Why Jason Fried Thinks Of 37signals As Chefs That Don’t Add Bananas To The Lasagna

by Tim Jahn on December 4, 2009

In this episode, I’m chatting with Jason Fried of 37signals, the Chicago based firm that develops popular web based software products Basecamp and Highrise.


Jason Fried:
37signals is company that builds web based software for small businesses.  So we build collaboration software, contact management software.  Really simple tools that let small businesses and small groups inside of big companies get things done easily.

We built web based software mainly because we needed it ourselves.  We used to be a web design company here in Chicago.  In about 2003, we decided we needed something to manage our own projects because we were just using email at the time.  That was kind of a mess.

So we set out to build our own web based project management tool, which we were just going to use for ourselves.  But our clients liked it and they wanted it to, so we said hey, here’s a product.  So we turned it into a product and that became Basecamp.  Basically, everything we built from there on out was something we needed.  So everything we build we need.  And that’s kind of how 37signals got started.

We’re small, 16 people total.  About 8 are here in Chicago and 8 are in 8 other cities around the world.  Someone in Spain, 2 guys in Canada as well.

It’s really important to have a small team.  I think it forces you to only be able to do the basics.  Software gets confusing really quickly, especially when you have big teams.  When you have a lot of people sitting around, you have to keep them busy.  So you have them do stuff.

There’s that quote, I think it’s called Parkinson’s Law, that says work expands to fill the time available.  We kind of think it’s the same way with people – work expands to fill the people available.  If you have 200 people, you’re going to build a product that looks like 200 people worked on it, or even 50 people worked on it.

And that’s the part that usually gets confusing, and it’s bloated, looks different in different places because it’s disconnected and disjointed.  We think staying small forces us to build just simple tools and not get carried away.  It’s a form of self discipline.

We always talk about chefs and kind of think of ourselves more as chefs.  You go to a restaurant and eat someone’s food, and maybe you like the food, maybe you don’t like the food.  If you don’t like the food, you don’t go back.  If you like the food, you keep going back and you tell your friends and that’s ok.

We don’t expect every chef to make every meal that everybody likes.  We expect we like that chef so we go to that chef’s restaurant.  We would never say to the chef, “I like bananas, could you add bananas to the lasagna?”  He’d say no, I’m not adding bananas to the lasagna, lasagna doesn’t have bananas.

No one would ever expect that to happen to a chef.  But in the business world, especially in the software world, there’s a lot of requests for features in products that we don’t think fit into the spirit of the product.  But people ask for it and if you don’t give it to them, some people get upset.

They wouldn’t get upset if a chef said no, that’s kind of ridiculous, I’m not putting bananas in there.  But we think there are a lot of features that people ask for that we would consider to be like bananas in the lasagna.  Neat ideas, you might like bananas, you might like this feature, but it doesn’t really fit in with the product as a whole.

I think what happens is when people are together all the time, like in an office setting, they just end up interrupting each other all the time.  And that’s not really a good way to get work done.  When it’s so easy to call someone’s name or walk over to them or tap them on the shoulder or whatever, it seems like an innocent thing to do but it’s really disruptive.

So what ends up happening is instead of having a work day, you have work moments.  You have 20 minutes before someone bothers you again and then 30 minutes before someone bothers you again.  And it may be a small thing like what do you think about this or hey can you check this out.  And that seems like a good idea, but we’ve found that you need uninterrupted stretches of time to get work done.

You need 3 hours when you’re not busy or when nobody’s bothering you.  And it’s really hard to do that in an office.  Which is why most people end up working at home, later at night, or really early in the morning before anyone gets to the office, because they don’t actually work at the office anymore because there are too many interruptions.

Signal vs. Noise we started in I think in 1999 or 2000.  No one was reading it for a long time and gradually you start building an audience.  It takes time.  Now we have about 100,000 people a day that read the blog.  But for a long time, there were a few hundred or a few thousand max.  And before that, there were like 20.

So it just takes time.  You have to consistently put out good content or good writing.  I don’t like the word content.  It sort of strips away what it is.  You have to put out good writing and good ideas and be willing to have an opinion.  All the things that a lot of people seem to be afraid to do.  People are afraid to take stands today.  Everyone is trying to be politically correct and very comfortable and very accommodating for everybody else.  And there’s something to be said for that.

But I think it’s also interesting to find companies that have points of view.  I think there are a lot of companies that are sterile.  And so we try not to be that kind of company.  If we believe something, we’ll say it.  And that helps build an audience over time and build followers and build haters as well.  And that’s fine too.

We just try to be clear and honest in what we believe and don’t make excuses for it.  That’s how we managed to build an audience and followers over time.

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