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“I just don’t get that.”

by Rob Friesel

Read Wired’s piece on the 37signals guys last night and then saw it again this morning via DF.  Haven’t looked around too much to see what others are saying but the DF emphasis seems to be on “ginned-up conflict” vs. doubled revenue in ’07.  Coming away from the article last night, I find myself with my own mixed feelings about their approach.

On the one hand, if you’ve created something as massively popular as Rails, the conventional wisdom is that you are in some way beholden to that project both technically and culturally.  And regardless of the technical successes and/or limitations of your platform, there is a definite case to be made for a cultural failure if that cultural figurehead is out there making hostile statements and calling everyone else a crybaby.  Doubled revenues are nice but carving out a niche island and then burning all the bridges that lead there?

On the other, I would be a liar if I didn’t see some merit to the “fuck off” approach.  The conventional wisdom also tells you that “everyone else” is going to lean on you for answers first instead of either (a) trying to figure it out themselves or (b) making a substantive contribution.  I.e., Newton may have stood humbly on the shoulders of giants but he’s still Newton.  Not that the lads at 37signals are necessarily making Newton-level contributions to the webdev or business fields but I don’t believe that the metaphor is any less apt.

For me, the crux of the article lies in one particular quote:

“Someone on the outside would look at what we do and say, Let’s ratchet it up to some enterprise level,'” he argues. “I don’t want to make our software more complicated. I really don’t understand why everyone’s interested in Fortune 500 customers. I just don’t get that.”

Suggesting that it’s about your goals and your audience.  There is a lot of pressure when you shift your focus to those enterprise deals; the stakes are higher, the scopes change — everything is different.  And if that’s not where you want to be, if you are unwilling or unprepared to go there, then by all means don’t.  Maybe it’s because you believe the Fortune 500 companies are aging dinosaurs whose times are limited.  Maybe you just don’t like wearing collared shirts to your demos and presentations.  If nothing else: if your brand and your credibility are built on values like keeping it small and always keeping the middle-finger preemptively and defensively up, well then have at it.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

2 Responses to “I just don’t get that.”

Justin Henry says:

Charles Handy had an interesting commentary on last night’s Marketplace, questioning the “bigger is always better” paradigm. I’m not sure the bonsai “forest” analogy entirely fits 37signals, but it is not far off. The idea of constant trimming is right in line with their philosophy of agile, iterative development.

found_drama says:

@Justin: thanks I’ll check those out. I would say that I have some sympathies toward their approach. I wouldn’t position myself as a follower/adherent/acolyte of theirs but I certainly see how and why their philosophy and approach works for them and for many others.

To run the risk of being “too Vermont” about the matter: the question becomes about what community you want to serve and what sacrifices are you willing to make. It becomes a question of values.

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