Paul Graham: Start Small To Grow Big

One of the most influential thinkers in the world of startups has got to be Paul Graham. The founder of Y Combinator also writes some of the most influential essays, always excellent and thought-provoking. Recently Paul announced he was stepping down as the head of Y Combinator and then was interviewed at The Launch Festival about the things he has learned.

One of the most interesting and important comments, from this TechCrunch article, was the following:

In relating the ingredients or factors that are the secrets to — or most often point the way to — achieving that illusive hockey-stick-style growth curve, Graham said:

“Start with a small, intense fire.”

In other words, find a small number of people that want what you have or are making badly. In the beginning, Graham said, that number is going to be small, and that’s okay. Don’t be embarrassed. Graham related the example of Apple, which only produced a couple hundred units of Apple I, its first computer. However, Apple sold 175 of those 200 units within the first 10 months by finding and appealing to early computer hobbyists.

More so than identifying who you want your users to be, your ideal customer, you have to understand who your users actually are, and who is really clamoring for your product. “You’ve got to know who those first users are,” Graham explained, “and sit with them, spend time with them, focus on them — have a party with them.”

Your first goal is focusing on those first 50, 100, or 500 users, and make them really, really happy. If you can do that, you’re on your way, and you can go from there, he said.

I’ve been asked how we get started a lot lately as we applied to a startup incubator for Equals and did some practice pitches last year. What’s the marketing plan, they ask? I know what I’m doing in my head but I’m certain I’ve done a really lousy job of relating what I’m thinking to others.

Paul Graham put the right words in my mouth. Our goal is to get 50-100 extraordinarily committed customers using and excited about Equals. I want to understand these people as well as I can and then use that knowledge to tailor the product even further. I believe the marketing plan will flow out of this work.

The problem, though, is that getting “50, 100 or 500 users” is really hard and that’s one of the reasons we chose to work on Equals out of all the prototypes we wrote a couple of years ago. We have 1.5 million iOS and Android powerOne downloads, 230,000 of which use our software calculators — which solves a similar job to be done — on a monthly basis. Of those 230,000 active customers, 50,000 are using one of our paid products with the rest using our free ones. We have already queried a small subset about Equals (about 2,000 of the 230,000), showed them the site, a video and other materials and had some small conversations with a few. The email list stands at around 700 right now.

I’m betting that Paul Graham is right, that it takes less than a few hundred to start an inferno. I’m also betting that we will find those 50-500 amongst our existing powerOne customers. We will know more in the next few months.

3 thoughts on “Paul Graham: Start Small To Grow Big

  1. This post is timely.

    I love what I’m doing and I have an engaged, very cool, but very small audience.

    It’s hard to see how to grow the audience into a meaningful number.

    This post renews me hope.

    On Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 8:12 AM, Elia Insider

    • The next component is to understand these customers well enough that the path starts to appear. For you, Matt, how well do you know these customers who get your newsletter? It sounds like magic but this I have seen and accomplished before. When I first started, powerOne’s path emerged this way, through a lot of conversations with customers. What I didn’t understand at the time was how I got the first few hundred. Turns out the market for Palm OS apps and the marketing channels provided meshed well. I got “lucky.” (Defining “luck” in this case as getting a positive outcome without understanding why it happened.)

      There is a concept in Lean Startup of product/market fit. In short it means does the product fit the market. Steve Blank frames how to answer this question on pages 260-64 in The Startup Owner’s Manual ( You can also use to help with the survey questions.

      On Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 9:15 AM, Elia Insider wrote:


  2. A survey is a great idea – adding that to my list.

    Thanks for the tips and insight.

    Keep us posted on Equals news.

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