Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Do Things That Don’t Scale

Do Things that Don’t Scale by PG is one of the more insightful article I had read in recent times, and it’s pretty long (having a hard time taking notes).


  1. The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually.
  2. There are two reasons founders resist going out and recruiting users individually. One is a combination of shyness and laziness. They'd rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. The other reason founders ignore this path is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first.
  3. If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you'll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year you'll have 14,000 users, and after 2 years you'll have 2 million.
  4. Marketplaces are so hard to get rolling that you should expect to take heroic measures at first. In Airbnb's case, these consisted of going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings.
  5. It's harmless if reporters and know-it-alls dismiss your startup. They always get things wrong. It's even ok if investors dismiss your startup; they'll change their minds when they see growth. The big danger is that you'll dismiss your startup yourself.
  6. Microsoft can't have seemed very impressive when it was just a couple guys in Albuquerque writing Basic interpreters for a market of a few thousand hobbyists (as they were then called), but in retrospect that was the optimal path to dominating microcomputer software.
  7. How do you find users to recruit manually? If you build something to solve your own problems, then you only have to find your peers, which is usually straightforward. 
  8. Otherwise you'll have to make a more deliberate effort to locate the most promising vein of users. For example, Ben Silbermann noticed that a lot of the earliest Pinterest users were interested in design, so he went to a conference of design bloggers to recruit users, and that worked well.
  9. You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy. For as long as they could (which turned out to be surprisingly long), Wufoo sent each new user a hand-written thank you note.
  10. A lot of of startup founders are trained as engineers, and customer service is not part of the training of engineers. You're supposed to build things that are robust and elegant, not be slavishly attentive to individual users like some kind of salesperson.
  11. I have never once seen a startup lured down a blind alley by trying too hard to make their initial users happy.
  12. But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they've never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they've been customers of, which are mostly big ones.
  13. Steve Jobs wasn't just using "insanely" as a synonym for "very." He meant it more literally—that one should focus on quality of execution to a degree that in everyday life would be considered pathological.
  14. It's not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user. But you can and should give users an insanely great experience with an early, incomplete, buggy product, if you make up the difference with attentiveness.
  15. In software, especially, it usually works best to get something in front of users as soon as it has a quantum of utility, and then see what they do with it. Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination, and in any case your initial model of users is always inaccurate, even if you're one of them.
  16. Sometimes the right unscalable trick is to focus on a deliberately narrow market. That's what Facebook did for Harvard students.
  17. Any startup that could be described as a marketplace usually has to start in a subset of the market. It's always worth asking if there's a subset of the market in which you can get a critical mass of users quickly.
  18. Most startups that use the contained fire strategy do it unconsciously. They build something for themselves and their friends, who happen to be the early adopters, and only realize later that they could offer it to a broader market. The strategy works just as well if you do it unconsciously.
  19. Among companies, the best early adopters are usually other startups. They're more open to new things both by nature and because, having just been started, they haven't made all their choices yet. Plus when they succeed they grow fast, and you with them.
  20. Pick a single user and act as if they were consultants building something just for that one user. The initial user serves as the form for your mold; keep tweaking till you fit their needs perfectly, and you'll usually find you've made something other users want too. Even if there aren't many of them, there are probably adjacent territories that have more.
  21. Use your software yourselves on customers’ behalf. Viaweb: Some merchants don’t want to make an online store with our software, but they'd let us make one for them. It taught us how it would feel to merchants to use our software. Sometimes the feedback loop was near instantaneous.
  22. When you only have a small number of users, you can sometimes get away with doing by hand things that you plan to automate later. This lets you launch faster, and when you do finally automate yourself out of the loop, you'll know exactly what to build because you'll have muscle memory from doing it yourself.
  23. 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. It would be a little frightening to be solving users' problems in a way that wasn't yet automatic, but less frightening than the far more common case of having something automatic that doesn't yet solve anyone's problems.
  24. The Big Launch don’ usually work. 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.
  25. So why do founders think launches matter? A combination of solipsism and laziness. They think what they're building is so great that everyone who hears about it will immediately sign up. Plus it would be so much less work if you could get users merely by broadcasting your existence, rather than recruiting them one at a time. But even if what you're building really is great, getting users will be always be a gradual process—partly because great things are usually also novel, but mainly because users have other things to think about.
  26. Partnerships too usually don't work. They don't work for startups in general, but they especially don't work as a way to get growth started.
  27. The need to do something unscalably laborious to get started is so nearly universal that it might be a good idea to stop thinking of startup ideas as scalars. Instead we should try thinking of them 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.

