Mena’s Counterpoint Corner: In defense of big 14 Sep 2005

43 comments Latest by Chris Brogan...

Clearly annoyed by all the attention on small teams, Mena Trott goes on the record to defend big (relatively speaking). Her comments are important because she’s in a unique situation — she’s seen Six Apart go from 2 in a bedroom to 80+ spread all over the world. Her perspective is valuable and respectable. And her passion is clear.

Some of my counterpoint thoughts on her piece:

Tunnel vision is less likely to happen when new eyes view a product specification or wireframe.

We don’t do product specs or wireframes so we don’t have that problem ;)

And if someone’s going to trust us with their baby pictures or the blog they’re using to promote their business, they want to know we’ll be around even when the novelty wears off.

I wouldn’t say a lot of employees and owing a lot of money to investors is any guarantee of longevity. Quite the contrary in fact. I’d rather put my faith in a debt free, profitable, frugal company than a company burdened by significant long term debt, liabilities, a hefty payroll, and direct competition from Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo. But of course that’s my own biased comfort level — everyone needs to make those decisions for themselves.

Someone in our company noted that they have never been at a company where the engineering teams got along so well, so respectfully. That’s a huge thing in our book.

This has nothing to do with size. It has to do with environment and corporate culture. Big or small, business is about people. If you want to have a great team you have to treat them with respect, provide a great working environment, and communicate clearly. To their credit it sounds like Six Apart does that.

While it’s important not to repeat the sort of big money spending that doomed so many 90s dotcoms, there is something to be said for not having to make your employees sleep in your guest bedroom/office.

Ryan has never slept at my place. David did once, but that’s because we couldn’t get him a hotel because of my procrastination! Man, if I’d only had Backpack reminders back then…

If someone doesn’t fit the role they are in, there’s a very good chance that they can do something else better within the company. A number of people have been able to move into a different position (and even department!) months after their initial hiring. A larger team allows this flexibility.

And herein lies one of the big problems with bigger companies: reshuffling instead of removing. If someone isn’t doing their job maybe it’s time for them to go. It’s a lot easier to hide bad performers at a big company. In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or it’s noticed very quickly.

Something as simple as having someone to call who speaks your language is a *huge* reason to want to be a Six Apart customer.

She’s absolutely right about that. Scale does give you more power to localize.

At the end of the day, we all need to work with companies we like, on products we love, and with people we respect. If that happens at a big company then that’s great. If people find smaller companies a better fit for those qualities, then that’s great.

We’ve found being small has helped us build better products and be closer to our customers. Apple’s a huge company that builds fantastic products. And Six Apart has clearly found their own formula that they’re happy with. So there’s a lot of different ways to get there.

43 comments (comments are closed)

Jonah 14 Sep 05

Do you intend your comments only to apply to small firms that create software, or do you think that your epiphanies apply to larger companies that have to integrate parts/sub assemblies into larger products?

Mena Trott 14 Sep 05

Thanks for posting your response. I was very cautious not to disparage small teams because I do believe that they work as well. So, there are different ways to get equally good results.

One comment, however.

Your write:

“And herein lies one of the big problems with bigger companies: reshuffling instead of removing. If someone isnít doing their job maybe itís time for them to go. Itís a lot easier to hide bad performers at a big company. In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or itís noticed very quickly.”

We’re not reshuffling bad performers — we’re moving people based on their interests and (even better) skill sets. Two examples:

1. We hired someone someone who is college age and without much work experience. He is talented and wasn’t sure if he wanted to focus on design or engineering — so he started in design/production. After being “entry-level” for about half a year, we were able to shift him into more of an engineering role.

2. One of our most talented A-level engineers started with a backend focus. Totally talented and an asset to the team, he realized he wanted to focus more on front-end engineering. That’s what he does now and he’s more happy in that position.

Being larger affords the opportunity to grow positions around talent and not worry about being too understaffed.

Jan 14 Sep 05

In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or itís noticed very quickly.

It may be noticed very quickly, but that doesn’t mean he will be “removed” quickly. Suppose for example that David has some personal issues and start doing a really crappy job during a couple of weeks. Would you be able to fire him easily?

Firing someone is never easy. Not in a big company, not in a small company.

Mark Roseman 14 Sep 05

Jason, your post sounds more defensive in tone than usual. Frankly, it’s obvious to most everyone that there are pluses and minuses to larger and smaller teams, and that good leaders are going to make the best of their situation, playing to its particular strengths.


I think what’s ultimately important is that people understand that the business structures you choose have consequences for your overall goals, and that its ultimately the fit between them that is key.


