The new reality
This is a different kind of business book for different kinds of people–from those
who have never dreamed of starting a business to those who already have a successful
company up and running.
It’s for hard-core entrepreneurs, the Type A go-getters of the business world.
People who feel like they were born to start, lead, and conquer.
It’s also for less intense small-business owners. People who may not be Type A
but still have their business at the center of their lives. People who are looking for an
edge that’ll help them do more, work smarter, and kick ass.
It’s even for people stuck in day jobs who have always dreamed about doing their
own thing. Maybe they like what they do, but they don’t like their boss. Or maybe they’re
just bored. They want to do something they love and get paid for it.
Finally, it’s for all those people who’ve never considered going out on their own
and starting a business. Maybe they don’t think they’re cut out for it. Maybe they don’t
think they have the time, money, or conviction to see it through. Maybe they’re just afraid
of putting themselves on the line. Or maybe they just think business is a dirty word.
Whatever the reason, this book is for them, too.
There’s a new reality. Today anyone can be in business. Tools that used to be out
of reach are now easily accessible. Technology that cost thousands is now just a few
bucks or even free. One person can do the job of two or three or, in some cases, an entire
department. Stuff that was impossible just a few years ago is simple today.
You don’t have to work miserable 60/80/100-hour weeks to make it work. 10-40
hours a week is plenty. You don’t have to deplete your life savings or take on a boatload
of risk. Starting a business on the side while keeping your day job can provide all the
cash flow you need. You don’t even need an office. Today you can work from home or
collaborate with people you’ve never met who live thousands of miles away.
It’s time to rework work. Let’s get started.
Ignore the real world
“That would never work in the real world.” You hear it all the time when you tell
people about a fresh idea.
This real world sounds like an awfully depressing place to live. It’s a place where
new ideas, unfamiliar approaches, and foreign concepts always lose. The only things that
win are what people already know and do, even if those things are flawed and inefficient.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find these “real world” inhabitants are filled with
pessimism and despair. They expect fresh concepts to fail. They assume society isn’t
ready for or capable of change.
Even worse, they want to drag others down into their tomb. If you’re hopeful and
ambitious, they’ll try to convince you your ideas are impossible. They’ll say you’re
wasting your time.
Don’t believe them. That world may be real for them, but it doesn’t mean you have
to live in it.
We know because our company fails the real-world test in all kinds of ways. In
the real world, you can’t have more than a dozen employees spread out in eight different
cities on two continents. In the real world, you can’t attract millions of customers without
any salespeople or advertising. In the real world, you can’t reveal your formula for
success to the rest of the world. But we’ve done all those things and prospered.
The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse. It’s a justification for not trying. It has
nothing to do with you.
Learning from mistakes is overrated
In the business world, failure has become an expected rite of passage. You hear
all the time how nine out of ten new businesses fail. You hear that your business’s
chances are slim to none. You hear that failure builds character. People advise, “Fail early
and fail often.”
With so much failure in the air, you can’t help but breathe it in. Don’t inhale. Don’t
get fooled by the stats. Other people’s failures are just that: other people’s failures.
If other people can’t market their product, it has nothing to do with you. If other
people can’t build a team, it has nothing to do with you. If other people can’t price their
services properly, it has nothing to do with you. If other people can’t earn more than they
spend … well, you get it.
Another common misconception: You need to learn from your mistakes. What do
you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable
is that? You still don’t know what you should do next.
Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real
ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked–and you can do it
again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.
Failure is not a prerequisite for success. A Harvard Business School study found
already-successful entrepreneurs are far more likely to succeed again (the success rate for
their future companies is 34 percent). But entrepreneurs whose companies failed the first
time had almost the same follow-on success rate as people starting a company for the first
time: just 23 percent. People who failed before have the same amount of success as
people who have never tried at all.* Success is the experience that actually counts.
That shouldn’t be a surprise: It’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t
linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.
Planning is guessing
Unless you’re a fortune-teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy. There are
just too many factors that are out of your hands: market conditions, competitors,
customers, the economy, etc. Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t
Why don’t we just call plans what they really are: guesses. Start referring to your
business plans as business guesses, your financial plans as financial guesses, and your
strategic plans as strategic guesses. Now you can stop worrying about them as much.
They just aren’t worth the stress.
When you turn guesses into plans, you enter a danger zone. Plans let the past
drive the future. They put blinders on you. “This is where we’re going because, well,
that’s where we said we were going.” And that’s the problem: Plans are inconsistent with
And you have to be able to improvise. You have to be able to pick up
opportunities that come along. Sometimes you need to say, “We’re going in a new
direction because that’s what makes sense today.”
The timing of long-range plans is screwed up too. You have the most information
when you’re doing something, not before you’ve done it. Yet when do you write a plan?
Usually it’s before you’ve even begun. That’s the worst time to make a big decision.
Now this isn’t to say you shouldn’t think about the future or contemplate how you
might attack upcoming obstacles. That’s a worthwhile exercise. Just don’t feel you need to
write it down or obsess about it. If you write a big plan, you’ll most likely never look at it
anyway. Plans more than a few pages long just wind up as fossils in your file cabinet.
Give up on the guesswork. Decide what you’re going to do this week, not this
year. Figure out the next most important thing and do that. Make decisions right before
you do something, not far in advance.
It’s OK to wing it. Just get on the plane and go. You can pick up a nicer shirt,
shaving cream, and a toothbrush once you get there.
Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no
relationship with reality is even scarier.
People ask, “How big is your company?” It’s small talk, but they’re not looking
for a small answer. The bigger the number, the more impressive, professional, and
powerful you sound. “Wow, nice!” they’ll say if you have a hundred-plus employees. If
you’re small, you’ll get an “Oh … that’s nice.” The former is meant as a compliment; the
latter is said just to be polite.
Why is that? What is it about growth and business? Why is expansion always the
goal? What’s the attraction of big besides ego? (You’ll need a better answer than
“economies of scale.”) What’s wrong with finding the right size and staying there?
Do we look at Harvard or Oxford and say, “If they’d only expand and branch out
and hire thousands more professors and go global and open other campuses all over the
world … then they’d be great schools.” Of course not. That’s not how we measure the
value of these institutions. So why is it the way we measure businesses?
Maybe the right size for your company is five people. Maybe it’s forty. Maybe it’s
two hundred. Or maybe it’s just you and a laptop. Don’t make assumptions about how big
you should be ahead of time. Grow slow and see what feels right–premature hiring is the
death of many companies. And avoid huge growth spurts too–they can cause you to skip
right over your appropriate size.
Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination in itself.
Have you ever noticed that while small businesses wish they were bigger, big
businesses dream about being more agile and flexible? And remember, once you get big,
it’s really hard to shrink without firing people, damaging morale, and changing the entire
way you do business.
Ramping up doesn’t have to be your goal. And we’re not talking just about the
number of employees you have either. It’s also true for expenses, rent, IT infrastructure,
furniture, etc. These things don’t just happen to you. You decide whether or not to take
them on. And if you do take them on, you’ll be taking on new headaches, too. Lock in
lots of expenses and you force yourself into building a complex businesss–one that’s a lot
more difficult and stressful to run.
Don’t be insecure about aiming to be a small business. Anyone who runs a
business that’s sustainable and profitable, whether it’s big or small, should be proud.
Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We hear about people burning
the midnight oil. They pull all-nighters and sleep at the office. It’s considered a badge of
honor to kill yourself over a project. No amount of work is too much work.
Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean
you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.
Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve. First off, working
like that just isn’t sustainable over time. When the burnout crash comes–and it will–it’ll
hit that much harder.
Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours
at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in
They even create crises. They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because
they actually like working overtime. They enjoy feeling like heroes. They create
problems (often unwittingly) just so they can get off on working more.
Workaholics make the people who don’t stay late feel inadequate for “merely”
working reasonable hours. That leads to guilt and poor morale all around. Plus, it leads to
an ass-in-seat mentality–people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren’t really being
If all you do is work, you’re unlikely to have sound judgments. Your values and
decision making wind up skewed. You stop being able to decide what’s worth extra effort
and what’s not. And you wind up just plain tired. No one makes sharp decisions when
In the end, workaholics don’t actually accomplish more than nonworkaholics.
They may claim to be perfectionists, but that just means they’re wasting time fixating on
inconsequential details instead of moving on to the next task.
Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real
hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.
Enough with “entrepreneurs”
Let’s retire the term entrepreneur. It’s outdated and loaded with baggage. It smells
like a members-only club. Everyone should be encouraged to start his own business, not
just some rare breed that self-identifies as entrepreneurs.
There’s a new group of people out there starting businesses. They’re turning
profits yet never think of themselves as entrepreneurs. A lot of them don’t even think of
themselves as business owners. They are just doing what they love on their own terms
and getting paid for it.
So let’s replace the fancy-sounding word with something a bit more down-toearth. Instead of entrepreneurs, let’s just call them starters. Anyone who creates a new
business is a starter. You don’t need an MBA, a certificate, a fancy suit, a briefcase, or an
above-average tolerance for risk. You just need an idea, a touch of confidence, and a push
to get started.Leslie Berlin, “Try, Try Again, or Maybe Not,” New York Times, Mar. 21, 2009. CHAPTER GO
Make a dent in the universe To do great work, you need to feel that you’re making a difference. That you’re putting a meaningful dent in the universe. That you’re part of something important. This doesn’t mean you need to find the cure for cancer. It’s just that your efforts need to feel valuable. You want your customers to say, “This makes my life better.” You want to feel that if you stopped doing what you do, people would notice. You should feel an urgency about this too. You don’t have forever. This is your life’s work. Do you want to build just another me-too product or do you want to shake things up? What you do is your legacy. Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see. And don’t think it takes a huge team to make that difference either. Look at Craigslist, which demolished the traditional classified-ad business. With just a few dozen employees, the company generates tens of millions in revenue, has one of the most popular sites on the Internet, and disrupted the entire newspaper business. The Drudge Report, run by Matt Drudge, is just one simple page on the Web run by one guy. Yet it’s had a huge impact on the news industry–television producers, radio talk show hosts and newspaper reporters routinely view it as the go-to place for new stories.
If you’re going to do something, do something that matters. These little guys came
out of nowhere and destroyed old models that had been around for decades. You can do
the same in your industry.
Scratch your own itch
The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to
make something you want to use. That lets you design what you know–and you’ll figure
out immediately whether or not what you’re making is any good.
At 37signals, we build products we need to run our own business. For example,
we wanted a way to keep track of whom we talked to, what we said, and when we need to
follow up next. So we created Highrise, our contact-management software. There was no
need for focus groups, market studies, or middlemen. We had the itch, so we scratched it.
When you build a product or service, you make the call on hundreds of tiny
decisions each day. If you’re solving someone else’s problem, you’re constantly stabbing
in the dark. When you solve your own problem, the light comes on. You know exactly
what the right answer is.
Inventor James Dyson scratched his own itch. While vacuuming his home, he
realized his bag vacuum cleaner was constantly losing suction power–dust kept clogging
the pores in the bag and blocking the airflow. It wasn’t someone else’s imaginary
problem; it was a real one that he experienced firsthand. So he decided to solve the
problem and came up with the world’s first cyclonic, bagless vacuum cleaner. *
Vic Firth came up with the idea of making a better drumstick while playing
timpani for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The sticks he could buy commercially didn’t
measure up to the job, so he began making and selling drumsticks from his basement at
home. Then one day he dropped a bunch of sticks on the floor and heard all the different
pitches. That’s when he began to match up sticks by moisture content, weight, density,
and pitch so they were identical pairs. The result became his product’s tag line: “the
perfect pair.” Today, Vic Firth’s factory turns out more than 85,000 drumsticks a day and
has a 62 percent share in the drumstick market.+
Track coach Bill Bowerman decided that his team needed better, lighter running
shoes. So he went out to his workshop and poured rubber into the family waffle iron.
That’s how Nike’s famous waffle sole was born.++
These people scratched their own itch and exposed a huge market of people who
needed exactly what they needed. That’s how you should do it too.
When you build what you need, you can also assess the quality of what you make
quickly and directly, instead of by proxy.
Mary Kay Wagner, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, knew her skin-care products
were great because she used them herself. She got them from a local cosmetologist who
sold homemade formulas to patients, relatives, and friends. When the cosmetologist
passed away, Wagner bought the formulas from the family. She didn’t need focus groups
or studies to know the products were good. She just had to look at her own skin.*
Best of all, this “solve your own problem” approach lets you fall in love with what
you’re making. You know the problem and the value of its solution intimately. There’s no
substitute for that. After all, you’ll (hopefully) be working on this for years to come.
Maybe even the rest of your life. It better be something you really care about.
Start making something
We all have that one friend who says, “I had the idea for eBay. If only I had acted
on it, I’d be a billionaire!” That logic is pathetic and delusional. Having the idea for eBay
has nothing to do with actually creating eBay. What you do is what matters, not what you
think or say or plan.
Think your idea’s that valuable? Then go try to sell it and see what you get for it.
Not much is probably the answer. Until you actually start making something, your
brilliant idea is just that, an idea. And everyone’s got one of those.
Stanley Kubrick gave this advice to aspiring filmmakers: “Get hold of a camera
and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.”* Kubrick knew that when you’re
new at something, you need to start creating. The most important thing is to begin. So get
a camera, hit Record, and start shooting.
Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The original pitch idea is such a small part of a
business that it’s almost negligible. The real question is how well you execute.
No time is no excuse
The most common excuse people give: “There’s not enough time.” They claim
they’d love to start a company, learn an instrument, market an invention, write a book, or
whatever, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Come on. There’s always enough time if you spend it right. And don’t think you
have to quit your day job, either. Hang onto it and start work on your project at night.
Instead of watching TV or playing World of Warcraft, work on your idea. Instead
of going to bed at ten, go to bed at eleven. We’re not talking about all-nighters or sixteenhour days–we’re talking about squeezing out a few extra hours a week. That’s enough
time to get something going.
