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Some Thoughts on Scale

December 6th, 2012 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I consider that evil factor that kills the vast majority of great ideas: scale.

I recently read an article about how wonderful Google Fiber is in Kansas City. The data rates are high and service people actually arrive at a set time – not during a 16-hour window. I wish the Google service was available in my neighborhood. Google may take over the entire world of Internet service providers.

There is, however, one significant factor that stands in Google’s path:


Scale asks Google the questions,

You can do great in one city, but how about 10 or 100 or 1,000 cities? How about two cities?

Scale kills the vast majority of great ideas. Consider:

  • You can teach ten kids to read the newspaper in six weeks, can a thousand other teachers do the same?
  • You can provide free online backup storage to a thousand customers, can you do the same for a million customers?
  • You can ship telephones to 100,000 customers, can you do the same for one million or 10 million customers?
  • You can administer one homeless shelter and provide a dignified, safe place for 20 people to sleep every night, can you do the same for 20 thousand people in a thousand locations?

The question of scale is one of those adult questions that face us as we try to build systems that work. Great ideas may work in some locations at some times, but will they work in most locations at most times?

The answers to the scale questions are usually “no.”

So what do we do now? One possibility is to work around the problems of scale. Provide one or two homeless shelters, but don’t promise anyone the ability to scale up a thousand times. Teach six kids to read, but don’t promise your methods will work for thousands of other teachers. Provide a technical service to a small clientele and be happy with the money you earn doing it, and stop there.

Tags: Scale

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