in: Featured, People, Relationships

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

How to Build Relationships That Don’t Scale

Vintage friends laughing on Boat on lake.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you spend hours upon hours on Facebook or some other social media platform, and yet you feel more lonely and disconnected than ever. You have thousands of “friends” online, but you don’t feel comfortable saying hello to one of them if you pass on the street. And even though you know intimate details about what some person you worked with 10 years ago had for dinner last night, you find it difficult making time to see your closest friends.

Maybe some of this rings a bell with you. If it does, I want to share some information and advice which may resonate as well.

Paul Graham, a legendary tech investor in Silicon Valley, published a piece last year titled Do Things That Don’t Scale. While the focus of that article was how tech startups operate, when I read it, I immediately thought the lessons also applied to building relationships today and a fundamental mistake that many people make when trying to do so.

The article challenged the prevailing wisdom across the startup community that new businesses should focus their efforts on only those activities which can “scale” their business — growing while keeping costs steady (that is, not investing more in order to grow more). In the article, Graham wrote:

“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.”

Graham also used the metaphor of an old car engine which had to be started using a hand crank, before engines came with electric starters. “Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going,” writes Graham. The point is you need to put in the labor to get the crank going to begin with.

What Scaling a Business and Scaling Relationships Have in Common

So what does it mean for a business to “scale”? Simply put, a business that scales can increase its revenues exponentially without an equal rise in costs. Think of software companies like Microsoft or Salesforce or Dropbox. These companies can scale quickly because it costs relatively little to add more customers by selling more digital products.

Consulting companies like Deloitte are the opposite — adding revenues means adding more consultants, which cost a lot more.

Now, what does this have to do with relationship-building? Today, you can use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to “scale” — or build — relationships faster than ever. Post something to your Facebook page or Twitter profile and you can reach hundreds or thousands of people in seconds. Just as a software company has the ability to acquire users quickly, social media allows you to add “friends” at warp speed.

But here’s the rub: in both cases — with startups and with relationships — there are costs to trying to scale too quickly.

Which brings us back to Graham’s article. He took on what has become prevailing wisdom among startups, as well as among social media fans, that scaling is always good. It’s an attitude which says that much of the grunt work of building a company one user at a time can be bypassed by doing things that help the company scale — which usually means focusing on the masses at the expense of individuals.

So here’s what that looks like in the world of social media: people spend hours upon hours on Facebook or Twitter thinking they are building connections when in fact they would build stronger, more genuine, and more sincere relationships if they were to focus on much more simple and fundamental activities that do not scale.

These people are, effectively, hiding behind a wall. They are passing up more difficult work for the easy work — sharing or “liking” photos, retweeting, commenting on someone’s wall. These are activities which can serve a purpose, but they are poor substitutes for the real thing. It’s like saying Splenda is the same thing as sugar, tofu is the same thing as real meat, or Red Lobster is a good place for…a red lobster. It’s not the same thing. Not even close.

Art of Manliness has long focused on the importance of building relationships one-to-one. In an article about how to make friends in a new city, Jeremy wrote: “We can have hundreds of Facebook friends and yet not know the names of the people who physically live right next to us.” Through hundreds of articles, AoM has sung the praises and virtues of slowing down and appreciating one another’s company. (For more, go back and reread the 5 Types of Friends Every Man Needs, How to Make Friends in a New City, and How to Be a Good Neighbor: 9 Old-Fashioned Tips for Getting to Know the Folks Next Door.)

In this article, I want to show you why and how to build relationships that don’t scale. I think you will find that by building relationships the old-fashioned, non-scaleable, genuine way — one or two at a time, rather than devoting your energy to trying to get 10,000 friends on Facebook — you will develop stronger relationships and stronger bonds with the people in your life.

Why We Avoid Building One-to-One Relationships

Vintage friends swimming on beach.

Why do we tend to avoid building relationships in a one-to-one way? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, we live in an instant gratification society. Relationship-building takes time and does not offer an immediate reward. If you think about some of your most valued relationships, they probably took years to develop. In an age where you need to communicate in 140 characters or less, we tend to look down on things that go slow.

Here are a few additional reasons why we avoid building one-to-one relationships:

  • We fear rejection. Whenever you go out and try to build relationships in the real world, there is a chance of rejection, which no one likes. What if someone doesn’t want to have a relationship with you? When you build relationships using social media in a “scaleable” way, you are more insulated from the sting of rejection.
  • We are shy. According to Psychology Today, nearly one in two Americans claims to be shy. During previous generations, there were ways of getting around shyness; we tended to live in smaller, more interconnected communities where we could build up relationships over time. With the shift towards more urban living in larger communities, shy people face much more constant anxiety caused by having to meet more people. Social media can be a refuge for shy people, offering quasi-companionship without the stress of meeting people in-person.
  • Laziness. It takes effort and energy to meet someone for coffee, lunch, or a pickup game of basketball. This gets harder as you get older and add a spouse, more job responsibilities, and children into the mix. It’s much easier to scroll through Facebook photos on our cell phone and delude ourselves into thinking that this substitutes for a night out with friends.

6 Tips for How You Can Build “Unscaleable” Relationships

Now, I want to give you some practical tips for how you can build more one-to-one relationships — the kinds of relationships that cannot be scaled. Here are 6 tips for how you can build genuine, sincere “unscaleable” relationships:

1. Take a Genuine Interest in Others

At the core of building relationships in an unscaleable way is taking interest in the people you meet. And taking interest in a person is, by definition, an unscaleable activity. It requires that you drill down and devote your solitary attention to one person.

If you want to make sure your interest is perceived as genuine, then focus on the following:

  • Listen intently and ask good questions. Be completely present with the person, by putting away your phone, making eye contact, listening to what they have to say, and asking good questions. Nothing builds rapport more than being curious about the other person.
  • Focus on the details. Remember details about the people you meet, such as their hobbies, their children’s names, or their hometown. Don’t expect to keep all of these details in your head. Personally, I write them down using my CRM of choice, Contactually, but you could do it whatever way works for you.
  • Remember names. Here’s another detail you don’t want to forget: the person’s name! Remembering people’s names is a fast way to build trust.
  • Follow up. Following up with people demonstrates your interest in them was genuine and sincere, and not limited to when they are in front of you. Follow up by sending the person you’ve met invitations to special events, by making helpful introductions, or by sharing resources or relevant information. For example, if I had a conversation where I recommended a great coffee company, I might follow up with an email including a link to the coffee company.

2. Offer to Help People With No Strings Attached

Another core strategy for building unscaleable relationships is to help other people with no strings attached. Larry Benet suggests taking what he calls a connection challenge. “Starting today, for the next 30 days, reach out to 2-3 people a day in your network,” says Benet, who runs a conference and networking group for speakers and authors. “Find out what is important to those people. Find out what they are passionate about.” How do you find out what they are passionate about? “Ask them!” says Benet. “Ask ‘what are you most excited about now?’”

Once you have asked these questions, then Benet says your next step is to find out what is the “most important project or goal they are working on” right now to achieve their larger goal, and to find out if there’s a way you or someone in your network can help.

3. Mix Up Your Routines

My next tip for building relationships in an unscaleable way is to get outside of your comfort zone and do something different and unusual. When we are in our comfort zone, we tend to do things that are easy and cause little friction. When you mix things up, you will force yourself to use the skills of old-fashioned relationship-building.

Your comfort zone could be a social club like the Elk’s Lodge or a regular poker game, or a group of friends you see regularly.

When I was growing up, my family moved a number of times. Each time we moved, I would show up in a new classroom with a new set of kids and have to navigate making new friends.

The experience forced me outside of my comfort zone — without my consent. If it was up to me, I would have stayed with my old friends! But in retrospect, I think it made me who I am today and made me comfortable with making new friends in a new community, even if it was a bit painful at times.

As anyone who has done a hard workout can tell you, pain can be a good thing — it means there is growth, stretching, and new development. So if you find yourself in your comfort zone, mix it up — attend a new get-together, go to a Meetup, meet a new friend for a meal. You never know where it might lead.

4. Reconnect With an Old Acquaintance

Vintage friends posing outside house.

One of the best ways to build an unscaleable relationship is by reconnecting with an old acquaintance on a level that’s deeper than reading their Facebook updates. When you get back in touch with an acquaintance from childhood, a buddy from college, or a friend from a prior job, it is easy to pick back up because you naturally have shared experiences or history that are fertile ground for conversation.

For example, a few months ago, I attended my high school reunion in southern California. My feelings leading up to the event were typical of anyone who has ever attended their high school reunion: I was asking myself why I’d signed up in the first place and wondering if it was too late to get a refund.

But it turned out I had a great time. Even though years had passed, many of the conversations felt effortless, because the relationships had been cemented years earlier.

That’s the magic of reconnecting with an old acquaintance — you don’t care about scaling your relationship because you are personally invested in it.

5. Talk to Everyone

A great way to build unscaleable relationships is by making an effort to talk to as many people as you can.

During my 21-day small talk experiment earlier this year, I discovered that making an effort to talk to more random strangers actually brought me more feelings of happiness, in spite of widespread notions that we would all be happier keeping to ourselves. Similarly, making an effort to talk to more people can also help you to build more individual relationships.

A simple “Hello” or “How are you?” may be all it takes to get a conversation started, and then you are off to the races. You never know who you might be in line with at the grocery store or at a department store, especially during the holidays, when more people venture out of their homes. You can strike up a conversation and create a brand new relationship.

6. Take Extraordinary Measures to Delight the People You Meet

In his essay, Graham wrote, “You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy.” I think that advice can apply not just to start-up businesses, but to the people you come across as well — you should take extraordinary measures to not just acquire friends, but also to make them happy.

As an example, Graham cites Wufoo, a company that helps people to build online forms. When it was just starting out, someone at Wufoo sent each new user a hand-written thank you note. Can you imagine the impression that made on their early adopters?

What if we all took this approach to life? What if we all tried to delight the people we meet?

You may be chortling under your breath at this suggestion. (I can hear you.) But why not? In my experience, it doesn’t take much to delight people, because the bar is generally set pretty low. For example, you could dash off a quick, hand-written note to the next person you meet, or maybe to some guy who wrote a super helpful guest post you just read (hint hint). You may just create a friend and an advocate for life.

Get Started Building Your Unscaleable Relationships

Now it’s time for you to get started. Take some of the advice above and begin building individual relationships. Don’t worry if your system is not perfect. Don’t think about optimization or making sure you are maximizing your efficiency.

It doesn’t matter so much where you begin or where you end up, but just that you get started. “You have to start somewhere,” says Benet. “Just take it one relationship at a time.”


John Corcoran is a former Clinton White House Writer and creator of, where he shares how to grow your income by building better relationships in business. You can download his free 52-page guide How to Increase Your Income Today By Building Relationships with Influencers, even If You Hate Networking.

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