For those in the startup world, surely you've heard the phrase "Do things that don't scale" coined by YCombinator founder Paul Graham.
I think about that particular post a lot because I look at my entrepreneurial history, from cutting grass for neighbors at 11 to selling bubble gum to classmates at 12 to advising companies like FedEx on social media at 25 to launching Sneak Attack then Style X and eventually landing on Localeur, truly my life's work (for now). I think about how fortunate I am, a kid who can remember all of one family vacation and once missed a 5th grade field trip because it costs $90, to be able to hop on a plane and experience new things.
I'm on a quick trip to Asia right now, having just spent three days in Tokyo then heading to Hong Kong before returning for SXSW, and after thinking through it thoroughly, I have reached a conclusion:
The #1 thing that does not scale is travel.
I learned this first-hand when I co-authored "Real Role Models" a book UT published a few years back and embarked on my own self-promoted book tour, speaking in dozens of Teach for America classrooms around the country. It worked then, and it works now.
Travel is what gets those all-too-important, face-to-face interactions that lead to product evangelism, community growth, and, yes, revenue generation. Fittingly, two of Localeur's main business partners are other travel companies: JetBlue Airways and Tablet Hotels.
Community management scales with community managers. Yelp proved that. Content strategy scales with tools like Hootsuite and other social CRM tools. Big brands can testify to that. Sales operations scales with tools like Salesforce. Software sales has verified that much. Hell, even hiring scales to a great degree with the great many online and service-related offerings for HR and recruiting professionals.
But travel absolutely does not scale.
I don't care how much you use Ctrip or how often you rely on your hard-earned airline miles or how frequently you get tips from TripAdvisor and cheap flights from Priceline. There's just no way around one person having to make decisions about where to spend money, what flights to take, what hotels or lodging option to choose or where to go eat or drink once you arrive in the new city.
In his now-legendary post, Graham wrote, "One of the most common types of advice we give at YCombinator is to do things that don't scale. A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don't...Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going."
I can testify to this first hand. Chase and I probably spent two years trying to find some silver bullet in the product to make Localeur become viral like SnapChat or Facebook, but over the last 6 months especially I've realized that the push Paul is referring to is more like an Atlas stone workout. You're literally holding a heavy ball above your head (your concept) and walking it uphill one step at a time. Most people fail, some miserably, and very few find that narrow path up to the top. Very very very few are Facebook or Instagram where it just happens and users come in as fast as Trump voters realized they didn't make America great again by any definition of the phrase. Still probably even faster for those aforementioned startups.
"The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can't wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them...There are two reasons founders resist going out and recruiting users individually. One is a combination of shyness and laziness. The other reason founders ignore this path is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first. This can't be how the big, famous startups got started they think," Graham continues.
I can also testify to this first-hand. Not all my investors thought the big 35-city road trip I took last spring was well considered. It seemed like one of those things a founder/CEO does when he wants to avoid a more significant task.
But what I realized last spring was that the most important thing I could do for Localeur, as we continued to toil away at fundraising, was make sure that even if we didn't have the adoration of VCs, we maintained our strong ties to our community of locals. So I did the ultimate thing that doesn't scale. I traveled. I actually got into my car and drove solo for almost all of 17,000 miles over 43 days between April and June of last year.
The result? We've expanded from 20 cities at the start of 2016 to 45 cities today, largely based on relationships I built meeting locals and local business owners one by one. People like Greg Noire in Houston, a super talented music photographer who has nearly 30k Instagram followers and was introduced to me by Austin Localeur and my friend Cristina Fisher. People like Larry Robertson in Columbus who Carlie Anne introduced me to when she saw on Facebook that I was looking to connect with locals there during the roadtrip. Larry is hands-down one of the most creative, interesting people I know and I'm sure that's what anyone in CBUS would tell you too. Same for Toni Smailagić in Jacksonville, Florida. I didn't know a soul in Jacksonville, but one of our Atlanta Localeurs texted a friend of his in JAX the day I was driving in and I ended up meeting Toni that night. He's one of the most talented fashion / natural light photographers I've met. Check out his work on Instagram @tonismailagic.
The caliber of the Localeur community is what distinguishes us from Yelp or TripAdvisor or any other startup that is trying to go after "local" or "experiences". Local isn't just a buzzword or a sexy endeavor for us, this is a true, long-standing area of passion.
Traveling 150 days a year these last four years, plus the 100+ days a year I was logging for four straight years before Localeur existed, is one of the key points of insight and advantage for this business. There is no shyness when it comes to meeting locals and no laziness when it comes to figuring out how best to launch a new city or expand our community, even if it means adding just one new local at a time, which I still spend considerable time doing.
And, the funny thing is, one of the main questions I used to get from investors when we started Localeur was "can you actually scale local?" or "can you really scale cool?" I vividly remember Brian Alexander Watson asking me this when he was an Analyst at Union Square Ventures, the top VC firm in New York, back in 2013/14. Well, we're in 45 cities...having just launched Toronto, Vancouver and London, our first non-US markets, and needless to say the answer is a resounding yes. We can scale. (I'm blessed to say Brian is now a member of our esteemed Advisory Board, too!)
There were about 100 to 200 cities I dreamed of having Localeur in, and London was always a huge landmark city, and Tokyo (where I'm currently sitting) is definitely one, too. We'll get there. I know it. What we've built is simply too authentic, too differentiated and too true to what millennial and discerning travels are seeking to be denied.
"Airbnb is a classic example of this technique," wrote Graham. "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."
I'm not saying Localeur is going to make billions like Airbnb. Not every business has the same ceiling or path.
What I'm pointing out is that the ultimate thing that doesn't scale is travel, and for my particular startup, this has been a real benefit not only for the continued growth of our community and future prospects, but also for me personally because whether I'm on a US roadtrip launching cities in Ohio or halfway across the world in Tokyo getting inspiration for the next wave of growth for Localeur, I know that every mile I log and every local I meet is valuable.
It doesn't have to scale, it just has to get us closer to fulfilling our mission. It didn't take me the last four years to know that, but it may have taken this long to undeniably prove it.