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Episode #14: Addressing criticism of 37signals (Part 2 of 2)

Matt: Hey, welcome back to the 37signals podcast. I'm Matt Linderman. Last episode, we were discussing some of the negative feedback we found online about 37signals. We're going to continue along that thread, this time talking about "REWORK," our new book and some of the negative criticism we've gotten on that. So here's a question I put to Jason and David about it.

So, let's get into some of the critiques or negative feedback we've gotten about "Rework." And one thing that's come from a lot of different sources is people who say the ideas are familiar to them, that they've been reading "Signal Versus Noise" for a long time and that they weren't getting real...There's not a lot of new information there for them and they feel like it's just a retread of things that 37signals has already put out. How would you respond to that?

Jason: Well, I think it is a retread. And if you have read everything we've ever written, then this book probably isn't for you. Although I think it's well written, but it's probably not for you and that's fine because you are in the .00001%, you can maybe add maybe 10 zeros to that, percentage of people who actually know who we are, who've actually read our blog, who've actually read anything that we've ever written. So, there are definitely some people who will be completely familiar with everything we've done. It's sort of like a greatest hits album. If you're a really big fan of a band, you might not buy their greatest hits because you already have all their other stuff. That's fine.

I get it, but there's so many other people who are just being introduced to this material for the first time. And that's a great place to start is to actually buy the greatest hits album to get a feel for everything that this band or this, in our case, this business, stands for.

And you can be thinking it's all been said before, you're right. It has been all said before, but now it's said in one place. And which is a lot more accessible for the average person and for 99 percent of the population than going back over our web blog and trying to find every little tiny article we've ever written and piece that together to save 12 bucks.

David: Also, I think the alternative is horrible. Should we sit down in a dark room and come up with all these wonderful ideas without sharing them, without testing them, without trying them out and seeing what the response is? That would be a shitty book. And to be honest, that's how a lot of business books are written. Some guy or group of people go back in a dark room and just come up with shit instead of trying it out first and testing the material and seeing how it works. I like the comparison to comedy people. You can come up with tons of jokes that sound really good in your head. Until you get out there, until you try out your material, you don't know what's good and what's bad.

The comedy specials that we see are not just jokes made up entirely in a dark room somewhere untested, unproven, untried, and then it goes out to be a smash hit. No, it's not. It's the same thing with this book. We tried out these ideas in public. We tried them out in the blog and we took the ones that were the best and we honed that up and I think the book is so much better for it.

If you were along for the ride, if you were along for all the test cases of it, sure, you heard all the punch lines before. But that's exactly why they're in the book because you heard them before and you liked them at the time. The feedback was good at the time. That's why they made it in. The shit that nobody cared about or we didn't care about anymore that bombed out, it's not going to make it in.

Matt: I think also, just the fact of the medium is different that you have a book in an actual physical format where all these thoughts and ideas have been edited down really to as tight as we can get them. And then it's up to, can easily be referred to and shared with someone else. It's so much different than the transitory nature of a blog post which just disappears into the ether. And to think that everyone has been reading all these post and has access to them just seems like a very small subset of people would ever actually fall into that category.
David: And this is actually, in many ways, especially for the guy who've been reading all along, who knows all our shit and want to introduce other people to it. He's not going to point to 87 different essays on the blog and expect anybody to read it. Here, you can present somebody else who he wants to convince that this is the way we should go or we should try to change our business and to be more like the ideas that we put forward. In one package, you can have in one book that somebody can read in two to three hours that actually has the most persuasive versions of all our arguments packaged up neatly. To sell them to a boss or coworker or somebody who wants to start a business with. Or anybody else you want to persuade into believing these ideas.
Matt: And just one other thing I think that's related to one of the essays in the book which is about how it's OK if your customers outgrow your product. The most important thing is to be accessible to new people. I think that's true with your marketing methods too. Sometimes, you can try to constantly be advancing and keeping up and giving something new to your existing customers, but sometimes, you just have to keep your message constant and that's the best way to reach new people.
Jason: Well, the point about that is kind of what David says that this is our message. We don't have a second message for another book. We couldn't write another book right now. If you ask us for another book right now, we couldn't. We don't have anything else to say. Everything we have to say is in this book. And I think that's the way we should keep it. Because yeah, we shouldn't go off and just make up new ideas or theories that may or may not work. This stuff is all tested. And so, like we just basically said that if you're familiar with it all, then you're familiar with it all, but most people have never heard of it.

