The Business World According to Jason Fried

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Last night I got to attend a New Denver Ad Club event at the Oriental Theater with guest speaker Jason Fried (freed) of 37signals. I knew very little about Jason and have heard about 37signals from a friend of mine. 37signals is a group that started out as an agency and created products to support internal processes and then decided productize/sell them. Logical progression given the difficulty of managing clients. The focus of the discussion last night was advice for people starting/managing a web-based businesses. We covered the following items during the presentation; many of which I agree with on some level.

  • Planning is overrated. Just build it and then tweak as you go. Phillip Johnson said;” You don’t know whether a building is good until you’re in it. I have to say that I agree with this on some level. I also have to say, that this sounds like someone who does not understand the benefit of research. I think some minimal amount of research needs to be done before moving forward. It’s good to have a target.
  • Follow the lead of famous chefs. We know who they are (Emeril & Julia Childs) because they teach us. Start teaching now. Out teach. Out educate. Out contribute your competition. Get people to show up first and then sell them something. I agree with this as well and I can’t remember what the point was exactly, but he made is point about not focusing on selling and then quickly followed it up with a “but” which as we all know means that anything said within that sentence before the but is negated.
  • Interruption is something to be avoided. Creativity takes long spans of time and working virtually allows for “passive collaboration”. (37signals uses what sounded like a posting wall with messages that people go to when they have time.) This sounds obvious enough and yet the implication is that the open floor plan that you’re so happy with is costing you productivity. Great for collaboration and terrible for productivity which is what the client is actually paying for; to have something delivered.
  • Avoid “scarring on the first cut”. Mistakes are a part of the process. When you implement policies based on a mistake that has has happened for the first time, you can cripple the learning process. Agreed. People need to feel as though they can take risks and that a mistake can morph into a discovery.
  • Err on the side of simple. Create a foundation to build on. Wait to hear from customers and only act on things you have heard repeatedly. You don’t need every customer. YES.
  • Focus on things that don’t change. When developing things, think about what things won’t change over the next ten years. Behavior and attributes don’t change. When he was talking about things that don’t change, he was talking about things like “people like to share memories”.
  • Eliminate abstractions. Work with the real thing and iterate through to the resolution. You can’t know what you are building until you are building it. No documents. No wireframes. Nothing. Start building and get them something that they can “touch” within a week. There is no such thing as an agreement since everyone is speaking a different language. I love the sound of this and am not sure if it is possible for every web project. His point was that no one understands what they are signing off on so documents are almost entirely useless. I am more of the mind that documents themselves are lacking. They are not audience specific. For example;
    1. The board wants EBITDA estimates
    2. The C&V level want EBITDA & ROI estimates
    3. Middle management wants cost/time estimates
    4. Dev & QA want to know what they are building/testing
    I have always said that prototyping is the best way to do things and then use that as a base. The issue that I have with coding from the start is that in my experience, it is very painful to touch/modify existing code; even if you created it. It’s just not something that is easily done. I suspect that the level of coding he was referring to was “coding lite” (aka prototyping that can be built upon).
  • Laziness is good. Focus on the small problems that are easy to fix and have an immediate impact. Let your competition solve the big problems and then implement or build on that solution. I i like this and had never thought about it. I gravitate towards the hard problems and may need to rethink this.
  • Ignore the details in the beginning. Don’t spend time on details until later in the project as you will surely be changing things many times during the process. Agreed.
  • Work less. They have recently gone to a 4 day work week (Fridays off) and people are more refreshed. 37signals also pays for people to pursue their hobbies outside of the office. (They do this instead of just giving them a raise to insure that employees get to do what they want to.) People know they only have 4 days to get things done and tend to focus on getting things done. The level of creativity has also increased because of the external stimulus. If you check email on Sunday night at 8pm, why don’t you go see a movie Monday afternoon? I agree with this as well. I’m better when I’m relaxed.
  • When hiring, look for curious people. Passionate people create amazing things and curiosity is a big part of that. Agreed.
  • Say “No” before “Yes” to customers. A “No thank you” is probably better. Address the silent minority going forward and ignore the vocal minority. Wait until you have heard the same request from many different sources before making changes. Keeping it simple and on-demand.
  • Meetings are toxic. They are costly interruptions and for the most part cover things that could be covered in email, IM or text messages. Agreed if the focus is purely productivity. If the focus is team building then a meeting may be the best way. Actually, a day out with the peers would be the best way.
  • Avoid using the words; need, can’t and easy. These words have a negative impact in the following ways. When someone says need, the implication is that the entire project will fail if this need is not met. When it is discovered that the need is in fact a nice to have; it dilutes the power and importance of true needs. When someone says can’t the discussion is over. That discussion may be a very important part of the success of the project. When someone says easy it demeans other people’s work. Usually this is said by someone who has no idea of what it takes to perform that task. I agree with all of this and would go on to say that semantics is one of the most important yet underrated things in business. It can either bring about clarity or facilitate complete chaos.
  • Transparency is important. Tell the truth and when you make mistake, admit it quickly and move on. I have posted about this before.
  • Atomic problems & tiny decisions. Divide up a problem into its constituent parts and then tackle those. This is great for morale and makes issues more manageable. Agreed.
  • Less is a competitive edge. It makes you focus on what you can do instead of trying to do everything. Less tech. Less skills. Solve a real problem and then extract what you can from it. Agreed.

It was a great event and there was much food for thought. 37signals also has a book out. You can get it here in a number of formats.

To sum up the Jason’s message from yesterday; Keep it simple and build it now.

By Michael Myers

I'm an Associate Teaching Professor of Digital Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver. I also consult with startups and established brands. I'm currently focused on artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience and culture. I am married to an amazing woman and have two incredible children. I was raised in Colorado and spend my free time with family, biking, snowboarding and going to the Pacific Ocean to SCUBA dive and/or surf. I'm passionate about architecture, design, street art, photography and the art that tattooing has evolved into.

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