Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of 37signals (the hot web software development company), spoke last night (April 28, 2006) to a group of about thirty at a free event at DePaul University CTI. The event was put on by e, DePaul CTI's High Tech Entrepreneurship Club. Jason and David have been working together for several years with their first product SingleFile, a simple book organization product, to their latest product called Campfire, an online business chat tool. Jason and David spoke for two hours and relayed a number of themes, but I would say the strongest by far was to:
Jason and David started out by laying the groundwork for their philosophy which focuses on offering less. Less is something that they think is very powerful since less is more manageable than more. Simple concept right? Nevertheless, many companies strive for more. The guys at 37signals believe that the days of beating the competition with more (features, bells, whistles or flare) are over. According to Jason:
"The days of 'more' are dead."
They believe in delivering something simple and that 37signals lives and dies on solving simple problems with simple solutions within their constraints. They went on to say that more can, more or less, get you into trouble and they explained how doing less can be applied to people, money, software, abstractions and time.
Currently, 37signals is operating with just seven employees. David helped to clarify a misconception in business - growth of a business is not directly tied to headcount. This is something that many business do not understand; they often budget to increase the workforce since in the traditional business mind there is a direct correlation between company success or growth and headcount. David put it best by saying:
"Increasing headcount (on a schedule) could be a symptom of a bad business."
What David was saying is that a hiring schedule or hiring goals that are planned such as "Company X is going to increase the headcount by 200 people by year's end" can sometimes be a sign of a bad business because Company X is basing growth on projections which are often incorrect. It is setting the business up for lower profit margins. He pointed out that Salesforce.com has a low profit margin because every time it adds a customer it has to add at least one employee. He went on to point out that revenue per employee might be a better metric of the success of a business.
Taking on money in the form of loans can get you in debt since it is easier to spend someone else's money than your own (reminds me of a Notorious B.I.G. song Mo' Money Mo' Problems). Basically, if it is your own money you are spending, then it is going to hurt to frivolously spend it.
Deliver less software with less features. Keep is as simple as possible and deliver the best solution you can to solve a simple problem. Shoot for the simplest, most effective solution. David admitted:
"We have drank the Kool-aid pretty hard on the simplicity stuff."
David went on to say that sometimes they over-think things too but that is when they try and take a break and do less.
As much as you love paperwork, abstractions and requirements waste time! They are not real. They are written on paper at the beginning of developing a product, which is when you know the absolute least about what it is you really want to develop. Jason said:
"If you are writing up specs and you can hold it in your hand and it has weight then you are wasting your time."
Not to mention, writing functional specs is not sexy; it is not fun and it is not motivating. So the guys at 37signals say forget about it and get real. Start with one piece of paper and five minutes. Use the paper as a point of reference so that everyone is on the same page but then build the html wire-frames of what you are shooting for. 37signals starts with the interface first. Overall, this is falls in line with an agile development approach since most of the time you do not know what you really want until you are developing it and know the product better.
Spend less time at the office and you will waste less time. Jason pointed out that 37signals decided to let all of its employees take Friday off over the summer and they still got all of their work done on time.
Bottom-line: Less is less.
Who wouldn't want to work less, do less and profit more? As long as 37signals practices what it preaches and actually does work less then it is living proof that it can be done. The idea of doing less and making more is appealing to the masses and could be an entrepreneurial battle-cry further bolstering the 37signals brand. When asked about the future of 37signals, it appears they have twenty-year plan which focuses on changing the online space. In the meantime, 37signals continues to be a rising star in the web 2.0 space with the execution of simple ideas for simple problems.
Additionally, Jason hinted at a new product called Sunrise that 37signals is working on. He called it a CRM tool but said it is not very complex so they are wondering if it is too simple in its current state. However, he stated that they cut two-thirds of the features they originally had intended for Backpack so I will be interested to see the product when it is unveiled.
Here are my photos from the event posted on Flickr. Also a lot what Jason and David spoke about can be found in their recently released book titled "Getting Real," which I highlighted previously on Somewhat Frank.