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Why Your Startup Shouldn't Copy 37signals or Fog Creek (onstartups.com)
106 points by bdfh42 2215 days ago | comments



This guy has gone to the zoo and interviewed all the animals. The tiger says that the secret to success is to live alone, be well disguised, have sharp claws and know how to stalk. The snail says that the secret is to live inside a solid shell, stay small, hide under dead trees and move slowly around at night. The parrot says that success lies in eating fruit, being alert, packing light, moving fast by air when necessary, and always sticking by your friends.

His conclusion: These animals are giving contradictory advice! And that's because they're all "outliers".

But both of these points are subtly misleading. Yes, the advice is contradictory, but that's only a problem if you imagine that the animal kingdom is like a giant arena in which all the world's animals battle for the Animal Best Practices championship [1], after which all the losing animals will go extinct and the entire world will adopt the winning ways of the One True Best Animal. But, in fact, there are a hell of a lot of different ways to be a successful animal, and they coexist nicely. Indeed, they form an ecosystem in which all animals require other, much different animals to exist.

And it's insane to regard the tiger and the parrot and the snail as "outliers". Sure, they're unique, just as snowflakes are unique. But, in fact, there are a lot of different kinds of cats and birds and mollusks, not just these three. Indeed, there are creatures that employ some cat strategies and some bird strategies (lions: be a sharp-eyed predator with claws, but live in communal packs). The only way to argue that tigers and parrots and snails are "outliers" is to ignore the existence of all the other creatures in the world, the ones that bridge the gaps in animal-design space and that ultimately relate every known animal to every other known animal.

So, yes, it's insane to try to follow all the advice on the Internet simultaneously. But that doesn't mean it's insane to listen to 37signals advice, or Godin's advice, or some other company's advice. You just have to figure out which part of the animal kingdom you're in, and seek out the best practices which apply to creatures like you. If you want to be a stalker, you could do worse than to ask the tiger for some advice.

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[1] The ants are gonna win. Hölldobler and Wilson told me so.

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Bravo! claps An exceedingly well written response with a superb analogy.

I'll just chip in that it's the same for pretty much all advice about how to do stuff... Another example is project management "best practices". The truth is, no practice is "best", they're only appropriate in certain conditions, and you have to use your brains to figure out which ones apply to your project at this particular stage.

The same is true for testing practices - you have to adapt to the situation.

Etc... Advice is like design patterns. You can't, and shouldn't, try to use them all at the same time.

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This is absolutely right: Strategies are situational as well as species-dependent. There are times when the ant colony's strategy breaks down, such as when it invades my back porch and I call the exterminator.

As humans our overriding goal is to use our big brains to switch strategies when needed -- but not to switch too often lest we go insane trying to follow all the good advice on the Internet at once. Nobody said it was easy.

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offtopic, speaking of ants and their expanding colonies - have you seen this?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQERRbU23bU

very interesting.

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A hammer is not a best practice for peeling potatoes.

The concept of "best practices" is insidious. "Best" for what? We need to know what we are, our context, and our objective before we can consider the practices that will optimize our objective. Are we a tiger or a snail? Are we in a cage or a forest? Are we trying to eat or mate?

Practices provide the know-how. To provide the know-why, we must understand ourselves, our context, and our objective.

We also need to understand whether we (our system and sub-systems) and our context (our super-system) are purposeful: can any of these systems select their own means and ends. Don't ask me why—I'm still figuring this piece out myself.

For more, see Russell Ackoff: http://bit.ly/iHwQ.

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I've turned down job prospects where the hiring manager wanted an on-the-spot "this is what I'll do" rundown.

Of course I know how your company is SIMILAR to other companies in the industry - do you really want a copycat strategy? "Best practices" may keep a company from crashing+burning, but without creativity and context won't get you any acceleration.

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It's a good analogy, especially since the guy is talking to animals in the zoo, instead of out in the wild interviewing the real survivalists. People who ask everyone for answers rarely want to leave the comfort of their safety net to go out and find them.

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Thought the cockroaches are gonna win...

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I've always wanted to have a beer with mechanical_fish ever since I got on to HN. His comments are always pretty solid. I wish you could follow people on HN like you can on twitter, and only see on the front page stories submitted by those you follow. Or alternatively, you follow those whose stories you consistently upvote on the front page.

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I've always wanted to have a beer with mechanical_fish ever since I got on to HN.

Now this is my kind of upvote! ;)

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Even 37signals is reffering to you now...

http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/1561-why-you-shouldnt-cop...

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Good analogy, but 37s and Joel would probably be mutant half lion half ants. So following their advice may or may not be useful - interesting to know how a lion-ant lives, but may not be totally applicable if you're a horse.

I agree though - If you know what species you are, it's better to follow advice of similar companies...

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God, this comment earned more karma than I earned during entire stay with HN community (which is more than a year).

BTW, I really like threads where comments earn more karma than the article.

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This has to be a record for single comment upmods. Well deserved though, by a solid community contributor.

