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The founders of 37 signals have something to say about business, and it may not be what you are used to hearing.  This firm started out in 1999 with just three people. In 2004, they created Basecamp to help manage their projects. Soon, their clients wanted to use the tool themselves, so Basecamp was offered to the masses. It now generates millions of dollars a year in profits.

Between Campfire, Highrise, and Backpack, over 3 million people use their products.  While they were at it, they also invented an open-source programming framework called Ruby on Rails that powers many of the largest sites on the internet.

I’ve been keeping up with the teachings of 37 signals for years.  The talk about releasing code quickly, not out-doing your competition, and focusing on the basics. It’s a refreshing change from software and websites that try to do everything and be everything for every company.

This book is a compilation and revision of many of the business posts that they have released to the Web on their blog, Signal vs Noise.  The book is like the company’s products – no nonsense and easy to use.  They give you an idea or theme, expound on it for a paragraph or two, and let you decide how you want to use it from there.

I am going to touch on a few of the items that I found to be the most profound.  If you would rather skip that, I give this book a 5 out of 5 for anyone looking to start their own business, who has an idea about a business, or is working for someone else and wants to build the best product they can.

Planning is guessing

“Unless you are a fortune-teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy”.  When is the last time you successfully planned everything at a party, a luncheon or a vacation?  It’s hard to do well, and in a business, it is even more complex.  There are just too many factors to take into consideration.  Better to call your plans guesses.  They give you an idea of what you need to do, but you can then improvise and change direction when a better opportunity comes along.

They propose that you stop guessing at the future. Decide what is the most important thing this week, not this year.  Make it your priority today and get it done now, tomorrow will take care of itself.


“Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid.”  Pulling an all-nighter or working a lot of overtime demonstrates a capacity for pain tolerance, not a capacity for efficiency and innovation.  Sheer hours worked does not make up for a lack of innovation and organization.  Workaholics can create crises because they like to feel like heroes and they can make others that work in the company feel bad for putting in just their regular hours.

Your best workers are already at home because they figured out how to get it done faster.

Scratch your own itch

“The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service it so make something you want to use.”  If you are your own customer, you know exactly what you want the product to do.  James Dyson built his own vacuum cleaner because the vacuumed he owned wasn’t very good.  Basecamp started as a home grown application for 37 signals that now services hundreds of thousands of users.

Draw a Line in the Sand

“Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or a service.”  Determine what your product is about, and don’t change that for anyone.  Your strong stand will bring fans and haters.  That’s OK. If you try and please everyone, you’ll end up with a product that doesn’t do any one thing great.  It’s OK to say no if it makes your product stronger.

Embrace Constraints

“Constraints are advantages in disguise.”  When you have to make due with what you have, you end up getting creative.  Don’t have 3 months to create the feature, just 3 weeks?  Adjust your plan and build something useful in those 3 weeks.

Build half a product, not a half-assed product

“You just can’t do everything you want to do and do it well.”  Find the core of the product or service you are offering and make it shine. Leave the extraneous stuff for later, or better yet, for never.

Interruption is the enemy of production

“If you’re constantly staying late and working weekends, it’s not because there’s too much work to be done. It’s because you’re not getting enough done at work. And the reason is interruptions.” We have found this to be the case at my company, Mindscape.  We do our best to minimize active interruptions like phone calls, stopping by and instant messages.  Instead, we check out email at 11am and 4pm and leave tasks for people in Basecamp.  Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. I just had two emails, a person stop by my desk, and 3 instant messages pop up.  When that happens, it’s hard to remember what you were working on.

Quick Wins

“Momentum fuels motivation”. Break your long term projects into short term goals.  Releases and milestones show everyone that progress is being made. When people get stuck in a two year project, it’s hard to stay motivated through the entire lifecycle.

Don’t be a hero

“A lot of times it’s better to be a quitter than a hero.”  We’ve all come up against problems that we thought would only take a couple of hours, but ended up taking a couple of days.  Buckling down and finding the solution is great, but sometimes the better solution is to find a different tact.  There were a lot of other items you could have accomplished while you were working to overcome that hurdle.

This doesn’t mean quit at the first sign of a struggle. Instead, set yourself a deadline for the task. If you haven’t finished and you think you should have, bring in a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes they can point out something obvious that you were too deep into the problem to see.

Say no by default

“Start getting into the habit of saying no-even to many of your best ideas. “  Henry Ford once said, “If I’d listened to customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.”   Keep things simple, remain true to the product that you want to build, and make stand for what is right.  This is one of my favorite chapters, and something I’ve been preaching for years.  Sometimes you have to protect the customer from their decisions, even if they don’t know why.  But keep your mind open. If you say no to the same thing every day, then you probably found the next feature to use.

Let your customers outgrow you.

“There are always more people who are not using your product than people who are. Make sure it is easy for these people to get on board.”

Each chapter is full of useful information and fresh ways at looking at business. I don’t want to give you a free pass to everything that the authors preach, so I’ll just pick out a few more chapter titles that I thought were interesting and that should wrap up this review nicely.

  • Emulate drug dealers. – Make your product so good and so addictive that a small free taste makes them come back with money.
  • Send people home at 5 – Busy people get the most done. Let them go be busy.
  • ASAP is poison – Stop saying it. When you add ASAP to everything, then everything is high priority. If that’s the case, then there no longer is priority.
  • Inspiration is perishable – Ideas last, but the inspiration to act on them does not stick around.

Rating: 5 out of 5 – I’ll be reading this book often  Check it out yourself by clicking this link.