It’s great that you can articulate how that can happen with a small company. But at the same time, it’s great to acknowledge how others can do it with a larger company.


I’d also like to see more honesty in admitting things that you as a smaller company can’t do as well - things which presumably have been explicitly outside of your main goals from the start (or have they?).

JF 14 Sep 05

Iíd also like to see more honesty in admitting things that you as a smaller company canít do as well - things which presumably have been explicitly outside of your main goals from the start (or have they?).

We don’t do things we don’t feel we’re good at. If we can’t add significant value then we stay away.

There are absolutely negatives to being small. No doubt about it. We run up against them frequently. But we’ll take those since they aren’t administrative in nature and administration is where inefficiencies, red tape, and mediocrity creeps in.

NathanB 14 Sep 05

The key to size is to watch for the “A people hire A people, B people hire C people” effect. As soon as those B’s start creeping in you’re doomed. The advantage of being small is that it’s easy to spot the B’s. In large companies you’ll find the A players clumped together in teams so they have some chance of doing good work.

Jamie 14 Sep 05

Not to go totally off on a tangent, but NathanB above reminded me of something that I read on Folklore:

…One day in September, in a conference room populated with about 25 members of the Mac team, Steve was lecturing on how to hire.

“A players hire A players,” he said. “B players hire C players. Do you get it?”

Apparently not. Somebody in the back of the room raised his hand and asked, “so how do you hire more B players?”

Kyle 14 Sep 05

Just a preference, I suppose, but I can’t imagine developing a large scale website without doing wireframes and the rest of the I/A stuff that comes along. Even when I’m working on personal projects, I still have a habit of breaking out visio to help me envision the app/site more fully. Perhaps it’s just because I’m more comfortable with the I/A and front-end development, and visio just helps this average coder better understand the back-end development needs.

Onto the subject at hand, I’ve worked in small(less than 5) and medium sized firms(around 30), and my preference for small simply comes down to increased pressure of having to do more. I love what I do(IA/CSS layouts/some backend dev), and I from my experience I just feel it’s easier to be pigeonholed into 1 role in a larger firm. I’d rather work crazy 60-80 hour work weeks handling a whole range of issues I have a passion for, than accidently get stuck in a more singular role for a year or more doing something I have only a moderate interest in.

Maybe this will change as I get older, but right now, after my most recent experience being in a mid-size firm, I can’t imagine it changing anytime soon.

Haydur 14 Sep 05

Being small and cute doesn’t really translate into an advantage, no matter if it’s a piece of software or a company. It’s ok to have extra features or people to work on things that you cannot see being used or needed. But they will be needed at one time. You will get requests from your users to add features to your software, and then in turn you would have to seek outside help if you the features are beyond your capabilities. For me, it’s fun to find out out new features that I never knew were there, like for example in Outlook!

Oh, and being “BIG” means that you don’t need to squeeze in Adsense right above the comments form.

pwb 14 Sep 05

My sense is that it’s not so much big vs. small companies but big vs. small *teams*.

Haydur, firstly, it’s the BigCo’s that stuff ads everywhere. Further, it was the SmallCo’s who jumped on the AdWords and AdSense wagons.

Anonymous Reader 14 Sep 05

The best book I ever about business (big, small, whatever) was Jack Stack’s “The Great Game of Business”.

The secret is to get everyone on the same page and have them understand the business using Open Book Management. That way, everyone knows what the important things about the business are.

When it was time to lay people off, they tried an alternative…start satellite businesses as part of the main company. Give them a chance to make it on their own.

I highly recommend it regardless of what size your company is.

A.Reader

Anonymous Reader 14 Sep 05

Something else I’ve noticed with regard to big v small is in grad school, I’m starting to think formal education doesn’t have much to do with real life business based on some of what they’re teaching. I think it might have been mentioned on this blog or one of the ones that is linked to.

A.Reader

..ak 14 Sep 05

Jason, your tone of the post is bitter that it looks like you’re criticising what SixApart did. They started as a small group and as demand increased, they saw the need to expand. Why is their success bothering you?

You don’t have to be small to be successful. I acknowledge that the meaing of “successful” is different from person to person so why do you need a negative counterpoint.

By chance, have you been keeping 37signals small becaue you can’t figure out how to scale up successfully?

Enough of my moaning…

The size and success of your company is determined by how you respond to the needs of your users.

JF 14 Sep 05

I’m not bitter nor is their success bothering me at all. I’m happy for anyone who has success and I especially like a lot of the folks that I know at Six Apart.

