Life on Mars

37 Signals CEO and founder Jason Fried has been working since he was 13.

“My parents sent me to work at a grocery store. I’ve always worked. I guess I learnt to love working.”

But after completing his college degree (in finance, since you ask), three or four months into working a big company, it dawned on Jason that corporate life just wasn’t for him.

“I decided I wasn’t fit for that sort of environment…I just can’t stand red tape and bureaucracy. There’s a tendency to add hierarchies and levels of management to projecst that don’t need it. Why start off by assuming that everything’s going to go wrong?”

He went freelance (as a designer) and after a short space of time, age 24, decided to start up a company with two friends.

It was 1999. Jason and his co-founders decided to name the company 37signals after the number of signal sources from space which remain “unidentified” at that time.

They wrote a 37 point manifesto which includes truisms such as “Choose to do one thing and do it right” (No.4), “Don’t keep them waiting or they’ll leave and never return” (No.13), “It’s better to tell a short story well than a long one poorly” (no.16), “Corporations don’t use websites, people do” (22) and “Don’t just do something because everyone else is doing it” (28).

Nearly ten years on, 37signals holds true to its beliefs. One thing the company is widely respected for is its simplistic approach to problem-solving.

A favourite maxim is “Bloat is bad”. And this reflects in the company structure: despite being a leading provider of software to the developer market, the business employs just 12 people.

Clearly, recruitment is key. How do they approach it?

“We’re quite established so there’s a big element of self selection,” says Jason. “Our culture is pretty ‘out there’, clear…transparent.”

“What was the last thing you learned?” is a favourite question to ask in interviews.

With regard to getting people to be passionate about working for the company, Jason just expects them to be themselves:

“We’ve one guy who doesn’t sware. He’s very quiet and very religious. But he’s true to himself, and he fits in brilliantly.”

In an effort to help people be themselves, 37signals gives financial support to extra-curricular activities, “whether it’s flying lessons or whittling”. Each employee also gets a corporate credit card which can be spent on personal activities.

“People ask, what will you do when you employ 50 people? You can’t give them ALL a credit card?! But I say, it works now, why worry? If we decide it’s not working in the future, we can change it. Nothing is set in stone.”

Ricardo Semler is “an idol”, as well as James Dyson.

Jason believes in trusting people as far as possible, and not filling their days with cc-ing and directives.

“The latest thing bothering me about business is that I hear about friends with work days full of meetings and emails. They can’t get anything done! People don’t have to be in the office for 8 hour days – or longer. [I believe you should] get the work done – and get out!”

And what if someone’s struggling with a project?

“If what you’re doing is too hard, cut it in half. Always scale back scope. Don’t throw more people at it. Instead, deliver half of what you expected to do.”

It’s working life, Jim, but not as we know it.

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