Another book from Fried and DHH that teaches you how to think about business, life and your career. Unorthodox, highly usable, and unique. Highly recommended.
Authors: Jason Fried
Originally published: 2010
Goodreads rating: ⭐️ 3.97/5
In the business world, failure has become an expected rite of passage. You hear all the time how nine out of ten new businesses fail. You hear that your business’s chances are slim to none. You hear that failure builds character. People advise, “Fail early and fail often.”
With so much failure in the air, you can’t help but breathe it in. Don’t inhale. Don’t get fooled by the stats. Other people’s failures are just that: other people’s failures.
If other people can’t market their product, it has nothing to do with you. If other people can’t build a team, it has nothing to do with you. If other people can’t price their services properly, it has nothing to do with you. If other people can’t earn more than they spend … well, you get it.
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. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.
Failure is not a prerequisite for success.
Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.
Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve. First off, working like that just isn’t sustainable over time. When the burnout crash comes—and it will—it’ll hit that much harder.
Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions.
They even create crises. They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime. They enjoy feeling like heroes. They create problems (often unwittingly) just so they can get off on working more.
Workaholics make the people who don’t stay late feel inadequate for “merely” working reasonable hours. That leads to guilt and poor morale all around. Plus, it leads to an ass-in-seat mentality—people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren’t really being productive.
In the end, workaholics don’t actually accomplish more than nonworkaholics. They may claim to be perfectionists, but that just means they’re wasting time fixating on inconsequential details instead of moving on to the next task.
Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.
As you get going, keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing. Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service. You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight for. And then you need to show the world.
A strong stand is how you attract superfans. They point to you and defend you. And they spread the word further, wider, and more passionately than any advertising could.
Strong opinions aren’t free. You’ll turn some people off. They’ll accuse you of being arrogant and aloof. That’s life. For everyone who loves you, there will be others who hate you. If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. (And you’re probably boring, too).
When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.
Why you shouldn’t spend other people’s money
In fact, no matter what kind of business you’re starting, take on as little outside cash as you can. Spending other people’s money may sound great, but there’s a noose attached. Here’s why:
You give up control. When you turn to outsiders for funding, you have to answer to them too. That’s fine at first, when everyone agrees. But what happens down the road? Are you starting your own business to take orders from someone else? Raise money and that’s what you’ll wind up doing.
“Cashing out” begins to trump building a quality business. Investors want their money back—and quickly (usually three to five years). Long-term sustainability goes out the window when those involved only want to cash out as soon as they can.
Spending other people’s money is addictive. There’s nothing easier than spending other people’s money. But then you run out and need to go back for more. And every time you go back, they take more of your company.
It’s usually a bad deal. When you’re just beginning, you have no leverage. That’s a terrible time to enter into any financial transaction.
Customers move down the totem pole. You wind up building what investors want instead of what customers want.
Raising money is incredibly distracting. Seeking funding is difficult and draining. It takes months of pitch meetings, legal maneuvering, contracts, etc. That’s an enormous distraction when you should really be focused on building something great.
You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy
You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy. You should be thinking about how to make your project grow and succeed, not how you’re going to jump ship. If your whole strategy is based on leaving, chances are you won’t get far in the first place.
You see so many aspiring businesspeople pinning their hopes on selling out. But the odds of getting acquired are so tiny. There’s only a slim chance that some big suitor will come along and make it all worthwhile. Maybe 1 in 1,000? Or 1 in 10,000?
Plus, when you build a company with the intention of being acquired, you emphasize the wrong things. Instead of focusing on getting customers to love you, you worry about who’s going to buy you. That’s the wrong thing to obsess over.
Less is a good thing
“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.
You can turn a bunch of great ideas into a crappy product real fast by trying to do them all at once. You just can’t do everything you want to do and do it well. You have limited time, resources, ability, and focus. It’s hard enough to do one thing right. Trying to do ten things well at the same time? Forget about it.
So sacrifice some of your darlings for the greater good. Cut your ambition in half. You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.
Most of your great ideas won’t seem all that great once you get some perspective, anyway. And if they truly are that fantastic, you can always do them later.
So start chopping. Getting to great starts by cutting out stuff that’s merely good.
Starting at the epicenter
When you start anything new, there are forces pulling you in a variety of directions. There’s the stuff you could do, the stuff you want to do, and the stuff you have to do. The stuff you have to do is where you should begin. Start at the epicenter.
The way to find the epicenter is to ask yourself this question: “If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?” A hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without the hot dogs. You can take away the onions, the relish, the mustard, etc. Some people may not like your toppings-less dogs, but you’d still have a hot dog stand. But you simply cannot have a hot dog stand without any hot dogs.
