Spreading the Word

If you don't share your work, does it really exist?

I recently stumbled across an essay by Paul Graham called Do Things That Don’t Scale. It’s aimed at founders of early-stage startups who are trying to grow their business:

A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don’t. You build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist… Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going.

It’s interesting how much of his advice applies to creative endeavours too.1

I often fall into the trap of thinking that I just wrote a pilot or tweet or blog post that was good enough, then the commissions and followers and subscribers would follow. But as Graham later points out, thinking this way is a ‘combination of solipsism and laziness’:

They think what they’re building is so great that everyone who hears about it will immediately sign up. Plus it would be so much less work if you could get users merely by broadcasting your existence, rather than recruiting them one at a time. But even if what you’re building really is great, getting users will always be a gradual process… It’s not enough just to do something extraordinary initially. You have to make an extraordinary effort initially.

In other words, quality is just one part of the process. We also have to keep putting ourselves and our work out there, one person at a time. (Even Steve Martin’s classic advice, “be so good they can’t ignore you”, implies that you’re putting yourself in a position where you can be ignored.)

I was reminded of this while reading this interview with Adjani Salmon, the creator of Dreaming Whilst Black — originally a web series, and now a BBC Three pilot. This quote stood out:

We released in 2018 and to be honest we didn’t know anybody. So at least once a week, we’d go to an event with t-shirts and just say ‘Hey, guys, you should watch our series’ and just kept going on… I feel like with us kind of shouting everywhere about it, people were actually saying ‘rah this is good!’… That word of mouth kept spreading and spreading. Then one day, I was at an event where I met a dude who had watched it. He said his brother’s friend is an agent and he would talk to his brother to talk to his friend to check me out. The agent watches it, comes back down and got my number. Everything was aligned because of word of mouth.

It’s an inspirational story, but the thought of doing something like that feels so… cringe.

It’s weird: I’ve literally never regretted telling someone about my work — even if they ignore it, it’s nowhere near as awkward as I think it’ll be — but I can’t imagine I’ll ever be comfortable doing so, especially to just one person.2 Graham suggests two reasons why founders might be like this:

One is a combination of shyness and laziness. They’d rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them.

The other reason… is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first. This can’t be how the big, famous startups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate. If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you’ll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year you’ll have 14,000 users, and after 2 years you’ll have 2 million.

Sure, we might not have ‘users’ in the startup sense, and we might not be aiming for anywhere near that scale. But we do want people to read our screenplays or watch our YouTube videos or… ahem… subscribe to our newsletters. And to get them, we need to go find them.

So as painfully awkward as it might be, I’m going to commit to sending this blog post to a friend that might enjoy it. What are you sitting on that should be out in the world?

  1. For example, this quote could have easily been included in my blog post about Ugly Babies: “Almost all startups are fragile initially. And that’s one of the biggest things inexperienced founders and investors get wrong about them. They unconsciously judge larval startups by the standards of established ones. They’re like someone looking at a newborn baby and concluding: there’s no way this tiny creature could ever accomplish anything.” I really recommend reading the whole thing.
  2. Of course, the exception to this is the Edinburgh Fringe, where I will spend many painful hours handing out flyers to people. I think it’s because the consequence of not doing this is immediate and visceral and way worse: performing an hour-long show to a nearly empty room.

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