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.


One to watch

Chanel Realegeno’s parents were both entrepreneurs, so she thinks it’s only natural she should be one too. At 19, she’s already secured US$250,000 of funding (from a VC she found on LinkedIn) and is about to launch her first company, Tyro Jobs.

Chanel is a student at California State University, Chico. Appropriately enough, she’s studying Entrepreneurship. She reads about my book online, borrows a car, and drives 200 miles down to Los Altos, where I’m staying, to talk about leadership.

“When I set up the company, I sat down with my business partner and asked, ‘What sort of bosses do we want to be? Do we want to run this company in the traditional way?’ “ says Chanel.

One thing she decided early on was that it’d be best just to let people work when they wanted to, as long as the work gets done: “I don’t think my generation wants to work a typical eight hour day.”

When she was looking for holiday work recently, Chanel was frustrated by the lack of dedicated websites: “too many of them were offering cr*p jobs, like envelope stuffing”. The idea behind Tyro Jobs is to give university and college students a trusted source of interesting and relevant work opportunities: “ideally, only quality jobs”.

Appropriately, “tyro” is Latin for novice or beginner. Sign up here for the pre-beta Tyro Jobs launch.


The developer’s dilemma

David Jennings has been interested in non-hierarchical ways of organising since he did his MSc in occupational psychology at Sheffield in 1986.

“There are all sorts of challenges to co-operative working. The same examples [of successful co-operatives] always come up: Scott Bader, Suma, etc.”

David cites Charles Landry’s book, What A Way To Run A Railroad, (Comedia, 1985) as a great analysis of the reasons co-operative working often failed. The gist of this book was that a lot of people were creating their own organisational ‘cramps’ and restrictions that were counter-productive.

“In the UK, there’s always been opposition to co-operative ways of working. But if you look at other countries, such as Sweden, you’ll see a deeply democratic culture that looks more favourably on this sort of thing. Volvo, for example, did a lot of experimenting with semi-autonomous work groups.

“The main problem with genuinely co-operative organisations is that they’re simply not scaleable. Perhaps if [the co-ops of the 1970s] had had wikis and microblogs, and a more cellular structure, they would have been more viable. Now, technology is actually catching up with ideas that have been around for a generation.”

In the wake of the co-operative movement of the 1970s, and no doubt as a reaction to the popularity of charismatic but ego-driven leaders of the 1980s, thinkers such as Peter Senge and Arie de Geus started to develop ideas around distributed leadership – leadership as a process, not trait; something to which everyone in an organisation could contribute.

Meanwhile, (so David tells me), collaborative software was developing. There was something called computer supported co-operative work (CSCW), developed by software engineers in conjunction with psychologists and ethnologists.

CSCW – also known as groupware – was a sort of early social media. By the early 1990s, programmes such as Lotus Notes were marking the beginning of people meaningfully working together online.

David mentions a paper published in 1989 called “Why groupware applications fail” by Microsoft researcher Jonathan Grudin, where Grudin looked at the personal versus the social benefits of CSCW.

As David recalls, one example addresses the disastrous uptake of early online calendars:

“Bosses would have access to invidual employees’ calendars, and get their secretaries to schedule in meetings. The only way people could get out of those meetings was by saying they had something else on that they’d not put in the calendar. Employees realised that by keeping their calendars up-to-date, they’d actually loose more than they’d gain, so it wasn’t worth it.”

The technology we have today may or may not have altruistic values, but it is far more user-centric: to re-invent a phrase, we could call this the developers dilemma: do you meet the selfish needs of your individual user, or aim to serve the greater good? The trick is to compromise neither.

As David puts it, “if you can make the social benefit a by-product of the selfish interest, then it’s much more sustainable. That’s the beauty of something like book-marking on”

And, remembering the failings of the 1970s co-operative movement, maybe a bit of selfishness is a necessary thing.


Keeping it real

When Andy Bell and Noam Sohachevsky started Mint Digital three years ago from their kitchen tables, little did they know how quickly the company was going to grow.

Mint creates mass participation websites for cross-platform entertainment projects such as ABC Family’s Greek, Channel 4/ All3Media’s Skins and Sony Ericsson/ Orange’s unsignedAct. Now, thanks to two rounds of angel investment and a lot of hard work, Mint has offices in London and New York, and 24 full time employees.

Sitting back in his chair in the garden of Mint’s local cafe, Andy takes a sip of water (if you want a clean-living company director, Andy’s your man) and reflects on how his relationships with co-workers have changed.

“I used to think ten people would be an ideal size for the company, now I’m finding myself thinking 50 is about right. People trust you more as a bigger company, and you can take on larger scale projects.

“I’ve felt, recently, that the tone of the company is changing a bit. It’s still a great atmosphere. But there’ve been a couple of examples recently that have made me think.

“I’ve always been keen on eating lunch with everyone. With ten people it’s easy to go to the shops and grab a picnic. Once you get to 24 people, the atmosphere changes slightly. Suddenly, it’s not ‘us’ buying lunch, it’s ‘the company’ doing it for you.

“Also, we’ve always tried to do out of hours stuff, like the Mint Sports Day we had a few weeks ago. But once you’ve got 24 people turning up on a Saturday for a corporate sports day, it seems like work. I guess if we’d done it on a Friday, it might have been different.