So figure out your epicenter. Which part of your equation can’t be removed? If you can continue to get by without this thing or that thing, then those things aren’t the epicenter. When you find it, you’ll know. Then focus all your energy on making it the best it can be. Everything else you do depends on that foundation
Whenever you can, swap “Let’s think about it” for “Let’s decide on it.” Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
You want to get into the rhythm of making choices. When you get in that flow of making decision after decision, you build momentum and boost morale. Decisions are progress. Each one you make is a brick in your foundation. You can’t build on top of “We’ll decide later,” but you can build on top of “Done.”
The problem comes when you postpone decisions in the hope that a perfect answer will come to you later. It won’t. You’re as likely to make a great call today as you are tomorrow.
Focus on what won’t change
A lot of companies focus on the next big thing. They latch on to what’s hot and new. They follow the latest trends and technology.
That’s a fool’s path. You start focusing on fashion instead of substance. You start paying attention to things that are constantly changing instead of things that last.
The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you should invest in.
Reasons to quit
It’s easy to put your head down and just work on what you think needs to be done. It’s a lot harder to pull your head up and ask why. Here are some important questions to ask yourself to ensure you’re doing work that matters:
Why are you doing this? Ever find yourself working on something without knowing exactly why? Someone just told you to do it. It’s pretty common, actually. That’s why it’s important to ask why you’reworking on______. What is this for? Who benefits? What’s the motivation behind it? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you better understand the work itself.
What problem are you solving? What’s the problem? Are customers confused? Are you confused? Is something not clear enough? Was something not possible before that should be possible now? Sometimes when you ask these questions, you’ll find you’re solving an imaginary problem. That’s when it’s time to stop and reevaluate what the hell you’re doing.
Is this actually useful? Are you making something useful or just making something? It’s easy to confuse enthusiasm with usefulness. Sometimes it’s fine to play a bit and build something cool. But eventually you’ve got to stop and ask yourself if it’s useful, too. Cool wears off. Useful never does.
Are you adding value? Adding something is easy; adding value is hard. Is this thing you’re working on actually making your product more valuable for customers? Can they get more out of it than they did before? Sometimes things you think are adding value actually subtract from it. Too much ketchup can ruin the fries. Value is about balance.
Will this change behavior? Is what you’re working on really going to change anything? Don’t add something unless it has a real impact on how people use your product.
Is there an easier way? Whenever you’re working on something, ask, “Is there an easier way?” You’ll often find this easy way is more than good enough for now. Problems are usually pretty simple. We just imagine that they require hard solutions.
What could you be doing instead? What can’t you do because you’re doing this? This is especially important for small teams with constrained resources. That’s when prioritization is even more important. If you work on A, can you still do B and C before April? If not, would you rather have B and C instead of A? If you’re stuck on something for a long period of time, that means there are other things you’re not getting done.
Is it really worth it? Is what you’re doing really worth it? Is this meeting worth pulling six people off their work for an hour? Is it worth pulling an all-nighter tonight, or could you just finish it up tomorrow? Is it worth getting all stressed out over a press release from a competitor? Is it worth spending your money on advertising? Determine the real value of what you’re about to do before taking the plunge.
How to create effective meetings
If you decide you absolutely must get together, try to make your meeting a productive one by sticking to these simple rules:
- Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
- Invite as few people as possible.
- Always have a clear agenda.
- Begin with a specific problem.
- Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things and suggest real changes.
- End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.
Breaking proyects into small tasks
Break the big thing into smaller things. The smaller it is, the easier it is to estimate. You’re probably still going to get it wrong, but you’ll be a lot less wrong than if you estimated a big project. If something takes twice as long as you expected, better to have it be a small project that’s a couple weeks over rather than a long one that’s a couple months over.
Keep breaking your time frames down into smaller chunks. Instead of one twelve-week project, structure it as twelve one-week projects. Instead of guesstimating at tasks that take thirty hours or more, break them down into more realistic six-to-ten-hour chunks. Then go one step at a time.
Copying isn’t useful
You have to understand why something works or why something is the way it is. When you just copy and paste, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath.
So much of the work an original creator puts into something is invisible. It’s buried beneath the surface. The copycat doesn’t really know why something looks the way it looks or feels the way it feels or reads the way it reads. The copy is a faux finish. It delivers no substance, no understanding, and nothing to base future decisions on.
Plus, if you’re a copycat, you can never keep up. You’re always in a passive position. You never lead; you always follow. You give birth to something that’s already behind the times—just a knockoff, an inferior version of the original. That’s no way to live.
Competition doesn’t matter
In the end, it’s not worth paying much attention to the competition anyway. Why not? Because worrying about the competition quickly turns into an obsession. What are they doing right now? Where are they going next? How should we react?
