/ Commentary

Rework: How To Succeed in Business Without Really Growing

Rework is as much a manifesto as a business guide. The content is less bombastic than some of its advance publicity, but be prepared for a polemic. Authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (the inventor of Ruby on Rails) argue why you should keep your company's size and products as small as possible. Their attitude toward growth for the sake of growth is skeptical, if not outright antagonistic. Their main exhibit is 37Signals, the company they founded, which has only 15 employees serving millions of customers.

They make a compelling case why start-ups and entrepreneurs (two terms they detest) should put aside plans for creating a big splash in the market. The book advises anyone with business ambitions to do what they love, embrace constraints like lack of outside funding, launch quietly and work to build incrementally on small successes with real customers. Readers who have spent a few years in high tech won't find many surprises here, as these observations have now become industry imperatives. However, newer entrants will find some inspiration in them. Rework assures you that you can build a sustainable business without 80-hour work weeks, consultants, and major expenses -- if you focus on the right things.

The authors are at their best when applying their small-is-beautiful credo to operational decision-making. Without jargon, they apply concepts recognizable from agile software development. According to Fried and Hansson, business plans, even medium term ones, are guesses; therefore, one shouldn't waste much time on them. Instead, a business should focus on the immediate weeks to come. It's important that your team have an exact understanding on where you're heading at the moment. You'll decide on what happens next when you get there. They note how a new, anonymous company can use this stepwise cycle to its advantage, for instance by experimenting and collecting feedback to guide the next stage.

Another consequence of this just-in-time approach to planning is that it simplifies prioritization for most workers. There's only two classes of things: what we're working on now, and what can wait until later. As an example of their commitment to this extreme, the writers brag that they launched their flagship product, Basecamp, without even an invoicing system -- knowing that they'd have 30 days to put one together for their first monthly billing.

As a product manager, I was particularly interested in the book's argument for sticking to a limited feature set. There are multiple reasons against adding new features. They make the software too complex for some customers; they distract you from improving your core competency into doing too much; they make you less innovative, too worried about imitating competitors. The authors are so passionate about sticking with your own vision of the product that they caution you against listening too much to your customers, even at the risk of losing them. Talking about their experience with Basecamp, their project collaboration software, they say they resisted the urges of existing clients to make it into a more full-blown project management system. Their rationale? They're more interested in selling to the vast millions who want basic features than the smaller number who want an advanced product.

The latter chapters fail to sustain the promise of the early stories that lay down the principles. The text feels like a scatter-gun attempt to cover subjects in which the writers have little or no interest. There's criticism of marketing, customer service, hiring practices and policy manuals, yet little advice you haven't already thought about. An exception is the explanation of why you should promote your business by freely educating your audience. Rework contains some good illustrations why sharing your expertise can build your brand, and why you shouldn't worry about giving away too much.

Whether you like this book will depend on your temperament. The authors value control over their work and question why anyone would want to see it diluted by factors like venture capital and expansion into new markets. They don't see themselves as overprotective for foregoing the chance to make their company larger. On the contrary, they believe that growth makes you more timid and risk-averse, as you struggle to scale your model and please investors.

Five years ago, Rework might have provoked intense debate about business practices. Today, its ideas have less novelty. The book is nonetheless valuable as a reminder that bigger often isn't better, and as a challenge to teams within all enterprises to seek simplicity and set boundaries.

Note: this review is based on listening to the full unabridged audiobook of Rework, not the hardcover edition.

Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Crown Business, March 9, 2010, ISBN-10: 0307463745, ISBN-13: 978-0307463746

This post was originally published on my other blog, https://tech.surveypoint.com