When I started Hydros, a modern water filtration startup, I had my heart set on stainless steel filters and glass bottles.
Water-filtering pitchers, carafes, and portable bottles without plastic? Even the most eco-conscious, plastic-free purists would love it.
But we soon realized this product simply wouldn’t work as we scaled. The consumer base for what would be an expensive product was still too small. With this knowledge, we took a step back and altered our strategy.
Today, we’re focused on creating a scalable solution to the mass consumption of disposable plastic bottles. Our target customer is someone who buys their water in single-use bottles. Since people around the world purchase one million plastic bottles per minute, the potential for social impact is absolutely huge.
Through this necessary shift, I learned a powerful lesson: Scaling your business is a matter of practical reality. My vision and values were clear. But ultimately, my strategy had to be realistic. And that meant being flexible when creating my product.
Here are some of the other lessons I’ve learned while scaling my business:
1. Scale is a relative term, depending on your goals.
The first step is defining what scaling your business means to you.
For example, if your product is a specialty, $1,000+ ceiling fan, your consumer base is a small percentage of the population. And in turn, as you scale, your ceiling (no pun intended) will be considerably lower than ours at Hydros, where we want to be in millions of homes. On the other end of the spectrum, if your product is a line of $5-15 sunglasses you want in every retail chain in America, your definition of scale is massive.
Once you’ve defined scale, determine to what degree your values can shine through while still creating a scalable product. In the pursuit of creating a values-driven business, there will always be constraints.
2. Experts can provide great perspective on scaling your business.
Founders can become so beholden to idealism that they can’t escape it.
When a founder has blinders on, advice from a qualified, unbiased third party can be of great help. If you can find an industry expert willing to assess your business situation, you can gain a great deal of perspective. Ideally, they’ll reveal realities you were either unwilling or unable to see: that your long-term goals aren’t feasible, your budget is lacking, a strategic shift is in order, etc.
3. You have to deeply understand your target customer when scaling your business.
Initially, we wanted to use only stainless steel and glass in our products because there are puritanical folks who refuse to use plastic at all. But through market research, we discovered that the majority of consumers we’re going after are those currently buying disposable plastic bottles.
If we had used stainless steel and glass, our product would have been $10-20 more expensive. While we’d be more appealing to the small group of plastic-free folks if we had gone that route, we’d lose far more customers than we’d gain. That pricing and potential customer pool would have severely inhibited our ability to scale over time.
4. As you scale, finding the right partners is imperative.
That goes for investors, strategic partners, consultants, and more.
Early on, we had serious issues with a web development team we’d hired. On the surface, they seemed like a sleek firm with a great track record. But once we signed on and paid a deposit, they stuck us with their D team of developers. Their work was awful—when it got done at all. We considered legal action, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it.
Our current web dev team, which happens to be much less expensive, is incredible. I really wish we had found them in the first place. There’s an alarming number of bullshit artists out there looking to take advantage of startups.
The best solution to this issue, in my experience, is to “try before you buy.” In other words, require that partners prove themselves before you enter an engagement.
At this point, I avoid long-term, upfront commitments—they’re too risky. And I try not to deal with big names—most of them just use their reputation to demand a high price and assign an inexperienced team to your account. They’re not going to care about you, especially if you’re small—you’re just cashflow to them.
Especially if you’re not an expert in your field, it’s easy to get ripped off. Ultimately, you have to come to terms with the fact that you’ll make mistakes. All you can do is consistently engage with people and partners you think can help your company and use your best judgment.
Julius Caesar, the great Roman emperor, expected unwavering loyalty—a desire to serve so intense it bordered on desperation. These are the people who fight (or for our purposes, work) the hardest. In my experience, the best people aren’t just talented—they’re intensely committed to doing great work.
I’d take a team member of average talent who is ultra-dedicated and intensely focused over a cream-of-the-crop talent who puts in 10% any day. Desperation—an intense fire burning inside—is the most valuable trait you can possibly have on your startup team. That type of fuel can help you grow and scale sustainably over the long haul.