Every little move becomes something to be analyzed. And that’s a terrible mind-set. It leads to overwhelming stress and anxiety. That state of mind is bad soil for growing anything.
Focus on yourself instead. What’s going on in here is way more important than what’s going on out there. When you spend time worrying about someone else, you can’t spend that time improving yourself.
What customers really want
How should you keep track of whatcustomers want? Don’t. Listen, but then forget what people said. Seriously.
There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll show you which things you truly need to worry about.
If there’s a request that you keep forgetting, that’s a sign that it isn’t very important. The really important stuff doesn’t go away.
No one knows who you are
No one knows who you are right now. And that’s just fine. Being obscure is a great position to be in. Be happy you’re in the shadows.
Use this time to make mistakes without the whole world hearing about them. Keep tweaking. Work out the kinks. Test random ideas. Try new things. No one knows you, so it’s no big deal if you mess up. Obscurity helps protect your ego and preserve your confidence.
Would you want the whole world to watch you the first time you do anything? If you’ve never given a speech before, do you want your first speech to be in front of ten thousand people or ten people? You don’t want everyone to watch you starting your business. It makes no sense to tell everyone to look at you if you’re not ready to be looked at yet.
Building an audience
All companies have customers. Lucky companies have fans. But the most fortunate companies have audiences. An audience can be your secret weapon.
Today’s smartest companies know better. Instead of going out to reach people, you want people to come to you. An audience returns often—on its own—to see what you have to say. This is the most receptive group of customers and potential customers you’ll ever have.
How much would it cost us to reach those hundred thousand people every day the old-fashioned way? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? And how would we have done it? Running ads? Buying radio spots? Sending direct mail?
When you build an audience, you don’t have to buy people’s attention—they give it to you. This is a huge advantage.
So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos—whatever. Share information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.
Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them. Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about. Most businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never even occurs to them.
Teach and you’ll form a bond you just don’t get from traditional 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.
Never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first. That way, you’ll understand the nature of the work. You’ll know what a job well done looks like. You’ll know how to write a realistic job description and which questions to ask in an interview. You’ll know whether to hire someone full-time or part-time, outsource it, or keep doing it yourself (the last is preferable, if possible).
You’ll also be a much better manager, because you’ll be supervising people who are doing a job you’ve done before. You’ll know when to criticize and when to support.
You don’t create a culture. It happens. This is why new companies don’t have a culture. Culture is the byproduct of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust, then trust will be built in. If you treat customers right, then treating customers right becomes your culture.
Culture isn’t a foosball table or trust falls. It isn’t policy. It isn’t the Christmas party or the company picnic. Those are objects and events, not culture. And it’s not a slogan, either. Culture is action, not words.
So don’t worry too much about it. Don’t force it. You can’t install a culture. Like a fine scotch, you’ve got to give it time to develop.
What is it with businesspeople trying to sound big? The stiff language, the formal announcements, the artificial friendliness, the legalese, etc. You read this stuff and it sounds like a robot wrote it. These companies talk at you, not to you.
This mask of professionalism is a joke. We all know this. Yet small companies still try to emulate it. They think sounding big makes them appear bigger and more “professional.” But it really just makes them sound ridiculous. Plus, you sacrifice one of a small company’s greatest assets: the ability to communicate simply and directly, without running every last word through a legal-and PR-department sieve.
There’s nothing wrong with sounding your own size. Being honest about who you are is smart business, too. Language is often your first impression—why start it off with a lie? Don’t be afraid to be you.
That applies to the language you use everywhere—in e-mail, packaging, interviews, blog posts, presentations, etc. Talk to customers the way you would to friends. Explain things as if you were sitting next to them. Avoid jargon or any sort of corporate-speak. Stay away from buzzwords when normal words will do just fine. Don’t talk about “monetization” or being “transparent;” talk about making money and being honest. Don’t use seven words when four will do.
And don’t force your employees to end e-mails with legalese like “This e-mail message is for the sole use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain confidential and privileged information.” That’s like ending all your company e-mails with a signature that says, “We don’t trust you and we’re ready to prove it in court.” Good luck making friends that way.
Write to be read, don’t write just to write. Whenever you write something, read it out loud. Does it sound the way it would if you were actually talking to someone? If not, how can you make it more conversational?
Who said writing needs to be formal? Who said you have to strip away your personality when putting words on paper? Forget rules. Communicate!
And when you’re writing, don’t think about all the people who may read your words. Think of one person. Then write for that one person. Writing for a mob leads to generalities and awkwardness. When you write to a specific target, you’re a lot more likely to hit the mark.