All Things Don’t Scale

In the 1950s, the National Institute for Medical Research in London invested extensively in cryobiology — the study of the effects of freezing on bodies and tissues. Scientists regularly froze rats and hamsters beyond the point of death in labs.

At this point, the animal is frozen solid — like a piece of wood — and will not recover on its own. It’s dead, but not kind of. The scientific term for this state is “suspended animation”. There is no heart rate, no breathing, the core temperature is around 1 degree Celsius, and somewhere between 10 and 50% of the animal’s body water is frozen to ice.

Scientists then used diathermic reheating — producing heat via high frequency electric currents — to warm the animal. They put a frozen solid hamster in a makeshift microwave oven with artificial respiration and turned it on. After a few seconds, the hamster woke up and started wandering around.

Almost every rodent they froze was successfully reanimated — healthy, behaving as usual, back from being frozen to death, sometimes multiple times. This success (even though brutal to rodents) showed immense promise in preserving tissues and blood for a long time (which otherwise had to be thrown away after a couple of weeks) back in the 50s.

This success is the reason why science fiction and comic book stories have people being frozen in time (Captain America) or astronauts being sent off in cryosleep (2001: A Space Odyssey) to other planets. For a little while, it looked like that might actually be possible.

Because, if freezing and diathermic reheating worked on hamsters… it might work on rabbits. If it worked on rabbits, then maybe it’d work on primates. And if it worked on primates… then maybe it’d work on humans. But alas… it doesn’t scale up!

We can’t simply 10x the size of a hamster and expect the same result — the mechanics don’t work like that. In other words, we cannot freeze and unfreeze humans. A human is too big for the anti-freeze agent to diffuse into the cells. A hamster, on the other hand, is an acceptable size.

This, of course, also applies to businesses.

The rules that work in a 10-people company doesn’t work in a 500-people company. A small company can be unstructured and still function (in fact, being unstructured can make it function even better), but the culture dynamics are entirely unique in a big company. The individual connections in the network are just too complex for simplistic rules to apply. Without proper structure, it would delve into chaos.

Every strategy, rule, and principle has an acceptable size where things work well, but break when we try to scale them into a different size or speed. There are no human-sized hamsters for a reason.

Basecamp is a tremendously successful business, but it has a convenient size (a small business with less than 50 people) where its strategy and positioning function so well. In their book, Rework, Jason Fried and DHH write: “If you think a competitor sucks, say so. When you do that, you’ll find that others who agree with you will rally to your side. Being the anti-____ is a great way to differentiate yourself and attract followers.”

There’s a reason why they have such a huge fan-following. Even when one-third of the company’s employees quit due to a recent policy change, Fried’s and DHH’s Twitter followers only grew in numbers. Their constant attack on Apple’s app store fees generates a lot of buzz for their email service called Hey.

But if they were to grow, do a bunch of hires and acquisitions, and believe this same “beef as marketing” strategy would make them successful even with 500 people, it would lead to all kinds of disappointment.

A certain kind of mindset is required to be an Angel Investor, which is very different from a partner at a16z. Similarly, running a startup, a small business, and a public company requires very different strategies. A startup may benefit from speed and virality, à la Clubhouse; an anti-Silicon Valley and pro-bootstrapping positioning may help small businesses such as Todoist and Basecamp; whereas stability and slowness themselves can become leverage for a big company such as LinkedIn and Microsoft.

There’s a reason why Zuck changed Facebook’s guiding principle from “Move fast and break things” to “Move fast with stable infra” in 2014, soon after they went public.

Every strategy, rule, and principle has an acceptable size. Respect it. When the size changes, so should the strategy, rule, and principle. All things don’t scale.

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