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Signal vs. Noise: Business

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One-hit wonder

David
David wrote this on 15 comments

It’s incredibly hard to trace the success of any business, product, or project down to the skill of the founders. There’s plenty of correlation, but not much causation.

That’s a scary thought to a lot of people: What if my success isn’t based solely on my talent and hard work, but rather my lucky timing or stumbling across an under-served market by happenstance? What if I’m just a one-hit wonder!?

And I say, so what? So what if you are? I, for one, am completely at peace with the idea that Basecamp might very well be the best product I’ll ever be involved with. Or that Ruby on Rails might be the peak of my contributions to technology.

What about my life would be any different if I could truly trace down the success to personal traits of wonder? Even if I somehow did have a “magic touch” — and I very much believe that I don’t — why would I want to leave those ventures, just to prove that I could do it again?

Yet that siren song calls many a founder, entrepreneur, and star employee. The need to prove they’re not a one-hit wonder. That they’re really that good because they could do it again and again.

For every Elon Musk, there are undoubtedly thousands of people who left their one great idea to try again and fell flat on their faces, unable to go back to the shine and the heyday of that original success, and worse off for it in pride, blood, and treasure.

Life is short. Move on if you don’t love what you’re doing. But don’t ever leave a great thing just because you want to prove to others or yourself that you’re not a one-hit wonder.

Captured by quality

David
David wrote this on 7 comments

Making stuff good is rewarding, making stuff great is intoxicating. It’s like there’s a direct line from perfection and excellence to the dopamine release. And the reverse is true as well. When you make crappy stuff, you feel crappy. No one likes to work in a broken shop on a broken stool.

So it’s hard to fault people from being attracted to sayings like “Quality is Free”. It validates the good feelings that flow from making stuff perfect, and it makes it seem like it’s a completely free bargain. Win-win and all that.

But like anything, it’s easy to take too far. Almost everything outside of life-critical software has diminishing returns when it comes to quality. Fixing every last bug, eradicating every last edge case, and dealing with every performance dragon means not spending that time on making new things.

You can make the best, most polished, least-defective saddle out there, but if the market has moved on from horses to cars for general transportation, it’s not going to save your business. And it doesn’t even have to be as dramatic as that. Making the best drum brakes is equally folly once disc brakes are on the market.

So you have to weigh the value of continuing to hone and perfect the existing with pursuing the new and the novel. This often happens in waves. You come up with a new idea, and a crappy first implementation. You then spend a couple of rounds polishing off the crap until the new idea is no longer new and crappy, but known and solid. Then it’s time to look hard at whether another round is worth it.

The bottom-line is to make that which is not good enough, good enough, and then skate to where the puck is going to be next.

Introducing THE DISTANCE - the business magazine about businesses that haven't gone out of business

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 19 comments

I’ve always had a fascination with old. Old trees, old buildings, old people, old objects, and old businesses.

The world is constantly pushing the old out of the way to make room for the new. So if something can stand up to the world, push back, and go the distance, then there’s probably something special about it. I believe those things are worth celebrating.

Today we launch THE DISTANCE, an online magazine that celebrates one type of old thing – the old business. THE DISTANCE is about interesting private businesses that have been in business for 25 years or more.

Everyone talks about how hard it is to start a business. It is hard, but it’s not as hard as staying in business. Every business is new at least once, but very few actually survive to old age (or even adolescence). We want to celebrate those who’ve figured out the hardest thing to do in business: how not to go out of business.

Some of the businesses we’ll be covering have been in business for a hundred years or more. Some are still run by the original founder. Some are now run by a long-time employee. Some are run by the son or daughter of their father’s grandfather who founded the business way back in the day.

Every month we’ll be publishing a new article about one of these businesses to thedistance.com. We’ll introduce you to some real characters, some amazing stories, a few secrets, and the sustained blood, sweat, tears, and persistence required to keep the lights on for so many years.

Our first article is about the Horween Leather Company out of Chicago Illinois. A fourth-generation business founded in 1905, Horween makes leather the old fashioned way. As the last remaining tannery in Chicago, they’ve stood strong, learned how to survive – and thrive – in a challenging environment. They have a lot to teach us.

If you like these kind of stories, we invite you to follow @distancemag on Twitter. We’ll be sharing all sorts of things about old businesses, long-time employees, and other tidbits you may find interesting. Whenever we publish a new story to THE DISTANCE, we’ll announce it first on the Twitter feed.

So, here we go! Head over to thedistance.com to read the story of Horween Leather, the last tannery in Chicago.

And BTW, if you know of great little 25+ year private businesses that would be a good fit for THE DISTANCE, we’d love to hear about them. Could be the mom and pop shop around the corner. Could be the holdout manufacturer on the edge of town. They’re all interesting to us! Drop an email to tips@thedistance.com and we’ll follow up. Thanks for helping us with THE DISTANCE.

