10 Things We’ve Learned at 37 Signals

Loose notes from SXSW 2008 panel “10 Things We’ve Learned at 37 Signals” with Jason Fried.

Similar to last year’s panel on the same topic, but with refinements/enhancements. This stuff is good enough to hear again. Anil Dash twitters: 1000 people watching Jason Fried is like being in one of those evangelical churches.

1) The great unknown. Don’t worry about the stuff that might possibly happen down the road. Focus on what you’re doing now. The decisions that you make today don’t have to last forever. Can the 37signals philosophy scale from 10 employees to 100? Who cares. Optimize for now. You can change the way you do things in the future if needed.

2) Red Flags. There are a handful of things that will cause people to dig in their heels. Need, can’t, easy, only, fast. Trigger words.

Need: Puts a barrier up. It’s an absolute. This needs to get done or we’re not going to do anything. But most of the time it’s just not true. Find replacements for “need”

Can’t: “We can’t launch unless we do this.” Usually a road-block. Usually you can when you say you can’t.

Easy: Usually a word used to describe someone else’s job. Same with “fast.”

Only: Dismissive.

Paragraph to make something three months late:

It’s only one more feature. We really need it. We can’t launch with out. It should be easy. Can’t you just do it really fast?

Be successful and make money by helping other people be successful and make money.

Spot chain reactions. Be the catalyst.

Target nonconsumers and nonconsumption. “The innovator’s dilemma.” People often dont’ use products because they’re too expensive, too hard to use, etc. People who don’t use a product but would if you made it possible for them. Minimize the chance for competition from entrenched players. Microsoft Project is overkill for a lot of people who don’t need 90% of features – that’s key to success of Basecamp.

Question your work regularly. Does what we’re doing (still) make sense? What problem are we solving? is this actually useful? Are we adding value? Will this change behavor? Is there an easier way? What’ the opportunity cost? Is it really worth it?

Then STOP if you don’t get the right answer to these questions.

Read your product. The biggest problem on the internet is bad copy writing. You got to a lot of sites you can’t even figure out what they want from you. Pay as much attention to words as you do to pixels. Words are cheapest and easiest things to fix! If you’re thinking about doing a redesign, think about doing a rewrite first. The design might not be the problem. The words might be the problem.

Cut down on what you’re doing. Streamline, simplify. Get three things done in one week instead of one thing done in three weeks. Too much stuff kills morale. The longer it takes to develop something the less likely you are to launch it.

Resist the urge to try to do more the next time around. Companies think the next release has to be big and bold. Don’t forget that the reason you’re (hopefully) successful is because your first version was effective and simple, not because it was big and bloated.

Invest in what doesn’t change. People never say ” I wish this product was more expensive / harder to use.” Invest in what works now and what will work 10 yrs from now.

Folllow the chefs. Danish chefs are smartest business people going. They share. You’d think a chef wouldn’t want to give things away, but that’s exactly what makes them successful. The business world is so afraid of sharing. So proprietary, insular. By sharing you reach a HUGE audience. You became an authority and before you know it you’ve become a big entity, just by giving stuff away. What’s your cookbook? Who we are, what we do, how we do it. Don’t treat what you know like it’s some big secret.

Interruption is the enemy of productivity. The closer you are (physically) to people, the more likely you are to interrupt them. A fragment a day is not a productive day. You “chunk” people’s days into smaller and smaller bits, till no one can get anything done. You can get a lot done in 3 hours, but not in 3 hours of 15 minute chunks. NO interruptive communication. Use email, not IM. So they can get to you when they’re free, not when YOU want the answer. Focus on opportunities for people to get things done. “On Thursday afternoons, no one can talk to each other.” Try this and you’ll find that a whole lot more gets done.

Road maps send you in the wrong direction. If you’re doing a consumer or business product, I suggest not having any roadmap at all. When 18 months rolls around, you may find yourself locked into a decision you made over a year ago. Focus on delivering things that matter when they matter. It’s good to think about the future, but don’t write it down. Do the right thing at the right time.

Check out Carlos Semmler – inverted ideas about how to run a business/organization.

Be clear in crisis. If you have a problem and are open / honest / responsive, people will like you even more than they did before. The web doesn’t shut up just because you have. If you don’t explain problems clearly, people will make stuff up, conversations will spread, and you’ll have no input on the public conversation about you.

Break problems down to the atomic level. Knock one thing off and move on to the next little thing. Celebrate little launches. Morale feeds off progress. The new thing is exciting, the old thing is not. When you make tiny decisions you can’t make big mistakes. There are times when you need to make big decisions, but try to avoid them. Chop up your goals into small bits and just keep incrementing.

Make it matter. If it doesn’t matter, don’t do it. If you look back on your days, you’ll find that most of what you’re doing doesn’t matter, and your time was wasted.

We don’t look at resumes. We don’t look at your education. We look for curious, motivated, honest. Curiosity is the most important thing.

37signals moved to a 4-day workweek in the summer and had no loss of productivity. People just get better at figuring out what does and what doesn’t need doing. Skim the crap.

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