Embrace Obscurity Jason 20 Mar 2006

58 comments Latest by articleworld

At SxSW a few weeks ago I spoke about starting a side business instead of quitting your job (audio in MP3). Build something on the side. Give it a go and see what happens. The constraint of less time will help you focus on what’s important. If there’s something there, then take it to the next step.

It’s hard to point to a business that launched huge and has been successful. Most of the big winners in our industry started really small and grew big over time. eBay, Craigslist, Yahoo, Google — these were all started on the side. They weren’t funded up, hyped up, and launched huge. They started really small and grew organically.

One of the real benefits of starting a side business is obscurity. To be more specific, failing in obscurity.

When people talk about business they don’t like to talk about failure. But in business you’ll fail more than you’ll succeed. So it’s worth talking about.

The beauty of starting a side business is that you can fail in obscurity. Many people worry that they’ll languish in obscurity. Don’t worry about having a great idea that no one knows about. Worry about having a bad idea that everyone knows about.

When no one knows about you you can make mistakes quietly. Learn at your own pace. Fail without the fear of failure. Failing in obscurity helps protect your ego and you’ll need your ego later on when you are successful. Confidence is vital to success and if you fail big on your first try it’s going to take years for your ego to recover. Fail small now so you can succeed big later.

So embrace obscurity. It’s your friend. Launch small, make mistakes in the shadows, get better, and then seek out the spotlight when you’re ready.

58 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jim R 20 Mar 06

hi Jason

why did you close the “$10 off Campfire coupon Jason Mar 19” Post for comments?

earthinheriter 20 Mar 06

A very inspiring hour of audio! I’ve been quoting and forwarding your presentation daily. Embrace constraints, embrace obscurity and be curious! Thank you, Jason and Jim.

Dan Boland 20 Mar 06

Jason, these words hit home for me. I started Low Key Designs with a friend of mine because it allows me to do work that I want to do. I do a lot of web work at my job, but I’m the one at the helm when I do side work. That kind of freedom is wonderful. And you’re right, if work dries up or if I fall flat on my face, it’s okay, because no one really knows we exist anyway! We aren’t a licensed business for this reason — it gives us the option of failing “for free.”

Mike Rundle 20 Mar 06

Jason, that little part right there was the very best part of your entire keynote.

Bob Aman 20 Mar 06

Mike’s right, that was a really good point that many would do well to keep in mind.

Piotr Usewicz 20 Mar 06

Exactly what I am doing now…

jean zaque 20 Mar 06

true dat

ceejayoz 20 Mar 06

@Jim R - most likely because people were being cocks in it.

Pius Uzamere 20 Mar 06

What they said. :D

dmr 20 Mar 06

Yes, this is how and why Josh and I started Iron-On Resistance independent screen-printed art products; not unlike Keith Hering’s Pop Shop we’re trying to bring affordable art to our fellow proletariats. We’ve been learning a great deal about running a different kind of business, one that deals with physical goods. We’ve recently hired a seamstress to make wallets and neckties and have been saving money by doing a lot of the screen printing ourselves and with friends.

It’s a lot of fun to start a business this way, but selling physical goods is a bit trickier than a web service.

Dan Boland 20 Mar 06

Lovely site, dmr.

dmr 20 Mar 06

Some failures, and lessons learned:
- do small editions, but not too small! printing editions of 5 vs 40 wallets isn’t that much more effort, still keeps editions low and lets us get more use out of a design before retiring it

- we originally started with a home-brew php/mysql shopping cart, but I’m not a programmer, so we scrapped this in favor of paypal. this let us focus on making designs and creating the products, not wasting it on reinventing the shopping cart wheel. although we sure wish paypal had an coupon codes!

- being small is great; we can write personal email receipts and give personal thanks to every customer. always send some free pins and stickers with every order; people like tiny and free stuff, especially when it’s good!