And by the way, we're getting letters from people saying...The interesting thing is we're getting two types of letters. Some letters are from people, and these are emails I thought say, people who think these ideas are great and they've never heard of anything like this. They can't believe that you can run a business this way, which is always great to hear that.

Then we're getting this other batch of feedback, which has been really exciting, from people who have been running their business this way. But for the longest time, they thought that they were wrong. Everyone's been telling them that that's not how you should do it, that that wouldn't work, that that doesn't make sense, that you're stupid. You're leaving a lot of money on the table and the whole thing.

So, these people are writing us and saying it's great to hear from another company who's been able to make this work. I've been making it work for 12 years, 13 years, and everyone's been telling me I've been wrong. So, it's really great to find these kindred spirits out there who already know this stuff, but they really love reading about another company following the same path.

Matt: It is interesting how people have been running this successful business for a long period of time feel like they're doing something wrong just because of the culture out there in the business media.
Jason: Yeah, good point.
Matt: One other, I think, related person out there which comes to mind is Mark Hurst, think. He talks about the customer experience and it's something that he's been reeling on since the same time before we started 37signals. And he's just been reeling on that message for over 10, 15, maybe 20 years now. And it's something where, is it getting a little bit old hat if you've been following along for all that time? Yeah, like when I get emails from him, I'm probably not excited as I was 10 years ago when it was a newer idea to me. But every day, there's a new person out there who's just learning about this concept of the customer experience and why it's important, and what they can do about it. And I think he's trying to reach out to those people all the time as opposed to just hang onto an audience of experts.
Jason: Yeah, the thing to always keep in mind is that every year, there's a new batch of freshmen. Every single year, new freshmen and that's just the truth. And that market, that industry of, well, not market or industry, that movement of new people is always going to be around. And that's why if your message is simple and assessable, you're always going to have an audience for it. And it might be a new audience every year and it's just a great way, I think, to approach things.
Matt: Trevor Burnam wrote a particularly scathing review of Rework. We'll put a link to it at 37signals.com/podcast. We always put related links to each episode there and also transcripts of the episode. But I'll read you a bit of it and then David can respond. Trevor writes, this book is strictly aimed at founders of small start ups that make web based software and are lifestyle businesses. If you want to go the more traditional route, raise serious investment capital, scale your business and eventually sell or go public, Rework is as irrelevant as it is banal. Rather than writing a manifesto, couldn't they have distilled their experiences more concretely? At no point in Rework do they say, here's a decision we faced, here's what we did and here's why.

Wouldn't that be more useful than a list of one size fits all assertions backed up by already familiar case studies? It encourages you to be exactly like 37signals to find the niche in which you can make customers happy while scratching your own itch. But not every business can or should be run like a software boutique. And even fewer can be profitable by selling byproducts like this book, as one section advises. Here's David's response.

David: So, this is sort of an attack on how narrow and niche we're trying to pursue here with Rework. Oh, we're just focused on small companies. We're trying to write a manifesto. This is just for that little tiny niche. Well, yeah. That's right. We are writing this mainly for small start ups or small companies, for small teams. What's wrong with that? The bulk of companies in the world are small companies. There are 500 Fortune 500 companies and then there's a handful more that are at that scale. The vast majority of companies out there are small. Those are the people who need the most advice. Those are the people who need some encouragement to to prosper. So I don't see that being wrong at all. What I do find annoying, though, is the sort of condescending nature of how he puts it. Like, oh, well, this wouldn't work for people who would go the more traditional route, raise serious investment capital. Oh my God.

I mean, anytime anybody throws serious in there as sort of a qualifier for anything, you know that they're talking bullshit. Because, I mean, to even get started in that. So if you don't take investment capital, you're not serious. Oh, give me a break. Most small companies were actually trying to make it work and who constitute the vast majority of the economic engine of the world are a very serious business indeed.