A Shorter Summary

Sometimes conventional wisdom (even in the startup world) could be wrong, or wrongly interpreted and practiced. When we are small and have no users, there is a lot of non-scalable manual work need to be done to attract users, keep them happy until we reach a tipping point. The side effects is that we could learn a lot while doing the manual work, better understand the user's need, and how to optimize the process better. After that, perhaps we could scale, or not. No everyone needs to scale like Google.

A local angel investor reminded me that sometimes it’s good to go local and do something which don’t scale, as it makes it harder for the “scaling” foreign player to enter the market. It’s more work with more “hardware” problems, but it’s also more defensible. Market too small? The VC might not be interested with 10 million dollar market, but I am.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of scaling or not, but doing whatever is required.

Invited: D`MUG’s Magic Mug

When I caught wind of a friend venturing into the ceramic mug business, I was curious and wondering what is special about mugs. Then I was told it is a “magic” mug.

It’s magic in the sense the mug is temperature-sensitive (react to heat or cold), where the image on the exterior of the mug will change color when the mug is being exposed to heat or cold (heat-sensitive based product is more common). The “magic” nature of the mug makes the mug much more interesting, where you could put hidden message or motive where it will only be exposed when in contact with heat, which makes a great gift candidate.

I would assume the most important aspect of magic mug is the design of the exterior image, where is not only have to be beautiful and unique, but the contrast between the normal image (room temperature image) and hidden image (appear upon heated) must be captivating and bring out “surprise”, the same expectation we have with magic.

I ask Dexter, the co- founder of Dexsim (the company behind d’MUG), about who their target customers are. He said the magic mugs are popular as corporate gifts, and they are targeting end users as well. From their design I would say it’s a “safe” design, meaning it probably more suited towards corporate with similar “look & feel” to those of souvenir gifts.

I was given 3 design as samples: The TV (a black screen brighten up and showing the word “ON”), The Tiger (Stripes turn into a tiger) and The Words (Black words turned into colourful words). I am very satisfied with the quality of the mug (solid build, vibrant color), and the design is okay, but I feel there is much more room for improvement. The TV has lots of potential, as the black screen could be turn on into anything, but why just show the word “ON” (which is not very meaningful), why not a more meaningful hidden message, a funny character or “You Are Being Watched” or “I'll Always Watch Over You”, then switch the corresponding white background with similar mood theme. As for The Words, rather than showing a bunch of meaningless words, why not put a hidden message in it and color up the hidden message, such as “Marry Me”, will this be a potential best seller? The Tiger is quite alright, but I like The Zebra better.

To target the individuals, especially the younger crowd, the mug’s design should incorporate humor or cuteness (for the much younger crowd) or some special characters or styles (gothic, girlish romance, etc.). Since it is expected to be bought as a gift, it should have more meaning (especially hidden meaning) for occasions such as birthday, father and mother’s day, valentine, etc. There should be a message of love, message of praise, message which makes people laugh, and help people to convey a message. When I say message I don’t mean just text, as message could be translated in other visual form. We have enough of “safe” design flooding the market; I believe we are desperately looking for something special, unique and unconventional. The nature of the magic mug is very special, and it should be complemented with a special design.

The magic mug still makes a very good gift with a surprise element, and I have high hopes for d’MUG’s next releases. The mug is sold for RM 22 per piece on d’MUG’s online store (original price is RM 26) excluding delivery (For West Malaysia is RM6 for Normal registered pos & RM8 for Poslaju. For East Malaysia will be RM12  for Poslaju only). If you would like to save on the delivery fee, you could try to contact them ( to arrange for pickup (probably near Subang Empire area). There should be discount for bulk purchase (at least 50 units).

If you are interested in custom design, they accept a minimum order quantity of 50, and you can even print some customized message at the bottom of the mug. What if you only want 1 or 2 unit? Probably still could be done, but the price shall be higher, do contact Dexsim regarding your request.

The mug is made of High Grade Ceramic Compound, which feels pretty sturdy. The Ink and the Mug is food safe, certified to be compliance with "Directive 84/500/EEC – approximating EU countries' laws on ceramic articles intended to come into contact with foods”

I believe d’MUG should be a popular corporate gift, magically presenting each company;s identity and “secret message”, and it comes with a solid blue color premium box, which protect the mug well and portray a premium image. Do email for bulk discount and custom design.

Dexsim (M) Sdn Bhd
B-06-29, Empire SOHO, Empire Subang,
Jalan SS16/1,
47500 Subang Jaya,
Selangor, Malaysia.
Tel: +6017 888 4678
Online Store: