“Things We’ve Learned at 37Signals” – Jason Fried

Here is a very nice post on a talk by Jason Fried of 37 Signals at Web 2.0 Expo on 9/17/2008.Very interesting and inspiring. Must read for all stake holders and managers.

  1. Momentum
    Has its hands in just about everything and is incredibly important. Esp for morale. Most typical projects are really exciting at the beginning and then people tend to lose interest and fade out. Long projects eat at you and you’re not even looking to do good stuff you just want to finish things and they don’t turn out well. Create a situation where projects are short and there’s excitement and it’s a short 2 week project and it leaves people in excited mode. Break big projects into as many small projects. 2 week rule.
  2. Planning is Vastly Overrated
    37Signals doesn’t do road maps, specs, projections. They have rough ideas internally but these aren’t shared externally. Even internally they’re not set in stone or written down. Think about what’s being done now and maybe what’s next. You set expectations too soon and things changed. Don’t want to be boxed into decisions you made 18 years ago. They don’t do design docs and functional specs ‘artifacts’ that don’t push back enough. A spec doc contains 1000 yes’es. Leads to an illusion of agreement. Everyone can read the same paragraph and think you agree. Don’t do projections like financial projections.
  3. Get rid of abstractions
    Focus on what’s real right now. Not something that represents real. The actual real thing. That’s what’s most important. Don’t worry about the things you might do.
  4. Decisions are temporary
    Companies are often paralyzed by big decisions that they believe are permanent. They think that what they decide today has to be that way forever. At 37Signals they’re going to do 4-day work weeks and pay for the hobbies they are interested in. They posted it on the blog and they got feedback “you guys are fucking crazy”. 37Signals has 12 people right now. Half are in Chicago, half in other cities. “If we have to change we change. Not the way it has to be always. For now this works.” Optimize for now. Don’t worry too much about what might happen. Focus on today.
  5. Red Flag Words
    They chat a lot and do a lot of collaboration by typing. The more they collaborate the more they use certain words. The words don’t sound that dangerous to begin with: “need”, “can’t”, “everyone”, “easy”, “nobody”. “We need this feature.” A lot of needs but very few necessities. When you run into situations where everyone has needs that’s where animosity arises. “Can’t” is on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Can’t deliver this proposal unless we do X,” the truth is you probably can. Maybe you do but you probably don’t. “Easy” is a word you use to describe other people’s jobs. It’s pretty loaded and presumptuous. Watch out for these red flags. “Everyone” and “nobody” are words used as words to move towards decisions.
  6. Interruption is the enemy of productivity
    When Jason and DHH were across the pond from each other they were super productive and they did work. When DHH moved to Chicago they got a lot less done. Proximity invites collaboration. Interruptions: tap on the shoulder with a question, required meetings, shouting someone’s name, “Hey Check this out”, phones & blackberry’s. Great quote: “Average work day has been traded in for work moments.” Most people get work done in the mornings or late at night. Not that there’s more work today – just that there’s less time in the daytime. Fragmented day is not a productive day. Strategy: on Thursdays nobody talks to each other. Passive collaboration instead of active collaboration. If someone is busy they can put it aside and come to it when they’re ready. Interruption points screw your days up.
  7. Focus on what doesn’t change
    The technology and software business seems to obsess with what is in flux and changing. Always new stuff. New languages and frameworks. Focus on what doesn’t change and think about the things that matter today and will matter 10 years from now. “Speed is a really important thing for our products. 10 years from now people will still want speed. We could make a Facebook app or we could just make things faster – so we make things faster.” Reinvest in the things that don’t change. Competitors will chase the next big thing.
  8. Worrying about things that don’t matter yet
    Happens to people in business all the time because people are paying attention to things that don’t matter yet. When you’re a designer and working on initial ideas. Jason finds that it’s better to sketch with a sharpie rather than a pen. With a sharpie you can’t get lost in the detail. You don’t want to worry about the details too early. Don’t spend days on a sketch, spend minutes. Polish may be important later but don’t worry about it now. The longer it takes to develop something the less likely you’ll launch it.
  9. Underdoing
    There is a cold war going on in the software world where everyone is trying to one-up everyone. If they’re spending X you have to spend XX. It’s like an arms race. Very expensive and very difficult to win the cold war. Usually only one winner and the other collapses. They under-do. They create the simpler product. Target nonconsumption. There is a group of people called nonconsumers who want to be consumers but are, for some reason, not able to be because of expense or complication. Problem is most companies move too far upmarket. Lot of people building office software, don’t build something that takes on excel head-to-head, but takes on something much more down market. Solve the simple problems because the big guys who have all the money won’t even notice you – you’re in a market they’ve already moved in.
  10. Find the right size
    There are only two things whose soul purpose is to grow forever: business & tumors. Grow, grow, grow for no reason other than to grow. Best off figuring out what the right size is for your company. If you’re making a few mil or a few 100k a year, you’re doing pretty damn good. You want to grow slow and make big skips you may skip right over the right size. Figure it out as you go. “Maverick” Ricardo Semler has a great example: Oxford University is one of the world’s best universities. Why aren’t there tons of them? Because the Oxford that exists is the right size.
  11. Follow the Chefs
    Lagasse, Batali, Flay, Child, Oliver. What they do is they out teach, out share, and out contribute their competitors. They’re out there saying “hey look, I’m a chef, I’m going to give you all my secrets, here they are.” Not afraid to put their ideas out there and let people learn from them. Not afraid that people will take their ideas and build a restaurant right beside of them. Think about “what’s your cookbook?” For 37Signals it was all about “Getting Real”. In the business world people ask “why would you want to give this away, won’t your competitors use it?” Give the idea away and get the message out. Company is lucky if it has customers, very lucky if it has fans, incredibly lucky if it has an audience that comes back to hear what you have to say every day.
  12. Always be Questioning
    “Why are we doing this?” “What problem are we solving?” “Is there actually something wrong?” “Are we adding value?” Is this actually useful or is it just cool? Everything you add to your product dilutes everything else. “Will this change behavior?” Be thinking about is this additional piece of information going to change behavior?  “Is there an easier way?” The easy way is probably more than good enough.
  13. Give up on hard problems
    Tere is nothing wrong with being lazy. There is an abundance of easy problems that need to be solved. The really hard problems are probably better left to your competitors. Solve a bunch of simple things. Most people’s problems are simple and you can probably solve 10 in a month over 1 in 10 months.
  14. Work less
    This industry is plagued with people who work too many hours. At 37signals they find if you work people less, their work is usually better. 32 vs 40 hours has shown that the work is just as good and people are generally happier. People are more motivated and more refreshed when they come back on Mondays. Most of the week is “wasted on shit that doesn’t really matter.”

Check out the original post here. They followed up the talk with Q & A session which is also covered in detail.


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