Please forward this error screen to host4. How do you make a business plan forward this error screen to 74. One of the most common types of advice we give at Y Combinator is to do things that don’t scale. A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don’t.
You build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist. Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going.
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. The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them. Stripe is one of the most successful startups we’ve funded, and the problem they solved was an urgent one.
If anyone could have sat back and waited for users, it was Stripe. But in fact they’re famous within YC for aggressive early user acquisition. Startups building things for other startups have a big pool of potential users in the other companies we’ve funded, and none took better advantage of it than Stripe. At YC we use the term “Collison installation” for the technique they invented.
More diffident founders ask “Will you try our beta? Great, we’ll send you a link. But the Collison brothers weren’t going to wait. 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.
This can’t be how the big, famous startups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate. You’ll be doing different things when you’re acquiring users a thousand at a time, and growth has to slow down eventually. But if the market exists you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods. Airbnb is a classic example of this technique. 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. When I remember the Airbnbs during YC, I picture them with rolly bags, because when they showed up for tuesday dinners they’d always just flown back from somewhere. Airbnb now seems like an unstoppable juggernaut, but early on it was so fragile that about 30 days of going out and engaging in person with users made the difference between success and failure. That initial fragility was not a unique feature of Airbnb.