Reworking Work: Unconventional Business Advice

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp have not only challenged the software application industry with their leading web-based project management tool Basecamp and other system, tools and frameworks but in their book Rework, they share their guiding and operating principles by which they started and operate this very successful business.

Much of the advice they provide is contrarian to what is commonly shared within the business community, which is what makes this book unique and makes one reflect – regardless of what one thinks about the specific examples provided – about ones’ own practices and whether any modifications and simplifications can be made to become more effective.

I have selected below some of the advice shared that most strongly resonated with me, from the various areas covered: takedowns, go, progress, productivity, competitors, evolution, promotion, hiring, and damage control.

Learning from success is more effective than from failure:

Failure is not a prerequisite for success. A Harvard Business School study found already-successful entrepreneurs are far more likely to succeed again (the success rate for their future companies is 34 percent). But entrepreneurs whose companies failed the first time had almost the same follow-on success rare as people starting a company for the first time: just 23 percent. People who failed before have the same amount of success as people who have never tried at all. Success is the experience that actually counts. That shouldn’t be a surprise: It’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.

On the importance of performing meaningful work:

To do great work, you need to feel that you’re making a difference. That you’re putting a meaningful dent in the universe. That you’re part of something important…If you’re going to do something, do something that matters. These little guys came out of nowhere and destroyed old models that had been around for decades. You can do the same in your industry.

On positioning, which applies to us both as individuals as well as organizations:

As you get going, keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing. Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service. You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight for. And then you need to show the world. A strong stand is how you attract superfans. They point to you and defend you. And they spread the word further, wider, and more passionately than any advertising.

On the importance of thinking about profit from day one when starting up a business:

Anyone who takes a “we’ll figure out how to profit in the future” attitude to business is being ridiculous. That’s like building a rocket ship but starting off by saying, “Let’s pretend gravity doesn’t exist.” A business without a path to profit isn’t a business, it’s a hobby…Actual businesses don’t mask deep problems by saying, “It’s OK, we’re a startup.” Act like an actual business and you’ll have a much better shot at succeeding.

On how constraints can be an advantage:

“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.

On the importance of making decisions:

Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward. You want to get into the rhythm of making choices. When you get in that flow of making decision after decision, you build momentum and boost morale. Decisions are progress. Each one you make is a brick in your foundation. You can’t build on top of “We’ll decide later,” but you can build on top of “Done.”

On rallying around the core that does not change:

A lot of companies focus on the next big thing. They latch on to what’s hot and new. They follow the latest trends and technology. That’s a fool’s path. You start focusing on fashion instead of substance. You start paying attention to things that are constantly changing instead of things that last. The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you should invest in.

On the importance of launching/shipping now:

Don’t mistake this approach for skimping on quality, either. You still want to make something great. This approach just recognizes that the best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.

On the most effective way to get agreement:

If you need to explain something, try getting real with It. Instead of describing what something looks like, draw it. Instead of explaining what something sounds like, hum it. Do everything you can to remove layers of abstraction.

Questions to ask yourself before working on something:

Why are you doing this? What problem are you solving? Are you adding value? Is this actually useful? Are you adding value? Will this change behavior? Is there an easier way? What could you be doing instead?

Meetings can be a big time sink, but if you absolutely must have one, then make sure to follow these rules:

Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period. Invite as few people as possible. Always have a clear agenda. Begin with a specific problem.

On not chasing perfection:

When good enough gets the job done, go for it. It’s way better than wasting resources or, even worse, doing nothing because you can’t afford the complex solution. And remember, you can usually turn good enough into great later.

Quitting working on a task is sometimes the right thing to do:

Keep in mind that the obvious solution might very well be quitting. People automatically associate quitting with failure, but sometimes that’s exactly what you should do. If you already spent too much time on something that wasn’t worth it, walk away. You can’t get that time back. The worst thing you can do now is waste even more time.

Break big decisions into many smaller ones:

Big decisions are hard to make and hard to change. And once you make one, the tendency is to continue believing you made the right decision, even if you didn’t. You top being objective…Instead, make choices that are small enough that they’re effectively temporary. W^en you make tiny decisions, you can’t make big mistakes. These small decisions mean you can afford to change. There’s no big penalty if you mess up. You just fix it. Making tiny decisions doesn’t mean you can’t make big plans or think big ideas. It just means you believe the best way to achieve those big things is one tiny decision at a time.

Put more of yourself into your products for differentiation:

Pour yourself into your product and everything around you product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

Don’t obsess too much about your competition:

It’s a pointless exercise anyway. The competitive landscape changes all the time. Your competitor tomorrow may be completely different from your competitor today. It’s out of your control. What’s the point of worrying about things you can’t control? Focus on yourself instead. What’s going on in here is way more important than what’s going on out there. When you spend time worrying about someone else, you can’t spend that time improving yourself Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision. Your chances of coming up with something fresh go way down when you keep feeding your brain other people’s ideas. You become reactionary instead of visionary. You wind up offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint.

Marketing is not a function reserved just for that department:

Do you have a marketing department? If not, good. If you do, don’t think these are the only people responsible for marketing. Accounting is a department. Marketing isn’t. Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365. Just as you cannot not communicate, you cannot not market.

While there is nothing groundbreaking about the advice given in this book, the thought-provoking-ness aspect that it brings out within the reader is very commendable and makes it a very worthwhile read (and a quick one as well). If you are interested to hear more from the authors and their thought philosophy, you can do so by reading/subscribing to their company’s blog Signal vs. Noise.


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