The undervalued advantages of being a small startup

I remember when I was 12, I was desperate to grow up. I think most of us are when we’re young. Similarly, when you’re getting your startup off the ground, it can be easy to wish ourselves ahead to having a big team, a fully-fledged product and millions of users.

The thing is, there are a lot of cool things to experience, enjoy and be happy about when you are 12, before you become 13, 14, 15. The same applies when you’re a 2 person or 3 person startup. There are plenty of reasons to be happy.

You can move fast when you are small

I think one of the interesting things I’ve learned while growing Buffer to 11 people is that you can move fast when you’re 11 people, however you can also move rather fast when you’re just 2 people.

This is not to say that we moved faster overall when we were 2 people. We now have a larger footprint: we have a super useful web product, mobile apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, browser extensions for Chrome, Safari and Firefox as well as countless integrations with awesome partner apps and startups. There is no way we could move fast in all of these various areas if we were just 2 people.

However, the key thing is that you can move just as fast in terms of percentage growth when you are 2 people as when you are 11. In fact, in our early days we sustained 40% MoM growth for almost the whole of the first year.

Just focus on the right things and crank away at code and marketing and you can make a lot happen as just a couple of founders. That brings me to my next point:

You don’t need structure when you’re small

A couple of months ago I had a very interesting week where I spoke separately with both Jonathan Abrams and our advisor Maneesh Arora and found that they both had similar advice, and shared that they were staying small for as long as they could with their startups. These are two very experienced founders, and they were sharing that they had no hurry to grow big. I even remember Maneesh advising us to pay ourselves more instead of spending the cash on new hires. It now makes a lot of sense to me.

I’ve found that there is are a series of tipping points in a startup where prior to that point, structure would slow you down, and after the fact structure will speed you up.

For example:

  1. When you’re just 2 founders you can make all the decisions collaboratively, with no real structure.
  2. When you become 3 people, it probably still works.
  3. When you’re 5, 6 or 7 then it starts to break down and slow you down.

Put differently:

"Adding just two more people to a team of 3 means that there will be 10 possible combinations of 1:1 conversations. Make it 10 people and you have a whopping 45 possible sets of conversation partners." - Duane Jackson

That’s when you need to introduce structure and select one person to make the final call and lead the process. We’ve found this repeatedly, with product and with our customer support team and our engineering team too. We recently added more structure by promoting Sunil to CTO, leading engineering, and Carolyn to CHO, leading customer support.

My lesson learned here is that it is important to get the timing right with staying unstructured, or introducing structure. If you have departments and titles when you’re just a couple of people, that will probably slow you down. If you have a team of 30 people and no one in charge, that’s probably going to be slow too.

You can learn more easily from your users when you are small

When you are just getting started, it is vital to be in touch with the user and to do good customer development in order to understand whether your assumptions are correct.

The beauty is that when you are small it is actually very easy to have a conversation with your users, because there aren’t many of them! The harder part is actually taking the plunge and asking for that Skype call or coffee meeting with someone who signed up for your product.

I think Eric Ries put it very well in one of his presentations:

Most of the techniques that big companies use to do customer research (surveys, in depth analysis, data mining) they do because they have too many users to keep track of, and therefore they have to do that stuff to try to make sense of all the information they have. When you’re small you have the advantage that you only have a small group of people to get to know.

Indeed, we found that when we tried to do A/B testing and build out detailed metrics in our first few months, we were much better off to simply reach out and talk with the people who were signing up to Buffer.

Now that we have over 600,000 users posting more than a million times a week, what Eric Ries said resonates even more. We now have a small team working just on metrics and understanding what our users are doing. You can avoid this when you’re small, it is a lot of fun to be able to glean so much from just a few conversations.

Are you in the early stages of your startup? Are you embracing the benefits of how small you are? Or, maybe you’re at a later stage and remember how different it was when you were small. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Christian

Start something small

The other day I was listening to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and and I found it amazing how this book, which has now sold over 15 million copies, originally started:

I prepared a short talk. I called it ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ I say ‘short.’ It was short in the beginning, but it soon expanded to a lecture that consumed one hour and thirty minutes.

After giving this talk for some time, Carnegie found that the attendees started discussing their experiences and some “rules” emerged. Eventually the talk became a course, and there was a need for a textbook of sorts. Here’s how the now famous book became a reality:

we started with a set of rules printed on a card no larger than a postcard. The next season we printed a larger card, then a leaflet, then a series of booklets, each one expanding in size and scope. After fifteen years of experimentation and research came this book.

I found that absolutely fascinating. The book came out of a short talk and a few notes on a postcard-sized piece of card. Interestingly, I think a lot of the really big successes start like this.

The dangers of “big”

The challenge for a lot of us, is that when we go about our lives we interact with so many “big” things, and we forget or don’t even know how they originally started. It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today. We also all have big aspirations and want to get there fast.

I’ve personally made the mistake of trying to jump to “big” too soon many times before: the goal my previous startup was to kill the business card, and we struggled to execute effectively on a much smaller scale. I think there are probably countless other examples out there where founders try to have an immediately huge vision.

Great things start small

What I’m starting to notice more and more, is that great things almost always start small. Most of us know that Branson started the Virgin brand with a student magazine, but Virgin is just one of many examples which shows that the reality is counterintuitive: actually, the best things we know and love started as tiny things.

I’ve found that if I look into my own life, I find similarly that some of the most important achievements I’ve made started as little projects. My startup Buffer itself is a great example: it started as a two page website and in addition the short blog post describing this process has now turned into a talk I’ve given more than 30 times.

Make it smaller: you’re more likely to succeed

One of my most interesting realisations from this thinking and from seeing many examples is that actually in order to succeed, we probably should think and execute on a smaller level. If we do this, we’re more likely to succeed. I wrote about this previously, in the context of not trying to change the world right away. I was pleasantly surprised when Paul Graham wrote a comment in the discussion on my recent article which suggested similar:

Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.

Start everything with an MVP

I think Eric Ries really nailed this concept with his notion of the Minimum Viable Product. The great thing is, we see that even historical successes like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, started as just a short talk and a few notes on a small piece of card. That was the MVP, and it was a perfect way to start. And if the content in this smaller form hadn’t resonated with people, my guess is that the book wouldn’t even exist.

I believe that we could and should start to think about everything beginning as an MVP, starting much smaller than we might currently think about it. Andrew Chen has a great example: decide what blog posts to write based on Tweeting the potential headline. I think there are countless other opportunities for this too, in all areas of life.

Have you thought about the relationship of big thinking to success? Did something work out better when you started smaller? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Toby Bradbury