Paul Graham startup essays
Do things that don't scale
(Read web version.)
Paul Graham is a Silicon Valley icon. He co-founded Y Combinator which invested in and supported the early development of AirBnb, DropBox, Reddit and CoinBase. Paul has a wealth of tech startup experience which he freely shares in his original and insightful essays.
In this post I highlight four essays which have influenced how I think and what I do. I thoroughly recommend Paul’s essays which cover topical, engaging subjects and are well written.
Do things that don’t scale
Do things that don’t scale seems counter-intuitive to many who have visions of massively growing their fledgling tech ideas. Many founders believe new products either take-off or they don’t. The myth is, if we build something good and make it available then it will succeed. The reality is that such products become successful as a consequence of the focused efforts of founders. Products often take a push to get them going - a bit like cranking the engine of a 1930s car.
Getting anyone to use an unproven product is hard. Hence, a common unscalable activity is to find people willing to try them. Initial users are typically family, friends and associates of the founders.
Marketplaces are so hard to get rolling that you should expect to take heroic measures at first. In Airbnb's case, these consisted of going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings. - Paul Graham
My Nip To mobile app helps users find public amenities on a map, such as toilets, post boxes and bins. By simply taking a picture, users can add new amenities to the app. Using this method, one unscalable activity I will undertake is add all the amenities I can find in my local area. This will make Nip To useful for anyone visiting Bath and help me test the viability of the app.
Change your name
Startups that do not have the .com domain should seriously consider changing their name. This is particularly true if you want to serve users in the US.
There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, it’s difficult for potential users to find you. Secondly, not having the .com domain signals weakness; a marginal domain suggests a marginal organisation.
It is natural that if we already have a name for our product that we attach great significance to it. We falsely believe that the name is synonymous with the product and no better name exists.
I fell into this trap when I named my grid based game Conxy and setup Conxy.co. However, I took Paul Graham’s advice and renamed it to Scarper with the domain PlayScarper.com.
A project of one’s own
Inspiration for this essay came from Paul’s 9 year old boy who was excited to work on his own project - writing a story. Paul suggests that working on your own project is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It's far more fun and most great work comes about from such projects.
If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and working on ambitious projects of their own, I'd pick the projects. - Paul Graham
For me, there is nothing quite like initiating and taking personal ownership of a project. This blog is one example. I struggled with English at school and, hence, to have hundreds of engaged readers is a source of great satisfaction for me.
Paul writes in a simple way and conveys powerful ideas. In this essay he explains why he uses ordinary words and simple sentences.
Most readers' energy tends to flag part way through an article or essay. If the friction of reading is low enough, more keep going till the end. - Paul Graham
To maximise engagement we should remember that English may not be the first language for many readers. Fancy writing is a way of hiding poor ideas, both from readers and authors. Simple writing keeps us honest and lasts better.
I try to adopt Paul’s simple writing style myself, but know I’m not there yet.
How to start a startup lecture by Paul Graham
Hackers & Painters book by Paul Graham
This post looked at four Paul Graham essays that influenced me. Next Sunday’s post looks at ways to make time.
Until next Sunday, let me know what you think of Paul Graham’s essays.