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"But that doesn't mean it's insane to listen to 37signals advice"

unless you're after advice on writing markup.

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I wonder if your score is an all time high on HN. Anyone know of any higher ranked comment?

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Great response! You know, there's nothing wrong with 37 Signals' advice, but they imply that their advice is for everyone, and I am not sure it is. It's good advice, excellent advice, especially if your business intentions are similar to theirs. But we have to beware of any advice that's supposed to be universal. As in all things, your mileage may vary.

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they imply that their advice is for everyone, and I am not sure it is...

I think it was Greenspun, but it might have been Strunk and White, who taught me this secret: Don't equivocate in print. Don't write like this:

"Here's some advice, which may not apply in your particular case: Do X."

or this (which you're more likely to see in actual writing):

"I think X."

Better to write:

"Do X."

or

"X."

Readers tend to understand that your writing comes from you, that it reflects a certain perspective and is unlikely to be universal truth. It's usually unnecessary to hammer this point home at the cost of cluttering up your sentences with clunky disclaimers that are always the same.

When you write, say what you think, straight out. [1] Don't settle for dull accuracy. If people get mad because something you say is wrong or overgeneralized, ask forgiveness, not permission.

37signals' work gets read and cited all the time because it is well written. One of the things that makes it so well written is that it's not larded up with apologies, disclaimers, and caveats. They assume that their readers are smart enough to figure out, without being told, that 37signals writes from a 37signals perspective and that your mileage may vary.

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[1] Interestingly, speaking can be a different game. There's more room for artful equivocation. You can sell things with body language. You can vary the pace between telling it short and straight and telling it long and rambling. Novel-length writing is also different. We're talking about essays, here.

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Fantastic point about the distinction between writing and speaking. Benjamin Franklin famously trained himself to speak in terms of "modest diffidence":

http://books.google.com/books?id=D29W3OkXFq4C&pg=PA13...

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That is Strunk and White, most definitely.

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Exactly. There are a lot of circumstantial aspects that leads to success which cannot be captured in advice at all. Those cannot be recreated, of course. 37Signals' advice is solid, but many times when they imply that its the best way to do something, I tend to disagree.

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there are countless attempts to reinvent Carnegie's books, which are the reader's digest concept transformed to the action book. (of course, those books are well-writen and briliantly adopted to the mentality of a tupical army officer) It works well as self-advertisement when you have someone to listen. Most of the blogs are exploiting this simple idea. this is my 2c.

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This seems unrelated but I think it actually is a very good counterpoint so go with me for a sec. When Hitler was invading Europe at the beginning of World War II Ghandi gave the citizens of Europe this advice...

I want you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings... If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child to be slaughtered Now, I'm not as famous as Ghandi. But I think I'm qualified enough to say the above was stupid advice.

Mahatma Ghandi did a great thing for the world in that he popularized a very powerful tool: Non-violent resistance. But where he failed was in realizing his one tool didn't apply universally (in this case it only works if the person you are resisting is decent enough not to throw you in a gas chamber and kill you en masse)

The same thing is true with the author of this blog.

If I have any advice for him it's to see each "startup success story" as a tool that can create success in some situations. The responsibility of someone wanting to use that tool is to determine which situations that tool applies to.

So when contradictory advice comes along he should ask himself "why did that tool work for company X and not for company Y?" Then decide whether you are closer to company X or company Y.

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At the cost of inviting controversy, there is legitimate argument as to whether Gandhi's insistence on the exclusive use of non-violent resistance worked in India's favor. To cite a prominent example, Gandhi suspended India's very successful non-cooperation movement (after tens of thousands of Indians had resigned their govt. jobs or dropped out of college to stop co-operation) because of one incidence of violence. [1]

In short: Rigid belief in the use of a single strategy is also harmful.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-cooperation_movement

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Its "Gandhi" and not "Ghandi".

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Thanks

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It's probably not a good idea not to copy other companies, rather analyze what's working them and see if you can make it work for you as well.

37Signals gives a ton of good advice when it comes to running a web service, and some not so good advice.

Here a gem 37Signals provided:

Ask 37signals: How do you process credit cards? http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/753-ask-37signals-how-do-...

It was so good, that the CEO of Braintree Payment Solutions referenced it when talking about the same subject:

http://www.braintreepaymentsolutions.com/blog/annual-credit-...

Now that it's tough to raise money, "copying" 37 Signals and charging for your products on a monthly recurring basis is spot on for most new web services. I don't listen to everything they say, but every now and then they have it figured out.

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>> "Now that it's tough to raise money, "copying" 37 Signals and charging for your products on a monthly recurring basis is spot on for most new web services."

I just don't understand the recent backlash against ad supported. Some people seem to think it's not real money, or doesn't count as much... Fact is there's insane amounts of money to be made from advertising income.

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The problem with ad revenue as a business model is that you're beholden to something you can't control directly that is controlled by a third party. With products/subscriptions it's an A to B relationship without the extra C group of advertisers who actually pay the bills for you.

