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Calling All Yetis

From "Do things that don't scale", to don't make me do that again

In my last post I discussed some of the more interesting aspects of Yeti’s soft launch back in early January, but there was one detail I left out. As a fledgling “gig economy” service there’s a very real chicken and egg problem: who’s going to choose your platform if you have no one to fulfill the requested service, and who’s going to agree to provide services if you have no customers?

Well my solution to that problem was inspired by the legendary venture capitalist Paul Graham who constantly urges early stage startups to “Do things that don’t scale”. The idea is that as a young company your lack of customers or users is obviously an enormous challenge, but it can also be one of your greatest strengths. When you have 100,000 people using your product or even 10,000 people then everything you choose to do must work for all 10,000 users. You have to carefully consider all the different segments you serve and how a change will impact them while baring in mind that improving the experience of just 10, 20 or 100 users simply isn’t worth your time. As a startup that only has 10, 20 or 100 users you have the advantage that you don’t need anything to work at scale. If you can improve the experience of just a handful of customers then you’ve made a huge impact on your entire user base, and as a startup one of the most valuable things you can do is build a loyal following, however small it may be.

So what did I do that didn’t scale? I decided to get my hands dirty - or more appropriately I guess, get them really cold - and personally shovel any cars that weren’t quickly shoveled by a newly recruited Yeti. In the days leading up to the soft launch, I focused on customer acquisition over recruiting Yetis knowing that day 1 volume would likely be low enough that I could pick up the slack and do some shoveling myself if demand was too high. 

First Yeti Order, Shoveled

Obviously this approach isn’t one that will scale well. If I have 1,000 orders in one snow storm the 10-15 orders I might personally be able to complete won’t have a significant impact or be a good use of my time. At that scale my time is better spent managing the workforce of Yetis out shoveling, monitoring system operations, etc., but on day 1 my decision to do something that doesn’t scale helped keep our very first customers satisfied and will hopefully keep them coming back again and again.

The experience also provided 2 fringe benefits:

  1. I got to understand at a really fundamental level what kind of experience I’m providing to my users. I was out there, shovel in hand, doing the work they do and using the app the way they do. As I noted in my last post it even helped me identify a major flaw in the primary user flow which I was quickly able to address. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing, there’s just too much lost in translation when you don’t directly participate and I think it was really valuable for me to walk in the shoes of a Yeti for a day (this was also a big reason why I choose to learn app development and build Yeti myself instead of contracting it out). 
  2. I got the satisfaction of completing the first order Yeti received myself and I can’t quite explain just how great that was. I conceived of the idea for the app 2 years ago during Snowmageddon 2015 and seriously started working on it a little over a year ago. To finally have that first order complete after all those nights and weekends spent working on the product was one of the most gratifying things I have ever experienced, and as you can probably tell from the image above I was pretty damn happy about it. Thats not to say I’ve really achieved anything yet, that was just the first baby step but you’ve gotta walk before you can run right?

So have we solved the chicken and the egg problem? Well not quite, but we’re making great progress. We’ve built up a large number of customers in the Boston area ready to get their cars shoveled out and we have quite a few Yetis signed up too. Winter Storm Niko will be a huge learning point for us to understand the behavior of our Yetis but in preparation for what I expect will be a huge influx of orders tonight I have one thing to ask of the Yetis who have already signed up: Please, get out there and shovel! At this early stage its likely we won’t have quite the right mix of customers and Yetis in each neighborhood, and the there might be long waits between orders that pop up near you, but be patient. If we can make it through this storm and provide great service to our customers there’s no doubt in my mind that when the next storm rolls around you’ll be running ragged trying to keep up with all the orders in your neighborhood. So please, if you’ve signed up to be a Yeti, get out there and shovel! Because as great an experience I had during the soft launch, the whole reason I built this company was because I didn’t want to shovel my own car out, so please don’t make me do it today.

Good luck to all and stay warm out there!


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