So don't give me that shit. Second, he attacks us. Oh, this is just a manifesto. We should have given you a point by point on every single decision we ever made or whatever. Yes, it is a manifesto. Yes. There's plenty of other business books out there who can teach you the concrete mechanics of design or programming or of managing the books or any of these other things. We are absolutely writing a manifesto.

Something to stand for, something to have a sort of philosophical backbone in your company saying, we are not going to do this shit. We're going to take a philosophical stance saying, planning is guessing. That's how we're going to approach things. Now, once you have sort of these mantras or banner slogans or whatever you want to call it, tons of concrete decisions can be derived from that.

If you have a general perception that planning is guessing, you're probably not going to waste a whole lot of effing time on that. You're going to get on with more interesting things rather than just going into the mechanics of oh, well, we say you should plan for the next two weeks. So here is exactly how you should plan for the next two weeks. No. There's A, plenty of other sources to find that. And B, what we just want is to open your mind.

Put you on this path that there is another road than the one that leads to serious investment capital. So, all of these sort of attack points or push backs, I take us, yes. That is what we're doing. We are focusing on small companies, yes. We are writing a manifesto, yes. Why is that wrong? Why does this book have to be like every other book out there? There's plenty of other materials to find this. We don't need to rehash that over and over again.

Jason: And the last point I'll take is this last paragraph. It says, this book encourages you to be exactly like 37signals, to find a niche in which you can make customers happy while scratching your own itch. That's exactly what we're encouraging people to do. To find a niche that they know really well and they can make customers happy. And they can make themselves happy, too. I mean, that to me is the holy grail. That's what you should be shooting for. And almost all the brands that I like, I feel like they are those kind of brands. The people who make the products use the products. The people who make the products believe in the products. The customers love the products. I mean, that is what you should do. And that is what we're encouraging people to do. So I'll take that charge and accept it happily.

So that's kind of... I mean, I think that whoever wrote this, I forget his name, Trevor, he seems like he thinks the only sort of companies worth starting are going to be the massive, huge, big ass companies that are going to have the big, huge numbers in front of their names and the whole thing. And, you know, we've already sort of been over this before, but like David just said, I think most of the world is based on small companies. And they're the ones who really drive things. And they're the ones who seem to be doing the most interesting things really with few exceptions.

A lot of the really interesting stuff in the world comes from the small guys. That's where a lot of the innovation happens, that's where a lot of the really cool stuff happens. And then the big guys who can't come up with the stuff end up having to either acquire them or take the ideas, run with them and that sort of thing. So I think the small companies are definitely where it's at and there's no shame at all in building a small company.

Matt: I think also what he's talking about, why isn't the book filled with, here is a decision we faced and what we did and why. I think it's important to... You know, we were thinking about our target market. You know, because Getting Real was a book that did well and really, I don't know if saturation is the word. But we reached a lot of people who make web apps who are software developers or designers or people in that world. And we were making a conscious decision to try to reach beyond that with Rework. To get to people who never would read Getting Real because it was too technological, or a little bit geared too much toward software development. So we made a conscious decision to not get into that realm with Rework because we want to reach a different kind of audience. People who weren't going to be intimidated... Or who might be intimidated if it was filled with, you know, sort of tech anecdotes or decisions about how we did a certain thing on base camp, that sort of thing. So it was actually like a conscious decision that we made.
Jason: And this is actually one of the really nice things that our editor helped us with. Rick Horgan over at Crown. He helped remind us that we shouldn't be heavy on the technology, shouldn't be heavy on the software stuff. That this is not a book about that. And that most of our internal examples are about that. So we really shouldn't be, you know, leaning heavily on those because it would hide the core or the useful message from people who could really benefit from it. And that's why we wrote this book, it's so we don't have to hide those messages and couch them in technological terms and anecdotes that are related just to our own industry.

Matt: And that will wrap it up for this edition of the 37signals podcast. Thank you again for listening. As always, 37signals.com/podcast has related links for each episode. And we've also started posting transcripts of each episode there. Thanks for listening. Bye.

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