Crave the Unscalable

Crave the Unscalable

(Cover photo: December, 2013 — Packing mailing tubes for Teach Starter’s free poster promotion in January.)

Before Teach Starter ever existed, I always knew that I wanted to start a business. I had no idea what that business would be, but I knew it had to have three key attributes. It had to be:

  1. a digital product
  2. subscription-based
  3. scalable

Teach Starter ticked those three boxes.

We created digital teaching resources, that were downloadable in the form of .pdf files. Members could sign up via a recurring subscription to access this content. The content could be downloaded by one person or one million people.

It scaled.

Despite this strategy, the funny thing we learned time and time again was that the unscalable elements of the business helped to drive our growth. Whether it was responding to every Facebook comment, replying to customer support emails or creating custom made resources requested by our members, these activities moved the needle of growth.

We craved the feedback and interaction. Every interaction spurred us on to work harder and deliver a better product.

“We still crave the unscalable.”

In January each year, we did the unthinkable for a digital-only business. We developed a physical product and shipped it for free to all of our members. At the time, this was the most inefficient thing we could possibly do. It didn’t scale well. But, it worked.

In December 2013, we had 8000 A2 posters printed. Jill and I, with the help of our family, rolled, stuffed and taped over 2000 mailing tubes filled with 4 posters each. It took weeks. We set up an assembly line under our house and spent every morning before work, and afternoon when we returned home, rolling, stuffing and taping.

When January rolled around, we were ready to go. We had box upon box stacked to the rafters, each full of 50 hand-packed mailing tubes.

Then the orders started flowing in.

After labelling hundreds of tubes each day, we packed as many as we could in our Hyundai i30 hatch and dropped them off at the local post office. Then back again for another load.

Scott packed and ready to head to the post office.

Looking back now, it was amazing that we did what we did. But it worked because we genuinely cared. Each poster was inspected, rolled with precision and securely sealed.

And the reaction? Our members loved it!

It drove word of mouth. It was four posters in thousands of classrooms around the country. It was an unexpected surprise. It was the symbol of a company that genuinely cared for its members.

As we’ve grown, we’ve improved our efficiency. We’ve dropped some of our unscalable activities and replaced them with scalable alternatives.

However, some unscalable elements of Teach Starter haven’t changed one bit.

We still crave the unscalable.

Here are some examples:

We take tremendous pride in our customer support; Jill and I are, at most, one degree of separation away from our members and their concerns. We still reply to some of our members directly each day.

We held an event for 50 of our most loyal members and their friends. Despite having hundreds of thousands of members, we know that the impact this event had on those 50 members was absolutely worth the time and effort.

We still create resources requested by our members, albeit the top requests voted by all members. In the early days, we created every single request. This soon became completely unscalable and forced a re-think.

Jill creating packs for our members in 2014.

We are constantly thinking of creative ways to do the unscalable. To do something that surprises. Something that excites. Something generous. Something unexpectedly awesome.

Because we know that nothing scales a business like word-of-mouth.

In our digitally social world, a like, share or review is gold. A face-to-face conversation is priceless.

So while you’re optimising your automated marketing funnel, A/B testing that bulk email, or ignoring your social mentions, take a step back and think about how you can really communicate and engage one-on-one with your customers.

Send a genuine email from your own email account to one of your customers. Handwrite a note to a new member. Reply to that Instagram DM.

You’ll be surprised at how big of an impact such a small and unscalable interaction can have.

Scott Tonges

Scott Tonges

I’m Scott. I’m a web designer & developer who builds digital products. I co-founded an EdTech business with my wife called Teach Starter.