeps me close to our product, keeps me fresh as a designer and maintains the quality of our products. I like to keep my products and teams small for this reason. It may not work for everyone but it’s the only way I like to work.
✹ When I plan or launch a product, I’m not doing focus groups or user testing through some platform or service. I’m setting up individual calls with designers and friends, and personally walking them through it or watching them use it. It takes a ridiculous amount of time. It’d be much more efficient to just send out a survey link. But I’ve gained invaluable insight just having conversations with people directly.
Next time you think about scaleability, think about the small moves. These small seemingly unimportant actions with high-impact that magically compound over time. Depending on where you are with your business, they can make the difference.