My door is always open... Whatever.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 8 comments

Nearly every boss has said it. And just about every employee has heard it. Yet it’s one of the most meaningless lines ever spoken in the office:

“My door is always open.”

The statement usually is followed up with some version of, “If you ever have an issue with anything, please come talk to me.”

What’s wrong with this? Isn’t it important for your employees to know that you are open to hearing their suggestions, concerns, and criticisms? Of course it is.

But let’s be real here: In most cases, “My door is always open” isn’t really an invitation to speak up. It’s a cop-out. It makes the boss feel good but puts the onus entirely on the employees. You might as well say, “You find the problems and then take all the risk of interrupting my day and confronting me about them.” How many people have taken you up on that offer?

Your employees have lots of opinions about everything—your strategy and vision; the state of the competition; the quality of your products; the vibe in the workplace. There are tons of things you can learn from them.

But how many of these ideas and opinions have you actually heard? A tiny fraction, I’d bet. The reality is that companies are full of things that are left unspoken. And even when they are out in the open, the CEO is almost always the last to know.

I like to think of myself as a leader whose door is always open. But I recently learned that an open door isn’t enough…

Read the rest of the article at Inc.com

Marketing around situations

Mig Reyes
Mig Reyes wrote this on 6 comments

Before he made The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s famous comics and illustrations graced the covers of Apple brochures. The writing inside—from 1989, mind you—still does a great job selling the Mac.


Instead of blanket marketing a one-size-fits-all message, Apple took the time to speak to every situation a person is in. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the Mac is there to put order back in your life. If you’re unemployed, the Mac is there to help you chase a career. If you’re a habitual procrastinator, the Mac is there for your spark of productivity.
They’re listening to us, and our problems. Talk about empathy.
Plenty of marketing today, especially in software, is a package of feature sets, bells, whistles, and some boasting about how they’re better than the next guy. Perhaps there’s mention of “benefits,” sure, but we’re always left figuring out how a product is supposed to fit in our own lives.
Chances are, your product isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t have to be, either. Really listen to your audience—you’re lucky to have them. Instead of assuming what they need, ask where they’re coming from. How did they get to the point of finally asking your product for help? If you can figure that out, all of a sudden your marketing changes from “making sales” to “being there for friend.” That feels good.

The Category Moat

Ryan
Ryan wrote this on 15 comments

A few of us at Basecamp became fans of the “job to be done” framework taught by Clay Christensen, Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek. The core idea is that what you are selling and what people are buying are two different things. Understanding what people are trying to do with your product helps you know whether you’re getting hotter or colder as you consider changes to your product.

For example, we think we’re selling a project management product. But some people really use our tool and pay us every month to manage their clients. The projects were always fine—it’s the clients that are a challenge! That’s just one example.

Clay has suggested (eg. here) that when you identify what people truly use your product to accomplish, you protect yourself from competition. He’s a smart man, so when he says something odd like that I try to dig in. I’m starting to see what he means.

It’s natural to identify with a product category. You think “we make product management software” or “we make candy bars” because you have to explain yourself over and over. It’s always easier to use available categories than to invent new ones. It’s just like language. We speak the lexicon instead of inventing words.

But for people who want to innovate, this is a problem. Identifying with a product category is outsourcing your strategy to the past. Is the world really carved up into allowable product categories? No. We are all figuring this stuff out every day. Experience shows that amazing breakouts and surprise successes competed on unorthodox dimensions (see Blue Ocean Strategy for examples).

Bob tells the story of a clock maker. They sell an alarm clock for small kids who started sleeping in their own room. It’s not a normal alarm clock. It has an arrow that points to whether the kid is supposed to be in bed or whether he is allowed to get up. That way he doesn’t go running into his parents’ room until after a reasonable hour.

If you think this product is a clock then it’s in the clock category in the clock aisle with a clock price. But parents who bought the clock said they would pay $100 or more for it because it keeps the kid out of their room. It’s a sleep protector.

So how does thinking outside the category protect us from competition? I’ve been conducting interviews with Basecamp customers, and I’m feeling first hand how tricky it is to think outside of a category. You don’t have a shorthand. You don’t have words and feature lists given to you. It’s like you’re floating out in space with nothing to grab onto.

That’s the key. The fact that it’s so hard to think outside of a category is the moat. Staying focused on why you made the features you did, what specific situations call for them, and how that combo creates progress for people requires diligence and confidence and unyielding attention to actual behavior. Sticking to the truth of the matter instead of the walls of a category keeps you on your own path and away from the pitfalls of conventional thinking. That’s hard to compete with.

