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Should You Use Growth Tactics That Don’t Scale?

Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré
Should You Use Growth Tactics That Don’t Scale?

Last week, my friend received a charming hand-written note from a monthly wine club she recently joined. It was addressed by hand, the welcome note was written by her personal “wine concierge,” and it contained four $30 Off coupons to give to friends.

But what impressed me (and my friend, since she’s a copywriter) is the words in that handwritten note.

“We are a new company and growing fast.”

“Please help us continue to grow by sharing these referral cards with friends – you’ll earn free vino if they join.”

With that simple call-to-action asking the recipient to share the referral cards with friends (for free wine – who doesn’t love that?), Bright Cellars delivered a customer development tactic that may not scale, but will definitely help them grow.

Why should you invest time and money in growth tactics that don’t scale?

Your first users, the ones you gather before you’re Microsoft-size-huge, are your foundation in so many ways. By delighting them, you send a message to your employees (and everyone else) that customer service and success are truly your core values. And, by focusing so much attention on making your first users happy, you’ll do what every startup dreams of: You’ll nail both acquisition and retention, while cultivating a horde of active, engaged, enthusiastic brand advocates.

Young companies like Bright Cellars are doing everything right by making the extra effort to make early users feel like signing up was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The hand-written note might not scale, but it will pay dividends in the end.


Image published with the permission of CopyMuse.

Alex Turnbull, founder of Groove, said it best when he shared the best advice he got from another startup founder when Groove was new and trying to figure out acquisition:

‘Look, I could tell you what we’re doing, but it wouldn’t help you. We have 10,000 customers. You have zero. You need to focus on your first five customers.’

. . .

None of it was scalable, but it didn’t matter. Without it, he told me, they’d never get the chance to scale.

Paying an inordinate amount of attention to customer development early on comes with another benefit – these conversations are a necessary part of getting in-depth user feedback to improve your product and make your marketing more effective. While talking with each of your customers might not scale well, nothing works quite as well for gaining the kind of qualitative data that helps businesses grow.

But un-scalable growth tactics aren’t just about delighting customers. Sometimes, the tactic that does not scale is identifying a tiny target niche.

With a small niche, you’ll only be able to grow so much, but companies that are now colossal began by serving a select few. Consider where Facebook began; it was just for students at Harvard. Then it was just for students at select colleges. It was just that for years, and it performed extremely well for that group. So well, in fact, that their parents wanted in, and their grandparents.

For other startups, starting with a small niche might begin by making a solution just for your friends, and growing that audience slowly to friends-of-friends before attempting a wider market. Growth is inevitable if you take the time to do what you do amazingly well.

The danger of doing things that don’t scale

There is an argument against engaging in non-scalable activities. As Stella Barber wrote in Forbes, “there has to be a balance between doing things that don’t scale, and doing things that do.”

In her own experience of launching her startup matchist, Barber says:

Our goal was to have a conversation on the phone with every single user. We knew from customer development that freelance web developers were frustrated with sites that just treated them like pieces of data, and business owners looking to hire web developers were frustrated by automated responses from outsourced developers. (Think: “Dear Sir/Madam”).

At first, it worked perfectly. We developed relationships with everyone, formed a basis of trust, and got users to view our service more favorably than even we expected. Our advisors told us, “This phone call thing won’t scale.” We pushed back saying we would figure it out and that the personal, human touch was vital to our process.

Barber’s tactics, well-intentioned though they were, didn’t scale. In fact, attempting to maintain that level of personal experience actually hurt her customers, since as they grew, it took days to schedule calls with clients, and follow-up calls fell through the cracks. She says even though they came up with an automated solution, it’s one she expects to outgrow quickly, which leads to an excellent piece of advice:

Do things that don’t scale – in the beginning. Cultivate those first few batches of customers carefully. Delight them. Impress them. Use their feedback, mine them for insights, ask them to take an active part in helping you grow.

But also have a plan for when you grow too large for individual personal touches. How will you delight your customers and make them feel valued?

Right now, you may not need growth tactics that scale. You just need to do what it takes to grow. But you do need a roadmap of customer development practices for each growth stage of your company.

Nichole the Chief Strategy Officer at Inturact. She is also a moderator at Product Hunt and GrowthHackers.com; Previously, she was in growth at Inbound.org. View her website.

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Nichole the Chief Strategy Officer at Inturact. She is also a moderator at Product Hunt and GrowthHackers.com; Previously, she was in growth at Inbound.org. View her website.
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I actually agree about the balance of doing thing that can scale and don't. Even more so for early stage startups. Do what it takes. Fortunately though handwritten letters do scale... Becuase they're not handwritten :) http://www.fastcompany.com/304...
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré
Thanks, Shayne! I've seen some of those services too, posted on Product Hunt. :)
Maria Santacaterina
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré
Thank you so much for featuring us Nichole! We are really proud to say that we actually handwrite all our letters in house...Let's just say hand cramps are totally normal here (but luckily we have wine!) I'm working on ways to continue sending handwritten letters to our members as we scale. But basically the formula that seems to be working is to have each person on my team take 30 min each day to write :) It's working so far! Hopefully we can keep it up!