Conflict is good for business Matt 22 Sep 2006

15 comments Latest by Per

i'm a macWhat do 50 Cent, Hugo Chavez, and Steve Jobs have in common? They realize the value of a good rivalry.

Hip-hop artists like 50 cent use “beefs” as a source for publicity and promotion all the time.

Chavez is getting lots of mileage out of casting himself as the Anti-Bush. You may disagree with his views but he’s certainly been effective at getting himself on the world stage (how many other South American presidents can you name?).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign uses the Mac-PC rivalry as a frame for defining the advantages of going Mac.

Conflict gets attention

Want people to empty a bar? Tell ‘em there’s a fight going on outside. It’s a fact of life: Conflict gets people’s attention.

That’s why the right kind of conflict can be a good tool for business. When you have an enemy or disagree with someone else’s ideas, people notice. It helps define you. It shows you stand for something. It clarifes what’s different about you. Just be sure to go for a healthy debate of ideas — not name-calling, flaming, cheap shots, etc. (There’s enough of that crap in the web world already.)

Basecamp vs. Project

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”
-Oscar Wilde

We used an enemy, Microsoft Project, to help define our vision for Basecamp. Here’s an excerpt from “Have an Enemy,” an essay in Getting Real:

Sometimes the best way to know what your app should be is to know what it shouldn’t be…We decided Basecamp would be something completely different, the anti-Project.

We realized project management isn’t about charts, graphs, reports and statistics — it’s about communication. It also isn’t about a project manager sitting up high and broadcasting a project plan. It’s about everyone taking responsibility together to make the project work.

One bonus you get from having an enemy is a very clear marketing message. People are stoked by conflict. And they also understand a product by comparing it to others. With a chosen enemy, you’re feeding people a story they want to hear. Not only will they understand your product better and faster, they’ll take sides. And that’s a sure-fire way to get attention and ignite passion.

Taking a stand at SvN

Also, we use SvN as a forum to air gripes. Controversy brings traffic but, more importantly, it helps define our philosophy and views. Recently, we’ve railed against BusinessWeek’s bubble-math, blowhard copywriting, and the idea that small teams can’t compete with Google. We don’t do this just to be difficult. We do it to take a stand for things we believe in (respectively): honest business math, straightforward language, and the idea that innovation can triumph over size.

Conference controversy

A little controversy can even spice up a conference. One attendee’s presentation notes at RailsConf Europe said, “Most interesting part of questions was where DHH and a person (unidentified), were arguing.” Not surprising really. Even the best conferences can often be polite, staid affairs. A little disagreement wakes people up and makes them take notice.

Remember the whole Mena Trott/Ben Metcalfe blowup? Maybe not one of the web’s best moments but, it certainly got people to rubberneck.

Don’t go around picking fights or name-calling. But also don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions that can kickstart lively dialogue.

The rules of fight club

If you decide to stir the pot, be sure to do it in a mature way:

Be sincere. Don’t make up conflict just so you can get noticed. If you’re just fishing for attention without any real passion behind your views, people can tell.

Don’t get nasty. Personal attacks, unfounded criticism, or frustration-induced lash outs make you look mean and petty.

Elevate the discussion. Go for the tone of a courtroom battle where both sides argue ideas in the hope of getting to the truth. Ideally, you and your opponent can clash over ideas yet still hug it out afterwards.

15 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Dave Rau 22 Sep 06

hahahaha; the big question: what kind of Mac is Biggie Smalls?

Tony 22 Sep 06

what kind of Mac is Biggie Smalls?

A Big Mac? ;)

Mo 22 Sep 06

I am sure Hugo Chavez followed all of those rules.

Mike 22 Sep 06

The thing about Hugo Chavez is, because he is head of an oil rich country, he directly benefits from the market’s insecurity re. oil prices. Same thing with Iran. The more bizarre things they say, the higher oil prices will stay because of the fear of oil supply disruptions.

Chris Busse 22 Sep 06

For an another take on this, see the section in Guy Kawasaki’s excellent book “Art of the Start” regarding the “killer gene” in men.

Chris Busse 22 Sep 06

For an another take on this, see the section in Guy Kawasaki’s excellent book “Art of the Start” regarding the “killer gene” in men.

Ryan 22 Sep 06

You say conflict gets attention? I think you’re COMPLETELY FULL OF SH**.


Some dude 22 Sep 06

Or, as Law 2 of the rather-creepy “48 Laws of Power”, puts it: “If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.”

Edmundo 22 Sep 06

Finally, somebody gets the whole thing about Chavez!

I’m from Venezuela, and people ask me all the time, “What’s the deal with Chavez?”. They never really think it’s all about marketing his image.

You should see Venezuela right now, it’s full of Chavez’ party propaganda. You have abrand new road sign or public place, and right below the sign it says “brought to you by Chavez and the governor!”. Talk about noise… noise that gets people confused and fooled. With that kind of marketing, who else are you going to vote for?

And before anyone outside Latin America knew who he was (before he started poking at W. Bush), he portrayed himself as the robin hood of our country. Steal from the rich, give to the poor…

Ali 22 Sep 06

I’ve found that when reading the 37 signals feed. the best way is to just click the items like screens around town, campfire discussion, etc etc to mark them as “Read” and quickly proceed to the real, useful content like this.

Josh 22 Sep 06

Pepsi versus Coca Cola is another good example of this. Both companies market against each other without resorting to smear campaigns, realizing that 2 mega corporations dominating the marketplace is much better than a dogfight between 3 or more companies. It’s a cohabitative monopoly.

Rajan Sodhi 25 Sep 06

Great post! It always comes down to differentiating yourself from the rest by staying firm with what you believe without compromise or apology. Everyone may not agree with you or even like you, but everyone can respect a well-thought position. And there is nothing wrong with that, in life or in business.

Dan Miller 25 Sep 06

Steve also used the “enemy” marketing tool when Apple was just starting out. His “enemy” then IBM. Funny how mac’s ended up, for a while at least, running on IBM manufactured chips.

Per 26 Sep 06

what kind of Mac is Biggie Smalls?

a Mac 10.