- iterate! we’re on our 3rd redesign of the site, adding features as we need them. my php skills are so-so and this is a great way to work within my own limitations as well as not overdoing it. spending extra effort on the web site when needed, but leaving the “that might be nice down the road” stuff for another day (or another programmer.) iterating is also fun with design; Josh and I are working to improve a few designs even tho they’re already printed; version 2.0 of a tshirt i guess…

Kyle 20 Mar 06

Hmm, I think all I can say tho this is: yes.

I think another benefit of this approach is that there is an enormous amount of stress relieved in not relying on the income from a side business. It becomes a work of love, not a work for money - which in the end produces excellence.

Geoff B 20 Mar 06

The problem with starting “on the side” is that many programmers work for companies that have an ownership stake in almost anything software-related that they create. If you spend your weekend painting, restoring old cars, or flipping houses, it’s your business, but if you spend it hacking… well, I’m not sure how this works, ianal, and all that, but it is something to keep in mind.

Maarten Hendrikx 20 Mar 06

Very interesting speech and I agree with you that obscurity can be a real blessing especially since there are like a million startups producing webapps these days. Small businesses tend to crash small.

Embracing constraints is a good thing but you have to watch out they don’t choke you :-)

JF 20 Mar 06

The problem with starting “on the side” is that many programmers work for companies that have an ownership stake in almost anything software-related that they create. If you spend your weekend painting, restoring old cars, or flipping houses, it’s your business, but if you spend it hacking… well, I’m not sure how this works, ianal, and all that, but it is something to keep in mind.

Certainly. You need to make sure you are within your employment agreement to work on the side.

John Topley 20 Mar 06

That can’t be right, surely? If I create my own code, using my own equipment, on my own property and in my own time, how can my employer possibly have any claims on it?

pwb 20 Mar 06

The problem with starting ďon the sideĒ is that many programmers work for companies that have an ownership stake in almost anything software-related that they create.

This may be true and you should always check your employer’s policy but generally what you do on your own time with your own resources is yours.

Geoff B. 20 Mar 06

“That canít be right, surely? If I create my own code, using my own equipment, on my own property and in my own time, how can my employer possibly have any claims on it?…”

I don’t really know the legal aspect of this… but based on my own sense of fairness, it seems like it would depend on the terms of employment. Some companies may argue that the whole reason they hired you was to be creative and add some value in ways that had not been anticipated. I read that Google gives employees 20% of their time to pursue unstructured projects. Some employers are willing to support creative programmers - essentially telling them “you were hired to think, not to follow directions, so I’m going to keep your actual assignment schedule light, and hope *you* can tell *me* where the big ideas are”… Obviously, such an employer would be wise to give the innovator a nice cut of the benefit, so he/she is motivated to create software instead of fix cars/flip houses.

The market has a way of sorting this out. The organizations that figure out how to collaborate with their employees will win, the organizations that set up an adversarial relationship will lose, and the latter will pay the former $$$ for innovations.

Jim R 20 Mar 06

@ceejayoz - or mayby they didn’t wont tp pay for Beta Testing…

JF 20 Mar 06

Jim, then they don’t have to. And they aren’t “paying for beta testing.” If people were considering upgrading, now they can save $10 on the upgrade. We weren’t expecting people with no intention of upgrading to upgrade.

Jens Alfke 20 Mar 06

ďThat canít be right, surely? If I create my own code, using my own equipment, on my own property and in my own time, how can my employer possibly have any claims on it?ÖĒ

They can if you signed over such rights when you started employment. This kind of “Proprietary Rights Agreement” is very common in the industry, and in the excitement of getting The Offer, few people really read through all that paperwork.

You can read about my own experiences with this many years ago. Admittedly this is an odd case because I was selling such a side project to my employer; but more recently I know people (and I’d rather not reveal who they worked for) who’ve gotten in trouble with their employers for simply releasing shareware apps under their real name.

I can’t state this too strongly: If you are employed by a company for which you perform creative work, read your employment papers carefully before starting any independent project in that same line of business.

A corollary of this: If you are accepting a job offer, before you sign that paperwork, read through it, and try to get exemptions for any outside projects you either currently have or plan to do in the future.

