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Y Combinator founder Paul Graham is a deity in Silicon Valley’s startup communities and whenever and whatever he writes on his blog is closely scrutinized.
His latest post: Do Things that Don’t Scale.
The word “scale” is code for software automation. His post is about startups that believe that all they need to do is launch their web service with sufficient attention and users will sign up and the business will grow (like a hockey stick).
He points out that successful startups, such as Stripe did not sit back but went out “manually” to “recruit users.”
“Sell” is a four-letter word in the geek engineering community, and that’s why he doesn’t use the word, but it’s what he is saying.
The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.
Sell like hell.
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.
And there’s the rub, or at least one of them, that’s blocking startup success. Engineers don’t sell – they code. If they wanted to sell they would be in a different career. Which is why only funding startups led by engineers is not a good idea.
He also reminds startups to focus on solving problems they know, that apply to them.
If you build something to solve your own problems, then you only have to find your peers, which is usually straightforward.
There, again, there’s a problem. Engineers don’t engage much beyond their cubicles. They don’t participate in their neighborhood communities.
There’s a limited number of problems to solve within the narrow experience of their daily lives.
But there’s tons of problems waiting to be tackled just down their streets and around the corner, in the cities of Silicon Valley, in the public schools, in the struggles of local residents.
For example, there’s an urban ghetto marred by poverty and violence in the heart of Silicon Valley – East Palo Alto. There were eight shootings there recently. There’s plenty of problems to be solved.
Or in the public schools of Silicon Valley. They are basket cases instead of being showcases. Lots of work to be done there.
But what do these young engineers know about such problems when their incubators house them in dorms and keep them isolated. And at the giant tech companies, huge busses scoop them up in the early mornings and drop them back in the late evenings.
No participation in real world problems leads to a paucity of ideas. If you don’t know your society you don’t know. Which is why I occasionally write “Culture Watch” articles to remind startups that all businesses are cultural artifacts and that they need to know what is happening in the real world around them, they need to be a part of it, or they might not be a business for long.
With the incredibly high failure rate of startups I’m surprised that the isolationist culture of startups hasn’t changed.
Innovation emerges from necessity
The future of innovative apps will come out of dense urban regions because that’s where young software engineers are aware of real world problems.
Silicon Valley’s insular “echo-chamber” bubble-wraps its technologists from even their local communities. It’s not a formula for success. This insular culture is by far the biggest threat to the future of Silicon Valley.
Graham should tell his adoring legions of young and enthusiastic engineers, to “get out into your neighborhoods, find real problems, and solve them.”
Because if they can be successful here in Silicon Valley cities their startup has the potential to be successful in other communities, other public schools, other cities — they all share the same problems. Everywhere, all around the world. That’s scale.
Software engineers will not go out and sell, not even to their own peers, especially not their peers. It’s gauche.
Do things that matter. Things that matter to a lot of people sell themselves.
Do things that scale.
Image: timlewisnm (via Flickr).