Once you do that, you’ll learn whether your excitement and interest is real or just
a passing phase. If it doesn’t pan out, you just keep going to work every day like you’ve
been doing all along. You didn’t risk or lose anything, other than a bit of time, so it’s no
When you want something bad enough, you make the time–regardless of your
other obligations. The truth is most people just don’t want it bad enough. Then they
protect their ego with the excuse of time. Don’t let yourself off the hook with excuses. It’s
entirely your responsibility to make your dreams come true.
Besides, the perfect time never arrives. You’re always too young or old or busy or
broke or something else. If you constantly fret about timing things perfectly, they’ll never
Draw a line in the sand
As you get going, keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing. Great
businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service. You have to believe in
something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight
for. And then you need to show the world.
A strong stand is how you attract superfans. They point to you and defend you.
And they spread the word further, wider, and more passionately than any advertising
Strong opinions aren’t free. You’ll turn some people off. They’ll accuse you of
being arrogant and aloof. That’s life. For everyone who loves you, there will be others
who hate you. If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard
enough. (And you’re probably boring, too.)
Lots of people hate us because our products do less than the competition’s.
They’re insulted when we refuse to include their pet feature. But we’re just as proud of
what our products don’t do as we are of what they do.
We design them to be simple because we believe most software is too complex:
too many features, too many buttons, too much confusion. So we build software that’s the
opposite of that. If what we make isn’t right for everyone, that’s OK. We’re willing to lose
some customers if it means that others love our products intensely. That’s our line in the
When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument.
Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.
For example, Whole Foods stands for selling the highest quality natural and
organic products available. They don’t waste time deciding over and over again what’s
appropriate. No one asks, “Should we sell this product that has artificial flavors?” There’s
no debate. The answer is clear. That’s why you can’t buy a Coke or a Snickers there.
This belief means the food is more expensive at Whole Foods. Some haters even
call it Whole Paycheck and make fun of those who shop there. But so what? Whole
Foods is doing pretty damn well.
Another example is Vinnie’s Sub Shop, just down the street from our office in
Chicago. They put this homemade basil oil on subs that’s just perfect. You better show up
on time, though. Ask when they close and the woman behind the counter will respond,
“We close when the bread runs out.”
Really? “Yeah. We get our bread from the bakery down the street early in the
morning, when it’s the freshest. Once we run out (usually around two or three p.m.), we
close up shop. We could get more bread later in the day, but it’s not as good as the freshbaked bread in the morning. There’s no point in selling a few more sandwiches if the
bread isn’t good. A few bucks isn’t going to make up for selling food we can’t be proud
Wouldn’t you rather eat at a place like that instead of some generic sandwich
Mission statement impossible
There’s a world of difference between truly standing for something and having a
mission statement that says you stand for something. You know, those “providing the
best service” signs that are created just to be posted on a wall. The ones that sound phony
and disconnected from reality.
Imagine you’re standing in a rental-car office. The room’s cold. The carpet is
dirty. There’s no one at the counter. And then you see a tattered piece of paper with some
clip art at the top of it pinned to a bulletin board. It’s a mission statement:Our mission is
to fulfill the automotive and commercial truck rental, leasing, car sales and related needs
of our customers and, in doing so, exceed their expectations for service, quality and
value.We will strive to earn our customers’ long-term loyalty by working to deliver more
than promised, being honest and fair and “going the extra mile” to provide exceptional
personalized service that creates a pleasing business experience.We must motivate our
employees to provide exceptional service to our customers by supporting their
development, providing opportunities for personal growth and fairly compensating them
for their successes and achievements … *
And it drones on. And you’re sitting there reading this crap and wondering, “What
kind of idiot do they take me for?” The words on the paper are clearly disconnected from
the reality of the experience.
It’s like when you’re on hold and a recorded voice comes on telling you how much
the company values you as a customer. Really? Then maybe you should hire some more
support people so I don’t have to wait thirty minutes to get help.
Or just say nothing. But don’t give me an automated voice that’s telling me how
much you care about me. It’s a robot. I know the difference between genuine affection
and a robot that’s programmed to say nice things.
Standing for something isn’t just about writing it down. It’s about believing it and
Outside money is Plan Z
One of the first questions you’ll probably ask: Where’s the seed money going to
come from? Far too often, people think the answer is to raise money from outsiders. If
you’re building something like a factory or restaurant, then you may indeed need that
outside cash. But a lot of companies don’t need expensive infrastructure–especially these
We’re in a service economy now. Service businesses (e.g., consultants, software
companies, wedding planners, graphic designers, and hundreds of others) don’t require
much to get going. If you’re running a business like that, avoid outside funding.
In fact, no matter what kind of business you’re starting, take on as little outside
cash as you can. Spending other people’s money may sound great, but there’s a noose
attached. Here’s why:You give up control. When you turn to outsiders for funding, you
have to answer to them too. That’s fine at first, when everyone agrees. But what happens
down the road? Are you starting your own business to take orders from someone else?
Raise money and that’s what you’ll wind up doing. “Cashing out” begins to trump
building a quality business. Investors want their money back–and quickly (usually three
to five years). Long-term sustainability goes out the window when those involved only
want to cash out as soon as they can. Spending other people’s money is addictive.
There’s nothing easier than spending other people’s money. But then you run out and need
to go back for more. And every time you go back, they take more of your company. It’s
usually a bad deal. When you’re just beginning, you have no leverage. That’s a terrible
time to enter into any financial transaction. Customers move down the totem pole. You
wind up building what investors want instead of what customers want. Raising money is
incredibly distracting. Seeking funding is difficult and draining. It takes months of pitch
meetings, legal maneuvering, contracts, etc. That’s an enormous distraction when you
should really be focused on building something great.
It’s just not worth it. We hear over and over from business owners who have gone
down this road and regret it. They usually give a variation on the investment-hangover
story: First, you get that quick investment buzz. But then you start having meetings with
your investors and/or board of directors, and you’re like, “Oh man, what have I gotten
myself into?” Now someone else is calling the shots.
Before you stick your head in that noose, look for another way.
You need less than you think
Do you really need ten people or will two or three do for now?
Do you really need $500,000 or is $50,000 (or $5,000) enough for now?
Do you really need six months or can you make something in two?
Do you really need a big office or can you share office space (or work from
home) for a while?
Do you really need a warehouse or can you rent a small storage space (or use your
garage or basement) or outsource it completely?
Do you really need to buy advertising and hire a PR firm or are there other ways
to get noticed?
Do you really need to build a factory or can you hire someone else to manufacture
Do you really need an accountant or can you use Quicken and do it yourself?
Do you really need an IT department or can you outsource it?
Do you really need a full-time support person or can you handle inquiries on your
Do you really need to open a retail store or can you sell your product online?
Do you really need fancy business cards, letterhead, and brochures or can you
forego that stuff?
You get the point. Maybe eventually you’ll need to go the bigger, more expensive
route, but not right now.
There’s nothing wrong with being frugal. When we launched our first product, we
did it on the cheap. We didn’t get our own office; we shared space with another company.
We didn’t get a bank of servers; we had only one. We didn’t advertise; we promoted by
sharing our experiences online. We didn’t hire someone to answer customer e-mails; the
company founder answered them himself. And everything worked out just fine.
Great companies start in garages all the time. Yours can too.
Start a business, not a startup
Ah, the startup. It’s a special breed of company that gets a lot of attention
(especially in the tech world).
The start up is a magical place. It’s a place where expenses are someone else’s
problem. It’s a place where that pesky thing called revenue is never an issue. It’s a place
where you can spend other people’s money until you figure out a way to make your own.
It’s a place where the laws of business physics don’t apply.
The problem with this magical place is it’s a fairy tale. The truth is every business,
new or old, is governed by the same set of market forces and economic rules. Revenue in,
expenses out. Turn a profit or wind up gone.
Startups try to ignore this reality. They are run by people trying to postpone the
inevitable, i.e., that moment when their business has to grow up, turn a profit, and be a
real, sustainable business.
Anyone who takes a “we’ll figure out how to profit in the future” attitude to
business is being ridiculous. That’s like building a rocket ship but starting off by saying,
“Let’s pretend gravity doesn’t exist.” A business without a path to profit isn’t a business,
it’s a hobby.
So don’t use the idea of a startup as a crutch. Instead, start an actual business.
Actual businesses have to deal with actual things like bills and payroll. Actual businesses
worry about profit from day one. Actual businesses don’t mask deep problems by saying,
“It’s OK, we’re a startup.” Act like an actual business and you’ll have a much better shot
Building to flip is building to flop
Another thing you hear a lot: “What’s your exit strategy?” You hear it even when
you’re just beginning. What is it with people who can’t even start building something
without knowing how they’re going to leave it? What’s the hurry? Your priorities are out
of whack if you’re thinking about getting out before you even dive in.
Would you go into a relationship planning the breakup? Would you write the
prenup on a first date? Would you meet with a divorce lawyer the morning of your
wedding? That would be ridiculous, right?
You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy. You should be thinking
about how to make your project grow and succeed, not how you’re going to jump ship. If
your whole strategy is based on leaving, chances are you won’t get far in the first place.
You see so many aspiring businesspeople pinning their hopes on selling out. But
the odds of getting acquired are so tiny. There’s only a slim chance that some big suitor
will come along and make it all worthwhile. Maybe 1 in 1,000? Or 1 in 10,000?
Plus, when you build a company with the intention of being acquired, you
emphasize the wrong things. Instead of focusing on getting customers to love you, you
worry about who’s going to buy you. That’s the wrong thing to obsess over.
And let’s say you ignore this advice and do pull off a flip. You build your
business, sell it, and get a nice payday. Then what? Move to an island and sip pina
coladas all day? Will that really satisfy you? Will money alone truly make you happy?
Are you sure you’ll like that more than running a business you actually enjoy and believe
That’s why you often hear about business owners who sell out, retire for six
months, and then get back in the game. They miss the thing they gave away. And usually,
they’re back with a business that isn’t nearly as good as their first.
Don’t be that guy. If you do manage to get a good thing going, keep it going.
Good things don’t come around that often. Don’t let your business be the one that got
Embrace the idea of having less mass. Right now, you’re the smallest, the leanest,
and the fastest you’ll ever be. From here on out, you’ll start accumulating mass. And the
more massive an object, the more energy required to change its direction. It’s as true in
the business world as it is in the physical world. Mass is increased by …
Inventory (physical or mental)
Hardware, software, and technology lock-ins
Long-term road maps
Avoid these things whenever you can. That way, you’ll be able to change
direction easily. The more expensive it is to make a change, the less likely you are to
Huge organizations can take years to pivot. They talk instead of act. They meet
instead of do. But if you keep your mass low, you can quickly change anything: your
entire business model, product, feature set, and/or marketing message. You can make
mistakes and fix them quickly. You can change your priorities, product mix, or focus.
And most important, you can change your mind.*Jim Rutenberg, “Clinton Finds Way to
Play Along with Drudge,” New York Times, Oct. 22, 2007. *”Fascinating Facts About
James Dyson, Inventor of the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner in 1978,”
http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/dyson.htm+Russ Mitchell, “The Beat Goes On,”
CBS News, Sunday Morning, Mar. 29, 2009, http://www.tinyurl.com/cd8gjq++Eric Ransdell,
“The Nike Story? Just Tell It!” Fast Company, Dec. 19, 2007,
http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/31/nike.html“Mary Kay Ash: Mary Kay Cosmetics,” Journal of Business Leadership 1, no. 1 (Spring 1988); American National Business Hall of Fame, http://www.anbhf.org/laureates/mkash.html“Stanley Kubrick–Biography,” IMDB,
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm00004o/bio*Mission, Enterprise Rent-a-Car,
“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a
good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make
do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.
Ever seen the weapons prisoners make out of soap or a spoon? They make do
with what they’ve got. Now we’re not saying you should go out and shank somebody–but
get creative and you’ll be amazed at what you can make with just a little.
Writers use constraints to force creativity all the time. Shakespeare reveled in the
limitations of sonnets (fourteen-line lyric poems in iambic pentameter with a specific
rhyme scheme). Haiku and limericks also have strict rules that lead to creative results.
Writers like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver found that forcing themselves to
use simple, clear language helped them deliver maximum impact.
The Price Is Right, the longest-running game show in history, is also a great
example of creativity born from embracing constraints. The show has more than a
hundred games, and each one is based on the question “How much does this item cost?”
That simple formula has attracted fans for more than thirty years.
Southwest–unlike most other airlines, which fly multiple aircraft models–flies
only Boeing 737s. As a result, every Southwest pilot, flight attendant, and ground-crew
member can work any flight. Plus, all of Southwest’s parts fit all of its planes. All that
means lower costs and a business that’s easier to run. They made it easy on themselves.
When we were building Basecamp, we had plenty of limitations. We had a design
firm to run with existing client work, a seven-hour time difference between principals
(David was doing the programming in Denmark, the rest of us were in the States), a small
team, and no outside funding. These constraints forced us to keep the product simple.
These days, we have more resources and people, but we still force constraints. We
make sure to have only one or two people working on a product at a time. And we always
keep features to a minimum. Boxing ourselves in this way prevents us from creating
So before you sing the “not enough” blues, see how far you can get with what you
Build half a product, not a half-assed product
You can turn a bunch of great ideas into a crappy product real fast by trying to do
them all at once. You just can’t do everything you want to do and do it well. You have
limited time, resources, ability, and focus. It’s hard enough to do one thing right. Trying
to do ten things well at the same time? Forget about it.
So sacrifice some of your darlings for the greater good. Cut your ambition in half.
You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.
Most of your great ideas won’t seem all that great once you get some perspective,
anyway. And if they truly are that fantastic, you can always do them later.
Lots of things get better as they get shorter. Directors cut good scenes to make a
great movie. Musicians drop good tracks to make a great album. Writers eliminate good
pages to make a great book. We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final
drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.
So start chopping. Getting to great starts by cutting out stuff that’s merely good.
