The Devver Blog

A Boulder startup improving the way developers work.

Jason Fried (of 37signals) on building great companies and products

Last Thursday, we had the opportunity to hear a talk from Jason Fried, CEO of 37signals. I had already read some of the 37signals philosophy in Getting Real (although it’s about time for a re-read), but the talk was still totally fascinating. Although in many ways they are similar to the Web 2.0 startups (they emphasize releasing early, focusing on the customer, and avoid detailed long-term planning), in other ways they are totally different (notably, they don’t work an insane number of hours a week).

Jason repeatedly said that their process was not the only way to successfully run a company – just the way that works really well for them. While I don’t think every piece of advice will be useful for every startup, I’m betting that everyone can learn at least a few very useful things from Jason. I know it got my mind spinning about ways we could improve how we work at Devver.

Without further ado, here are some nuggets of wisdom from Jason, split roughly into two categories: Running a Company and Building a Product.

Running a Company

Focus on things that don’t change

  • first-mover advantage is overrated
  • the leaders today sat back, watched, and did it better
  • invest in the things that won’t change (example: in ten years, people will still like simple software, so focus on simplicity)
  • don’t try to chase the next big thing

Don’t plan

  • 37signals just wants to build a great products that people love
  • they don’t have a five year plan
  • they know they want to be profitable, but they don’t have a plan to get X users by Y date

Use ‘less’ to your advantage

  • use your constraints to focus your attention on the most important things you can possibly do instead of everything you can possibly do
  • less money is an advantage (you have to be creative to get the word out, which is more effective)
  • less time is an advantage (focus on important stuff)
  • fewer people is a good thing (less coordination necessary)

Work less

  • 37signals don’t work on Fridays
  • now Monday-Thursday people work extra hard, they waste less time
  • they don’t make them cram in more hours (around 8 hours a day, four days a week)
  • the output has been better, they are more refreshed
  • great for employee retention
  • they pay for employees to pursue hobbies outside of work
  • if they pay for hobbies, the person has to teach everyone else the stuff they are learning

Share knowledge

  • they don’t spend money on advertising
  • the most famous chefs are famous because they teach others
  • out-teach, out-share, out-contribute your competitors
  • don’t be afraid of competition stealing your ideas
  • if you teach, you have people’s mind even if you don’t have them as a customer
  • amass an audience, then you can sell them something

Avoid interruption

  • it’s the biggest enemy of productivity
  • look to minimize interruption
  • they don’t talk to each other
  • at 37signals, everyone usually works from home
  • there might be 4 months where they don’t see each other, but they collaborate passively via Campfire
  • there is no such thing as a rock star developer, only rock star environments (those that make developers productive)

Don’t hold meetings

  • no meetings at 37signals
  • they are a huge waste of time
  • they last too long
  • information per minute is really small
  • think about the total cost (10 people attending a one-hour meeting == 10 hours of lost productivity)

Be transparent

  • if you make a mistake, come out immediately, admit it, move on
  • don’t try to hide mistakes
  • be part of the conversation about you screwing up (because the conversation is happening anyway)
  • the more you admit you are wrong, the more people like you

Avoid these words: “Need”, “can’t” and “easy”

  • these are the words that cause things to be late, to be difficult, to be contentious
  • people use the word “easy'” to describe other people’s work (e.g. “That feature should be easy to implement, so let’s have it by tomorrow”)
  • you don’t need most things you say you “need”
  • “can’t” is also unnecessarily strong

Don’t scar on the first cut

  • don’t institute a policy every time one little thing go wrong
  • if problems arise, deal with problem on individual basis
  • treat people with respect, not rules
  • small companies should not try to be big companies (big companies are wishing they could be like small companies)
  • if employees know you trust them, they won’t abuse that trust
  • example: everyone at 37signals has a company credit card they can use for anything they want (not necessarily work related)

Don’t only hire on specific skills

  • curiosity is the most important trait. Curious people want to learn new things and appreciate other people’s work
  • if you want to know how curious someone is, just ask them the last (non-work related) thing they learned
  • always hire good writers, that’s more important than specific skills

Pick your clients carefully [this was targeted at service companies]

  • you can choose the work you do
  • find the right kind of clients
  • you don’t need every customer
  • you can’t make everyone happy
  • if you take on everything you can at first, you’ll never stop, and after 10 years all your projects will suck

Let customers pay right away

  • don’t pester users to get them to upgrade
  • most of their paying customers started w/ paid version (as opposed to using the free version for awhile and then upgrading)
  • ask people for money right away if you want it from them

Don’t worry about the competition

  • they will change
  • you can’t control them

Building a Product

Don’t plan

  • it’s vastly overrated
  • just build the thing
  • don’t let planning scare you into not doing something
  • spend 95% of the time on the real thing
  • you always know more about the project after you’ve started working on it

Eliminate abstractions

  • diagrams, wireframes, proposals aren’t real
  • just work w/ the real thing
  • fake things create an illusion of agreement (if you think you are all agreeing to the proposal, you aren’t. Everyone interprets it differently)
  • get rid of documents, artifacts – anything that you file in the cabinet after you complete them
  • don’t represent the thing you are building, just build it

Error on the side of simple

  • every mistake they have made is because they tried to do too much
  • do the simplest possible thing for any problem
  • get it out, let people try it out, then iterate
  • always do the easier/faster/simpler thing

Don’t focus on details early on

  • it’s a waste of time
  • the things that are done early will probably be redone anyway
  • polish is important, just do it later

Solve atomic problems/make tiny decisions

  • people try to solve problems that are too big
  • break down big problems down to the atomic level
  • you can easily solve small problems (and if you do it wrong, you can go fix it easily)
  • if you solve a big problem incorrectly, you won’t go back to fix it, because you invested so much in it
  • 37signals doesn’t work on anything more than a week
  • they often just solve a quarter of a bug
  • morale is killed by people working on big problems that never get solved

Give up on hard problems

  • they aren’t worth solving
  • let your competition solve hard problems
  • there are so many easy problems that need really good solutions
  • take a step back, figure out what the core problem is
  • take a few days off, look at it again, there may be a simple problem instead

Say “No” much more than “Yes”

  • say no to everything (to customers requests, to features you yourself want)
  • you think you need to give everyone everything they want, but you don’t
  • make a feature/request really fight to be in the product
  • as a product designer, you are the curator, you are the editor, you have to say no
  • once you start hiding stuff in your product, it’s too complicated (if users have to turn stuff off, that’s a bad sign)
  • it’s really hard to take away features from people (even if they are bad)

Be careful when adding features

  • they read every feature request, then throw them away
  • they used to keep a huge list, but no one looked at it because it was too long
  • now they just notice the stuff that gets asked over and over
  • look out for the “bananas in the lasagna” (even if everyone asks for something, if it doesn’t fit w/ the product, don’t add it)
  • think very deeply about requests, even simple features have a lot of implications
  • customers talk in solutions, you need to look for problems and solve those
  • improve things for the majority, not the vocal minority (vocal minority can destroy a product)

Eliminate product management

  • if you have a product manager, the product is too big and complicated
  • the builders should be able to manage the product

Written by Ben

August 4, 2008 at 8:13 am

Posted in Misc

13 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Ben for sharing this. Very helpful!ūüôā

    kuldeep_kap

    August 5, 2008 at 9:59 pm

  2. great list! thanks for summarizing it so well.

    dgcohen

    August 6, 2008 at 3:11 am

  3. great job, feel like I was there!

    rob_lafave44971

    August 7, 2008 at 2:39 am

  4. Brilliant. Thanks for this list. 37signals's just great, wish I could hear Jason speak and meet him personally.

    David

    August 11, 2008 at 6:16 am

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  8. that's a ton of great, simple tips. Leave it to Jason to take a complex subject and make it super-simple, but still very relevant. Great post!

    Shaun McLane

    August 24, 2008 at 1:16 am

  9. […] 37signals’s Fried on building great companies and products […]

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  11. whooohoooooooo.. Love Jasons Talks

    TechSlam

    January 23, 2010 at 4:04 am

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