By chance, have you been keeping 37signals small becaue you canít figure out how to scale up successfully?

We’re small because we want to be small. We believe there are real advantages to being small. Of course things can change, but for now we’re thrilled with what we’re delivering and our customers seem to agree.

JF 14 Sep 05

Hold on everyone… I’m starting to see posts out there claiming that we think small is the ONLY way.

1. We’ve never said that.
2. We don’t believe that.
3. We’d never suggest that in the future.

We believe small has major advantages. Big has advantages in many cases too, but we’re here to advocate the advantages of small. There are plenty of folks out there on the other side, so we’re offering our side.

I repeat, we do not think small is the be all end all. It’s just one way out of many, but it’s never been more lucrative or powerful to be small than right now. Don’t run from small, embrace small.

Anonymous Coward 14 Sep 05

Mena thinks that being big means staying power? That seems like an insult to all the small businesses that are there 24/7 for their customers. Mena also suggests that small companies are like “indie bands” or in other words, aren’t ready for the big time. Who do you think you are Mena?

Luke 14 Sep 05

Quite the contrary in fact. Iíd rather put my faith in a debt free, profitable, frugal company…

Good point. I hadn’t thought of that, I’ll have to add it to my sales pitch.

Thanks for keeping the topics coming Jason.

Mena Trott 14 Sep 05

Mena thinks that being big means staying power? That seems like an insult to all the small businesses that are there 24/7 for their customers. Mena also suggests that small companies are like ďindie bandsĒ or in other words, arenít ready for the big time. Who do you think you are Mena?

Hey anonymous. Might I suggest you actually read my post and point out any place where I say small teams won’t work. My piece was about *our* experience and what *we’ve* done at Six Apart. Small teams can be successful — I believe this completely.

My last line: “That’s a big commitment, and a big responsibility. So we’ve tried to make sure we’re just big enough to tackle an opportunity of this size.”

We’re growing our company to meet *our* goals and *our* customer goals. Please don’t look for an insult that isn’t there.

And finally: To your question of “who do I think I am.”

I’m someone that at least can sign my name to my comments. Anonymity doesn’t buy much credibility.

andicat 15 Sep 05

“Mena also suggests that small companies are like ďindie bandsĒ or in other words, arenít ready for the big time.”
(anonymous)

Do I have to be the petty indie-rocker? Since Mena let this one go, I gotta nitpick on the indie bands part ;) Any fan of “indie bands” know they’re often *better* than the bigtime, and that Mena expresses enthusiasm for them way more often than “big time” bands. That interpretation of her post is way more a reflection of your beliefs, than hers. Both the band part. And the company part.

As for the larger discussion, It’s so cool that both companies even exist, and I think of them as both pretty small, creative, and subversive (in a good way!).

Speaking to which model offers the customer a guarantee of more longevity… I say neither size is a factor. Using open standards, letting a customer keep their data, and separating a company from the tool is the safest bet. Companies of all sizes come and go. Ideas don’t die.

Michael 15 Sep 05

My favorite thing ever from this blog is:


And herein lies one of the big problems with bigger companies: reshuffling instead of removing. If someone isnít doing their job maybe itís time for them to go. Itís a lot easier to hide bad performers at a big company. In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or itís noticed very quickly.


That is gold.

Daniel Lakier 15 Sep 05

I think size matters in the sense that things tend to get more complicated as organization size increases. 37Signals, and others here, tend to advocate small, simple, focused applications - a good thing. As organizations get larger, and business rules, products, and exceptions inevitable expand, the complexity/messyness (sp?) increases and projects get larger and less elegant. See the discussion on Enterprise to get an understanding of some of this blog’s readers with regards to what that means.

It is really hard, if not valueless, to create a simple application for a large company, simply because of the many rules, user types, products, and processes that are a byproduct of getting larger. Certainly some organizations do a better job of minimizing the clutter, but it is still inevitable, and unavoidable.

Brad 15 Sep 05

And herein lies one of the big problems with bigger companies: reshuffling instead of removing. If someone isnít doing their job maybe itís time for them to go. Itís a lot easier to hide bad performers at a big company

That may have been true at one time, and maybe it’s still true at some big companies, but I work at a medium-sized firm (1,500 employees) and I’ve never seen anyone get “reshuffled.” People who aren’t doing their job get fired.

Thomas Baekdal 15 Sep 05

Isn’t funny to see two great companies (with fans) having a virtual fist-fight? …although, none would ever admit that this is actually what’s happening.