Start at the epicenter
When you start anything new, there are forces pulling you in a variety of
directions. There’s the stuff you could do, the stuff you want to do, and the stuff you have
to do. The stuff you have to do is where you should begin. Start at the epicenter.
For example, if you’re opening a hot dog stand, you could worry about the
condiments, the cart, the name, the decoration. But the first thing you should worry about
is the hot dog. The hot dogs are the epicenter. Everything else is secondary.
The way to find the epicenter is to ask yourself this question: “If I took this away,
would what I’m selling still exist?” A hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without the hot
dogs. You can take away the onions, the relish, the mustard, etc. Some people may not
like your toppings-less dogs, but you’d still have a hot dog stand. But you simply cannot
have a hot dog stand without any hot dogs.
So figure out your epicenter. Which part of your equation can’t be removed? If
you can continue to get by without this thing or that thing, then those things aren’t the
epicenter. When you find it, you’ll know. Then focus all your energy on making it the
best it can be. Everything else you do depends on that foundation.
Ignore the details early on
Architects don’t worry about which tiles go in the shower or which brand of
dishwasher to install in the kitchen until after the floor plan is finalized. They know it’s
better to decide these details later.
You need to approach your idea the same way. Details make the difference. But
getting infatuated with details too early leads to disagreement, meetings, and delays. You
get lost in things that don’t really matter. You waste time on decisions that are going to
change anyway. So ignore the details–for a while. Nail the basics first and worry about
the specifics later.
When we start designing something, we sketch out ideas with a big, thick Sharpie
marker, instead of a ballpoint pen. Why? Pen points are too fine. They’re too highresolution. They encourage you to worry about things that you shouldn’t worry about yet,
like perfecting the shading or whether to use a dotted or dashed line. You end up focusing
on things that should still be out of focus.
A Sharpie makes it impossible to drill down that deep. You can only draw shapes,
lines, and boxes. That’s good. The big picture is all you should be worrying about in the
Walt Stanchfield, famed drawing instructor for Walt Disney Studios, used to
encourage animators to “forget the detail” at first. The reason: Detail just doesn’t buy you
anything in the early stages.*
Besides, you often can’t recognize the details that matter most until after you start
building. That’s when you see what needs more attention. You feel what’s missing. And
that’s when you need to pay attention, not sooner.
Making the call is making progress
When you put off decisions, they pile up. And piles end up ignored, dealt with in
haste, or thrown out. As a result, the individual problems in those piles stay unresolved.
Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to
making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
You want to get into the rhythm of making choices. When you get in that flow of
making decision after decision, you build momentum and boost morale. Decisions are
progress. Each one you make is a brick in your foundation. You can’t build on top of
“We’ll decide later,” but you can build on top of “Done.”
The problem comes when you postpone decisions in the hope that a perfect
answer will come to you later. It won’t. You’re as likely to make a great call today as you
An example from our world: For a long time, we avoided creating an affiliate
program for our products because the “perfect” solution seemed way too complicated:
We’d have to automate payments, mail out checks, figure out foreign tax laws for
overseas affiliates, etc. The breakthrough came when we asked, “What can we easily do
right now that’s good enough?” The answer: Pay affiliates in credit instead of cash. So
that’s what we did.
We stuck with that approach for a while and then eventually implemented a
system that pays cash. And that’s a big part of this: You don’t have to live with a decision
forever. If you make a mistake, you can correct it later.
It doesn’t matter how much you plan, you’ll still get some stuff wrong anyway.
Don’t make things worse by overanalyzing and delaying before you even get going.
Long projects zap morale. The longer it takes to develop, the less likely it is to
launch. Make the call, make progress, and get something out now–while you’ve got the
motivation and momentum to do so.
Be a curator
You don’t make a great museum by putting all the art in the world into a single
room. That’s a warehouse. What makes a museum great is the stuff that’s not on the walls.
Someone says no. A curator is involved, making conscious decisions about what should
stay and what should go. There’s an editing process. There’s a lot more stuff off the walls
than on the walls. The best is a sub-sub-subset of all the possibilities.
It’s the stuff you leave out that matters. So constantly look for things to remove,
simplify, and streamline. Be a curator. Stick to what’s truly essential. Pare things down
until you’re left with only the most important stuff. Then do it again. You can always add
stuff back in later if you need to.
Zingerman’s is one of America’s best-known delis. And it got that way because its
owners think of themselves as curators. They’re not just filling their shelves. They’re
There’s a reason for every olive oil the team at Zingerman’s sells: They believe
each one is great. Usually, they’ve known the supplier for years. They’ve visited and
picked olives with them. That’s why they can vouch for each oil’s authentic, full-bodied
For example, look how the owner of Zingerman’s describes Pasolivo Olive Oil on
the company Web site:I tasted this oil for the first time years ago, on a random
recommendation and sample. There are plenty of oils that come in nice bottles with very
endearing stories to tell–this was no exception–but most simply aren’t that great. By
contrast Pasolivo got my attention as soon as I tasted it. It’s powerful, full and fruity.
Everything I like in an oil, without any drawbacks. It still stands as one of America’s best
oils, on par with the great rustic oils of Tuscany. Strongly recommended.*
The owner actually tried the oil and chooses to carry it based on its taste. It’s not
about packaging, marketing, or price. It’s about quality. He tried it and knew his store had
to carry it. That’s the approach you should take too.
Throw less at the problem
Watch chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and you’ll see a pattern. The
menus at failing restaurants offer too many dishes. The owners think making every dish
under the sun will broaden the appeal of the restaurant. Instead it makes for crappy food
(and creates inventory headaches).
That’s why Ramsay’s first step is nearly always to trim the menu, usually from
thirty-plus dishes to around ten. Think about that. Improving the current menu doesn’t
come first. Trimming it down comes first. Then he polishes what’s left.
When things aren’t working, the natural inclination is to throw more at the
problem. More people, time, and money. All that ends up doing is making the problem
bigger. The right way to go is the opposite direction: Cut back.
So do less. Your project won’t suffer nearly as much as you fear. In fact, there’s a
good chance it’ll end up even better. You’ll be forced to make tough calls and sort out
what truly matters.
If you start pushing back deadlines and increasing your budget, you’ll never stop.
Focus on what won’t change
A lot of companies focus on the next big thing. They latch on to what’s hot and
new. They follow the latest trends and technology.
That’s a fool’s path. You start focusing on fashion instead of substance. You start
paying attention to things that are constantly changing instead of things that last.
The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things
that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you
should invest in.
Amazon.com focuses on fast (or free) shipping, great selection, friendly return
policies, and affordable prices. These things will always be in high demand.
Japanese automakers also focus on core principles that don’t change: reliability,
affordability, and practicality. People wanted those things thirty years ago, they want
them today, and they’ll want them thirty years from now.
For 37signals, things like speed, simplicity, ease of use, and clarity are our focus.
Those are timeless desires. People aren’t going to wake up in ten years and say, “Man, I
wish software was harder to use.” They won’t say, “I wish this application was slower.”
Remember, fashion fades away. When you focus on permanent features, you’re in
bed with things that never go out of style.
Tone is in your fingers
Guitar gurus say, “Tone is in your fingers.” You can buy the same guitar, effects
pedals, and amplifier that Eddie Van Halen uses. But when you play that rig, it’s still
going to sound like you.
Likewise, Eddie could plug into a crappy Strat/Pignose setup at a pawn shop, and
you’d still be able to recognize that it’s Eddie Van Halen playing. Fancy gear can help,
but the truth is your tone comes from you.
It’s tempting for people to obsess over tools instead of what they’re going to do
with those tools. You know the type: Designers who use an avalanche of funky typefaces
and fancy Photoshop filters but don’t have anything to say. Amateur photographers who
want to debate film versus digital endlessly instead of focusing on what actually makes a
Many amateur golfers think they need expensive clubs. But it’s the swing that
matters, not the club. Give Tiger Woods a set of cheap clubs and he’ll still destroy you.
People use equipment as a crutch. They don’t want to put in the hours on the
driving range so they spend a ton in the pro shop. They’re looking for a shortcut. But you
just don’t need the best gear in the world to be good. And you definitely don’t need it to
In business, too many people obsess over tools, software tricks, scaling issues,
fancy office space, lavish furniture, and other frivolities instead of what really matters.
And what really matters is how to actually get customers and make money.
You also see it in people who want to blog, podcast, or shoot videos for their
business but get hung up on which tools to use. The content is what matters. You can
spend tons on fancy equipment, but if you’ve got nothing to say … well, you’ve got
nothing to say.
Use whatever you’ve got already or can afford cheaply. Then go. It’s not the gear
that matters. It’s playing what you’ve got as well as you can. Your tone is in your fingers.
Sell your by-products
When you make something, you always make something else. You can’t make
just one thing. Everything has a by-product. Observant and creative business minds spot
these by-products and see opportunities.
The lumber industry sells what used to be waste–sawdust, chips, and shredded
wood–for a pretty profit. You’ll find these by-products in synthetic fireplace logs,
concrete, ice strengtheners, mulch, particleboard, fuel, and more.
But you’re probably not manufacturing anything. That can make it tough to spot
your by-products. People at a lumber company see their waste. They can’t ignore
sawdust. But you don’t see yours. Maybe you don’t even think you produce any byproducts. But that’s myopic.
Our last book, Getting Real, was a by-product. We wrote that book without even
knowing it. The experience that came from building a company and building software
was the waste from actually doing the work. We swept up that knowledge first into blog
posts, then into a workshop series, then into a .pdf, and then into a paperback. That byproduct has made 37signals more than $1 million directly and probably more than
another $1 million indirectly. The book you’re reading right now is a by-product too.
The rock band Wilco found a valuable by-product in its recording process. The
band filmed the creation of an album and released it as a documentary called I Am Trying
to Break Your Heart. It offered an uncensored and fascinating look at the group’s creative
process and infighting. The band made money off the movie and also used it as a
stepping-stone toward reaching a wider audience.
Henry Ford learned of a process for turning wood scraps from the production of
Model T’s into charcoal briquets. He built a charcoal plant and Ford Charcoal was created
(later renamed Kingsford Charcoal). Today, Kingsford is still the leading manufacturer of
charcoal in America.*
Software companies don’t usually think about writing books. Bands don’t usually
think about filming the recording process. Car manufacturers don’t usually think about
selling charcoal. There’s probably something you haven’t thought about that you could
When is your product or service finished? When should you put it out on the
market? When is it safe to let people have it? Probably a lot sooner than you’re
comfortable with. Once your product does what it needs to do, get it out there.
Just because you’ve still got a list of things to do doesn’t mean it’s not done. Don’t
hold everything else up because of a few leftovers. You can do them later. And doing
them later may mean doing them better, too.
Think about it this way: If you had to launch your business in two weeks, what
would you cut out? Funny how a question like that forces you to focus. You suddenly
realize there’s a lot of stuff you don’t need. And what you do need seems obvious. When
you impose a deadline, you gain clarity. It’s the best way to get to that gut instinct that
tells you, “We don’t need this.”
Put off anything you don’t need for launch. Build the necessities now, worry about
the luxuries later. If you really think about it, there’s a whole lot you don’t need on day
When we launched Basecamp, we didn’t even have the ability to bill customers!
Because the product billed in monthly cycles, we knew we had a thirty-day gap to figure
it out. So we used the time before launch to solve more urgent problems that actually
mattered on day one. Day 30 could wait.
Camper, a brand of shoes, opened a store in San Francisco before construction
was even finished and called it a Walk in Progress. Customers could draw on the walls of
the empty store. Camper displayed shoes on cheap plywood laid over dozens of shoe
boxes. The most popular message written by customers on the walls: “Keep the store just
the way it is.”*
Likewise, the founders of Crate and Barrel didn’t wait to build fancy displays
when they opened their first store. They turned over the crates and barrels that the
merchandise came in and stacked products on top of them.+
Don’t mistake this approach for skimping on quality, either. You still want to
make something great. This approach just recognizes that the best way to get there is
through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.*Walt
Stanchfield, Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes, vol. 1, The Walt
Stanchfield Lectures, Oxford, UK: Focal Press, 2009. *Pasolivo Olive Oil, Zingerman’s,
http://www.zingermans.com/product.aspx?productid=o-psl“About Kingsford: Simply a Matter of Taste,” Kingsford, http://www.kingsford.com/about/index.htmFara Warner, “Walk in
Progress,” Fast Company, Dec. 19, 2007,
http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/58/lookfeel.html+Matt Valley, “The Crate and Barrel
Story,” Retail Traffic, June 1, 2001, retailtrafficmag.com/mag/retail_crate_barrel_story
Illusions of agreement
The business world is littered with dead documents that do nothing but waste
people’s time. Reports no one reads, diagrams no one looks at, and specs that never
resemble the finished product. These things take forever to make but only seconds to
If you need to explain something, try getting real with it. Instead of describing
what something looks like, draw it. Instead of explaining what something sounds like,
hum it. Do everything you can to remove layers of abstraction.
The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create
illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads,
they’re imagining a hundred different things.
That’s why you want to get to something real right away. That’s when you get true
understanding. It’s like when we read about characters in a book–we each picture them
differently in our heads. But when we actually see people, we all know exactly what they
When the team at Alaska Airlines wanted to build a new Airport of the Future,
they didn’t rely on blueprints and sketches. They got a warehouse and built mock-ups
using cardboard boxes for podiums, kiosks, and belts. The team then built a small
prototype in Anchorage to test systems with real passengers and employees. The design
that resulted from this getting-real process has significantly reduced wait times and
increased agent productivity.*
Widely admired furniture craftsman Sam Maloof felt it was impossible to make a
working drawing to show all the intricate and fine details that go into a chair or stool.
“Many times I do not know how a certain area is to be done until I start working with a
chisel, rasp, or whatever tool is needed for that particular job,” he said.+
That’s the path we all should take. Get the chisel out and start making something
real. Anything else is just a distraction.
Reasons to quit
It’s easy to put your head down and just work on what you think needs to be done.
