March 13, 2010

Book Review: Rework


Rework is the latest batch of short-and-sweet business wisdom from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the people behind 37signals (Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, etc.).

A very quick read, Rework is essentially a collection of short blog-like observations about how 37signals runs their (small) business, and how they think you could run a business too if you wanted to. Most of these observations have been expressed by the 37signals team in some form or another already, and those who are already familiar with their philosophy of Signal vs. Noise will find few surprises.

Even so,  these things need to be said, and they need to be shared, and I'm glad Jason and David did.

The book in many ways is the authors thumbing their noses at the Harvard MBA "here's how you need to run a real business" crowd. They say "no, you don't have to do it that way" with passages titled:
  • Ignore the real world
  • Planning is guessing
  • Why grow?
  • Mission statement impossible
  • Outside money is Plan Z
They advocate counter-intuitive concepts such as:
  • Underdo your competition
  • Don't write it down
  • Pass on great people
  • Let your customers outgrow you
And they encourage individualism and honesty with sections like:
  • Don't copy
  • Own your bad news
  • How to say you're sorry
All of this is good, if not at least partially obvious. But it's almost as if, in publishing them in book form, the authors are giving entrepreneurs business starters permission to act the way they would like to act, but can't because all of the other business books say otherwise. This is the book that says "We did it this way, and it's working fine for us. Ignore what the suits tell you, and you can do it this way too." 

The best pieces of advice, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones where the authors ask us, the readers, to go a bit above and beyond just making money with our businesses, and make the world a better place. In the section "Out-teach your competition", the authors write:
Teach and you'll form a bond you just don't get from marketing tactics. Buying people's attention with a magazine or online banner ad is one thing. Earning their loyalty by teaching them forms a whole different connection. They'll trust you more. They'll respect you more. Even if they don't use your product, they can still be your fans.
Similarly, they advise to "Emulate chefs" like Julia Child, Mario Batali, and Bobby Flay, who share their recipes and techniques with the world with positive effects:
As a business owner, you should share everything you know, too. This is anathema to most in the business world. Businesses are usually paranoid and secretive. They think they have a proprietary this and competitive advantage that. Maybe a rare few do, but most don't. And those that don't should stop acting like those that do. Don't be afraid of sharing.
The ideas of respect and  trust, honesty and sharing, appear many times throughout the book, and it's obvious that the overarching feeling the authors are trying to get across is something like "Cut the bullsh*t, be serious, be honest, and be yourself". Hardly anything new, but good advice nonetheless.

While Rework is about 280 pages long, several of the pages are hand-drawn sketches, illustrating the written ideas. Many of them are quite clever.

As explained in Signals vs. Noise podcast Episode #9 (All about Rework), the decision to add the illustrations came late in the editing process, after the authors (in typical 37signals style) cut their written content in half to simplify it, and then found they didn't have enough words to create a book of the right size to fit nicely on a bookstore shelf.

Rather than add words that would dilute the message, they hired Mike Rohde of Rohdesign to provide the illustrations, thus simultaneously giving Rework bookshelf-friendly dimensions and a great style. Mike later wrote a blog post about his experience illustrating Rework. Interesting stuff.

I certainly recommend picking up a copy for yourself and spending a few hours absorbing Jason's and David's advice. If you would like to get a peek at the contents first, head over to the book's website. Here are some of my favorite passages:

"Why don't we just call plans what they really are: guesses."
 "Let's retire the term entrepreneur. It's outdated and loaded with baggage. It smells like a members-only club."
 "There's a world of difference between truly standing for something and having a mission statement that says you stand for something."
"The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads, they're imagining a hundred different things."
 "We're all terrible estimators. (...) That's why estimates that stretch weeks, months, and years into the future are fantasies. The truth is you just don't know what's going to happen that far in advance."
"We all know résumés are a joke. They're exaggerations. (...) Worst of all, they're too easy. Anyone can create a decent-enough résumé. That's why half-assed applicants love them so much."
"If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer."
"When you treat people like children, you get children's work. (...) When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of non-thinkers. You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, "I don't trust you."" 
 Finally, a trailer for the book: