A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
The trick is to practically find those fans, or more accurately, to have them find you.
A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of "exit." The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.
To grow rapidly, you need to make something you can sell to a big market. That's the difference between Google and a barbershop. A barbershop doesn't scale.
For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people. Barbershops are doing fine in the (a) department. Almost everyone needs their hair cut. The problem for a barbershop, as for any retail establishment, is (b). A barbershop serves customers in person, and few will travel far for a haircut. And even if they did the barbershop couldn't accomodate them.
The other part of our exponential hangover is how we build our businesses. The cult of growth denies the idea that you can build anything useful or helpful unless you're prepared to bring it to so-called "Internet scale". There's no point in opening a lemonade stand unless you're prepared to take on PepsiCo.
I always thought that things should go the other way. Once you remove the barriers of distance, there's room for all sorts of crazy niche products to find a little market online. People can eke out a living that would not be possible in the physical world. Venture capital has its place, as a useful way to fund long-shot projects, but not everything fits in that mold.
The cult of growth has led us to a sterile, centralized web. And having burned through all the easy ideas within our industry, we're convinced that it's our manifest destiny to start disrupting everyone else.
If you want your company to truly scale, you first have to do things that don’t scale. Hand-craft the core experience. Serve your customers one-by-one. Then figure out how and what to scale.