It’s a lot harder to pull your head up and ask why. Here are some important questions to
ask yourself to ensure you’re doing work that matters: Why are you doing this? Ever
find yourself working on something without knowing exactly why? Someone just told
you to do it. It’s pretty common, actually. That’s why it’s important to ask why
you’reworking on______. What is this for? Who benefits? What’s the motivation behind
it? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you better understand the work
itself. What problem are you solving? What’s the problem? Are customers confused?
Are you confused? Is something not clear enough? Was something not possible before
that should be possible now? Sometimes when you ask these questions, you’ll find you’re
solving an imaginary problem. That’s when it’s time to stop and reevaluate what the hell
you’re doing. Is this actually useful? Are you making something useful or just making
something? It’s easy to confuse enthusiasm with usefulness. Sometimes it’s fine to play a
bit and build something cool. But eventually you’ve got to stop and ask yourself if it’s
useful, too. Cool wears off. Useful never does. Are you adding value? Adding
something is easy; adding value is hard. Is this thing you’re working on actually making
your product more valuable for customers? Can they get more out of it than they did
before? Sometimes things you think are adding value actually subtract from it. Too much
ketchup can ruin the fries. Value is about balance. Will this change behavior? Is what
you’re working on really going to change anything? Don’t add something unless it has a
real impact on how people use your product. Is there an easier way? Whenever you’re
working on something, ask, “Is there an easier way?” You’ll often find this easy way is
more than good enough for now. Problems are usually pretty simple. We just imagine
that they require hard solutions. What could you be doing instead? What can’t you do
because you’re doing this? This is especially important for small teams with constrained
resources. That’s when prioritization is even more important. If you work on A, can you
still do B and C before April? If not, would you rather have B and C instead of A? If
you’re stuck on something for a long period of time, that means there are other things
you’re not getting done. Is it really worth it? Is what you’re doing really worth it? Is this
meeting worth pulling six people off their work for an hour? Is it worth pulling an allnighter tonight, or could you just finish it up tomorrow? Is it worth getting all stressed out
over a press release from a competitor? Is it worth spending your money on advertising?
Determine the real value of what you’re about to do before taking the plunge.
Keep asking yourself (and others) the questions listed above. You don’t need to
make it a formal process, but don’t let it slide, either.
Also, don’t be timid about your conclusions. Sometimes abandoning what you’re
working on is the right move, even if you’ve already put in a lot of effort. Don’t throw
good time after bad work.
Interruption is the enemy
If you’re constantly staying late and working weekends, it’s not because there’s too
much work to be done. It’s because you’re not getting enough done at work. And the
reason is interruptions.
Think about it: When do you get most of your work done? If you’re like most
people, it’s at night or early in the morning. It’s no coincidence that these are the times
when nobody else is around.
At 2 p.m., people are usually in a meeting or answering e-mail or chatting with
colleagues. Those taps on the shoulder and little impromptu get-togethers may seem
harmless, but they’re actually corrosive to productivity. Interruption is not collaboration,
it’s just interruption. And when you’re interrupted, you’re not getting work done.
Interruptions break your workday into a series of work moments. Forty-five
minutes and then you have a call. Fifteen minutes and then you have lunch. An hour later,
you have an afternoon meeting. Before you know it, it’s five o’clock, and you’ve only had
a couple uninterrupted hours to get your work done. You can’t get meaningful things
done when you’re constantly going start, stop, start, stop.
Instead, you should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when
you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you
get a boatload done. (Ever notice how much work you get done on a plane since you’re
offline and there are zero outside distractions?)
Getting into that zone takes time and requires avoiding interruptions. It’s like
REM sleep: You don’t just go directly into REM sleep. You go to sleep first and then
make your way to REM. Any interruptions force you to start over. And just as REM is
when the real sleep magic happens, the alone zone is where the real productivity magic
Your alone zone doesn’t have to be in the wee hours, though. You can set up a
rule at work that half the day is set aside for alone time. Decree that from 10 a.m. to 2
p.m., people can’t talk to each other (except during lunch). Or make the first or last half of
the day your alone-time period. Or instead of casual Fridays, try no-talk Thursdays. Just
make sure this period is unbroken in order to avoid productivity-zapping interruptions.
And go all the way with it. A successful alone-time period means letting go of
communication addiction. During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, email, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you
Also, when you do collaborate, try to use passive communication tools, like email, that don’t require an instant reply, instead of interruptive ones, like phone calls and
face-to-face meetings. That way people can respond when it’s convenient for them,
instead of being forced to drop everything right away.
Your day is under siege by interruptions. It’s on you to fight back.
Meetings are toxic
The worst interruptions of all are meetings. Here’s why:
They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things.
They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.
They drift off-subject easier than a Chicago cab in a snowstorm.
They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.
They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.
They often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste
everyone’s time with nonsense.
Meetings procreate. One meeting leads to another meeting leads to another …
It’s also unfortunate that meetings are typically scheduled like TV shows. You set
aside thirty minutes or an hour because that’s how scheduling software works (you’ll
never see anyone schedule a seven-minute meeting with Outlook). Too bad. If it only
takes seven minutes to accomplish a meeting’s goal, then that’s all the time you should
spend. Don’t stretch seven into thirty.
When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering. Let’s say you’re
going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend.
That’s actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. You’re trading ten hours of
productivity for one hour of meeting time. And it’s probably more like fifteen hours,
because there are mental switching costs that come with stopping what you’re doing,
going somewhere else to meet, and then resuming what you were doing beforehand.
Is it ever OK to trade ten or fifteen hours of productivity for one hour of meeting?
Sometimes, maybe. But that’s a pretty hefty price to pay. Judged on a pure cost basis,
meetings of this size quickly become liabilities, not assets. Think about the time you’re
actually losing and ask yourself if it’s really worth it.
If you decide you absolutely must get together, try to make your meeting a
productive one by sticking to these simple rules:
Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
Invite as few people as possible.
Always have a clear agenda.
Begin with a specific problem.
Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things
and suggest real changes.
End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.
Good enough is fine
A lot of people get off on solving problems with complicated solutions. Flexing
your intellectual muscles can be intoxicating. Then you start looking for another big
challenge that gives you that same rush, regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not.
A better idea: Find a judo solution, one that delivers maximum efficiency with
minimum effort. Judo solutions are all about getting the most out of doing the least.
Whenever you face an obstacle, look for a way to judo it.
Part of this is recognizing that problems are negotiable. Let’s say your challenge is
to get a bird’s-eye view. One way to do it is to climb Mount Everest. That’s the ambitious
solution. But then again, you could take an elevator to the top of a tall building. That’s a
Problems can usually be solved with simple, mundane solutions. That means
there’s no glamorous work. You don’t get to show off your amazing skills. You just build
something that gets the job done and then move on. This approach may not earn you oohs
and aahs, but it lets you get on with it.
Look at political campaign ads. A big issue pops up, and politicians have an ad
about it on the air the next day. The production quality is low. They use photos instead of
live footage. They have static, plain-text headlines instead of fancy animated graphics.
The only audio is a voice-over done by an unseen narrator. Despite all that, the ad is still
good enough. If they waited weeks to perfect it, it would come out too late. It’s a situation
where timeliness is more important than polish or even quality.
When good enough gets the job done, go for it. It’s way better than wasting
resources or, even worse, doing nothing because you can’t afford the complex solution.
And remember, you can usually turn good enough into great later.
Momentum fuels motivation. It keeps you going. It drives you. Without it, you
can’t go anywhere. If you aren’t motivated by what you’re working on, it won’t be very
The way you build momentum is by getting something done and then moving on
to the next thing. No one likes to be stuck on an endless project with no finish line in
sight. Being in the trenches for nine months and not having anything to show for it is a
real buzzkill. Eventually it just burns you out. To keep your momentum and motivation
up, get in the habit of accomplishing small victories along the way. Even a tiny
improvement can give you a good jolt of momentum.
The longer something takes, the less likely it is that you’re going to finish it.
Excitement comes from doing something and then letting customers have at it.
Planning a menu for a year is boring. Getting the new menu out, serving the food, and
getting feedback is exciting. So don’t wait too long–you’ll smother your sparks if you do.
If you absolutely have to work on long-term projects, try to dedicate one day a
week (or every two weeks) to small victories that generate enthusiasm. Small victories let
you celebrate and release good news. And you want a steady stream of good news. When
there’s something new to announce every two weeks, you energize your team and give
your customers something to be excited about.
So ask yourself, “What can we do in two weeks?” And then do it. Get it out there
and let people use it, taste it, play it, or whatever. The quicker it’s in the hands of
customers, the better off you’ll be.
Don’t be a hero
A lot of times it’s better to be a quitter than a hero.
For example, let’s say you think a task can be done in two hours. But four hours
into it, you’re still only a quarter of the way done. The natural instinct is to think, “But I
can’t give up now, I’ve already spent four hours on this!”
So you go into hero mode. You’re determined to make it work (and slightly
embarrassed that it isn’t already working). You grab your cape and shut yourself off from
And sometimes that kind of sheer effort overload works. But is it worth it?
Probably not. The task was worth it when you thought it would cost two hours, not
sixteen. In those sixteen hours, you could have gotten a bunch of other things done. Plus,
you cut yourself off from feedback, which can lead you even further down the wrong
path. Even heroes need a fresh pair of eyes sometimes–someone else to give them a
We’ve experienced this problem firsthand. So we decided that if anything takes
one of us longer than two weeks, we’ve got to bring other people in to take a look. They
might not do any work on the task, but at least they can review it quickly and give their
two cents. Sometimes an obvious solution is staring you right in the face, but you can’t
even see it.
Keep in mind that the obvious solution might very well be quitting. People
automatically associate quitting with failure, but sometimes that’s exactly what you
should do. If you already spent too much time on something that wasn’t worth it, walk
away. You can’t get that time back. The worst thing you can do now is waste even more
Go to sleep
Forgoing sleep is a bad idea. Sure, you get those extra hours right now, but you
pay in spades later: You destroy your creativity, morale, and attitude.
Once in a while, you can pull an all-nighter if you fully understand the
consequences. Just don’t make it a habit. If it becomes a constant, the costs start to
mount:Stubbornness: When you’re really tired, it always seems easier to plow down
whatever bad path you happen to be on instead of reconsidering the route. The finish line
is a constant mirage and you wind up walking in the desert way too long. Lack of
creativity: Creativity is one of the first things to go when you lose sleep. What
distinguishes people who are ten times more effective than the norm is not that they work
ten times as hard; it’s that they use their creativity to come up with solutions that require
one-tenth of the effort. Without sleep, you stop coming up with those one-tenth solutions.
Diminished morale: When your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, it loves to feed on less
demanding tasks. Like reading yet another article about stuff that doesn’t matter. When
you’re tired, you lose motivation to attack the big problems. Irritability: Your ability to
remain patient and tolerant is severely reduced when you’re tired. If you encounter
someone who’s acting like a fool, there’s a good chance that person is suffering from
These are just some of the costs you incur when not getting enough sleep. Yet
some people still develop a masochistic sense of honor about sleep deprivation. They
even brag about how tired they are. Don’t be impressed. It’ll come back to bite them in the
Your estimates suck
We’re all terrible estimators. We think we can guess how long something will
take, when we really have no idea. We see everything going according to a best-case
scenario, without the delays that inevitably pop up. Reality never sticks to best-case
That’s why estimates that stretch weeks, months, and years into the future are
fantasies. The truth is you just don’t know what’s going to happen that far in advance.
How often do you think a quick trip to the grocery store will take only a few
minutes and then it winds up taking an hour? And remember when cleaning out the attic
took you all day instead of just the couple of hours you thought it would? Or sometimes
it’s the opposite, like that time you planned on spending four hours raking the yard only
to have it take just thirty-five minutes. We humans are just plain bad at estimating.
Even with these simple tasks, our estimates are often off by a factor of two or
more. If we can’t be accurate when estimating a few hours, how can we expect to
accurately predict the length of a “six-month project”?
Plus, we’re not just a little bit wrong when we guess how long something will
take–we’re a lot wrong. That means if you’re guessing six months, you might be way off:
We’re not talking seven months instead of six, we’re talking one year instead of six
That’s why Boston’s “Big Dig” highway project finished five years late and
billions over budget. Or the Denver International Airport opened sixteen months late, at a
cost overrun of $2 billion.
The solution: Break the big thing into smaller things. The smaller it is, the easier
it is to estimate. You’re probably still going to get it wrong, but you’ll be a lot less wrong
than if you estimated a big project. If something takes twice as long as you expected,
better to have it be a small project that’s a couple weeks over rather than a long one that’s
a couple months over.
Keep breaking your time frames down into smaller chunks. Instead of one twelveweek project, structure it as twelve one-week projects. Instead of guesstimating at tasks
that take thirty hours or more, break them down into more realistic six-to-ten-hour
chunks. Then go one step at a time.
Long lists don’t get done
Start making smaller to-do lists too. Long lists collect dust. When’s the last time
you finished a long list of things? You might have knocked off the first few, but chances
are you eventually abandoned it (or blindly checked off items that weren’t really done
Long lists are guilt trips. The longer the list of unfinished items, the worse you
feel about it. And at a certain point, you just stop looking at it because it makes you feel
bad. Then you stress out and the whole thing turns into a big mess.
There’s a better way. Break that long list down into a bunch of smaller lists. For
example, break a single list of a hundred items into ten lists of ten items. That means
when you finish an item on a list, you’ve completed 10 percent of that list, instead of 1
Yes, you still have the same amount of stuff left to do. But now you can look at
the small picture and find satisfaction, motivation, and progress. That’s a lot better than
staring at the huge picture and being terrified and demoralized.
Whenever you can, divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re
able to deal with them completely and quickly. Simply rearranging your tasks this way
can have an amazing impact on your productivity and motivation.
And a quick suggestion about prioritization: Don’t prioritize with numbers or
labels. Avoid saying, “This is high priority, this is low priority.” Likewise, don’t say,
“This is a three, this is a two, this is a one, this is a three,” etc. Do that and you’ll almost
always end up with a ton of really high-priority things. That’s not really prioritizing.
Instead, prioritize visually. Put the most important thing at the top. When you’re
done with that, the next thing on the list becomes the next most important thing. That way
you’ll only have a single next most important thing to do at a time. And that’s enough.
Make tiny decisions
Big decisions are hard to make and hard to change. And once you make one, the
tendency is to continue believing you made the right decision, even if you didn’t. You
stop being objective.
Once ego and pride are on the line, you can’t change your mind without looking
bad. The desire to save face trumps the desire to make the right call. And then there’s
inertia too: The more steam you put into going in one direction, the harder it is to change
Instead, make choices that are small enough that they’re effectively temporary.
When you make tiny decisions, you can’t make big mistakes. These small decisions mean
you can afford to change. There’s no big penalty if you mess up. You just fix it.
Making tiny decisions doesn’t mean you can’t make big plans or think big ideas. It
just means you believe the best way to achieve those big things is one tiny decision at a
Polar explorer Ben Saunders said that during his solo North Pole expedition
(thirty-one marathons back-to-back, seventy-two days alone) the “huge decision” was
often so horrifically overwhelming to contemplate that his day-to-day decision making
rarely extended beyond “getting to that bit of ice a few yards in front of me.”
Attainable goals like that are the best ones to have. Ones you can actually
accomplish and build on. You get to say, “We nailed it. Done!” Then you get going on
the next one. That’s a lot more satisfying than some pie-in-the-sky fantasy goal you never
meet.Dave Demerjian, “Hustle & Flow,” Fast Company, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/123/hustle-and-flow.html+”Maloof on Maloof: Quotations and Works of Sam Maloof,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/maloof/introduction CHAPTER COMPETITORS
Don’t copy Sometimes copying can be part of the learning process, like when you see an art student replicating a painting in a museum or a drummer playing along to John Bonham’s solo on Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick.” When you’re a student, this sort of imitation can be a helpful tool on the path to discovering your own voice. Unfortunately, copying in the business arena is usually more nefarious. Maybe it’s because of the copy-and-paste world we live in these days. You can steal someone’s words, images, or code instantly. And that means it’s tempting to try to build a business by being a copycat. That’s a formula for failure, though. The problem with this sort of copying is it skips understanding–and understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is the way it is. When you just copy and paste, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath. So much of the work an original creator puts into something is invisible. It’s buried beneath the surface. The copycat doesn’t really know why something looks the way it looks or feels the way it feels or reads the way it reads. The copy is a faux finish. It delivers no substance, no understanding, and nothing to base future decisions on. Plus, if you’re a copycat, you can never keep up. You’re always in a passive position. You never lead; you always follow. You give birth to something that’s already behind the times–just a knockoff, an inferior version of the original. That’s no way to live. How do you know if you’re copying someone? If someone else is doing the bulk of the work, you’re copying. Be influenced, but don’t steal.
Decommoditize your product If you’re successful, people will try to copy what you do. It’s just a fact of life. But there’s a great way to protect yourself from copycats: Make you part of your product or service. Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell. Decommoditize your product. Make it something no one else can offer. Look at Zappos.com, a billion-dollar online shoe retailer. A pair of sneakers from Zappos is the same as a pair from Foot Locker or any other retailer. But Zappos sets itself apart by injecting CEO Tony Hsieh’s obsession with customer service into everything it does. At Zappos, customer-service employees don’t use scripts and are allowed to talk at length with customers. The call center and the company’s headquarters are in the same place, not oceans apart. And all Zappos employees–even those who don’t work in customer service or fulfillment–start out by spending four weeks answering phones and working in the warehouse. It’s this devotion to customer service that makes Zappos unique among shoe sellers.
Another example is Polyface, an environmentally friendly Virginia farm owned
by Joel Salatin. Salatin has a strong set of beliefs and runs his business accordingly.
Polyface sells the idea that it does things a bigger agribusiness can’t do. Even though it’s
more expensive to do so, it feeds cows grass instead of corn and never gives them
antibiotics. It never ships food. Anyone is welcome to visit the farm anytime and go
anywhere (try that at a typical meat-processing plant). Polyface doesn’t just sell chickens,
it sells a way of thinking. And customers love Polyface for it. Some customers routinely
drive from 150 miles away to get “clean” meat for their families.*
Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you
sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can
never copy the you in your product.
Pick a fight
If you think a competitor sucks, say so. When you do that, you’ll find that others
who agree with you will rally to your side. Being the anti-__ is a great way to
differentiate yourself and attract followers.
For example, Dunkin’ Donuts likes to position itself as the anti-Starbucks. Its ads
mock Starbucks for using “Fritalian” terms instead of small, medium, and large. Another
Dunkin’ campaign is centered on a taste test in which it beat Starbucks. There’s even a
site called DunkinBeatStarbucks.com where visitors can send e-cards with statements
like “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”
Audi is another example. It’s been taking on the old guard of car manufacturers. It
puts “old luxury” brands like Rolls-Royce and Mercedes “on notice” in ads touting Audi
as the fresh luxury alternative. Audi takes on Lexus’s automatic parking systems with ads
that say Audi drivers know how to park their own cars. Another ad gives a side-by-side
comparison of BMW and Audi owners: The BMW owner uses the rearview mirror to
adjust his hair while the Audi driver uses the mirror to see what’s behind him.
Apple jabs at Microsoft with ads that compare Mac and PC owners, and 7UP bills
itself as the Uncola. Under Armour positions itself as Nike for a new generation.
All these examples show the power and direction you can gain by having a target
in your sights. Who do you want to take a shot at?
You can even pit yourself as the opponent of an entire industry. Dyson’s Airblade
starts with the premise that the hand-dryer industry is a failure and then sells itself as
faster and more hygienic than the others. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter puts its enemy
right there in its product name.
Having an enemy gives you a great story to tell customers, too. Taking a stand
always stands out. People get stoked by conflict. They take sides. Passions are ignited.
And that’s a good way to get people to take notice.
Underdo your competition
Conventional wisdom says that to beat your competitors, you need to one-up
them. If they have four features, you need five (or fifteen, or twenty-five). If they’re
spending $20,000, you need to spend $30,000. If they have fifty employees, you need a
This sort of one-upping, Cold War mentality is a dead end. When you get
suckered into an arms race, you wind up in a never-ending battle that costs you massive
amounts of money, time, and drive. And it forces you to constantly be on the defensive,
too. Defensive companies can’t think ahead; they can only think behind. They don’t lead;
So what do you do instead? Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the
simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition. Instead
of one-upping, try one-downing. Instead of outdoing, try underdoing.
The bicycle world provides a great example. For years, major bicycle brands
focused on the latest in hightech equipment: mountain bikes with suspension and
ultrastrong disc brakes, or lightweight titanium road bikes with carbon-fiber everything.
And it was assumed that bikes should have multiple gears: three, ten, or twenty-one.
But recently, fixed-gear bicycles have boomed in popularity, despite being as
low-tech as you can get. These bikes have just one gear. Some models don’t have brakes.
The advantage: They’re simpler, lighter, cheaper, and don’t require as much maintenance.
Another great example of a product that is succeeding by underdoing the
competition: the Flip–an ultrasimple, point-and-shoot, compact camcorder that’s taken a
significant percentage of the market in a short time. Look at all the things the Flip does
No big screen (and the tiny screen doesn’t swing out for self-portraits either)
No photo-taking ability
No tapes or discs (you have to offload the videos to a computer)
No video light
No special effects
No headphone jack
No lens cap
No memory card
No optical zoom
The Flip wins fans because it only does a few simple things and it does them well.
It’s easy and fun to use. It goes places a bigger camera would never go and gets used by
people who would never use a fancier camera.
Don’t shy away from the fact that your product or service does less. Highlight it.
Be proud of it. Sell it as aggressively as competitors sell their extensive feature lists.
Who cares what they’re doing?
In the end, it’s not worth paying much attention to the competition anyway. Why
not? Because worrying about the competition quickly turns into an obsession. What are
they doing right now? Where are they going next? How should we react?
Every little move becomes something to be analyzed. And that’s a terrible mindset. It leads to overwhelming stress and anxiety. That state of mind is bad soil for
It’s a pointless exercise anyway. The competitive landscape changes all the time.
Your competitor tomorrow may be completely different from your competitor today. It’s
out of your control. What’s the point of worrying about things you can’t control?
Focus on yourself instead. What’s going on in here is way more important than
what’s going on out there. When you spend time worrying about someone else, you can’t
spend that time improving yourself.
Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision. Your
chances of coming up with something fresh go way down when you keep feeding your
brain other people’s ideas. You become reactionary instead of visionary. You wind up
offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint.
If you’re planning to build “the iPod killer” or “the next Pokemon,” you’re already
dead. You’re allowing the competition to set the parameters. You’re not going to outApple Apple. They’re defining the rules of the game. And you can’t beat someone who’s
making the rules. You need to redefine the rules, not just build something slightly better.
Don’t ask yourself whether you’re “beating” Apple (or whoever the big boy is in
your industry). That’s the wrong question to ask. It’s not a win-or-lose battle. Their profits
and costs are theirs. Yours are yours.
If you’re just going to be like everyone else, why are you even doing this? If you
merely replicate competitors, there’s no point to your existence. Even if you wind up
losing, it’s better to go down fighting for what you believe in instead of just imitating
others.“A Shine on Their Shoes,” Business Week, Dec. 5, 2005, http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_49/b3962118.htm“The Polyface Story,”
Say no by defaultIf I’d listened to customers,
I’d have given them a faster horse. –HENRY FORD
It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to another feature, yes to an overly optimistic deadline,
yes to a mediocre design. Soon, the stack of things you’ve said yes to grows so tall you
can’t even see the things you should really be doing.
Start getting into the habit of saying no–even to many of your best ideas. Use the
power of no to get your priorities straight. You rarely regret saying no. But you often
wind up regretting saying yes.
People avoid saying no because confrontation makes them uncomfortable. But the
alternative is even worse. You drag things out, make things complicated, and work on
ideas you don’t believe in.
It’s like a relationship: Breaking one up is hard to do, but staying in it just because
you’re too chicken to drop the ax is even worse. Deal with the brief discomfort of
confrontation up front and avoid the long-term regret.
Don’t believe that “customer is always right” stuff, either. Let’s say you’re a chef.
If enough of your customers say your food is too salty or too hot, you change it. But if a
few persnickety patrons tell you to add bananas to your lasagna, you’re going to turn
them down, and that’s OK. Making a few vocal customers happy isn’t worth it if it ruins
the product for everyone else.
ING Direct has built the fastest-growing bank in America by saying no. When
customers ask for a credit card, the answer is no. When they ask for an online brokerage,
the answer is no. When they ask if they can open an account with a million dollars in it,
the answer is no (the bank has a strict deposit maximum). ING wants to keep things
simple. That’s why the bank offers just a few savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and
mutual funds–and that’s it.
Don’t be a jerk about saying no, though. Just be honest. If you’re not willing to
yield to a customer request, be polite and explain why. People are surprisingly
understanding when you take the time to explain your point of view. You may even win
them over to your way of thinking. If not, recommend a competitor if you think there’s a
better solution out there. It’s better to have people be happy using someone else’s product
than disgruntled using yours.
Your goal is to make sure your product stays right for you. You’re the one who
has to believe in it most. That way, you can say, “I think you’ll love it because I love it.”
Let your customers outgrow you
Maybe you’ve seen this scenario: There’s a customer that’s paying a company a lot
of money. The company tries to please that customer in any way possible. It tweaks and
changes the product per this one customer’s requests and starts to alienate its general
Then one day that big customer winds up leaving and the company is left holding
the bag–and the bag is a product that’s ideally suited to someone who’s not there
anymore. And now it’s a bad fit for everyone else.
When you stick with your current customers come hell or high water, you wind
up cutting yourself off from new ones. Your product or service becomes so tailored to
your current customers that it stops appealing to fresh blood. And that’s how your
company starts to die.
After our first product had been around for a while, we started getting some heat
from folks who had been with us from the beginning. They said they were starting to
grow out of the application. Their businesses were changing and they wanted us to
change our product to mirror their newfound complexity and requirements.
We said no. Here’s why: We’d rather our customers grow out of our products
eventually than never be able to grow into them in the first place. Adding power-user
features to satisfy some can intimidate those who aren’t on board yet. Scaring away new
customers is worse than losing old customers.
When you let customers outgrow you, you’ll most likely wind up with a product
that’s basic–and that’s fine. Small, simple, basic needs are constant. There’s an endless
supply of customers who need exactly that.
And there are always more people who are not using your product than people
who are. Make sure you make it easy for these people to get on board. That’s where your
continued growth potential lies.
People and situations change. You can’t be everything to everyone. Companies
need to be true to a type of customer more than a specific individual customer with
Don’t confuse enthusiasm with priority
Coming up with a great idea gives you a rush. You start imagining the
possibilities and the benefits. And of course, you want all that right away. So you drop
everything else you’re working on and begin pursuing your latest, greatest idea.
Bad move. The enthusiasm you have for a new idea is not an accurate indicator of
its true worth. What seems like a sure-fire hit right now often gets downgraded to just a
“nice to have” by morning. And “nice to have” isn’t worth putting everything else on
We have ideas for new features all the time. On top of that, we get dozens of
interesting ideas from customers every day too. Sure, it’d be fun to immediately chase all
these ideas to see where they lead. But if we did that, we’d just wind up running on a
treadmill and never get anywhere.
So let your latest grand ideas cool off for a while first. By all means, have as
many great ideas as you can. Get excited about them. Just don’t act in the heat of the
moment. Write them down and park them for a few days. Then, evaluate their actual
priority with a calm mind.
Be at-home good
You know what it feels like. You go to a store. You’re comparing a few different
products, and you’re sold on the one that sounds like it’s the best deal. It’s got the most
features. It looks the coolest. The packaging looks hot. There’s sensational copy on the
box. Everything seems great.
But then you get it home, and it doesn’t deliver. It’s not as easy to use as you
thought it’d be. It has too many features you don’t need. You end up feeling that you’ve
been taken. You didn’t really get what you needed and you realize you spent too much.
