37signals is a Chicago-based company famous for Basecamp and other collaborative tools used by millions. In the open-source community, they are known as creators of the Ruby on Rails framework. And as many of you know, Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of 37signals.
Jason’s minimalist approach to business is revolutionary and inspiring for multiple reasons. His blog, Signal vs Noise, is read by 100,000+ people daily. He has published two books that have captured attention of thousands: “Getting Real” in which he focuses on the simplicity of a winning product and “Rework” in which he shares some basic principles of building a successful small business from the ground up with minimal resources. Recently I had an opportunity to interview Jason Fried, and ask him some questions we collected by polling MMD clients and friends.
Maria: It’s clear that you’re an advocate of distributed development teams. I’ve advised my readers against telecommuting because I think it can be harmful to careers. How do you make telecommuting work for your employees?
Jason: It depends how you want to grow. 37signals is a flat organization. We don’t feed egos with titles. Instead, we encourage our people to do what they do best. We give them room for creativity, allow them to advance and increase their pay as this happens. In a traditional corporate setting, you often see a great designer or developer move into a management role, which removes them from what they truly enjoy and excel in. We don’t promote our people away from what they do.
We also don’t treat anyone differently, whether they’re in or out of the office. Our in-office culture is the same as the out-of-the-office culture. Some of our people prefer to live in remote areas, where there aren’t many local job opportunities. Telecommuting gives them the best of both worlds; it enables them to do what they enjoy without changing their lifestyle.
Maria: I know you make it a point to keep your company small and you don’t hire very often. But when you do, what does your hiring process entail? Who makes an ideal candidate for your organization? Do you use recruiting agencies, and if no … why not? Feel free to be brutally honest.
Jason: We’ve used a recruiter in the past, and it didn’t work out. Especially with Ruby on Rails where we have such a tight community — if everyone doesn’t already know each other, we know of each other, so we get applicants who already know they’d like to work here. For other roles we see great response on our job board postings so the challenge is to filter through and select the right candidates, not actually finding them. That’s why recruiting services just don’t fit in our system.
When it comes to our hiring process, we aren’t focused on academic accomplishments, titles or big company names on a resume. We care more about what a candidate brings to the table and what kind of person they are. We request real work — such as samples, contributions or even request a quick assignment completion — that displays their skills. After that step we simply try to get to know them. As a small company, we treat hiring like picking a friend for our group. We like to take our time to make sure we’re not just hiring off a first impression. It’s just like a relationship … you meet someone and there might be lust, but if you make a commitment too soon you may realize that you don’t even really know this person. We want to avoid this mistake when hiring.
Maria: In your book “Getting Real” you said, “Some people argue software should be agnostic. They say it’s arrogant for developers to limit features or ignore feature requests. They say software should always be as flexible as possible. We think that’s bullshit. The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides.” Have you always taken the right side? If not, how were you able to clean up the mess? Is it possible to always be on the right side?
Jason: No one’s right all the time. Of course we’ve made some decisions we’ve gone back on. But we always have a vision and have been careful about making changes that could potentially take us off our main focus. As we improve our products, we listen to our customers. Sometimes there are complaints but we give it a few weeks to make sure they aren’t just a reaction to change. (Most of the time, we find that’s exactly the case.) If our customers quiet down after some time, we stick with it. My point is you can’t just do everything people tell you to do, or you’ll end up compromising what your product is all about.
Maria: How important is marketing when you have a great product? What’s the best way for a young company on a limited budget to cut through the noise and get noticed?
Jason: Just having a good product isn’t enough. Today’s market is very competitive as it’s saturated with great ideas and driven entrepreneurs. And there are many great products that are similar to each other. So it’s important to define who you are and what you stand for. Form an identity, a strong opinion and share it! Blog about it, talk about it, give interviews and use social media to promote your idea. I don’t suggest any expensive marketing campaigns. Keep your costs down, but be heard.
Maria: Are you currently involved with the Chicago start-up scene from an investment or mentoring perspective?
Jason: No … I would like to be more involved. We aren’t investing with anyone currently but there are a few I would consider. We don’t mentor any start-up in particular, but our book “Rework” is meant to encourage and provide some guidance to a starting entrepreneur.
Maria: For most entrepreneurs you’re living the ultimate dream, which makes it even more interesting to learn about your next professional goal. What’s next for Jason Fried?
Jason: I’m happy with what I do and my ultimate goal is to be able to continue to this for the next 30 years. I want to avoid being in a position of always building toward a next step because for me, it’s important to do what I enjoy today. We’re always evolving as a company, and I’m excited to work toward better, clearer and simpler products.
Maria: Speaking of your products, what can we expect from 37signals next?
Jason: Ha! Let’s just say there are a few surprises coming out in 2012.