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Platypus Innovation Blog

9 May 2010

37 Signals: Better writing than software

I just read "Rework" by 37Signals. This is a quick enjoyable read. The book is 100 odd pieces of advice, each presented as ~1.5 pages of text with a cartoon. The writing is clear and to the point. The advice is a mixture of:

  • Common sense.
  • Uncommon sense: Things which go against conventional wisdom, but are good advice when you think about it.
  • Over-generalisations: Sadly a lot of the advice only works if you're 37 signals. For example "write about your work and you can build an audience" is great if you are brilliant marketers who can dedicate time to creating a high-profile blog that gets a lot of traffic and reputation. If you can't - and that will be most of us then - this isn't going to repay the effort you put in.

The strangest thing is that reading their book, you'd think 37 Signals produce simple-yet-beautiful software. But I use their software, and it's lousy. Basecamp does not do one thing well. It does a few things, all of them rather poorly. I much prefer other group-work tools - mostly the ones you don't think of as tools anymore, such as email, shared calendars, and version-control - which are simpler, better at their job, and free. The best bit about Basecamp is the email integration, which makes it's messaging only marginally worse than plain old email.

If you're asking "why do I use it then?", it's because other people sometimes pay me to do so. I'm opinionated but I'm not pig-headed.

It occurs to me that 37 Signals are not selling Basecamp. That appears to be their business, but what they're really selling is a philosophy and a story. It's a story about who your organisation is and how it works. The software is merchandising. People like the story so they buy the merchandise.

Is that a criticism? I'm not sure. Most business is engaged in buying and selling stories. The stories may be about who we are, better connection to your friends, higher productivity, ROI... The stories come with some product attached - software, a car, etc. The stories may be true or false. But we buy the story first. Sometimes the story is strong enough (or we buy into it enough) that even if the product stinks, we keep believing in the story.

An example of really powerful stories: My wife and I are looking for a new house, and thinking "this is where the kids will play". The people selling houses are thinking "this is the home we bought together as newly weds" (or similar). No wonder house prices get inflated.

Conversely, pensions are, for the under 30s, a good product with a lousy story. Everyone knows they will need a pension. But the story "you need to set aside money because you're going to grow old and infirm" -- it's not a story people want to buy. So many people don't, until some life-changing event (having kids or something happens to their parents) puts the fear into them.

Even the best product needs a good story if it is to succeed.

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