In an effort to keep any ‘them’ and ‘us’ barriers as low as possible, every new employee is given share options and the Vauxhall-based offices (in an old Marmite factory – visiting Disney executives like it because they say it’s ‘street’) are open plan.

“More people inevitably means more of a hierarchy,” admits Andy. “I’m ten years older than some of the new developers and designers coming into the company, so it’s inevitable that I’ve got more experience. I’ve tried and tested different ways of doing things, and I should pass that on to them. But we try to delegate responsibility as far as possible.”

When Noam, Mint Digital’s Chief Design Officer, was away last year, there were some concerns about how new-ish designer Tom Harman would step up to the plate. But Tom did a sterling job, and now enjoys a higher level of autonomy than he did previously.

Both Andy and Cameron Price – Mint’s CTO – are inspired by the sort of stuff Joel Spolsky [CEO of respected US software company, Fog Creek] writes in his blog. Spolsky spent a stint in the Israeli army so is possibly more qualified than most to say why command and control can never work in software development.

Above all, Andy wants to make sure that everyone is happy and – hopefully – enjoying themselves. The ‘Mints’ aim to “go on an outing” at least every month, and, once a year, staff from both the London and New York offices get together at Scoles Manor in Dorset for a few days of intensive brainstorming, development and social activity.

“Business is the most social thing,” says Andy. “If over the course of a few years, you’re working alongside others, putting your life and soul into something, it’s very rewarding.”


Bring on the change police!

OK, so assuming that we (us little, geeky, leaders – with a small ‘l’ – of the digital revolution) all believe a positive change is going to come, how is it going to happen?

Do we march in to corporate businesses like The Change Police, demanding an end to all this management 1.0 way of doing things, and lining up detractors against a (fire)wall?

Or do we run it like a viral campaign, planting comments in a few choice places, choosing tastemakers and creating a gentle buzz (see 2gether08’s ice cream experiment).

There’s no doubt that, to be lasting, the change needs to come in an incremental, organic way.

So how to we persuade private business do this?

Euan Semple recently listed some reasons as to why most companies who try to do Enterprise 2.0 will fail.

Here are some challenges to each point:

1. Sure, it’s a matter of perception, but once Generation Y gets established in the workplace, fear of ‘technology’ won’t be an issue.

2. This is true, but given enough success stories, even the hardest of heads will be turned.

3. Managers have to experience the ‘Web 2.0’ way for themselves. And see the light. Only then they will realise that the underlying business culture needs to change.

4. See 3.

5. If early adopters are likely to be ground down, then it’s high time they got out and did their own thing.

6. Own goal, then.

7. Yes, but even the most lowly of us know that short-termism isn’t the answer to anything.

8. Very true. But see 1.


Kaos theory

Based in the Netherlands, Kaospilots is an ‘entrepreneurial education programme’ for people trying to do something different in the social space.

The K-pilots are one of a handful of companies (eg, On Your Feet, Steps and Imprology) who are encouraging corporate innovation through shouty, noisy, touchy-feely or generally what you might call ‘active’ workshops, heavily influenced by theatre and improv techniques.

The thing is, I got chucked out of drama at school for being too ostentatious. Well, I presume that was what it was. Something along those lines anyway. Mr.Fagan, our drama teacher, really couldn’t stand the sight of me (I guess there was only room for one Violet Elizabeth Bott in that relationship).

As a way of easing childhood pain, and generally feeling a bit better about myself, I’ve written ‘drama’ under the ‘I got top marks for…’ section on my 2gether08 name badge. This also doubles as a kind of weak joke but, essentially, it’s because Mr.Fagan is no longer present and I feel I can get away with it.

Bizarrely enough, first person I meet on walking into the Kaospilots workshop is Lawrence O’Connor – someone who I haven’t seen properly for 20 years and certainly without doubt one of my school class-mates who actually DID get top marks for drama (leads in our school plays generally went to him when they weren’t being allocated to Cyril Nri).

To give a flavour of Kaospilots’ ‘different’ approach, we’re all asked to start the session off by ‘checking in’ with our own personal ‘mating call’ (name and company is so last century).

The best I can manage is a kind of camp, Leslie-Phillips style ‘Well, hellooow’. Lawrence comes up with something much more accomplished. Unfortunately, there were 40 people in the room so I’m unable to list everyone’s individual mating call, although I’m sure if I could it would do wonders for my eyeball rating.

The workshop takes place in the hot and sticky attic above the main theatre of this old re-styled school-house. The peaked roof is made of corrugated iron, which acts as an efficient solar panel while, for some reason, all but one of the tiny windows has been painted firmly shut.

The space is getting cooler as people leave, but it’s still not ideal the environment for overly physical workshops.

After a detailed talk by someone from Universal Music (I’m not really taking notes on this but he is emphasing his company’s willingness to listen to ‘small people with big ideas’), we are all gathered in the middle of the attic to perform a real-time example of the power law equation. Starting with just one brave soloist, within five minutes we have fifty people singing “I have seen the Muffin Man”.

The trouble with these kind of innovative/interactive sessions is that the activities themselves are so all-consuming that the important presentations in between kind of lose their traction. There is a kind of disconnect. It is easy to see this session as one of hyper-ventilation, veering from one activity to the other – fun in it’s own way – rather than actually learning anything concrete.

But then maybe that’s the point?