You just bought an in-store-good product. That’s a product you’re more excited
about in the store than you are after you’ve actually used it.
Smart companies make the opposite: something that’s at-home good. When you
get the product home, you’re actually more impressed with it than you were at the store.
You live with it and grow to like it more and more. And you tell your friends, too.
When you create an at-home-good product, you may have to sacrifice a bit of instore sizzle. A product that executes on the basics beautifully may not seem as sexy as
competitors loaded with bells and whistles. Being great at a few things often doesn’t look
all that flashy from afar. That’s OK. You’re aiming for a long-term relationship, not a
This is as true for advertising as it is for in-store packaging or displays. We’ve all
seen a TV ad for some “revolutionary” gadget that will change your life. But when the
actual product arrives in the mail, it turns out to be a disappointment. In-media good isn’t
nearly as important as at-home good. You can’t paint over a bad experience with good
advertising or marketing.
Don’t write it down
How should you keep track of what customers want? Don’t. Listen, but then
forget what people said. Seriously.
There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that
really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to
forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll
show you which things you truly need to worry about.
If there’s a request that you keep forgetting, that’s a sign that it isn’t very
important. The really important stuff doesn’t go away.
No one knows who you are right now. And that’s just fine. Being obscure is a
great position to be in. Be happy you’re in the shadows.
Use this time to make mistakes without the whole world hearing about them.
Keep tweaking. Work out the kinks. Test random ideas. Try new things. No one knows
you, so it’s no big deal if you mess up. Obscurity helps protect your ego and preserve
Retailers experiment with test markets all the time for this reason. When Dunkin’
Donuts thought about selling pizza, hot dogs, and other hot sandwiches, it test-marketed
the products at just ten select locations.
Broadway shows also provide a great example of testing ideas on a small stage
first. They routinely do a trial run in a smaller city before coming to New York. Testing
out of town lets actors get some reps in front of a live audience before the show goes up
in front of harsher critics and tastemakers.
Would you want the whole world to watch you the first time you do anything? If
you’ve never given a speech before, do you want your first speech to be in front of ten
thousand people or ten people? You don’t want everyone to watch you starting your
business. It makes no sense to tell everyone to look at you if you’re not ready to be looked
And keep in mind that once you do get bigger and more popular, you’re inevitably
going to take fewer risks. When you’re a success, the pressure to maintain predictability
and consistency builds. You get more conservative. It’s harder to take risks. That’s when
things start to fossilize and change becomes difficult.
If millions of people are using your product, every change you make will have a
much bigger impact. Before, you might have upset a hundred people when you changed
something. Now you might upset thousands. You can reason with a hundred people, but
you need riot gear to deal with ten thousand angry customers.
These early days of obscurity are something you’ll miss later on, when you’re
really under the microscope. Now’s the time to take risks without worrying about
Build an audience
All companies have customers. Lucky companies have fans. But the most
fortunate companies have audiences. An audience can be your secret weapon.
A lot of businesses still spend big bucks to reach people. Every time they want to
say something, they dip into their budgets, pull out a huge wad of cash, and place some
ads. But this approach is both expensive and unreliable. As they say, you waste half of
your ad budget–you just don’t know which half.
Today’s smartest companies know better. Instead of going out to reach people,
you want people to come to you. An audience returns often–on its own–to see what you
have to say. This is the most receptive group of customers and potential customers you’ll
Over the past ten years, we’ve built an audience of more than a hundred thousand
daily readers for our Signal vs. Noise blog. Every day they come back to see what we
have to say. We may talk about design or business or software or psychology or usability
or our industry at large. Whatever it is, these people are interested enough to come back
to hear more. And if they like what we have to say, they’ll probably also like what we
have to sell.
How much would it cost us to reach those hundred thousand people every day the
old-fashioned way? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? And how would we have done it?
Running ads? Buying radio spots? Sending direct mail?
When you build an audience, you don’t have to buy people’s attention–they give it
to you. This is a huge advantage.
So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos–whatever. Share
information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then
when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.
Out-teach your competition
You can advertise. You can hire salespeople. You can sponsor events. But your
competitors are doing the same things. How does that help you stand out?
Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach
them. Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about. Most
businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never even occurs to them.
The Hoefler Type Foundry teaches designers about type at Typography.com.
Etsy, an online store for things handmade, holds entrepreneurial workshops that explain
“best practices” and promotional ideas to people who sell at the site. Gary Vaynerchuk,
who owns a large wine shop, teaches people about wine online at Wine Library TV, and
tens of thousands of people watch every day.
Teach and you’ll form a bond you just don’t get from traditional marketing tactics.
Buying people’s attention with a magazine or online banner ad is one thing. Earning their
loyalty by teaching them forms a whole different connection. They’ll trust you more.
They’ll respect you more. Even if they don’t use your product, they can still be your fans.
Teaching is something individuals and small companies can do that bigger
competitors can’t. Big companies can afford a Super Bowl ad; you can’t. But you can
afford to teach, and that’s something they’ll never do, because big companies are obsessed
with secrecy. Everything at those places has to get filtered through a lawyer and go
through layers of red tape. Teaching is your chance to outmaneuver them.
You’ve probably heard of Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Julia Child,
Paula Deen, Rick Bayless, or Jacques Pepin. They’re great chefs, but there are a lot of
great chefs out there. So why do you know these few better than others? Because they
share everything they know. They put their recipes in cookbooks and show their
techniques on cooking shows.
As a business owner, you should share everything you know too. This is
anathema to most in the business world. Businesses are usually paranoid and secretive.
They think they have proprietary this and competitive advantage that. Maybe a rare few
do, but most don’t. And those that don’t should stop acting like those that do. Don’t be
afraid of sharing.
A recipe is much easier to copy than a business. Shouldn’t that scare Mario
Batali? Why would he go on TV and show you how he does what he does? Why would
he put all his recipes in cookbooks where anyone can buy and replicate them? Because he
knows those recipes and techniques aren’t enough to beat him at his own game. No one’s
going to buy his cookbook, open a restaurant next door, and put him out of business. It
just doesn’t work like that. Yet this is what many in the business world think will happen
if their competitors learn how they do things. Get over it.
So emulate famous chefs. They cook, so they write cookbooks. What do you do?
What are your “recipes”? What’s your “cookbook”? What can you tell the world about
how you operate that’s informative, educational, and promotional? This book is our
cookbook. What’s yours?
Go behind the scenes
Give people a backstage pass and show them how your business works. Imagine
that someone wanted to make a reality show about your business. What would they
share? Now stop waiting for someone else and do it yourself.
Think no one will care? Think again. Even seemingly boring jobs can be
fascinating when presented right. What could be more boring than commercial fishing
and trucking? Yet the Discovery Channel and History Channel have turned these
professions into highly rated shows: Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.
It doesn’t need to be a dangerous job, either. People love finding out the little
secrets of all kinds of businesses, even one that makes those tiny marshmallows in
breakfast cereals. That’s why the Food Network’s Unwrapped–which explores the secrets
behind lunch-box treats, soda pop, movie candy, and more–is such a popular program.
People are curious about how things are made. It’s why they like factory tours or
behind-the-scenes footage on DVDs. They want to see how the sets are built, how the
animation is done, how the director cast the film, etc. They want to know how and why
other people make decisions.
Letting people behind the curtain changes your relationship with them. They’ll
feel a bond with you and see you as human beings instead of a faceless company. They’ll
see the sweat and effort that goes into what you sell. They’ll develop a deeper level of
understanding and appreciation for what you do.
Nobody likes plastic flowers
The business world is full of “professionals” who wear the uniform and try to
seem perfect. In truth, they just come off as stiff and boring. No one can relate to people
Don’t be afraid to show your flaws. Imperfections are real and people respond to
real. It’s why we like real flowers that wilt, not perfect plastic ones that never change.
Don’t worry about how you’re supposed to sound and how you’re supposed to act. Show
the world what you’re really like, warts and all.
There’s a beauty to imperfection. This is the essence of the Japanese principle of
wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi values character and uniqueness over a shiny facade. It teaches that
cracks and scratches in things should be embraced. It’s also about simplicity. You strip
things down and then use what you have. Leonard Koren, author of a book on wabi-sabi,
gives this advice: Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things
clean and unencumbered but don’t sterilize. *
It’s a beautiful way to put it: Leave the poetry in what you make. When something
becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.
So talk like you really talk. Reveal things that others are unwilling to discuss. Be
upfront about your shortcomings. Show the latest version of what you’re working on,
even if you’re not done yet. It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional,
but you will seem a lot more genuine.
Press releases are spam
What do you call a generic pitch sent out to hundreds of strangers hoping that one
will bite? Spam. That’s what press releases are too: generic pitches for coverage sent out
to hundreds of journalists you don’t know, hoping that one will write about you.
Let’s dissect the purpose of a press release for a moment: It’s something you send
out because you want to be noticed. You want the press to pick up on your new company,
product, service, announcement, or whatever. You want them to be excited enough to
write a story about you.
But press releases are a terrible way to accomplish that. They’re tired and
formulaic. There’s nothing exciting about them. Journalists sift through dozens a day.
They wind up buried under an avalanche of hyperbolic headlines and fake quotes from
CEOs. Everything is labeled sensational, revolutionary, groundbreaking, and amazing.
If you want to get someone’s attention, it’s silly to do exactly the same thing as
everyone else. You need to stand out. So why issue press releases like everyone else
does? Why spam journalists when their inbox is already filled with other people’s spam?
Furthermore, a press release is generic. You write it once and then send it to tons
of reporters–people whom you don’t know and who don’t know you. And your first
introduction is this vague, generic note you also send to everyone else? Is that the
impression you want to make? Is that really going to get you the story?
Instead, call someone. Write a personal note. If you read a story about a similar
company or product, contact the journalist who wrote it. Pitch her with some passion,
some interest, some life. Do something meaningful. Be remarkable. Stand out. Be
unforgettable. That’s how you’ll get the best coverage.
Forget about the Wall Street Journal
Forget about Time, Forbes, Newsweek, Business Week, the New York Times, and
the Wall Street Journal. Pitching a reporter at one of these places is practically
impossible. Good luck even getting ahold of that guy. And even if you do, he probably
won’t care anyway. You’re not big enough to matter.
You’re better off focusing on getting your story into a trade publication or picked
up by a niche blogger. With these outlets, the barrier is much lower. You can send an email and get a response (and maybe even a post) the same day. There’s no editorial board
or PR person involved. There’s no pipeline your message has to go through.
These guys are actually hungry for fresh meat. They thrive on being tastemakers,
finding the new thing, and getting the ball rolling. That’s why many big-time reporters
now use these smaller sites to find new stories. Stories that start on the fringe can go
We’ve been written up in big mainstream publications like Wired and Time, but
we’ve found that we actually get more hits when we’re profiled on sites like Daring
Fireball, a site for Mac nerds, or Lifehacker, a productivity site. Links from these places
result in notable spikes in our traffic and sales. Articles in big-time publications are nice,
but they don’t result in the same level of direct, instant activity.
Drug dealers get it right
Drug dealers are astute businesspeople. They know their product is so good
they’re willing to give a little away for free upfront. They know you’ll be back for more–
Emulate drug dealers. Make your product so good, so addictive, so “can’t miss”
that giving customers a small, free taste makes them come back with cash in hand.
This will force you to make something about your product bite-size. You want an
easily digestible introduction to what you sell. This gives people a way to try it without
investing any money or a lot of time.
Bakeries, restaurants, and ice cream shops have done this successfully for years.
Car dealers let you test-drive cars before buying them. Software firms are also getting on
board, with free trials or limited-use versions. How many other industries could benefit
from the drug-dealer model?
Don’t be afraid to give a little away for free–as long as you’ve got something else
to sell. Be confident in what you’re offering. You should know that people will come
back for more. If you’re not confident about that, you haven’t created a strong enough
Marketing is not a department
Do you have a marketing department? If not, good. If you do, don’t think these are
the only people responsible for marketing. Accounting is a department. Marketing isn’t.
Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.
Just as you cannot not communicate, you cannot not market:
Every time you answer the phone, it’s marketing.
Every time you send an e-mail, it’s marketing.
Every time someone uses your product, it’s marketing.
Every word you write on your Web site is marketing.
If you build software, every error message is marketing.
If you’re in the restaurant business, the after-dinner mint is marketing.
If you’re in the retail business, the checkout counter is marketing.
If you’re in a service business, your invoice is marketing.
Recognize that all of these little things are more important than choosing which
piece of swag to throw into a conference goodie bag. Marketing isn’t just a few individual
events. It’s the sum total of everything you do.
The myth of the overnight sensation
You will not be a big hit right away. You will not get rich quick. You are not so
special that everyone else will instantly pay attention. No one cares about you. At least
not yet. Get used to it.
You know those overnight-success stories you’ve heard about? It’s not the whole
story. Dig deeper and you’ll usually find people who have busted their asses for years to
get into a position where things could take off. And on the rare occasion that instant
success does come along, it usually doesn’t last–there’s no foundation there to support it.
Trade the dream of overnight success for slow, measured growth. It’s hard, but
you have to be patient. You have to grind it out. You have to do it for a long time before
the right people notice.
You may think you can speed up the process by hiring a PR firm. Don’t bother.
You’re just not ready for that yet. For one thing, it’s too expensive. Good PR firms can
cost upward of $10,000 per month. That’s a waste of money right now.
Plus, you’re still just a no-name with a product no one’s ever heard about. Who’s
going to write about that? Once you have some customers and a history, you’ll have a
story to tell. But just launching isn’t a good story.
And remember, great brands launch without PR campaigns all the time.
Starbucks, Apple, Nike, Amazon, Google, and Snapple all became great brands over
time, not because of a big PR push upfront.