Jim R 20 Mar 06

@JF -

O.k i am sure you had good business intentions…but why did you close the post?

is getting real = getting to agree with you all the time?

it just look a bit lame when you do that and i have notice that it’s not the first time that you are closing your post to comments, when people don’t agree with you.

steve 20 Mar 06

They closed the post because this is their blog, and they felt like it. They embrace transparency, great. But I don’t think they owe us an explanation for everything they do.

a scientist 20 Mar 06

as a side note in the same vein, if you’re a contacrtor working without a formalized contact, any intellectual property reverts to you, the contactor. from what i undertsand, this law is the opposite in california, in that all intellectual property reverts to the company by default.

David O. 20 Mar 06

The other problem with a side biz that I am experiencing now is that I’m so excited by the new business that it’s difficult to be interested in the day job! Must… stay… on… task…

Thanks for the great post.


BitWorks Music - odd tunes for odd times

Don Wilson 20 Mar 06

This is why I hate the flashy Web 2.0 business model. They think that with good design and a minimal idea they can get their business VC’d and eventually sold to a huge company for millions. The real goal of the business, which is to develop a real product out of necessity and not just a desire for money.

erwin blom 20 Mar 06

Whatever happened to the scheduled Basecamp upgrade this weekend?

brandon ewoldt 20 Mar 06

Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear.

Gayle 20 Mar 06

OH, I like it.

Jim R 20 Mar 06


if it was any other company i would understand. but with the 37signals mantra and the “getting rea”l stuff…well i dont.

“freedom of speech”

I'm With Stupid 20 Mar 06

@Jim - I would guess it is because (from what I read before comments were ‘locked down’) many of the comments were off-target and not contributing to any productive exchange of ideas.

Sort of like the people in this thread who keep asking why discussion was cut off in the other thread.

If you consider trolls whinging about irrelevant minutia to be Getting Real, then you’ve missed the point, I think.

In any case, maybe they just meant it to be an announcement and forgot to turn off comments when they originally posted it.

JF 20 Mar 06

is getting real = getting to agree with you all the time?

Not at all. If you read the book you’d understand that.

But 12 vapid comments in a row that don’t add any value don’t lead to a good discussion. So I closed it. Case closed.

Geoff B 20 Mar 06

Jens - good post, thanks. I particularly liked your reference to “alienation from one’s labor”.

The good tech companies/organizations take steps to make sure that employees don’t feel this kind of alienatation. If your company collaborates with you and supports you, why not go to them with ideas? This reminds me of an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the computer science department at Stanford (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/03/20/BUGBTHNVSI161.DTL)

This quote seems particularly apt:

“What sets Stanford apart is the startup culture,” said Patterson, the Berkeley professor, adding, “I have this sense that it’s an almost unwritten rule that you have to start a company to be a successful professor at Stanford.”

Now obviously that isn’t going to work for corporations, but I have a feeling that the best companies are going to be able to encourage innovation in their best employees by cutting them into the profits. The bad companies will get a reputation, and the best hackers will stay away. Playing hardball with employees is short term thinking - yeah, you get the all benefit for a particular innovation, but that’s the last one you’ll ever get out of them (and others - word travels fast). Collaborate, and it becomes a repeatable process. You can fight, win, and get all twenty of a $20 bill once, or collaborate and get a % of thousands over and over.

aw 20 Mar 06

I encourage eveyone to listen to JF’s opening speech @ SXSW. You’ll feel that he’s presenting alternative ideas and *NOT* saying that everyone is wrong. He even encourages other to take from him and other people’s prespective in order to create their own ideas & philosophies (specifically when taking VC money).

Getting Real doesn’t equal agree with 37Signls. At best - it says: this is our perspective. I get that sense from both the book & JF’s talk. I think thats fair.

Heck - he even tells someone that your org may not be ale to do this, thats cool - so do what works.

doane 20 Mar 06

You hit the nail right on the head.

great post.

Jim R 20 Mar 06


vapid comments? maybe some of them, but most of them just didn’t think that charging for testing your code is fair!

