Thoughts on Paul Graham’s “Scale”

Paul Graham’s latest essay is one of his best. Several of his recent essays have focused on traction (growth, scale), which leads me to believe it’s something at the top of his mind.

My guess is, the largest issue facing most YC companies is a lack of traction. Thus, PG writes about distribution, thinking through and trying to help future founders looking for their distribution “secret.” In his latest essay, he talks about doing things that don’t scale – personally recruiting users, taking manual photographs of AirBnB host’s apartments, etc.

This is one of the biggest problems with startup marketing advice today. It’s all tactical. There’s little strategy: few thoughts of “how does this apply to my situation?” PG’s advice makes a ton of sense to a newly-formed company, as he points out. For a company trying to prove traction in order to raise a Series A, such advice is less clear – will recruiting users manually really make a difference as you try to acquire your next 1000-10k users? In such cases, investing in more scalable traction channels makes more sense.

Without a framework to think about traction, the tactics you’ll hear about daily – cheap ways to drive clicks via StumbleUpon, how to lower the CPC on your Facebook ads, or hacks to get more followers on Twitter – will overwhelm you. This is why we introduce the Bullseye Framework – a systematic way of thinking through the many customer acquisition channels that a startup could use.

It’s hard predicting what traction channels will work for a given startup. What helps is thinking through channels that could work for you given your company stage. By thinking through the universe of marketing tactics and narrowing them down to what’s likely to work, you can have an educated and well thought-out approach to getting traction: real customers and real growth.

This framework allows you to read through (excellent) articles like these and apply relevant tactics to your startup. There’s some awesome stuff in there, but to any company with real revenue or growth, things like commenting on blogs probably doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a core action that will lead to growth.

Paul Graham is absolutely right. Founders make their companies succeed by pushing through the early phases and doing things that don’t scale. Often, by narrowing their focus to just a few traction channels that make sense given their stage. Then, by later focusing on more scalable channels (in AirBnB’s case, referral loops, Craigslist distribution hacks, word of mouth, paid advertisements and Facebook integrations), they build them into billion-dollar companies.

4 responses

  1. Completely agree. It’s another example of the thinking behind “Right Action Right Time”. Right Channel, Scaling technique, and so on. I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to get it correct is that you need to use so much energy to accomplish your task, but also reserve enough for the meta level “is this the right time?”

  2. want. this. book. now.

    1. Love reading this!

  3. Can’t wait for ‘Traction Book’ to come out. After reading about the “bullseye framework” on Gabriel’s blog, I’ve been chomping at the bit to see what kind of small tests you suggest to verify or rule out a specific vertical.

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