Big news

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 27 comments

Today, February 5th, 2014, Basecamp turns 10. What an amazing ride it’s been. And since nearly all our business comes from word-of-mouth, we owe it all to our customers. We are so thankful for what you’ve helped us build.

And on this special day, we have a couple very big announcements that will define the future of our company. Click that link to find out what they are.

These are exciting times. Fifteen years into our business, we are so grateful for everyone’s support. It’s been such a blast. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can do together for the next fifteen.

Thanks for everything, everyone. Here’s to what’s next.

Bonus link: The original blog post in 2004 that launched Basecamp.

Canceling eFax

David
David wrote this on 19 comments
Wish to cancel your account? You may do so conveniently with an Online Chat Representative during 6AM-6PM Pacific Time, Monday through Friday. Or, you may call us after hours at (323) 817-3205.

Interesting use of the word “conveniently”. After days of missing the window, I finally hit it at the right time. Here’s how that convenient chat went:

  • Please wait for a site operator to respond. You are currently number 1 of 1 in the queue. Thank you for your patience.
  • You are now chatting with ‘Mike B.’
  • David Hansson: Hi there, please cancel my account.
  • Mike B.: Hello, David. Welcome to online Fax support. I am Mike Berry, your online Live Support Representative. How may I assist you?
  • Mike B.: I am glad to help you. Could you please provide me your fax number, registered email address and billing zip code for verification?
  • David Hansson: 555555555, david@loudthinking.com, 99999
  • Mike B.: I am sorry, the zip code provided is incorrect. Please confirm the 4-digit PIN or last 4 digits of the credit card on file.
  • David Hansson: pin: 1111
  • Mike B.: Thank you for providing your information. Please give me a moment while I pull up your account.
  • Mike B.: In the meantime, please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation:
  • Mike B.: 1) Moving to another provider
  • Mike B.: 2) Bought a fax machine
  • Mike B.: 3) Business or role changed
  • Mike B.: 4) Short term project completed
  • Mike B.: 5) Financial reasons
  • Mike B.: 6) Problems with faxing or billing
  • Mike B.: 7) Dissatisfied with quality of service
  • Mike B.: 8) Too costly
  • David Hansson: no need for fax
  • Mike B.: David, as we’d like to keep your business, I can offer you a discount and also waive your subscription fee for 1 month.
  • Mike B.: The discounted monthly fee would be $12.95 per month. This new plan includes 150 free inbound and 150 free outbound pages monthly.
  • Mike B.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime. Shall I switch you to this plan?
  • David Hansson: no thanks, just cancel
  • Mike B.: Alright.
  • Mike B.: I completely understand your wish to discontinue. Conversely, May I offer you a waiver of 2 months on subscription fee so that you can re-evaluate your needs?
  • Mike B.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime.
  • David Hansson: no thanks, just cancel
  • Mike B.: Okay.
  • Mike B.: If you wish to consider the offer, I can set your account to auto-close at the end of the 2-month waiver period, wherein you need not have to contact us again for cancelling the account.
  • Mike B.: However, if you choose to continue, you would need to get back to us so that we could remove the auto-closure of your account.
  • Mike B.: Would that be fine with you?
  • David Hansson: nope, canceling now is what I would like
  • Mike B.: Okay, I will go ahead and cancel your account.
  • Mike B.: An e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.
  • Mike B.: Is there anything else I may assist you with?
  • David Hansson: that’s it, thanks
  • Mike B.: Thank you for contacting online Fax support. I hope you found our session helpful. Goodbye and take care.
  • Chat session has been terminated by the site operator.

I hardly need to add commentary to illustrate just how ridiculous and unfair this process is, but I can’t help myself. If you allow a customer to signup 24/7/365, you should damn well allow that customer to cancel their service 24/7/365. If you allow them to signup self-service, you should damn well allow that customer to cancel by self-service. Anything less is just crummy.

(I wish credit card companies would help enforce consumer protection against this: Unless it’s as easy to cancel as it is to signup, chargeback is automatic).

The person you could be hiring

Emily Wilder
Emily Wilder wrote this on 21 comments

Chip Pedersen has been in tech for more than 25 years, 18 in the game industry. He’s led teams at Microsoft and Activision; done R&D for Apple; managed projects for huge brands like DreamWorks, MTV, Discovery Channel, History Channel, the MLB and the NHL.

You should probably hire him.
The catch is that he lives in Minneapolis, and he’s not going anywhere. “I’m just a Minnesota kid who wants to stay here,” he says. “All my three sons were born in different states. We moved back to Minnesota where we’re from. We like it here. We don’t want to go anywhere.”

Chip Pedersen, on a “Silicon Prairie” winter camping trip. “I can work from anywhere and any temperature,” Pedersen says.