“getting real” - from what you preach - is listening to your costumers…so please do. but you are still young and inexperience so that will come with time…unless you are dishonest which i hope you are not.

btw - i have a book for you and it’s called - “learning to except criticism” by JD

Anonymous Coward 20 Mar 06

my gawd, is there any better example why Jason closed that thread than YOU, Jim R? You’ve posted ***4*** comments in ***this thread*** about some ***other thread***.

get over it already man. sheesh.

Frederick 20 Mar 06

Well, we can now clearly see that dissent isn’t tolerated on SvN - if you don’t “Get Real” and agree, then what can you expect but a troll cap?

The 37signals collective ego is now huge, particularly after the BusinessWeek citing. Get over yourselves guys, you are 3% product and 97% hype. And the hype is generated by sycophantic behaviours.

What a waste of code this site is.

Rabbit 20 Mar 06

Hehe… Frederick — you’re dissenting and I see no troll cap on you. :)

What aw is pretty accurate. I wonder how many people come here, read a post or two and immediately post something inflammatory.

You can’t expect to understand the general principles of Getting Real with a few glances. Like most things in life, it takes time.

JF 20 Mar 06

Rabbit, he’s got one now ;)

Ron 20 Mar 06

Jason is probably a good guy but Rabbit has a point. it’s begging to feel like a bad cult.

Jason - you are using big words! make sure that you can deliver. i am sure to you are familiar with the “boomerang effect”.

Rabbit 20 Mar 06

Eh? That wasn’t my point.

My point was they _do_ air opposing view points. But at times people get pretty silly with the comments they make.

Look at all the times JF’s repeated himself. Shit, I almost know it by heart:

We’re sharing the principles and practices that have worked for US. They may or may not work for YOU. Take what you will and leave the rest.

I mean that right there should be enough to dissuade people from posting ignorant fireballs, but it’s not. They’ve said over and over they listen, and I get the funny feeling it’s a lot of US that aren’t listening.

I think people need to lighten up… Or, if you don’t like it, don’t hang out.

I’m surprised I haven’t gotten a troll cap (I’m not asking for one!). ;)

Rabbit 20 Mar 06

Oh, another thing. Look at who DOES have a troll cap and what they post:

Frederick said: What a waste of code this site is.

And now he has a troll cap. But LOOK at it. It’s a personal attack. It deserves a cap.

My feelings would be greatly hurt if you came to my site and told me my Ruby postings were a waste of code. =(

I don’t blame the Signals for wanting to keep some resemblance of peace around here.

I sure would.

Dave P 20 Mar 06

Heh, first time I’ve seen the “troll cap”.

To be honest, I think it says a lot about 37s that it’s just a “cap” and not a removal/deletion/hide.

I suppose it’s quite difficult to argue about your voice not being heard when I’m having no difficulty hearing it myself.


SteveTwo 20 Mar 06

Whoa, that is a lot of wasted space.

Jumping back onto the original post:

JF:Itís hard to point to a business that launched huge and has been successful.

What about Boo.com?

JF: Öget better, and then seek out the spotlight when youíre ready

Starting with the advantage of obscurity has its place, but over time, your success becomes part of your business drive. Do you not see the added protection, so to speak, of producing failures as a misleading? Making small mistakes is fine when it has no far reaching consequences, looking to apply that same principle to a larger, more demanding situation can only lead to disaster. I am not implying that you advocate this approach for larger projects. The main difficulty I can see people having with this mentality is in their capacity to know when to stop and when to draw the divide between obscurity and big time.

SteveTwo 20 Mar 06


I pushed my tongue through my cheek with that one

Aaron Blohowiak 20 Mar 06

Obscurity is bliss!

The sage avoids fame like the thief avoids capture - Lao Tzu

Wayne 20 Mar 06


After listening to the audio seminar, which was awesome, I wanted to ask you a question. (I previously posted this under the wrong post, which I only realized now). So here’s my question.

