Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reviewing Rework

I have a love-hate relationship with business "how to" books. I find most of them have the informational satisfaction of a microwaved tofu burger: They look promising on the outside, but are boring, tasteless, and a bit cold and gooey on the inside. Each one promises a silver bullet solution to one or more of business life's little problems, but they never do.

Wait... is that too strong... "never"? *thinking* *thinking* Hmmm... nope. That's right. NEVER!

That said, I can rarely pass by one of these books without picking it up and scanning through it.

Hope springs eternal.

The most recent one of these books was Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 37signals (software). The basic idea behind the book is to debunk what the authors consider myths about starting and running a small business. Some of the common business practices they consider wrong are:

  • Learning from mistakes
  • Strategic planning
  • Growing a business
  • Working long hours
  • Getting outside financing
  • Finishing a product before releasing it
  • Sweating the details
  • Having meetings
  • Watching your competition

There are more... 88 in all -- statements about what to do and what not to do. Each statement is followed up by a page or two of cheerful text supporting the statement. No... "cheerful" is an understatement. I'd say the tone was a bit more like a team of junior high school cheerleaders on espresso (ohmygodohmygodohmygod we could start a business ohmygoooddddd).

It was a quick read, anyway.

I looked at their suggestions as someone who started two businesses and who, due to the current job market, might be staring down the barrel of a third. Some of the assertions rang true. I've always thought long-term strategic planning was a stupid waste of time and resources. Forcing an team to stick to an 11-month-old plan when the business environment has significantly changed in that time is heartbreaking. Like the authors, I think that giving away your product (to some level) is always a good idea. It not only builds an audience, but the feedback of that early audience will always make your product better. I also agree that a certain amount of transparency between you and your audience builds credibility and trust.

Some of their assertions sounded a little off, though.

In my experience, working long hours is just part of what you have to do. If you are in a small business or if you are the small business you are, by necessity, doing all or most of the work all of the time. If you are essentially holding down eight jobs (business development, scheduling, product development, fulfillment, marketing, finance, billing, janitor), you are going to have trouble fitting all of those tasks into a 40-hour week.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but that's life. It doesn't mean that you are working inefficiently, it means that you have eight jobs. Starting a business with any expectation that you will be working 40-hour weeks is setting yourself up for a major disappointment.

The "Learning from mistakes is overrated" chapter is an example of the microwaved tofu hamburger thing.

"Another common misconception: You need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don't know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked -- and you can do it again."

OK. I get that... but this isn't a terribly tactical advice for starting or running a business. That's feel-good advice. It's when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade advice. Yeah. OK. Whatever. Now tell me how to get my billing up so I can buy groceries next month.

It's not a bad book. There are some good reality checks and it is, like I said, cheerful. Don't expect any "silver bullet" solutions, though, or thoughtful insights into business practices. It is an entertaining business book for a public transportation commute, but don't expect it to change your world.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on our book. I'm glad you found some value in it. I wouldn't expect anyone to agree with all of it - it wouldn't be interesting if it didn't make you question some assumptions.

    Regarding not getting enough sleep and staying up as long as it takes... We're human - we need to get rest. Being an entrepreneur doesn't change the basic body laws. Our brains work better on a full night sleep. And there are very few things that are so urgent that they can't wait until tomorrow (after a good 8 hour sleep). I'd encourage you to try to work a little less and rest a little more. It may be hard to do initially, but I think you'll see the payoff. I've been there.

    My 2 cents on that.

    Thanks again for reading REWORK and sharing your thoughts.

  2. *smile* Hi, Jason. I'm impressed you found this so fast.

    I agree that we need to get rest and I agree that anyone works better on a full night's sleep. Starting a business is, in my experience, a more than a full-time job. You don't have to go without sleep, but you will work long hours sometimes. If you want to get paid, sometimes things *can't* wait until tomorrow.

    I get that some things in the book are meant to be provocative... just like some of things I wrote here. ;-)

  3. Yes, *some* things can't wait and *some*times you may have to work late nights. But *some* is the exception. And it should remain the exception.

    Problem is, and I have lots of friends who are on this treadmill, some isn't the exception, it's the rule. At work at 8, home at 10:30. Every day. Sometimes on the weekends too. It's not healthy. You can see it on them. It wears. It can't help but wear.

    And it's not getting them anywhere good, it's just getting them somewhere tired, and stressed out, and unhappy. I see it happen over and over. It doesn't have to be this way.

    A lot of people starting businesses think they have to kill themselves. They don't. I know plenty of people who don't live like this, but are doing remarkably well. Tired and stressed out is not a prerequisite for anything other than more of the same. Get into that habit now, and you stay there. That's how habits work, and late nights are no exception.

    I hope you get some sleep! ;)

  4. It's a wonderful thought: You don't have to kill yourself to start a business. I've also known people who burned themselves out unnecessarily... and I flirted with that myself early on. Finding that line between doing what is necessary and doing what is ultimately going to burn you out is really hard.

    I'm a hard-edged pragmatist... probably not exactly the person you had in mind when you wrote the book (or your editor had in mind when he or she edited the book).

    In terms of the sleep thing, I hope with all my heart that people hear you and do that. We'd have a more peaceful society if people would just get over themselves and get a full night's sleep.

    Have a great evening!

  5. "I'm a hard-edged pragmatist" - we've got that in common.

    Thanks again for the review and conversation.