At the end of every interview someone inevitably asks “Where do you see 37signals in five years? Ten years? 20 years?” My answer remains the same: “Still in business. Beyond that I have no idea.”
Five years ago I had no idea we’d release Basecamp. Four years ago I had no idea we’d release Ta-da List. Three years ago I had no idea we’d release Backpack or Campfire. Two years ago I had no idea we’d release Highrise. Did I ever think we’d write another book? Not until we started it. And what about next year? I’m not entirely sure what we’re going to be working on.
You know more later than you do now
Just as we don’t believe in functional specs for software, we don’t believe in functional specs for companies. Planning it all out beforehand puts too much faith in the unknown. You know more about something while you’re doing it than before you’ve started. Just as we don’t much about the product we’re going to build before we build it, we don’t know much about the business opportunities before they happen. Books, plans, and documents may tell you how things should be, but only real experience tells you how things really are.
“But if you don’t know where you’re going how are you going to get there.” We don’t know where we’re going. We know where we are. For us, what’s next is what’s now and what’s now is probably what’s next. Today’s weather is the best indicator of tomorrow’s weather. Things change, but not as much or as fast as most think. Focusing too much on the stuff that changes is why many companies lose their way. They’re always tripping over themselves as they try to keep pace with what’s new. People want what works, not what’s new.
Focus on what won’t change
The best business advice I’ve ever heard was this: “Focus on the things that won’t change.” Today and ten years from now people will still want simple things that work. Today and ten years from now people will still want fast software. Today and ten years from now people will still want fair prices. I don’t believe we’ll have a “I want complex, slow, and expensive products” revolution in 2017.
You can still evolve, improve, and innovate
Focusing on the things that won’t change doesn’t mean you’re stale, slow, or unwilling to adapt. It means that in ten years time your products will be more refined, more perfected, more efficient. Japanese cars sucked when they first came on to the market, but today they’re seriously refined and seriously good. This is because Japanese auto makers focused on principals that don’t change: Reliability, affordability, practicality. People wanted those things 30 years ago, they want them today, and they’ll want them 30 years from now. Constant refinement of those principals yields wonderful products.
Real opportunity comes from being opportunistic
Opportunities are spontaneous, but when you’re sticking to your five year plan you don’t deviate. You’re putting the blinders on. “This is where we’re going because that’s what we said!” When you don’t have a plan you can pick up on an opportunity that comes along. You’re taking the blinders off. “This is where we’re going because it makes sense today.” I’d rather stroll into the future with my blinders off.
Your mileage may vary
Of course it all depends on what you’re doing. Boeing probably needs a pretty stiff plan when building a new airplane. NASA needs to plan rocket launches many years in advance. If you want to be a doctor you’ll need a longer-term educational plan. But most businesses most of the time could benefit by just keeping their eyes open, being aware of what’s going on now, focusing on the basics that will be important to their customers today and tomorrow, and not looking too far ahead.