“I have had offers to return to the West coast, but I just don’t want to do that.” He says his old Silicon Valley pals keep cajoling him: “‘come back out West; we’ll hire you right now!’ and my wife’s like, ‘no!’ We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and she said, ‘I’ve moved for you all these years, now can you do it for me and stay home?’ and I said, ‘sure.’”
So home they’ll stay. Pedersen is currently a gun for hire (with his company Golden Gear Consulting), and he likes it that way — he just wishes more businesses were open to the idea of remote work. “You can get great talent and let them be where they are,” he says, “and not have to put up with the cost of living in San Francisco.”
Eric Fleming, a Ruby and JavaScript developer in Jacksonville, Fla., can identify with that. Another father of three, he doesn’t want to relocate for work either. “We like the kids’ school,” he says. “I moved around when I was a kid a lot, and I always thought that it would be great to just settle down somewhere. We’ve established our roots here. We like where we live. The kids have friends and that’s real important for me, to be able to let them have some continuity in their lives.”
Most of the recruiters and hiring managers that reach out to Fleming want him to move, though he’s confident he does a better job working from home. “I can concentrate on my work and there’s no one here to distract me from that,” he says. “There’s no one coming over and tapping me on the shoulder and asking me about something. They may send me a message on Skype or Google Hangouts or something like that, but I can ignore that easier than I can someone coming into my personal space.”
Fleming recently tweeted about being in the market for a new position if anybody has a need for an experienced developer. Predictably, the first reply came from an IT recruiter: “Eric, would you consider moving to Austin or are you looking to remain in J-ville?”
That recruiter — Mark Cunningham, owner of The Bidding Network in Austin — says zero percent of his clients (primarily startups) are open to hiring remote workers. “If we’ve got some crackerjack Java developer who just has something amazing but he lives [20 miles away] in Cedar Park and the startup’s located downtown, we might work something out,” Cunningham says. But for the most part, his clients want to take advantage of the chemistry that results from everyone working in close concert.
“They worry about the loss of synergy, and the collaboration, and then the fires that are stoked from elite software engineers and elite professionals being together face-to-face and what comes from that,” Cunningham says. “That’s where they’re hesitating.”
Fair enough — there’s no denying there are advantages to having everyone in the same room. But when you stack the advantages that come with putting local heads together against the advantages of hiring the best heads from everywhere and collaborating remotely … well, it’s fairly clear where we stand on that.
“Give people the flexibility to work where they feel more comfortable working,” Fleming says. “They’re going to give you better results. It’s better for the company overall.”
Pedersen feels that for the more established companies he’s worked with, the hesitation comes from being stuck in a “face time = work time” paradigm. If you aren’t working onsite, “they think you’re goofing off,” he says.
“I’ve definitely worked at a number of companies where it was about the time you spent there. You may not have been doing much, but you were there. Microsoft was a little bit like that … I had a futon in my office and I would sleep there.”
What will it take for that cultural shift to happen, for companies to begin to allow people to work from wherever they like as long as the work is getting done? A leap of faith, Pedersen says.
“Do a small test,” he suggests. “Try it out. If you can’t find the person you’re trying to hire — if you’ve been looking forever to hire somebody and you can’t find them because they’re not in your region — look for a remote worker. You’re probably going to find an excellent person to meet your needs and get your stuff done. Probably within your budget and faster. Take those leaps when you see the opportunity.”
It comes down to results, Pedersen says. With the teams he manages, he does his best to treat everyone like adults and focus on the work itself. “If they’re getting their stuff done … I’m staying with that person. They got it done last time; they keep getting it done. I don’t care if they live in Venezuela; they’re getting it done.”

Everyone does everything

David
David wrote this on 13 comments

The natural tendency of growth is towards specialization. When you only have a few people, they must by necessity do everything. When you have more people, there’s enough room and slack to let people build specialization kingdoms that only they have the keys to. Don’t be so eager to let that happen.

Specialization might give you a temporary boost in productivity, but it comes at the expense of overall functional cohesion and shared ownership. If only Jeff can fiddle with the billing system, any change to the billing system is bottlenecked on Jeff, and who’s going to review his work on a big change?

But it goes even deeper than that. For example, we have all programmers work on-call as well. Everyone gets to feel the impact of customers having trouble with our code (this is on top of Everyone on support).

This really came to the test lately when we started working on a number of iOS and Android projects. Should we hire new specialists in from the outside or should everyone do everything, and thus have our existing team learn the ropes. Well, in that case we ended up doing both. Hiring a little because we needed that anyway, and getting someone with some experience, but also choosing to invest in the existing team by having them learn iOS and Android from scratch.

Good programmers are good programmers. Good designers are good designers. Don’t be so eager to pigeonhole people into just one technology, one aspect of your code base, or one part of your business. Most people are eager to learn and grow if you give them a supportive environment to do so.