It’s Not Always About Scalability

In the business and startup world scalability is the word of the day.  Products that can be built once and used infinite times by infinite consumers are the ultimate prize.  The hype might cause us to overlook other valuable products and services.

The quest for scalability makes sense with software, online products and social media applications.  They can be built relatively cheaply, honed in beta mode, and then sold an infinite number of times at no additional production cost.  But it’s not true that scalability equals profitability, nor is it true that the inability to costlessly scale means lack of profitability.

There are countless examples of great products and services that are non-scalable, yet highly profitable.  Personal trainers, legal counsel, health care, home repair, tutoring, food production, etc., etc., are not scalable.  Sure, they realize some economies of scale as they grow, but each new customer means new inputs like labor, raw materials and time.  It’s also true that some of these like legal or health advice or general education can be produced once and shared infinitely at zero marginal cost online.  But that is not the same as a visit with a physician who gets to know your unique symptoms and gives a tailored recommendation.

In fact, most of the best things in life are not scalable.  I can’t produce quality time with the family, or a night out at a fancy restaurant with my wife once and reuse it over and over at zero cost.  There is no demerit in a product that is not scalable.  One of the great virtues of the things that are scalable is precisely that they free up so much time and so many resources that can then be devoted to things that are not scalable.

Modern technology opens a world of possibility and the ability to realize amazing returns on small investments due to scalability.  But don’t overlook the innovation, benefit, and profitability of non-scalable or less scalable products.

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