Making Things That Don’t Scale, Scale

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“Do things that don’t scale” is by now a legendary post on how to build successful startups by Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y-Combinator, perhaps the world’s most exclusive and sought after startup incubator.

In the post Paul talks about doing well with things, that aren’t exactly scalable initially. This could be things like hiring well, go the extra mile for the customers, meet users face to face and so forth.

The ups and downs of Crowdfunding

At Airtame we have discovered for ourselves, that it’s indeed words to live by. After an European record breaking crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and being named “best startup” at CES in January 2014 we had to go into a 1.5 year long crunch period to build our product.

This included throwing away original plans as we had to scale production 8x. Creating a small piece of hardware with more than 100 components inside it. Coding both firmware and software and so forth.

Admittedly, we did not launch the best product in the summer of 2015. Many of the crowdfunders, who had waited a long while, were disappointed.

Firstly, it was impossible to do everything promised during the crowdfunding campaign. Secondly, everything that we promised did not make sense to build, disappointing a few. And thirdly, each crowdfunder often has his or her expectation to what exactly the product should be able to do. It’s very hard to please everybody. You probably should not even strive to. A great product for some is a lot better foundation to build a business on than a mediocre product for more.

This period was challenging and some very tough decisions were made. It was tough, but in hindsight we would not have been without. One thing that’s for sure, the company would not even have existed without the crowdfunders’ support. It has helped shape the company we are now. Today, we have a device that works great for wireless sharing of screens and digital signage, in both businesses and schools.

Building a friendly tech company

As our product did not live up to all crowdfunders’ expectations, it forced us to try and do our very best to make it work for every single customer.

We got ourselves into huge and time demanding projects.

One of the more epic ones was to write a personal email to the more than 10,000 people received our product. It started with just mailing a few hundreds, but as we saw peoples reaction to us, showing that we really cared, we scaled the project. In each email we asked how it was going and whether our product worked as intended.

Here’s an example of one I sent:

These conversations turned into phone calls or longer debugging mail threads. From marketing to sales, every non-developer dropped their current project to jump into this one. It was the single best thing we could do at that point, to convince people to have faith and give us more time to build a greater product.

We learned so much, and improved so many things, during this period. Despite the unscalable nature of being so close to each customer we kept doing it until we had contacted every single crowdfunder.

If we couldn’t initially be the best tech company in the world, we could at least be the most friendly one.

Related to this, we discovered what reviews can mean for a business in this digital day and age was one of them.

A custom-branded background per customer

Another thing we discovered through serendipity, as we strived to make each customer happy, was that we could get our designer to make a unique custom background for a subset of customers.

This background image could be uploaded to give each screen or projector with an Airtame installed a company branded touch.

Here’s an example:

By creating a custom background for a bunch of our customers we discovered two things. One, customers really liked it and we wanted to do more of it. Two, it would not be scalable for us to spend a lot of our designers and account managers time to carry this process. Standing at this deadlock we started to look for options on how to make this a viable part of each of our customers’ experience with Airtame.

Scaling with freelance help

Hire more designers in Copenhagen? That’s going to be expensive! Get the account managers to help customers set a custom background on each Airtame? No way, they should be focused on selling.

We discussed whether we could program some sort of bot that could go the website of each customer and pull a logo. Convert it to an image of the right size. Then zaping it on to a mailing system. Probably not going to work. For the process to work we needed human reasoning and sense esthetics.

Having scratched the robotic solution and acknowledge that local labor would be too expensive in Copenhagen, but still wanted to delight each customer in this way, we had just one option left. We turned to the internet and Upwork.

The one role we needed to fill was a virtual assistant to help with the mailing to each customer. We found Srdjan, a young guy from Serbia. He’s quickly proved consistent and effective, so we started giving him more and more work. Today, Srdjan has now been working full time for us around a year now. Due to this close collaboration he even joined our yearly workathon to meet our whole team.

The other role, which turned out to be a job for three people was designing the actual background images to be uploaded to the customers’ Airtames. Firstly, we wanted to give all the crowdfunders a background. However, as our sales simultaneously started to scale, consequently more and more backgrounds needed to be designed. Nowadays, we have both Olga and Kristel from Ukraine and Jevie from the Philippines helping doing these designs.

To make the process work, we focused on getting all details right, before we scaled. We had calls and multiple conversations with the designers talking them through the process and what looked best when being put as a background image to Airtames. We wrote and tested several emails and subject lines before a template was handed over to Srdjan to send our customers.

Here’s an example of one of the emails we sent:

That’s what it comes down to for us. If you’re considering working with online freelancers, here are a few tips: Be sure to get the process and all the details right, before you start scaling. It’s hard to read your mind. Be explicit about what you want. Set off time to do proper instructions and be available for feedback along with the occasional clarifying questions.

Through the help of Upwork and freelancers from all over the world, we have now come up with a machine like process where we know that we delight each of our new customers, by giving them their own custom backgrounds for each screen or projector where they plug in an Airtame.

Paul Graham is right, start by doing things that don’t scale. But when you find stuff that works nicely, break down the process to smaller pieces and find a formula to making the things that don’t scale, scale.


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Author: Steffen Hedebrandt

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