"You'll be doing different things when you're acquiring users a thousand at a time, and growth has to slow down eventually. But if the market exists you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods.
Airbnb is a classic example of this technique. 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. When I remember the Airbnbs during YC, I picture them with rolly bags, because when they showed up for tuesday dinners they'd always just flown back from somewhere.
Airbnb now seems like an unstoppable juggernaut, but early on it was so fragile that about 30 days of going out and engaging in person with users made the difference between success and failure.
That initial fragility was not a unique feature of Airbnb. Almost all startups are fragile initially. And that's one of the biggest things inexperienced founders and investors (and reporters and know-it-alls on forums) get wrong about them. They unconsciously judge larval startups by the standards of established ones. They're like someone looking at a newborn baby and concluding "there's no way this tiny creature could ever accomplish anything.'" - YCombinator founder Paul Graham
I love that post by Paul Graham because it speaks to the nature of building a company from the ground up, which is different than helping a business reach scale or helping a business seek out and implement various operational efficiencies.
As a business matures, much of the art used to build the company is replaced by science. That art was essential for getting off the ground because it pushed you through a lot of doubt and uncertainty, a lot of rejection and isolation, a lot of times most people would have quit. For me, much of the art I've put into Localeur is travel. For tax purposes my travel is for market research and community management, but beyond fundraising my travel has had several other purposes. I travel to re-think our concept and anticipate potential problems. I travel to reach out to locals and develop meaningful connections in the cities we're in or plan to launch. I travel to get more in tune with our mission of helping people experience local wherever they go.
It's a natural and necessary evolution to go from art to science in building a business, but it's important not to throw out your passion and your sense of purpose in order to focus on profits and scale. Seeking new ways to analyze, build, create, and measure results are paramount to continued success, but so is culture and passion. What got you here isn't always what will get you there, as executive coaches and business books say, but what got you here was probably a lot harder to place a value on that what's ahead. Successful startups grow to employ hundreds and thousands of people, but often only have one to three founders. That said, the only thing I've seen, read and heard that makes the transition from a startup to business - from art to science, founders to thousands of employees - one that doesn't kill the business completely (and the team's momentum) is to make sure the passion underlying the initial concept is ever-present.
For me, so much of my passion for Localeur stems from a deep passion for travel. I didn't grow up in a wealthy or highly-educated or well-traveled family like many of my friends. My first real trip was a Beta Club trip to Washington D.C. in 8th grade that I paid for myself. My next real trip was a trip to the baseball hall of fame in upstate New York that I saved up money at a Pizza Hut job to do with one of my good friends from high school. Travel has been my self-education for a lot of things from what foods to eat and what cocktails to order to what clothes to wear on what occasions and how to go about getting good local recommendations.
I wrote previously that my main job so far has been to be Localeur's chief fundraiser, but that's sort of a lie. That's the science part of my job more than anything. The art part of my job is anticipating problems before they arise, working the nuances of various relationships to maximize results, and all the socializing, relationship building, community managing and networking I do behind the scenes that has helped shape Localeur's story. It's Chase's vision and our team's execution driving our product advancements and iterations, but I realize it's my passion for travel and local that is what I take into those rooms when I pitch venture capitalists or on those phone calls when I interview with journalists or pitch corporate partners or those happy hours when I sit down with Localeurs around the country.
I'm currently on a trip to Europe, having started in Amsterdam this past Friday and continuing onto Berlin where I am now. Localeur won't be in Amsterdam or Berlin in the next 3 months or maybe even 6 months, but we will be sooner than you think. We have thousands of users around the world in cities that don't yet have Localeur, and we have a product to offer them. More importantly, we have a story to share with them and a problem of theirs we'd like to solve. This isn't possible only through the science-driven decisions of building a business, but through the art-creating methods that YCombinator founder Paul Graham calls "doing things that don't scale" to ensure a startup's success.