Hustling and the art of not scaling in order to scale

Why you should manually get your initial traction

Photo by Fernando Hernandez on Unsplash

You are PUMPED!

You’ve carved out a market, you know who your clients are, you have all the right marketing material, you have a kick-ass landing page and now all you have to do is launch and BOOM, you’ll get all the users in your segment.

It’s so obvious that you’ve already started figuring out your neighboring segments, maybe vertical growth because your go-to-market is done and done!

The greatest teacher, failure is. -Yoda

And boy have I failed!

And many others I know!

So how about some teaching, huh failure?

I’ve built software, laid the ground for the masses and got a turnout that made my Bar Mitzvah look like a massive success.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. -famous Chinese proverb

Ironically, the best way to scale is to not scale.

Yes, I know that makes no sense, but I’ll explain.

When I was studying guitar, I asked my teacher how to play faster. His response, like Mr. Miyagi, was a very puzzling “If you want to play faster, you’ve got to start playing slower”. And having gone through the process, it makes total sense. If you want to have the shredding technique of a guitar master, you have to get your basics right. Once you slow down and do scales at a snail rate, you start working on all the fundamentals, how your pick hits the strings, how your left and right-hand co-ordinate. It was such a zen revelation!

Orders of magnitude

I believe, that as a rule of thumb, every problem should have a different strategy for every order of magnitude. Your acquisition strategy for one user should be very different than that of ten users. Then acquiring 100 users is completely different, then 1,000 then 10,000, well… you get the point.

What can I learn from one user?

Just about everything!

Let’s start with the obvious, that one user, the one you can so easily onboard that you’re dismissing them, that user has so many qualities that your masses won’t give you. That user has a relationship with you, so, hopefully, you can be physically in the room when they are using your software. You can see their body language, hear their questions and frustrations. That user will give you the best UX study you’ll ever get. That user will be patient with you, and let you know a LOT about your project.

So now I’m ready for the masses, right?

Nope.

Now you’re ready to ask 10 people to use your software as a favor. It’s a bit harder then getting one user, but if you can’t reach 10 people, you really have to take a step back.

Now, these people will start uncovering lots of bugs, using your app in ways you never imagined. They’re also starting to give you feedback which is gold - not only are they helping you get your project seaworthy, they’re also telling you, in their own voices, why they like (or dislike) the product. That’s golden marketing material!

Now you can take all those interviews of happy initial users and start writing cold emails that will resonate with people who would actually like to be your customers. You can put several testimonials on your website. You can ask them where they hang out and where they think you should go to get your next users.

Cool, so now I make it rain?

Not quite yet.

You can probably get to 100 users now with VERY targeted marketing and referrals, but you’re far away from really understanding what makes you so special. Most chances are that you haven't yet encountered even one user who thinks your software is AMAZING. Trust me, you’ll know when they come along.

So now you already have more users than you could talk to (if they would talk to you) and you’re watching screen recordings or looking at stats, and you’re learning that there are different groups of users. A lot of them are writing to you - complaining, asking for features, complimenting. You are learning more and more. At this stage, you should probably encounter a die-hard fan. This is when you start digging really deep - trying to figure out what that die-hard fan would want to hear to try your product, say, from a Facebook ad. You take a few hundred dollars and try a couple of campaigns to see which messaging works.

And then I use that campaign to get a million users!

I’m really hating the buzz-kill role I’m assuming here, but again, no, sorry.

You’ve really only found a small niche or segment that is die-hard. Let’s face it, the chances that your product has feature parity with the competitors is very low. You probably suck at most things compared to them except for one thing you got right which is really resonating with a VERY select group of people. But now, you’re already starting to make some money, you have a few hundred users - that’s development money, that’s marketing testing money, that’s a little salary to maybe quit your day job or take on one less project as a freelancer.

So when do I get to the millions?

You guessed it, after the tens of thousands and the hundreds of thousands.

Every order of magnitude you grow will introduce new users and new problems. The later adopters will be much pickier about the minimal set of features, what type of customer support they expect, how long it takes them to convert (ever heard of retargeting? you don’t need retargeting to get 10 users).

Final thoughts

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to scale is to not scale. Focus on each order of magnitude as an important rung in the ladder to scale. Change your strategies and learnings for each step of that ladder and you will be invincible. And remember, even VC style growth follows the (breakneck speed) rule of “Triple, Triple, Double, Double, Double” - annually. This means that tripling the amount of revenue after initial traction ($2MM ARR) in a year is considered AMAZING. To put this in perspective - this is having 2,000 users paying $1,000 a year. It takes time to get there and it takes time to grow from there.

Take your time and go slow in order to go fast.

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Do you have any experience with going fast in order to go slow?

Have you failed because you skipped a rung in the ladder?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments!