Jason Fried is a terrific entrepreneur who has been incredibly generous to the Chicago entrepreneurial community. I love the product that he’s created (Basecamp) and I’ve enjoyed his writing over the years.
But I also really dislike Jason Fried. His company is a —*no doubt*— success; and he worked hard to make it a success. But way too many folks in Chicago (and likely all over the place) see his success and think, “If I could just make my company like Basecamp, I’ll be a success.” And so you see folks who’s homepage looks like the Basecamp homepage, and their pricing page looks like the Basecamp pricing page. They read Jason’s books and try to build their company the way Jason built Basecamp. As if the way Jason did it is a recipe to follow.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that I don’t believe that it’s going to work.
Basecamp’s success was rooted in the people who worked there, the product they were selling, and the market at the time the company was founded. Some factors of their success are timeless truths; some are not. How do you know which is which?
If we look across hundreds of companies we can find those “timeless truths”. But taking advice from just one successful entrepreneur is a little like taking advice from a lottery winner. And I’m not saying that success is luck – because it’s not. Success is a huge amount of work; it’s making a million “right” decisions; it’s not giving up; and it’s luck.
Taking Jason Fried’s formula and trying to replicate it for yourself is just not going to work. What’s going to make your business successful is a product of the person you are, the people on your team, the time and market that you are in… and luck!
So how do we decide what to do?
1. Read broadly
I’m not saying you shouldn’t read Jason Fried – I read him and I like him. But I also read Jim Collins, Michael Gerber, Bo Burlingham, Gino Wickman and others. Don’t just read books by doers, also read books by thinkers, and researchers, and folks that have seen lots of businesses who can separate timeless truths from fads and anomalies.
2. Try lots of things
I’ve been working with a client on improving the conversion rate on their website and we’ve tried all the things the experts would recommend: simplify the page, take away the navigation, use a contrasting color for calls to action, make longer sales pages… None of them worked. As Thomas Edison would say, we haven’t failed, we’ve just found a lot of ways that won’t work (at least for this audience).
I wish I could take a short cut and just find a blog post about the “best times to post on social media” or the “best times to send your email newsletter” but I don’t have any confidence that my audience is the same as the audience that blog post tested. Instead, I have to try some different times and see when I get the best engagement.
3. Fail Fast
Since there are no “sure fire” answers, the best strategy is to try lots of stuff and “fail fast”. When you are considering an idea, immediately start thinking about the cheapest and easiest way to test that idea. Once you come up with the test (and this is important) execute the test!
Since there are lots of ideas, we need lots of tests. If it takes weeks or months to try something new, you just don’t get enough opportunities to get something right. Also, you don’t want to invest time and money in an idea that stinks! So work hard to create inexpensive tests before you build anything.
For example, don’t build an app; draw the screens for an app on pieces of paper and get people to try it. Do they “get” it? Do they want it?
Don’t build a website. Build a landing page and buy some adword traffic to the landing page. Do people try to buy it (or fill out the form, or whatever you want them to do)? If the answer is “yes”, then build a website.
Short, simple experiments – that are well executed – will help you to understand your business and your market much better than big, slow product launches.
4. Know your market, and yourself.
There are great ideas that work for some customers, that just might not work for your customers. There are terrific businesses that other people run, that I would hate. So you should feel fine if you see someone else succeeding and think, “I want to have that kind of success, but I just wouldn’t do that!” If you feel that way, you wouldn’t likely do it well. So don’t do it. There are other things that you might be fine with, but your customers just wouldn’t accept; let those things go too.
The point is, you need to have your own compass. You get to decide what’s right for your business, and your customers get to decide what’s good for them. It may mean you don’t win the lottery. But doing something that’s not right for you, or for your customers, won’t be a winning strategy either.
I wish that growing a successful business was more like playing “Simon Says”, but I’m afraid it’s more like playing “Spin the Bottle”. And you remember how awkward that was…