September 8, 2022

Constant distraction, infinite choice and endless competition


In the startup world, there’s a bias towards scale.

Cultural pressure warns founders that if they don’t create a network effect through instrumented virality, build a rapid growth model and acquire tens or even hundreds of thousands of users in a short period of time, then their business is toast.

And to their credit, the extreme pressure can occasionally turn intellectual carbon into entrepreneurial diamonds.

But the downside is, it also creates the false narrative. One where the only way to win the game is to get big enough to attract real investors, scale the brand and ultimately sell the company.

Naturally, media companies exacerbate this pressure. Articles, podcasts, booksellers, interviews and other publishers all perpetuate survivorship bias. They only champion these big giant visionaries as the backbone of the startup economy.

You rarely read a front page story about some quiet and humble business owner who successfully runs his lean startup with two employees, a hundred customers and has no intentions of scaling.

Doesn’t attract any eyeballs.

Here’s the thing about achieving scale that we quickly forget.

It’s not only pretty rare, it’s also incredibly hard. Shit, getting ten strangers to try your product for free, much less pay a few dollars a month to actually use it, is already difficult enough.

In this marketplace of constant distraction and infinite choice and endless competition, sometimes launching a business can feel completely hopeless. A cruel voice inside your head keeps saying nobody has time in their busy lives for your new piece of crap.

The reality is, most of us who make things for a living are not going to reach millions, hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands of people with our work. And that’s okay.

We can be in business of reaching less people more deeply, and still consider our ideas to be a commercial success.

We can have the fewest number of users possible, and still generate meaningful revenue for our business.

We can stay small without scaling up, and still experience profound career fulfillment.

And don’t get me wrong. If millions of people want to give me their time, attention, money and trust, then I will absolutely take it. I’m not so idealistic and naïve as to not position my business for exponential growth.

If lady fortune should decide to shine upon it, then there will be nothing but acceptance and gratitude on my end.

But lest my workaholic brain forgets, pressure is a choice.

Fulfillment entirely depends on what you decide to optimize for.

How big do you really need to be?