Iím curious, what are your thoughts about Newsvine.com and how they have raised VC money. Iím an avid mikeindustries.com blog reader but I still donít see how they plan to make money based solely on advert. revenue (which they still havenít put up yet).

Iím asking you since you run a very successful online business and from listening to the audio os SxSW, it seems like you have some good advise about VC’s.

Thanks for any comments from you in advance

Fred 21 Mar 06

Re: Employers owning your code.

It’s definitely common practice. Read your contract and AMEND it if you don’t like it. It’s your right.

I sent mine back amended and a comment that my boss could get stuffed if he thought I was going to sign over the rights to things I do outside of work.

My contract now says they own only what I do explicitly for them on their projects. As it should be anyway. It’s completely exploitative and offensive that the lawyering money grubbers have managed to insert these kinds of clauses into contracts and have them accepted as appropriate.

They can only get away with what you let them.

David O. 21 Mar 06

What I didn’t like about the talk is that they’re giving away my main trade secret! Simplicity is pretty much my entire business plan. Dude, don’t tell everyone!

For better or worse though, from the look of the “state of the web”, not many people get it, and they never will. I think it is human nature to over engineer everything. The rule of the ego is to be able to say: “I did that!” So everyone has to have their pet feature. It’s not quite as fun to say: “Look at my product—I was instrumental in removing 37 features from it!”

Jason Pettus 21 Mar 06

I’m really surprised that no one’s mentioned this in the comments yet, but there’s another huge benefit to starting a new business in the way you described - that you’re not out your entire life savings if it fails, or even worse, massive investments from outside sources. The former is bad enough, and the latter can get you a jail sentence in some cases; starting things up as a little side company, though, lets you invest only whatever extra money you have into it, instead of an all-or-nothing approach.

Chris Yeh 21 Mar 06

Having gone both the VC route and the self-funded route, I’m pretty familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of both.

One advantage of doing something on the side is the ability to kill a business easily and cleanly.

The first company I started, I raised over $6 million from venture capitalists (and yes, I started it in 1999). By late 2000, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to work, and that we’d all be better off shutting down.

However, we weren’t able to convince the investors to do this. Essentially, they said that they wouldn’t get much value out of a return of funds. Since they had invested the money, I didn’t feel like I could in good conscience resign and leave them to their fate, so I stayed on and slugged it out for another year before we all agreed to throw in the towel.

While I learned a lot that year, it would have been far better spent working on a new business, without the legacy of the past.

If I didn’t have outside investors, I would definitely have pulled the plug at least 12 months earlier.

Joel Mueller 22 Mar 06

The companies may not have been funded right on their launch, but some of those Jason mentioned were indeed funded. Google raised $1,000,000 at a fairly early point.

Also, you might read some of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series. They have some great real life tips on mindframes of being employed, self employed, business and investor and how people always say, “I’m starting my own business” when really they are “starting their own self employment,” and disadvantages to this type of thinking if you stay there too long.

Sherwood Stranieri 26 Mar 06

I started my consulting business at night, and that was basically the only way I could convince myself to do it at all (you see, I once started a restaurant…)

Unfortunately, the factor that made me drop my day job for the business was not sufficient revenue (barely sufficient at that point.) It was the need to conduct business during business hours.

Of course, that need was particularly acute for me because that’s the nature of consulting. But even product ventures need to contact prospective customers, attend conferences (that may/may not be relevant/permitted by your day job), provide tech support, etc.

Build-outs and bug-hunts are great nighttime endeavors - the business end needs daylight like a plant.

Nil Angsioco 04 Apr 06

I must keep this in mind. I must keep this in mind. I must keep this in mind.

foodswami 13 Apr 06

thanks for the info/guidance,
also thanks for keeping your basic products free, I use tada to keep track of hwk and projects.
also @ fredrick “troll hat” ďGet RealĒ ill keep it real, take a walk around oakland, see how real it is bro.

articleworld 23 May 06

Heard JF’s audio on side business.
Check out this introduction article on Self employment:
4.Tax implications

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