How schooner-sized startups can beat aircraft-carrier-sized companies

All startups start with nothing. No product. No customers. No growth. Nothing.

The incumbents have it all. A fully functioning product. Millions in revenue. Distribution channels that are working.

It must really suck to be a startup then, right?

But the counterintuitive answer is no – it’s actually you’re biggest asset to start completely from nothing with a blank slate.

Here’s why…

Large companies are like aircraft carriers

Aircraft carriers are the most formidable ships on the planet. Within a few hours they enable a country to launch an assault on another nation with air support. The United States operates 10 active aircraft carriers around the world. They are the cornerstone of the Navy.

Large companies are like aircraft carriers. If a large company gets its sights on you because your too close to their market, they have the power to destroy you. This comes through in the classic VC question, “what if Google does this?”

The reason why a large company got so large is that is kept improving its ship over time by growing, and the only way to grow that large is though process. Process keeps the hundreds of people all working together from falling into chaos. If you didn’t have process, you couldn’t move the ship because the ship is too large for one person to see the entire vessel at a glance. So you have to trust the process that you’re doing your job, and your crew mate is also doing her job, and since every one else is executing too, all parts of the ship can work in tandem to plow forward. Occasionally an air squadron can be sent out to wipe out a threat in range, but the planes always have to fly back to the ship.

Moving an aircraft carrier takes a long time. To change coarse many things need to happen at once. First, the captain has to decide where to go. Next, she needs to loop in all the right people so they can disseminate the news to the rest of the crew. Last, the direction is changed, but you have to wait awhile because aircraft carriers are so large that change in direction happens over a long time. Since aircraft carrier has engines eventually it’ll get there, but it can’t change coarse quickly.

Startups are like schooners

A schooner is a small sailboat with two masts. They range in size by can typically be sailed by between 2 – 10 people.

Before the age of the small onboard motor, schooners were strictly sailing vessels. The didn’t have motors. They were powered by the wind. Startups are also powered by the winds of market demand. You don’t decide where you want to go, the market decides for you. Your job as the captain is to realize when the winds change and sail with them as hard as you can. And since you’re in a small boat, feeling the feedback of the wind on your face, you can change direction quickly.

The great thing about schooners is that they are small. You can yell to your crew mates when something goes wrong for help. You don’t need fancy communication systems, you just see the issue and yell with your voice. You don’t have many fancy systems so you usually fix bug issues by hacking something together using common sense. When something goes wrong, you don’t need to respect chain of command and work your way up to the captain. You just yell for your captain who comes over and talks to you, a decision is made and you change direction. 

Enough with the boats! Why does this matter?

The reason why this matter is because lack of customers, processes and people is your biggest strength. When you’re starting with nothing, no one expects much of you. Your customers don’t care if you have a small or big free product. If you’re doing it right, you should be solving something so painful that whatever you give them is a step up from what they had before. And since you don’t have millions of users or revenue depend rant on your systems, you don’t have to worry about breaking the infrastructure or the businesses processes when you launch sown thing new. You can scale it as you grow.

I had to relearn this lesson the last few weeks while working on Leadin. We recently rebuilt the entire backend for the product on the cloud. The plan was to clone all the features over on a more reliable stack than WordPress and launch nothing new. This meant we had to clone not only our core app, but also all our onboarding, integrations and figure out a way to migrate our existing thousands of users.

Eventually though I realized we should operate like the early days. In the early days we didn’t have onboarding and people still used the product. We didn’t have 5 email integrations, we only had one with MailChimp, and people still used the product.

And if you think about it, people don’t know what they don’t know. New users checking out LeadIn for the first time don’t know there should have been onboarding there. They don’t know that in the old version they could integrate with a few more email services, which they most likely aren’t even using in the first place.

Once our team figure this out, we were able to start stripping out the none essentials even more and ship the new version of Leadin weeks earlier than we planned. Launching that version felt great and reinvigorated us to finish cloning the last of the features because the product was in the wild now. 

Even with only a couple thousand users we feel into the optimization trap. Cut features that aren’t crucial. Ship the product before you’re ready to figure out if you should even scale it in the first place. Always avoid operating like a battleship and sail your startup like a schooner.

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