The Meaning of Scale

January 14, 2020

Jake Anderson

You don’t have to be in the technology space for very long to hear the idea of scale. One commonly hears something along the lines of, “How will it scale?” or, “XYZ isn’t scalable”. But what do people mean when they use the word scale?

When we talk to clients about scale, we typically get a response from them pertaining to the number of visitors to a given site. Some may also mention the amount of registrations or daily active users. In both of these cases, the words are all about the amount of users. But the meaning behind those words are almost always referring to the desired longevity of their project. They want to feel like what they’re building won’t come back to bite them in the future and will sustain them for years to come.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re never going to build a piece of software that will take you from 0 to 1 million users without changing. Most systems cannot even do this from zero to a thousand users. The sooner you can accept this and act accordingly, the stronger each of your investments in both time and money become. This mental freedom can now allow you to think more strategically. Let’s validate your idea before you’ve gone too far. You can always pivot if–when–the market changes.

Too many people focus on this pedestal of “scale” only because it has become a buzzword in the marketplace. What they don’t realize is 500 users could be enough for a system to be profitable, as making $20/month from those users provides you with $10K/month of revenue. It only takes 4,200 users at this rate to reach the $1 million mark. But instead everyone is worrying about creating the next big thing. They have to emulate Uber, Facebook, Instagram or dozens of other unicorns that have done that over years. There are massive gains to be made if you’re not a unicorn and getting even thousands of users is no easy feat.

Okay, so how often should you expect your system to change? This is a difficult question to answer, as it heavily depends on the product and market demands. But a good rule of thumb is to expect substantial changes when your users increase by a factor of ten. You can then expect to make changes at the following user amounts: 1, 10, 100, 1K, 10K, 100K, 1M, etc. Yes, you will most likely be making a couple changes before you even reach 100 users. These may be minor, but it’s in this initial phase that you’re validating your idea and may see the most change from your original idea.

If we take a quick second to refer back to our “1 million user mark” from earlier, you should then plan on at least seven progressions and investments towards the idea to reach the “golden number”. We’ve had way too many people think a 6-figure budget would carry them to a million users. That’s completely silly. While $100,000 is a lot of money, the financials at 1 million users would mean tens of millions in dollars. In our earlier example, that would mean $240 million in revenue, which is an unrealistic expectation–even for unicorns.

So more accurately breaking down your costs to an ROI-based approach with a specified series of steps helps to tailor expectations of what your application should be able to do at each progression. You can then better plan on how and what to expect from that initial investment in return. And since you most likely now have the capital, you’re in a better position with each step forward.

Okay, so you’ve gotten this far and I’ve still not defined what we believe is the meaning of scale. It’s a rather simple definition, but is best understood knowing everything that goes into it. We believe that scale is an ability to take a project from a handful of employees to dozens, if not hundreds. As the amount of influencers on your product change, your ability to reliably adapt best defines how you, as a business, will be able to scale.

Why not the amount of users? It doesn’t matter how many users you can get when you first launch if no one understands the code besides Chad, who decided to use some obscure programming language. Because when everything falls apart, do you really trust Chad to clean up the walls or will he simply get hired somewhere else, leaving you with a codebase no one understands?

Think of your project as a house. It needs to have a solid foundation to build on top of. It needs to have plumbing that not just one plumber can understand, but the trade as a whole. Same with electrical. If you are building on a bathroom but neither can figure out how to hook into it…you’re screwed. Likewise if a pipe bursts and a plumber needs to fix.

A house can also be built much faster and more reliably if the tools being used are familiar to those working on it, rather than forcing them to use the latest and greatest tools just because they are the latest and greatest. Sometimes it’s best to just use a hammer to hit a nail instead of going out and buying the NailBuster 3000 that nails in 10 nails at a time just because “ABC Magazine” said it was the tool to use. There are lots of tools. I just want a well-built house.

Same goes for scaling your tech stack. It’s best to have a solid foundation to build upon that your team understands and can iterate upon quickly. This means using tools and technologies your team is familiar with, as well as the rest of the development community. Because who knows, maybe everyone likes Chad’s obscure programming language. Though we can just about guarantee you will have a difficult time hiring others that will invest their blood, sweat, and tears into something that can’t be applied anywhere else.

Once you have your solid foundation, you can then focus on the next progression in the series. We would just encourage that you understand the complications you’re going to have when tackling each new phase. Take your time. Think long and hard. Talk with your customers. Talk with your employees.

At the end of the day, stop thinking about your project in terms of the amount of people using it. Focus on the quality to those who are using it and the people driving that quality. They’re the ones that will get you to where you need to be. Now get out there and scale your business!

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