Screw being scalable

by Jake Cusack

I do economic development and occasionally investment work in a number of frontier markets and conflict zones: Afghanistan, Iraq, the West Bank, North Africa, et cetera. I enjoy this work. But, as I have oft said to others, I am exploring a variety of tech-enabled solutions and platform to bring scale to it. After all – my deluded subconscious might think -- if I can only make as much money as hours I work, how will I afford the private jet that could allow me to spend time 5% more efficiently? Where will I get that crucial "leverage" so I can continue to make money without actually doing anything?

Wait, here are some good things in life that you cannot scale: Giving personal advice to a friend. Playing with kids. A great bartender at a local bar. A sustainable artisan NGO in Afghanistan, that only survives because of the intimate approval of the local community. A genius, tailored piece of enterprise software. Doing an inconvenient favor. A ski run in fresh powder. Teaching through the socratic method. Making something with your hands. Your time. Your life. 

Four years ago I left the military because I thought private sector development in conflict zones was the missing piece of our national security. Now I get paid quite well to fly around the world to interesting places and work on exactly this. If you told me this is where I'd be when I first showed up at Harvard I would have been pretty pleased. But now, I'm always scheming on the ways to go bigger. I think -- if only I could come up with an idea that would require at least $2M of seed funding before I could even test it! Business school truly is transformational.

I love the massive egoism present in the thought that the truly bright among us must be involved in something scalable -- because after all there is only one of me, and how will the world cope if I'm only dispensing my time and influence on a few small projects and on my close friends.

I do not think there is deep validation from the size of a funding round or number of subscribers. The search for scale means constant comparison, condemnation to inadequateness, against other people’s big numbers. Conversion metrics do not provide proof of soul: evil things can go the most viral of all.

The digital age brings efficiency and easy reach. But an idea that refuses to scale is not necessarily a waste of time – and just because you can go global, does not mean you should.

Postscript: I initially titled this post with stronger words. But I'm a bit worried it will come back to haunt me when I launch my scalable software-as-service frontier market investment analytics platform in three months.