Paul Graham makes the argument that start ups, near universally, need to do things that don’t scale to get started. The important part of this message is, that there are two parts to a start up. The scalable part that most people think of AND the unscalable thing that you do to get it going. Here are some choice quotes from the essay.
The hand crank automobile metaphor:
A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.
Consulting is the canonical example of work that doesn’t scale. But (like other ways of bestowing one’s favors liberally) it’s safe to do it so long as you’re not being paid to. That’s where companies cross the line. So long as you’re a product company that’s merely being extra attentive to a customer, they’re very grateful even if you don’t solve all their problems. But when they start paying you specifically for that attentiveness—when they start paying you by the hour—they expect you do everything.
The manual startup (almost a practical joke):
When manual components look to the user like software, this technique starts to have aspects of a practical joke. For example, the way Stripe delivered “instant” merchant accounts to its first users was that the founders manually signed them up for traditional merchant accounts behind the scenes.
Some startups could be entirely manual at first. 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.
On partnering with big companies:
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. It’s a common mistake among inexperienced founders to believe that a partnership with a big company will be their big break. Six months later they’re all saying the same thing: that was way more work than we expected, and we ended up getting practically nothing out of it.
Ok, some of those quotes are out of context, but the essay is great, go read it .