The Paradox of Scale

Recently, I came across an old newspaper article while cleaning out the basement at three in the morning. It was all yellowed and old and situated inside of a cracked, dusty picture frame.

The clipping was from the early 90s when my father-in-law relocated his practice to Northeast Ohio from Florida. 

Two things immediately struck me:

The first: why on earth would anyone move from the Sunshine State to Northeast Ohio? Probably for the winning sports teams, right?

The second: my father-in-law had an amazing mustache. I’m telling you, it was a thing of pure masculine beauty that would've given Tom Selleck a run for his money. (*Alas, no matter how much we believe that imagination precedes beauty, I'm ashamed to admit that no amount of imagination could muster a glorious facial fur like his with my boyish complexion.)

In all seriousness, the article was pretty audacious. It told of this new doctor in town (my father-in-law) who was going door-to-door saying hello, introducing himself, and offering his services to the community.

Although this was the time when cell phones and email were not yet ubiquitous, AIM wasn't popular, and wifi sounded like something you order off a Thai menu with a side of nam jim dipping sauce, there were still short-cuts and more efficient roads he could have taken to reach people and build his practice.

He could've blanketed neighborhood mailboxes with generic flyers or taken out ads in the local paper. Yet, he chose to walk from house to house, shaking hands, humanizing his business, and making individual connections with his future patients.

What he did was totally inefficient and unscalable.

It's easy to rationalize all the reasons why this would be ludicrous to do in today’s Western world. Certainly, a MailChimp blast, TV spot, Google ad, or a focused content marketing strategy trumps the unscalable. I mean, doesn’t it?

Paul Graham, of famous startup accelerator Y-Combinator (AirBnB, Dropbox, Reddit, and Stripe… to name a few), is ironically an outspoken advocate of doing things that don't scale.

The irony is that YC focuses on investing in tech companies that are built on the premise of acquiring users at scale (to the tune of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users) in a relatively short amount of time.

As he puts it, the unscalable is exactly how you grow from one to one hundred to one million. Remember: [Dropbox] wasn’t built in a day.

He says (and I’m paraphrasing here) many people "believe that companies either take off or don’t." That if their widget is good enough, pretty enough, viral-ready enough, it will be successful. Actually (and somewhat paradoxically) businesses take off because the founders make them take off… usually it takes some sort of push to get a business going - by doing the things that don’t scale.

"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."

Paradox of Scale

What my father-in-law was doing was arguably inefficient, and yet it was a cornerstone in laying the foundation of a massively successful practice that has helped heal tens of thousands of people over the last several decades.

It is paradoxical: To scale, do things that don't.

Our world is in flux, (re)turning to a time where Efficiency and Effectiveness are no longer mutually exclusive (actually, it's safe to say they're starting to see other people).

Doing things that don’t scale (i.e. being human) is still totally underrated.

The hypothesis we are living as an organization is: the (business) world is ready for this re-humanization. Not just in the web design industry, but everywhere. And across the board, we are finding cadres of people delighted by connection-driven things that aren’t inherently easy or efficient.

Each one of us wants to be seen and recognized and known and treated with the dignity of being an individual. There is something surprisingly refreshing about feeling like someone is saying: I see you. I hear you. I made this for you. I’ve been waiting for you. 

We’re seeing our tribe delight in the things that are “more trouble than they're worth.” And doing the things that don’t scale efficiently - is one secret to sparking that delight.

As Seth Godin says, “When you do the work that others can’t possibly imagine doing, you set yourself apart.”

It is inevitably a struggle when we find ourselves with the choice between doing the efficient/easy/scalable thing, or doing the inefficient/emotionally labor-intensive/unscalable thing. The key is to slow down and consider which may be the wiser and more human road to take.

Find your unique way of going “door-to-door.” We're playing the long game, after all.