The Brash Boys at 37signals Will Tell You: Keep It Simple, Stupid is a four-page article in the March 2008 issue of Wired Magazine about 37signals. It should be on the newsstands this week.
[Hansson] and his partners at software developer 37signals have backed up the big talk. Rails has continued its run of popularity; over the years, tens of thousands of programmers have used it to create countless online applications, including podcasting service Odeo and microblogging phenomenon Twitter. And Basecamp, 37signals’ Rails-powered, easy-to-use online collaboration software, boasts more than 2 million account holders. Signal vs. Noise, the 37signals blog, pulls in 75,000 readers a day. Hansson and 37signals cofounder Jason Fried are “revered,” says business author Seth Godin. “They are as close as we get to demigods online.”
As “revered” “demigods,” — come on Seth, we’re blushing! — we’re definitely pleased with the article and think it’s a thoughtful, evenhanded story. (Plus the photo makes us look like cool Euro DJs.)
What about the backlash part of the story? Well, Andy Warhol once said, “Don’t read what they write about you, just measure it in inches.” True words those. Nonetheless, let’s set the record straight on a few myths mentioned in the story…
Myth: Whoever spends the most wins
What’s more, 37signals’ ideological objections to outside funding could make them less able to withstand competition. Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, says companies like 37signals won’t have the resources to fight should larger firms with huge economies of scale and backend infrastructure decide to take them on. “They’re going to have a very tough challenge,” he says.
We continue to find this argument flawed. First of all, a few rounds of VC millions won’t put us on equal footing with bazillion dollar giants like Google, Microsoft, or other masters of economies of scale.
Second of all, we’re not in the winner-take-all software world of the 90’s anymore. Thanks to the web, there’s plenty of room for lots of companies, ideas, and products to flourish. The behemoth model isn’t the only game in town. There’s plenty of opportunity, success, and profitability to go around.
Lastly, we think our biggest competitor is habit—people using the phone, email, paper, pencils, post-it notes, and fax machines. These are the people we want to win over. We believe the simple software we’re building is the best way to do it.
Myth: 37signals customers are unhappy
The Basecamp message boards are filled with complaints from unhappy users, fed up with the software’s paucity of features who have switched to competing products.
It’s too bad the article didn’t quote any of the thousands of satisfied customers who love our software (here’s just a few). Or mention the love letters we get all the time from people who’ve found our products to be a godsend for their businesses. Or mention the people who left only to come back after they realized the alternatives with all the features were better on paper than in practice.
Our customer retention rates are very healthy and, in our most recent Basecamp customer satisfaction survey, 94% of customers said they would recommend Basecamp to friends and colleagues. We’re extremely proud of that. We believe we continue to do the right thing for our customer base as a whole.
This is especially true when it comes to feature requests. The number one reason people say they like using our products is because they are simple and easy to use. To maintain that advantage you have to be really careful about how you evolve. There’s nothing easier than saying yes, but even just a few too many yeses can make a good thing go bad. Balance is key.
We consider it a top priority to keep our products simple, focused, and easy to understand. As we’ve said before, we’d rather our customers grow out of our products than never be able to grow into them in the first place.
Also: It’s unfortunate when journalists use online comments and message boards as “evidence” of anything. Really, someone wrote something negative in an online forum? What a shocker. In case you haven’t noticed, people can tend to be a teeny bit negative/antagonistic when leaving comments online. The truth is the vast majority of our customers are very happy with our products.
Myth: We don’t care about our customers
Fried says he doesn’t worry about losing individual Basecamp customers, since none of them pay more than $149 a month.
This could be taken out of context (“37signals doesn’t care about losing customers”) so let’s be clear: We care deeply about customer satisfaction and we don’t like to see customers leave us. But if we need to lose some to make others happy, we’re ok with that. We also recognize not everyone is going to like our products or our point of view. We’re ok with that too.
That’s why we’re happy to have such a diverse customer base. Unlike many enterprise software companies, we don’t rely on any one customer (or a handful of customers) as our primary revenue source. Companies with a few big clients are beholden to those customers in ways that can quickly become detrimental to the company, the product, and other customers.
By spreading our revenue source over thousands of customers — none with the upper hand on any other customer — we can make decisions that benefit the vast majority, not the wealthy minority. Since no one pays us more than $149/month, we can stick to our shared vision and provide the vast majority of customers with exactly what they come to us for: Simple software that’s quick to get started, easy to use, and provides far more value than the price we charge.
Myth: Complexity is a necessary byproduct of the modern age
In the article Don Norman says:
Complexity is a necessary byproduct of the modern age. When you actually sit down and analyze what you need to get the job done, it’s not simplicity.
We disagree. As complexity and confusion grows, simple tools become more and more valuable. And while sometimes it’s easy to think we need this that and the other to solve a problem, it’s often the simplest solution that actually gets the job done. Not everything has to be a Swiss Army Knife. Sometimes a screwdriver just needs to be a screwdriver.
Norman’s view seems rather depressing in the way it accepts complexity as an inevitable result of modernity. Dehumanization is a byproduct of the modern age too. But that doesn’t mean you just give up and surrender to it. We prefer to put up a fight.
Myth: We refuse to change
Call it arrogance or idealism, but they would rather fail than adapt.
Huh? We’re all about adapting. Our entire business and philosophy is about iteration, quick change, adaptation, and opportunity. At its core, Getting Real is about change and evolution.
All that said, our hats are off to author Andrew Park for all his hard work on the story. While we may quibble with a few of the points in the piece, we recognize that Andrew was trying to be evenhanded and tell all sides of the story. Andrew was exceedingly professional, travelled to Chicago to meet with us in person, and, overall, was as thorough a journalist as we’ve ever met with. So thanks Andrew. And thanks to Wired for publishing the story too.