I believe in small teams in big companies to be the ultimate solution. A small team is indeed very able to quickly create results, but if the same team needs to take care of other business as well - then it runs into trouble.

In 37signals case, they (desperately) try to maintain a team of 3. A nice number (not a magic number) when doing projects. But, at the same time, these people needs to focus on supporting existing products - and running the business, answering phone calls and paying the bills.

So, in reality the project team of 3 becomes a project team of 1.5 - since neither can devote their full attention to the project. Loss of focus means either lower quality or a longer time-to-market.

If you instead mix small teams with a larger organization you can fully devote 3 people to a specific project - which they can complete like they were a small team. The rest of the company can then take care of everything else.

If the company is even larger (Six Apart size), you suddenly have the potential to create multiple 3-man teams - and still maintain full focus on the task at hand.

For 37Signals this would mean that one team is building Basecamp 2 (with 100% focus), another is writing the book (with 100% focus) and a third is designing “the next great thing” (with 100% focus) and a fourth is tying it all together.

The later is actually very important. If you look at 37Signals products they are all great innovative products, but they do not communicate with each other - or with any other software. This is one of problems of being small. Small teams can create truly great specialized products, but you often need more resources to create specialized products that can work together to create a even better product suite - or with other software to create a truly effective workflow throughout.

Small teams are always a good thing. Small companies are not.

David Heinemeier Hansson 15 Sep 05

“they do not communicate with each other”, you’ll like what’s coming next, then.

Thomas Baekdal 15 Sep 05

David, Yes I will :)

Anonymous Coward 15 Sep 05

I think it speaks volumes that Six Apart requires an account to post comments on their site while 37signals’ blog comments are wide open for anyone. What is Six Apart worried about? Comment spam that their own product can’t handle?

Lisa 15 Sep 05

In 37signals case, they (desperately) try to maintain a team of 3.

Last I’ve seen, it’s a team of 5:
Jason Fried and Ryan Singer in Chicago, Matt Linderman in NYC, David Heinemeier Hansson in Copenhagen, and Mr. Jamis Buck in Provo, Utah.

;)

JF 15 Sep 05

We are 5, and we may be 6 shortly. 6! OMG!!! ;)

Cynthia Taylor 15 Sep 05

What I think is amusing is that everyone thinks this is a debate over big vs. small. It’s not the size that counts, it’s the attitude.

I have worked for (by the standards here) medium sized (10-30) employees, big (100-150) employees and, currently, huge (3000+ employees). The best and worst professional experiences came at a big company - ironically, the same company that got bought out.

I joined the company as employee #110, during the good old days before the bubble burst. I was on a team of 6 developers, and we interacted immediately with 3 other teams. I loved coming to work every day, because everyone was excited about what we were doing. We went from non-work talk to work talk in a breath, spent marathon sessions around a whiteboard, talking about what we were doing and the best, neatest way to do it. We had a process that we all collaborated on and built together, that, horror of horrors, included documentation, specs, use cases, and test plans, and never once did it hinder development or creativity. In fact, there was a lot of pride in being able to say “This is what we’re basically going to build, and this is how long it’ll take” , and then delivering it pretty darned close to that time.

Then we were bought out by a beyond huge company, headquartered on another continent. Same people in the office, same process, but the attitude changed. We didn’t feel as valued, as empowered, even listened to any longer. We watched our product, which had been the first and best in its space, get clobbered while we screamed about the things we knew it needed. The best group of developers I’ve ever met broke up and started to leave, recruiters were hired to bring in new people, but they were the ‘C’ people.

It’s not the size. It’s the attitude, the passion, the vision. And you can have that with 2 people, or you can have it with 100.

JF 15 Sep 05

Itís not the size. Itís the attitude, the passion, the vision. And you can have that with 2 people, or you can have it with 100.

Spot on, Cynthia.

Personally I find it easier for that passion to be stoked ad maintained in a small company. Red tape kills passion. Administration kills passion. Strict policy kills passion. Red tape, administration, and strict policy are necessary evils in big companies which is why I think small companies are better friends with passion than big ones.

But that’s just been my experience.

Mike 15 Sep 05

And on the far-out radical side of company size, is the government contractor. I worked for a DoD contractor about a year ago, and it was absolutely the worst professional experience of my life. I was in a room with 8 engineers all day long, who worked at their desks for 8 hours straight with no words being spoken between them. They were mindless drones, and for good reason, my company size was over 150,000 people worldwide. When you have that many people in a company, mediocrity is rewarded and passion may not get you noticed.

