May 18, 2012
Watching the ceaseless coverage of Facebook’s IPO on MSNBC today got me thinking some more about what I do and don’t want to see in the structure and functioning of my own business. I just finished reading “Rework” by the founders of 37signals, so some of these ideas have been bouncing around in my head for awhile. Much of the philosophy presented in “Rework” has a direct connection to the ideas that I’ve had for LiveWork. Seeing these ideas in print, presented by people who have used them in their own businesses - successfully - provided some nice reinforcement for the ideas that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.
To my mind, one of the most pertinent points made by the authors has to do with the concept of growth and its role in shaping our current business models. As I have written before, I don’t think that a business necessarily needs to grow in order to be considered “successful”. A business needs only to be as big as is necessary to accomplish the goals that it has set for itself (i.e. it provides the products and/or services to the people that it has set out to serve, and it provides a living to those who work within its walls). The part of this concept that I missed in my own writing that the “Rework” authors touch on, is the faulty notion that every business must have an “exit strategy” wherein the founder(s) end up selling off to some multinational conglomerate and spend the rest of their lives sipping Mai Thais on the beach somewhere. The authors argue that the type of person who is driven to form their own business, create, and develop their own product is not going to be satisfied with a simple life of leisure. They will eventually want to start something else, and more often than not their successive creations just aren’t as good, or as fulfilling to them, as was their first business. There is no reason for us to work ourselves out of a job. I’ve seen it many times on a smaller scale as well. The best carpenter gets promoted to supervisor due to his carpentry skills, not his supervisory skills. Meanwhile, he spends most of his time wishing that he could be doing what he loves (building things), he probably doesn’t do such a hot job of supervising, and the company has lost the output from one of its best producers. In this situation everyone loses.
Back to Facebook. There is a major paradigm shift in the works, and the financial prognosticators could all feel it today, but they didn’t quite know how to put it into words. The basic gist was this: we think we could make a lot of money off of this thing, but we’re not sure if these people hold the same values as us, and that makes us more than a little nervous. It should. Their uneasiness comes not from Mark Zuckerberg’s rumpled hoodie or the foosball tables in the employee lounge, but from the sense that these people might not even be working for the money (disgustingly giant heaps of it), they might just be doing it because they love it. And people working for the love of it are a potential threat to the bottom line. So far Zuckerberg’s eccentricities have happened to mesh well with the more traditional methods of growing a business and making money from it, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t get a wild hair notion that he decides to pursue all the way to edge of the cliff. This is the same issue that always made people nervous about Apple and Steve Jobs. Investors worry that a multi-billion dollar company cannot be built on the strength of one person’s creativity, but they fail to realize that this single-mindedness and attention to detail is exactly what has made these companies so successful in the first place. A reader’s review of “Rework” on Goodreads puts it another way: “Rework puts into words the things we've suspected for a long time. Mainly, that we are at war, and the battle lines are being drawn every day. Traditional, secure, process-heavy businesses which exist for self-preservation are fighting for survival and profits against small, lightweight, flexible individuals working for the love of their craft.”
As a sometimes mountain climber and an avid follower of climbing’s history and progression, I think climbing provides a powerful allegory for other real-world pursuits that involve efficiency, speed, and risk. The first of the world’s largest peaks to be climbed successfully were all conquered using traditional “siege tactics”. Large, expensive, heavily provisioned expeditions used a militaristic model and brute force to chip away at the mountain’s defenses over a period of weeks, months, or even years. This proved successful in the beginning, but climbers soon realized that a “fast and light” approach offered several advantages over the traditional methods. For one thing, expeditions could be organized and financed much more easily, and their size and structure also allowed them to adapt quickly to ever-changing conditions (change being the only constant in mountaineering, business, and life). There are times when, much as we hate to admit it, the only way to minimize the risk is to shorten the amount of time that we spend in the danger zone.
I’ve been making this same argument in my work as a firefighter. There is a constant temptation to add the latest and greatest technology to our arsenal of tools (and we should always be looking for ways to become more efficient and safer), but we rarely stop to reassess the value of the tools that we already have. The rule that I’ve been fighting for is that for every tool that we add to the truck, something else must go. Preferably two things. If a new tool has any real value it should do a better job than something you already have in your toolbox. If it’s truly revolutionary, it will take the place of two or three of your previous tools. Planning for every contingency, and outfitting yourself for every what-if situation is a recipe for disaster. Just look in the backpack of every climber who didn’t make it to the top.
“Fast and light” is becoming more prevalent in all sorts of places. From places like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms to small manufacture-on-demand hacker spaces, people are beginning to see efficiency in a new light. It’s no longer simply the method by which we can squeeze the most work (and profit) out of each employee, efficiency is what allows us to run a lean and adaptable operation. Using the cooperative model, we all stand to benefit from these increased efficiencies.