Having been happily away from the London startup ‘scene’ for a little while, it was actually rather refreshing to talk with a friend about her startup ideas a few days ago.
The most difficult part of the conversation was getting across the central idea of building a scalable company – i.e. that, given that starting up a scalable company is almost exactly as hard as starting up a non-scalable one, why waste your time with the latter?
Scalability isn’t about making yourself rich, it’s about seeing the world as a long series of genuinely accessible marketplaces and distribution channels, all of which you can get to from wherever you happen to start. Contrast that with being, say, a maker on Etsy etc: all such ‘creative platforms’ tend to do (in my opinion) is encourage people to build their own never-really-satisfying niche, and then lock themselves firmly into it. It’s nice but… not really (capital-B) Business in any properly entrepreneurial sense.
But at the same time, as we were talking I felt like I had silently morphed into a bit of a dinosaur without even knowing it. For even describing ‘scaling’ in such openly conceptual terms is a bit of a cop-out, startup ‘Top Trumps’ word fakery more for PowerPointing than for actually using in The Real World.
What struck me is that the genuine craft of entrepreneurialism isn’t about “aiming for scalability”, but rather “avoiding nicheness” – for what’s worse, (a) being trapped in a ghetto, or (b) being trapped in a ghetto that you built yourself?
The problem with ‘scalability’ – and indeed with all the other over-blown and over-conceptualized ways of thinking about startups – is that they can so easily become slideware cargo cults, bullet-point lists of abstract qualities or attributes or methodologies that your new business Must Have In Order To Be The Real Deal. You know, like that whole Lean Startup thing. *sigh*
The sad truth is that most startups dismally fail to service even their most accessible, best-understood markets: and so the whole notion of being able to scale that initial hopeful venture to attack larger, more global markets is rarely little more than a tragicomic joke, albeit one that many angel investors like to obsess over.
So what’s the right answer, Nick?
I guess I’m as tired of “conceptrepreneurs” (for whom scalability is not only utterly essential but also the backbone of slides 3-5 in their killer presentation deck) as of “nichepreneurs” (who deliberately aim low, probably out of a misplaced sense of fear). For me, the former group embodies the pointless, ungrounded sophistication that is all too typical of urban startup discourse: while the latter group embodies the trembling wannabe naivety about business I run into all too often these days elsewhere. Both suck.
For me, startups need to be a living social revolution – if you’re not in it to dramatically change people’s lives for the better, you’ve probably wildly misjudged the value of what you’re doing. All ‘scalability’ therefore means is that you’ve tried to set things up so that The Revolution Can Go Big: but without a great big revolution right at its heart, that startup is very probably a waste of time / effort / money, sorry. 😦