Start building your audience today. Start getting people interested in what you
have to say. And then keep at it. In a few years, you too will get to chuckle when people
discuss your “overnight” success.*Pilar Viladas, “The Talk: The Slow Lane,” New York
Times Magazine, Oct. 9, 2005, http://www.tinyurl.com/ychqtup
Do it yourself first
Never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first. That way,
you’ll understand the nature of the work. You’ll know what a job well done looks like.
You’ll know how to write a realistic job description and which questions to ask in an
interview. You’ll know whether to hire someone full-time or part-time, outsource it, or
keep doing it yourself (the last is preferable, if possible).
You’ll also be a much better manager, because you’ll be supervising people who
are doing a job you’ve done before. You’ll know when to criticize and when to support.
At 37signals, we didn’t hire a system administrator until one of us had spent a
whole summer setting up a bunch of servers on his own. For the first three years, one of
us did all of our customer support. Then we hired a dedicated support person. We ran
with the ball as far as we could before handing it off. That way, we knew what we were
looking for once we did decide to hire.
You may feel out of your element at times. You might even feel like you suck.
That’s all right. You can hire your way out of that feeling or you can learn your way out
of it. Try learning first. What you give up in initial execution will be repaid many times
over by the wisdom you gain.
Plus, you should want to be intimately involved in all aspects of your business.
Otherwise you’ll wind up in the dark, putting your fate solely in the hands of others.
Hire when it hurts
Don’t hire for pleasure; hire to kill pain. Always ask yourself: What if we don’t
hire anyone? Is that extra work that’s burdening us really necessary? Can we solve the
problem with a slice of software or a change of practice instead? What if we just don’t do
Similarly, if you lose someone, don’t replace him immediately. See how long you
can get by without that person and that position. You’ll often discover you don’t need as
many people as you think.
The right time to hire is when there’s more work than you can handle for a
sustained period of time. There should be things you can’t do anymore. You should notice
the quality level slipping. That’s when you’re hurting. And that’s when it’s time to hire,
Pass on great people
Some companies are addicted to hiring. Some even hire when they aren’t hiring.
They’ll hear about someone great and invent a position or title just to lure them in. And
there they’ll sit–parked in a position that doesn’t matter, doing work that isn’t important.
Pass on hiring people you don’t need, even if you think that person’s a great catch.
You’ll be doing your company more harm than good if you bring in talented people who
have nothing important to do.
Problems start when you have more people than you need. You start inventing
work to keep everyone busy. Artificial work leads to artificial projects. And those
artificial projects lead to real costs and complexity.
Don’t worry about “the one that got away.” It’s much worse to have people on
staff who aren’t doing anything meaningful. There’s plenty of talent out there. When you
do have a real need, you’ll find someone who fits well.
Great has nothing to do with it. If you don’t need someone, you don’t need
Strangers at a cocktail party
If you go to a cocktail party where everyone is a stranger, the conversation is dull
and stiff. You make small talk about the weather, sports, TV shows, etc. You shy away
from serious conversations and controversial opinions.
A small, intimate dinner party among old friends is a different story, though.
There are genuinely interesting conversations and heated debates. At the end of the night,
you feel you actually got something out of it.
Hire a ton of people rapidly and a “strangers at a cocktail party” problem is
exactly what you end up with. There are always new faces around, so everyone is
unfailingly polite. Everyone tries to avoid any conflict or drama. No one says, “This idea
sucks.” People appease instead of challenge.
And that appeasement is what gets companies into trouble. You need to be able to
tell people when they’re full of crap. If that doesn’t happen, you start churning out
something that doesn’t offend anyone but also doesn’t make anyone fall in love.
You need an environment where everyone feels safe enough to be honest when
things get tough. You need to know how far you can push someone. You need to know
what people really mean when they say something.
So hire slowly. It’s the only way to avoid winding up at a cocktail party of
Resumes are ridiculous
We all know resumes are a joke. They’re exaggerations. They’re filled with
“action verbs” that don’t mean anything. They list job titles and responsibilities that are
vaguely accurate at best. And there’s no way to verify most of what’s on there. The whole
thing is a farce.
Worst of all, they’re too easy. Anyone can create a decent-enough resume. That’s
why half-assed applicants love them so much. They can shotgun out hundreds at a time to
potential employers. It’s another form of spam. They don’t care about landing your job;
they just care about landing any job.
If someone sends out a resume to three hundred companies, that’s a huge red flag
right there. There’s no way that applicant has researched you. There’s no way he knows
what’s different about your company.
If you hire based on this garbage, you’re missing the point of what hiring is about.
You want a specific candidate who cares specifically about your company, your products,
your customers, and your job.
So how do you find these candidates? First step: Check the cover letter. In a cover
letter, you get actual communication instead of a list of skills, verbs, and years of
irrelevance. There’s no way an applicant can churn out hundreds of personalized letters.
That’s why the cover letter is a much better test than a resume. You hear someone’s actual
voice and are able recognize if it’s in tune with you and your company.
Trust your gut reaction. If the first paragraph sucks, the second has to work that
much harder. If there’s no hook in the first three, it’s unlikely there’s a match there. On the
other hand, if your gut is telling you there’s a chance at a real match, then move on to the
Years of irrelevance
We’ve all seen job ads that say, “Five years of experience required.” That may
give you a number, but it tells you nothing.
Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when
hiring. It makes sense to go after candidates with six months to a year of experience. It
takes that long to internalize the idioms, learn how things work, understand the relevant
But after that, the curve flattens out. There’s surprisingly little difference between
a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference
comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.
How do you really measure this stuff anyway? What does five years of experience
mean? If you spent a couple of weekends experimenting with something a few years
back, can you count that as a year of experience? How is a company supposed to verify
these claims? These are murky waters.
How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve
been doing it.
Forget about formal educationI have never let my schooling
interfere with my education. –MARK TWAIN
There are plenty of companies out there who have educational requirements.
They’ll only hire people with a college degree (sometimes in a specific field) or an
advanced degree or a certain GPA or certification of some sort or some other
Come on. There are plenty of intelligent people who don’t excel in the classroom.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need someone from one of the “best” schools in
order to get results. Ninety percent of CEOs currently heading the top five hundred
American companies did not receive undergraduate degrees from Ivy League colleges. In
fact, more received their undergraduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin than
from Harvard (the most heavily represented Ivy school, with nine CEOs).*
Too much time in academia can actually do you harm. Take writing, for example.
When you get out of school, you have to unlearn so much of the way they teach you to
write there. Some of the misguided lessons you learn in academia:
The longer a document is, the more it matters.
Stiff, formal tone is better than being conversational.
Using big words is impressive.
You need to write a certain number of words or pages to make a point.
The format matters as much (or more) than the content of what you write.
It’s no wonder so much business writing winds up dry, wordy, and dripping with
nonsense. People are just continuing the bad habits they picked up in school. It’s not just
academic writing, either. There are a lot of skills that are useful in academia that aren’t
worth much outside of it.
Bottom line: The pool of great candidates is far bigger than just people who
completed college with a stellar GPA. Consider dropouts, people who had low GPAs,
community-college students, and even those who just went to high school.
With a small team, you need people who are going to do work, not delegate work.
Everyone’s got to be producing. No one can be above the work.
That means you need to avoid hiring delegators, those people who love telling
others what to do. Delegators are dead weight for a small team. They clog the pipes for
others by coming up with busywork. And when they run out of work to assign, they make
up more–regardless of whether it needs to be done.
Delegators love to pull people into meetings, too. In fact, meetings are a
delegator’s best friend. That’s where he gets to seem important. Meanwhile, everyone else
who attends is pulled away from getting real work done.
Hire managers of one
Managers of one are people who come up with their own goals and execute them.
They don’t need heavy direction. They don’t need daily check-ins. They do what a
manager would do–set the tone, assign items, determine what needs to get done, etc.–but
they do it by themselves and for themselves.
These people free you from oversight. They set their own direction. When you
leave them alone, they surprise you with how much they’ve gotten done. They don’t need
a lot of hand-holding or supervision.
How can you spot these people? Look at their backgrounds. They have set the
tone for how they’ve worked at other jobs. They’ve run something on their own or
launched some kind of project.
You want someone who’s capable of building something from scratch and seeing
it through. Finding these people frees the rest of your team to work more and manage
Hire great writers
If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best
writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer,
or whatever; their writing skills will pay off.
That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a
sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy
to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to
omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.
Writing is making a comeback all over our society. Look at how much people email and text-message now rather than talk on the phone. Look at how much
communication happens via instant messaging and blogging. Writing is today’s currency
for good ideas.
The best are everywhere
It’s crazy not to hire the best people just because they live far away. Especially
now that there’s so much technology out there making it easier to bring everyone together
Our headquarters are in Chicago, but more than half of our team lives elsewhere.
We’ve got people in Spain, Canada, Idaho, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Had we limited our
search only to people in Chicago, we would have missed out on half of the great people
To make sure your remote team stays in touch, have at least a few hours a day of
real-time overlap. Working in time zones where there’s no workday overlap at all is
tough. If you face that situation, someone might need to shift hours a bit so they start a
little later or earlier in the day, so you’re available at the same time. You don’t need eight
hours of overlap, though. (Actually, we’ve found it preferable to not have complete
overlap–you get more alone time that way.) Two to four hours of overlap should be
Also, meet in person once in a while. You should see each other at least every few
months. We make sure our whole team gets together a few times a year. These are great
times to review progress, discuss what’s going right or wrong, plan for the future, and get
reacquainted with one another on a personal level.
Geography just doesn’t matter anymore. Hire the best talent, regardless of where it
Interviews are only worth so much. Some people sound like pros but don’t work
like pros. You need to evaluate the work they can do now, not the work they say they did
in the past.
The best way to do that is to actually see them work. Hire them for a miniproject,
even if it’s for just twenty or forty hours. You’ll see how they make decisions. You’ll see
if you get along. You’ll see what kind of questions they ask. You’ll get to judge them by
their actions instead of just their words.
You can even make up a fake project. In a factory in South Carolina, BMW built
a simulated assembly line where job candidates get ninety minutes to perform a variety of
Cessna, the airplane manufacturer, has a role-playing exercise for prospective
managers that simulates the day of an executive. Candidates work through memos, deal
with (phony) irate customers, and handle other problems. Cessna has hired more than a
hundred people using this simulation.+
These companies have realized that when you get into a real work environment,
the truth comes out. It’s one thing to look at a portfolio, read a resume, or conduct an
interview. It’s another to actually work with someone.Carol Hymowitz, “Any College Will Do,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18, 2006, online.wsj.com/article/SB115853818747665842.htmlPeter Carbonara, “Hire for
Attitude, Train for Skill,” Fast Company, Dec. 18, 2007,
Own your bad news
When something goes wrong, someone is going to tell the story. You’ll be better
off if it’s you. Otherwise, you create an opportunity for rumors, hearsay, and false
information to spread.
When something bad happens, tell your customers (even if they never noticed in
the first place). Don’t think you can just sweep it under the rug. You can’t hide anymore.
These days, someone else will call you on it if you don’t do it yourself. They’ll post about
it online and everyone will know. There are no more secrets.
People will respect you more if you are open, honest, public, and responsive
during a crisis. Don’t hide behind spin or try to keep your bad news on the down low.
You want your customers to be as informed as possible.
Back in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil into
Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Exxon made the mistake of waiting a long time before
responding to the spill and sending aid to Alaska. Exxon’s chairman failed to go there
until two weeks after the spill. The company held news briefings in Valdez, a remote
Alaskan town that was difficult for the press to reach. The result: a PR disaster for Exxon
that led the public to believe the company was either hiding something or didn’t really
care about what had happened. *
Contrast that Exxon story to the rupture of an Ashland Oil storage tank that
spilled oil into a river near Pittsburgh around the same time. Ashland Oil’s chairman,
John Hall, went to the scene of the Ashland spill and took charge. He pledged to clean
everything up. He visited news bureaus to explain what the company would do and
answer any questions. Within a day, he had shifted the story from a rotten-oil-companydoes-evil narrative to a good-oil-company-tries-to-clean-up story. +
Here are some tips on how you can own the story:
The message should come from the top. The highest-ranking person available
should take control in a forceful way.
Spread the message far and wide. Use whatever megaphone you have. Don’t try to
sweep it under the rug.
“No comment” is not an option.
Apologize the way a real person would and explain what happened in detail.
Honestly be concerned about the fate of your customers–then prove it.
Speed changes everything
“Your call is very important to us. We appreciate your patience. The average hold
time right now is sixteen minutes.” Give me a fucking break.
Getting back to people quickly is probably the most important thing you can do
when it comes to customer service. It’s amazing how much that can defuse a bad situation
and turn it into a good one.
Have you ever sent an e-mail and it took days or weeks for the company to get
back to you? How did it make you feel? These days, that’s what people have come to
expect. They’re used to being put on hold. They’re used to platitudes about “caring” that
aren’t backed up.
That’s why so many support queries start off with an antagonistic tone. Some
people may even make threats or call you names. Don’t take it personally. They think
that’s the only way to be heard. They’re only trying to be a squeaky wheel in hopes it’ll
get them a little grease.
Once you answer quickly, they shift 180 degrees. They light up. They become
extra polite. Often they thank you profusely.
It’s especially true if you offer a personal response. Customers are so used to
canned answers, you can really differentiate yourself by answering thoughtfully and
showing that you’re listening. And even if you don’t have a perfect answer, say
something. “Let me do some research and get back to you” can work wonders.
How to say you’re sorry
There’s never really a great way to say you’re sorry, but there are plenty of terrible
One of the worst ways is the non-apology apology, which sounds like an apology
but doesn’t really accept any blame. For example, “We’re sorry if this upset you.” Or “I’m
sorry that you don’t feel we lived up to your expectations.” Whatever.
A good apology accepts responsibility. It has no conditional if phrase attached. It
shows people that the buck stops with you. And then it provides real details about what
happened and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again. And it seeks a way
to make things right.
