Aug 012008

I went to the 37 Signals event last night sponsored by CPB. The speaker was Jason Fried, who is a founder of the company, a designer and all around smart guy.

Jason spoke mainly about small business. He presented a list of things that companies can do to become more productive and better at whatever they do. His list included things such as:

  • 4 day work weeks
  • Virtual companies
  • Saying no to your customers more often than not
  • Do the easiest thing possible
  • Don’t design, just do
  • Don’t go to meetings
  • Turn off email and IM

A number of these things I do each day including turning off email and IM when I’m really cranking, be as virtual as possible, reduce lengthy design and just start working. Overall, Jason has great ideas for small companies. 37 Signals is probably in the 3-5 million dollar range or lower, with about 2-3 million dollars of overhead or more. They are a life-style company and will not grow beyond a certain threshold because of these ideals.

Having worked for a large company, worked on vastly more complex systems than Jason, created many open source frameworks and now starting my own company, I found Jason’s ideas exciting and total crap at the same time. I regularly find myself battling with creating solutions that will scale, versus creating the simplest solution. This naturally occurs to anyone who has ever worked with applications that do hundreds of millions of transactions per day (or per hour).

I pushed Jason a bit to see where he would break ranks with some of his ideals. From his responses, he absolutely would not abandon these ideals at any cost. However, I think this is a marketing tool created by 37 signals to promote their products as well as Ruby on Rails. The reason I know this to be true, is that Jason is intelligent and capable or understanding moderately complex problems with more ease than say a college student. In addition, he spoke briefly about how a single feature request such as adding time-stamps to ToDo list items can have a larger impact than any customer might think. These features requests require a large amount of thought and planning because they impact the entire system. Similarly, changes to the Rails internals require a large amount of thought and testing to ensure they don’t break existing applications.

This dichotomy is something that is a fact of life. It is something engineers, product managers and executives must deal with, no matter how small or large your company is. 37 Signals has built a reputation that they can safely ignore these problems and be wildly successful. However, it is 95% smoke and mirrors. The reality is that 37 Signals is composed completely of phenomenal employees who can work in complex domains without losing their minds. The can distill complexity into manageable pieces and then combine those pieces in the end to produce a complex yet functional system.