I disagree that people think it isn't really money though. I believe that people think it isn't really reliable.

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In my experience, it's amazingly reliable. As long as you're not working with a single advertiser, or small number. This is one of the reasons adsense is so successful - you're beholden to 'the market' rather than a single advertiser.

I think it'd be a really bad idea to discount it as a possible business model.

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For every person making $XXX a day with AdSense there are a thousand making $XXX a year. Or things are humming along smoothly until you wake up one morning and you've been smart priced back to the stone age and aren't making anything per click anymore. The only guaranteed winner with AdSense is Google themselves. The reason AdSense is so successful is because Google takes an unspecified cut of every click and it's an industry built on the back of ringtone scams and click fraud.

Being beholden to a market that consists of a bunch of AdWords account managing hooligans that gnash and claw all day to drive bid prices down and are being governed by Google isn't really the kind of market you want to be counting on long term. Which just goes back to my point that while things might be good one day, by relying on an outside party for revenue, you might wake up tomorrow and be screwed because of decisions made by people totally unrelated to you or your product.

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I've been generating revenue from online advertising since late 1999. It's pretty stable and growing :)

>> "it's an industry built on the back of ringtone scams and click fraud."

Sorry but this one is just ridiculous. How much have you used adsense, or any other affiliate network?

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Ha, I knew that one would provoke a response. Click fraud is a very real problem with AdSense that I wish drew more attention.

I'm going to stop now because this is diverging into a pissing match of sorts, but I've been in the business of making money with online advertising myself long enough to feel qualified to comment and pay my bills.

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I said nothing about ads, rather that it's hard to raise money so charging is almost a must.

About ads, FriendFAQ is killing it on Facebook. Friends that run content sites say ad payouts are down, affiliate companies are killing it.

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I think it's because there are people who feel that ad-supported business models on the interwebs is unproven during recession. That sentiment may be overstated.

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Do you think people will continue paying money for webapps during a recession?

I think the evidence from the dotcom bust was that online advertising continued to grow.

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Does anyone really believe it's wise to copy anyone? Copying leaves no room for understanding. Understanding is how you get better.

It's good to be exposed to a variety of perspectives and points of view, but you have make your own way forward. Take whatever you find useful and leave the rest behind. Fill in the gaps with your own ideas.

The worst thing you can do is stop thinking for yourself.

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A forum member at banjo hideout's sig is: "Be yourself, everyone else is taken." I think that applies here as well.

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37Signals and Joel's Fog Creek are well-known brands and cargo cults onto themselves. I think startups should consider following an emerging startup/marketing/entrepreneurial brand: Balsamiq/Peldi Guilizzoni (balsamiq on HN)

"Balsamiq Roadmap for 2009" http://www.balsamiq.com/blog/?p=539

"A Look Back at 2008" http://www.balsamiq.com/blog/?p=531

"Startup Marketing Advice from Balsamiq Studio" http://www.balsamiq.com/blog/?p=198

"Profitable after 3 weeks" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=247720

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I can't tell how serious your comment is seeing how the Balsamiq website bears an uncanny resemblance to the 37signals website. So what you are saying is that we shouldn't copy 37signals but we should instead learn from a guy who copied 37signals?

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Hi Schwa23, the design of balsamiq.com is mine - I have the Illustrator files to prove it :) - but I did design it at the height of my 37Signals "fanboy" phase, so I'm not surprised of the resemblance. I am not 100% happy with the site and I'm working with a designer on a new look...give me a couple of months.

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Peldi, I think your product rocks which is what counts. I am not sure how partly taking a homepage design from another site is a big deal and not relevant to this conversation.

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He might have learned from them but he's doing it himself, applying what he's learned and telling us about what works for him.

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No matter what you do and how you do it: most likely it will work for some people and won't work for others. If you do what just works for you, that's probably sufficient to be successful.

As merrick33 pointed out, it will not hurt to listen to people like 37signals or Joel Spolsky and be inspired by their best ideas. Just don't blame them if goes wrong for you.

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Great article! All the points are right on the mark - but open to interpretation as I can see from the comments so far. We meet a lot of founders and I see them pointing out to Outliers all the time. Getting Real book and stuff like that. If one could write a book to build a successful startup or emulate Outliers, we'd all be running billion dollar companies. There's a lot more to success than a single recipe.

Most importantly, I think you can learn from Outliers and apply but think of your OWN WAY TO BUCK CONVENTIONAL WISDOM and do it in a way that you believe it and are passionate about making it happen.

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A related quote:

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought."

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Completely agree -- I had written the same thing and removed it after seeing this.

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Don't cargo cult code or business plans. But if someone can solve your O(n) problem in O(log n), do try to understand and adopt their solution.

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Fogcreek has one good product and same with 37Signals, people seem to want to be like them believing that of would help them make sucessfull products. No matter how good a writer you are if you don't have useful products that solve some real problems you just won't be sucessful like them. Blogging, Twitted yeah they will help you but won't make your product an overnight sucess.

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