Here’s another bad one: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have
caused.” Oh, please. Let’s break down why that’s bad:
“We apologize …” If you spilled coffee on someone while riding the subway,
would you say, “I apologize”? No, you’d say, “I’m so, so sorry!” Well, if your service is
critical to your customers, an interruption to that service is like spilling hot coffee all over
them. So use the appropriate tone and language to show that you understand the severity
of what happened. Also, the person in charge should take personal responsibility. An “I”
apology is a lot stronger than a “we” apology.
“… any inconvenience …” If customers depend on your service and can’t get to
it, it’s not merely an inconvenience. It’s a crisis. An inconvenience is a long line at the
grocery store. This ain’t that.
“… this may have caused” The “may” here implies there might not be anything
wrong at all. That’s a classic non-apology apology move. It slights the very real
problem(s) that customers are experiencing. If this didn’t affect them, you don’t really
need to say anything. If it did affect them, then there’s no need for “may” here. Stop
So what’s the perfect way to say you’re sorry? There’s no magic bullet. Any stock
answer will sound generic and hollow. You’re going to have to take it on a case-by-case
The number-one principle to keep in mind when you apologize: How would you
feel about the apology if you were on the other end? If someone said those words to you,
would you believe them?
Keep in mind that you can’t apologize your way out of being an ass. Even the best
apology won’t rescue you if you haven’t earned people’s trust. Everything you do before
things go wrong matters far more than the actual words you use to apologize. If you’ve
built rapport with customers, they’ll cut you some slack and trust you when you say
Put everyone on the front lines
In the restaurant business, there’s a world of difference between working in the
kitchen and dealing with customers. Cooking schools and smart restaurateurs know it’s
important for both sides to understand and empathize with each other. That’s why they
often have chefs work out front as waiters for a stretch. That way, the kitchen staff can
interact with customers and see what it’s actually like on the front lines.
A lot of companies have a similar front-of-house/back-of-house split. The people
who make the product work in the “kitchen” while support handles the customers.
Unfortunately, that means the product’s chefs never get to directly hear what customers
are saying. Too bad. Listening to customers is the best way to get in tune with a product’s
strengths and weaknesses.
Think about the children’s game Telephone. There are ten kids sitting in a circle.
A message starts and is whispered from one child to another. By the time it gets all the
way around, the message is completely distorted–to the point where it’s usually hilarious.
A sentence that makes sense at first comes out the other end as “Macaroni cantaloupe
knows the future.” And the more people you have in the circle, the more distorted the
The same thing is true at your company. The more people you have between your
customers’ words and the people doing the work, the more likely it is that the message
will get lost or distorted along the way.
Everyone on your team should be connected to your customers–maybe not every
day, but at least a few times throughout the year. That’s the only way your team is going
to feel the hurt your customers are experiencing. It’s feeling the hurt that really motivates
people to fix the problem. And the flip side is true too: The joy of happy customers or
ones who have had a problem solved can also be wildly motivating.
So don’t protect the people doing the work from customer feedback. No one
should be shielded from direct criticism.
Maybe you think you don’t have time to interact with customers. Then make time.
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark still answers support e-mails today (often within
minutes). He also deletes racist comments from the site’s discussion boards and pesters
New York City Realtors who post apartments for rent that don’t exist.* If he can devote
this kind of attention to customer service, you can too.
Take a deep breath
When you rock the boat, there will be waves. After you introduce a new feature,
change a policy, or remove something, knee-jerk reactions will pour in. Resist the urge to
panic or make rapid changes in response. Passions flare in the beginning. That’s normal.
But if you ride out that first rocky week, things usually settle down.
People are creatures of habit. That’s why they react to change in such a negative
way. They’re used to using something in a certain way and any change upsets the natural
order of things. So they push back. They complain. They demand that you revert to the
way things were.
But that doesn’t mean you should act. Sometimes you need to go ahead with a
decision you believe in, even if it’s unpopular at first.
People often respond before they give a change a fair chance. Sometimes that
initial negative reaction is more of a primal response. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear
things like, “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” No, it’s not. It’s a minor change. Come
Also, remember that negative reactions are almost always louder and more
passionate than positive ones. In fact, you may hear only negative voices even when the
majority of your customers are happy about a change. Make sure you don’t foolishly
backpedal on a necessary but controversial decision.
So when people complain, let things simmer for a while. Let them know you’re
listening. Show them you’re aware of what they’re saying. Let them know you understand
their discontent. But explain that you’re going to let it go for a while and see what
happens. You’ll probably find that people will adjust eventually. They may even wind up
liking the change more than the old way, once they get used to it.Reyna Susi, “The Exxon Crisis, 1989,” Effective Crisis Management, iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/Fall02/Susi/exxon.htm +John Holusha, “Exxon’s PublicRelations Problem,” New York Times, Apr. 21, 1989, http://www.tinyurl.com/yg2bgffScott
Kirsner, “Craigslist’s Unorthodox Path,” Boston Globe, June 15, 2008,
You don’t create a culture
Instant cultures are artificial cultures. They’re big bangs made of mission
statements, declarations, and rules. They are obvious, ugly, and plastic. Artificial culture
is paint. Real culture is patina.
You don’t create a culture. It happens. This is why new companies don’t have a
culture. Culture is the byproduct of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share,
then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust, then trust will be built in.
If you treat customers right, then treating customers right becomes your culture.
Culture isn’t a foosball table or trust falls. It isn’t policy. It isn’t the Christmas
party or the company picnic. Those are objects and events, not culture. And it’s not a
slogan, either. Culture is action, not words.
So don’t worry too much about it. Don’t force it. You can’t install a culture. Like a
fine scotch, you’ve got to give it time to develop.
Decisions are temporary
“But what if …?” “What happens when …?” “Don’t we need to plan for …?”
Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet. It’s not a problem until it’s a real
problem. Most of the things you worry about never happen anyway.
Besides, the decisions you make today don’t need to last forever. It’s easy to shoot
down good ideas, interesting policies, or worthwhile experiments by assuming that
whatever you decide now needs to work for years on end. It’s just not so, especially for a
small business. If circumstances change, your decisions can change. Decisions are
At this stage, it’s silly to worry about whether or not your concept will scale from
five to five thousand people (or from a hundred thousand to 100 million people). Getting
a product or service off the ground is hard enough without inventing even more obstacles.
Optimize for now and worry about the future later.
The ability to change course is one of the big advantages of being small.
Compared with larger competitors, you’re way more capable of making quick, sweeping
changes. Big companies just can’t move that fast. So pay attention to today and worry
about later when it gets here. Otherwise you’ll waste energy, time, and money fixating on
problems that may never materialize.
Skip the rock stars
A lot of companies post help-wanted ads seeking “rock stars” or “ninjas.” Lame.
Unless your workplace is filled with groupies and throwing stars, these words have
nothing to do with your business.
Instead of thinking about how you can land a roomful of rock stars, think about
the room instead. We’re all capable of bad, average, and great work. The environment has
a lot more to do with great work than most people realize.
That’s not to say we’re all created equal and you’ll unlock star power in anyone
with a rock star environment. But there’s a ton of untapped potential trapped under lame
policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies. Cut the crap and you’ll find that
people are waiting to do great work. They just need to be given the chance.
This isn’t about casual Fridays or bring-your-dog-to-work day. (If those are such
good things, then why aren’t you doing them every day of the week?)
Rockstar environments develop out of trust, autonomy, and responsibility. They’re
a result of giving people the privacy, workspace, and tools they deserve. Great
environments show respect for the people who do the work and how they do it.
They’re not thirteen
When you treat people like children, you get children’s work. Yet that’s exactly
how a lot of companies and managers treat their employees. Employees need to ask
permission before they can do anything. They need to get approval for every tiny
expenditure. It’s surprising they don’t have to get a hall pass to go take a shit.
When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of nonthinkers.
You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, “I don’t trust you.”
What do you gain if you ban employees from, say, visiting a social-networking
site or watching YouTube while at work? You gain nothing. That time doesn’t magically
convert to work. They’ll just find some other diversion.
And look, you’re not going to get a full eight hours a day out of people anyway.
That’s a myth. They might be at the office for eight hours, but they’re not actually
working eight hours. People need diversions. It helps disrupt the monotony of the
workday. A little YouTube or Facebook time never hurt anyone.
Then there’s all the money and time you spend policing this stuff. How much does
it cost to set up surveillance software? How much time do IT employees waste on
monitoring other employees instead of working on a project that’s actually valuable?
How much time do you waste writing rule books that never get read? Look at the costs
and you quickly realize that failing to trust your employees is awfully expensive.
Send people home at 5
The dream employee for a lot of companies is a twenty-something with as little of
a life as possible outside of work–someone who’ll be fine working fourteen-hour days
and sleeping under his desk.
But packing a room full of these burn-the-midnight-oil types isn’t as great as it
seems. It lets you get away with lousy execution. It perpetuates myths like “This is the
only way we can compete against the big guys.” You don’t need more hours; you need
When people have something to do at home, they get down to business. They get
their work done at the office because they have somewhere else to be. They find ways to
be more efficient because they have to. They need to pick up the kids or get to choir
practice. So they use their time wisely.
As the saying goes, “If you want something done, ask the busiest person you
know.” You want busy people. People who have a life outside of work. People who care
about more than one thing. You shouldn’t expect the job to be someone’s entire life–at
least not if you want to keep them around for a long time.
Don’t scar on the first cut
The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy.
“Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell
John not to wear shorts again.
Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to
situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the
misdeeds of an individual.
This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They
sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy–one scar–at a time.
So don’t scar on the first cut. Don’t create a policy because one person did
something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over
Sound like you
What is it with businesspeople trying to sound big? The stiff language, the formal
announcements, the artificial friendliness, the legalese, etc. You read this stuff and it
sounds like a robot wrote it. These companies talk at you, not to you.
This mask of professionalism is a joke. We all know this. Yet small companies
still try to emulate it. They think sounding big makes them appear bigger and more
“professional.” But it really just makes them sound ridiculous. Plus, you sacrifice one of a
small company’s greatest assets: the ability to communicate simply and directly, without
running every last word through a legal-and PR-department sieve.
There’s nothing wrong with sounding your own size. Being honest about who you
are is smart business, too. Language is often your first impression–why start it off with a
lie? Don’t be afraid to be you.
That applies to the language you use everywhere–in e-mail, packaging,
interviews, blog posts, presentations, etc. Talk to customers the way you would to
friends. Explain things as if you were sitting next to them. Avoid jargon or any sort of
corporate-speak. Stay away from buzzwords when normal words will do just fine. Don’t
talk about “monetization” or being “transparent;” talk about making money and being
honest. Don’t use seven words when four will do.
And don’t force your employees to end e-mails with legalese like “This e-mail
message is for the sole use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain confidential and
privileged information.” That’s like ending all your company e-mails with a signature that
says, “We don’t trust you and we’re ready to prove it in court.” Good luck making friends
Write to be read, don’t write just to write. Whenever you write something, read it
out loud. Does it sound the way it would if you were actually talking to someone? If not,
how can you make it more conversational?
Who said writing needs to be formal? Who said you have to strip away your
personality when putting words on paper? Forget rules. Communicate!
And when you’re writing, don’t think about all the people who may read your
words. Think of one person. Then write for that one person. Writing for a mob leads to
generalities and awkwardness. When you write to a specific target, you’re a lot more
likely to hit the mark.
There are four-letter words you should never use in business. They’re not fuck or
shit. They’re need, must, can’t, easy, just, only, and fast. These words get in the way of
healthy communication. They are red flags that introduce animosity, torpedo good
discussions, and cause projects to be late.
When you use these four-letter words, you create a black-and-white situation. But
the truth is rarely black and white. So people get upset and problems ensue. Tension and
conflict are injected unnecessarily.
Here’s what’s wrong with some of them:Need. Very few things actually need to
get done. Instead of saying “need,” you’re better off saying “maybe” or “What do you
think about this?” or “How does this sound?” or “Do you think we could get away with
that?” Can’t. When you say “can’t,” you probably can. Sometimes there are even
opposing can’ts: “We can’t launch it like that, because it’s not quite right” versus “We
can’t spend any more time on this because we have to launch.” Both of those statements
can’t be true. Or wait a minute, can they? Easy. Easy is a word that’s used to describe
other people’s jobs. “That should be easy for you to do, right?” But notice how rarely
people describe their own tasks as easy. For you, it’s “Let me look into it”–but for others,
it’s “Get it done.”
These four-letter words often pop up during debates (and also watch out for their
cousins: everyone, no one, always, and never). Once uttered, they make it tough to find a
solution. They box you into a corner by pitting two absolutes against each other. That’s
when head-butting occurs. You squeeze out any middle ground.
And these words are especially dangerous when you string them together: “We
need to add this feature now. We can’t launch without this feature. Everyone wants it. It’s
only one little thing so it will be easy. You should be able to get it in there fast!” Only
thirty-six words, but a hundred assumptions. That’s a recipe for disaster.
ASAP is poison
Stop saying ASAP. We get it. It’s implied. Everyone wants things done as soon as
they can be done.
When you turn into one of these people who adds ASAP to the end of every
request, you’re saying everything is high priority. And when everything is high priority,
nothing is. (Funny how everything is a top priority until you actually have to prioritize
ASAP is inflationary. It devalues any request that doesn’t say ASAP. Before you
know it, the only way to get anything done is by putting the ASAP sticker on it.
Most things just don’t warrant that kind of hysteria. If a task doesn’t get done this
very instant, nobody is going to die. Nobody’s going to lose their job. It won’t cost the
company a ton of money. What it will do is create artificial stress, which leads to burnout
So reserve your use of emergency language for true emergencies. The kind where
there are direct, measurable consequences to inaction. For everything else, chill out.
Inspiration is perishable
We all have ideas. Ideas are immortal. They last forever.
What doesn’t last forever is inspiration. Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk: It
has an expiration date.
If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now. You can’t put it on a shelf
and wait two months to get around to it. You can’t just say you’ll do it later. Later, you
won’t be pumped up about it anymore.
If you’re inspired on a Friday, swear off the weekend and dive into the project.
When you’re high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work done in twenty-four
hours. Inspiration is a time machine in that way.
Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t
wait for you. Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to