Small teams rock. Big teams rock if they have the right people. No one way is better than the other as both have advantages in certain situations.

Jason’s and Mena’s posts aren’t a “virtual fistfight” in any sense of the word. Mena is writing about the plusses and negatives of a large company, Jason is doing the same. Both 6A and 37signals are doing very well, and their company captains are on different sides of the same coin, both giving out their $.02.

Let’s respect both of them for doing this instead of laying blame or inciting controversy. Both Jason and Mena have utmost respect for one another, so let’s not bring the conversation down with stupid Anonymous comments from cowards who 1) take things out of context, and 2) are edging arguments on. This isn’t a Weblogs, Inc. weblog or something, so take it elsewhere.

Tom M 15 Sep 05

I agree with those who have posted that it’s more about attitude than size. The thing I admire most about 37s’ way of doing business is that they can admit which projects/customers are not a “good fit”. That’s huge, and what a great, rare luxury for a small company. I’ve been involved with companies who, as they get bigger, lose the ability to make that realisation (largely based on ego), and a couple years down the line, things blow up and they find themselves downsized and having to “re-focus on their existing strengths/oldest customers”?

Anyone else shared this experience?


Tom M 15 Sep 05

Even better, how about some examples of companies who have grown and maintained focus and quality (like 6 Apart)?

And not just the obvious ones, like Apple, etc. Other success stories we can learn from.

JF 15 Sep 05

I think Patagonia is a great example.

August 15 Sep 05

In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or itís noticed very quickly.

This also means that a catastrophic problem (or even something non-catastrophic but still serious) in someone’s life that may take them out of the picture for a while can cripple you. If you start to rely so heavily on how tightly a small unit is integrated, you’ll have one hell of a time coping if one of your pieces gets taken away. Being able to shift resources in such an event may be the difference between staying in business and not.

This “if they don’t do well at the first thing they tried so they’re out” thing doesn’t sound particularly, well, human to me. It’s the kind of attitude the corporate badguys in 1980s teen movies would have.

DaleV 15 Sep 05

Mena is kinda cute.

Lisa 15 Sep 05

JF—

In a small company everyone needs to be at the top of their game or itís noticed very quickly.

Don’t you mean this in a “let’s work hard together to bring everyone up together on a team” way rather than a “if they donít do well at the first thing they tried so theyíre out” way?

Anil 15 Sep 05

“I think it speaks volumes that Six Apart requires an account to post comments on their site while 37signalsí blog comments are wide open for anyone.:

Yeah, our priority is to not have anonymous cowards who are too weak to take ownership for their words interfere with intresting conversations that we can have with our actual customers. And we don’t worry about comment spam or false positives causing silent data loss of comments, since we use Movable Type 3.2.

Back on topic, one of the key points that comes up here is a matter of goals. Despite Jason saying that Mena’s “clearly annoyed”, she’s clearly *not* annoyed if you read the tone of her post. She’s just explaining an idea that hasn’t had adequate evangelism of late. And I know both Jason and Mena well enough to know that neither is afraid of a little shit-stirring, it’s just Jason’s turn to do so with this post. :)

The bottom line is, our goals include some items in a different realm than the one Jason’s speaking about. It matters to us that people understand the potential of blogging. Read what Mena wrote about being “of the bloggers, by the bloggers, for the bloggers”. It’s a short way of saying that we care about the web and this medium and these kinds of conversations, and we care that blogs are brought to new people by a team that cares and isn’t just hopping into blogging because its’ a hot topic right now.

To do that on a real, global scale requires a team larger than 3 people. If it doesn’t matter to you that blogs be promoted by those who care about the medium, then you won’t understrand why we’ve built Six Apart the way we have. I think that most of the folks here, especially the 37s team, does care, and wants to see the ideals of blogging defended. That’s what we’re getting just big enough to do.

Wesley Walser 18 Sep 05

I am really glad that you guys poianted out this article, I think it’s great that you decided to let a counterpoint into the circle of discussion (not that you have ever limited it), but talking about it yourselves show good style.

Chris Brogan... 02 Nov 05

Size matters?

This is heavenly: watching Jason and Mena (and others) discuss an interesting contrast in size and abilities. The US Military went small-but-scalable. My company took a dozen or so of us and made a mini-virtual-startup within a 400 person company. There are clearly benefits to small and to big.

I think output matters. Reduced drag matters. The ability to respond to customer needs matters. I’ve had a big company move fast and a small company fray into nothingness at too big a challenge. To me, it’s not the size, it’s what you do with it.

But then, I’m Irish.