Defending “Rework”: 37Signals’ Latest Book Is Hardly Dangerous
Doodlebit’s success is due in large part to 37Signals’ first book, “Getting Real”. Not long after its initial release four years ago, Ben and I stumbled across it while researching Ruby on Rails technology. It was a quick read about how to successfully start up your own business with little cash and few resources. It worked. Today, we own and operate Doodlekit, a very successful online free website builder.
As you can probably imagine, I was pretty excited to hear about their latest book, Rework, which was just released a few weeks ago. As an ex-Corporate America, white-collar zombie and a now successful small business owner, I’m glad to report that it met all of my expectations.
However, there was this one review by John Vincent that caught my attention. The very first sentence reads: “The iconoclastic new book by the 37signals duo is not just bad but dangerous.” The rest of the review is an attack on 37Signals and their business philosophies.
Having successfully built my own business from the ground up with no resources and no cash by following the philosophies of 37Signals, I found Vincent’s review rather amusing. I guess in many ways it didn’t surprise me after I did some research about John Vincent. Turns out he is not a small business owner at all; he is a financier. He’s a “delegator”, not a “doer”.
As a venture capitalist investor, Vincent’s claim to fame is his 9 Leon Restaurants in Great Britain – one of many investments he dabbles in. He is remarkably well-connected. He is the husband of newsreader Katie Derham and his partner, Henry Dimbleby, is the son of David Dimbleby, a long-standing BBC TV commentator. Gavyn Davies, former chairman of the BBC, is also a major investor in Vincent’s endeavors. His list of connections goes on and on.
Having such funds and connections up front doesn’t require anyone to be innovative or creative. As a matter of fact, neither Vincent nor his partner knew hardly anything about the restaurant business before they started Leon. But hey, throw enough money and connections at anything and with a little luck, something is bound to stick. Hardly impressive and definitely not someone I would take advice from on starting up my own small business.
In contrast, 37Signals encourages more of a “bottom up” approach to starting a new business. It’s aimed more at the “doers” and not the “delegators”. Know what you’re doing, love what you’re doing, and actually be able to do what you’re supposed to be doing – then start your own business doing it (imagine that). You don’t have to be a rich entrepreneur nor have wealthy investors to succeed. Sure, it might take a little longer to get started, but once you’re finally able to stand on your own two feet, you will be the better company with the better product or service. What Vincent lacks is the passion and knowledge that, let’s say, a chef might have starting their own restaurant. Being more of an investor, Vincent’s passion most likely lies in making money. It’s not the same thing.
Indeed, 37Signals’ philosophies might actually be dangerous to someone like Vincent. A book that encourages the “doers” in your industry to compete with you directly is probably scary. This “reach for your dreams type bubblegum” (as Vincent describes it) might be his undoing. I’m sure he would prefer that his cooks be “good little cooks” and stay in the kitchen rather than opening their own restaurants. How dare they dream!
What gets me most is not that Vincent is disagreeing with 37Signals’ proven business philosophies, but more his method of expression. Statements like “the result is motherhood and apple pie” and “I can't help wondering if they were bullied at school” convey more his insecurities rather than real arguments. As a matter of fact, he has no real arguments. The few jabs he makes are vague and not well thought out. Check out this statement:
“We are told: 'Meetings are toxic.' In reality, good meetings are good and bad meetings are not good, but don't try and make a name for your software company by issuing such over-heated generalizations.”
I have to wonder if he read the whole chapter or just the first few sentences. Every “doer” in Corporate America that I worked with the 12 years I was there knew meetings were dreadful and constantly complained about it. It was only the “delegators” that defended them. After all, how else would they delegate? The reality is that even if you have a “good” meeting, the information discussed in that meeting could just as easily been conveyed through email, intranet forums or some other type of group communication tool like Backpack (how ironic is that?). Was the actual waste of 20 man hours necessary to convey it? Did everyone really have to be there face-to-face for an hour to make the meeting successful? The answer is NO 99% of the time. Sure, there are rare exceptions to this rule, but it is far from an “over-heated generalization” to say that meetings are toxic. How about “Getting Real”, John Vincent?
Vincent is more evidence that the business world is still run by “delegators” through corporate bureaucracy and politics. For the most part, the people with the money are still the ones that make the money. I’m sure they have lots of meetings. It’s the way it has always been. Being a master of this does have its advantages. Having the right connections and funding still works pretty good to get a business up and running. But is NOT the only way to run a company. And I would argue it is NOT the best way to run one either. I believe that a successfully ran business by someone with true passion, knowledge and understanding of their industry will always trump a financier’s random startup into the same market.