Book Review: Rework

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Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, cannot accurately be described as the "sequel" to the first book to come out of 37 Signals, Getting Real. As a significant percentage of the book seems to be word for word identical to text in Getting Real, I think it's more of a "remix." Getting Real focused on creating marketable web software, whereas Rework changes the focus ever so slightly to growing a business around marketable web software.

If you've read Getting Real (you can sample it online for free at the link above, and in my opinion it's worth the time to do so), or if you've seen one of DHH's presentations, then you probably have a good idea of what to expect in Rework. It's short, to the point, quotable, and uses 37 Signals as the model for everything that is good about how to run a business. I don't fault the authors for being proud of their company, but if you are looking for a dispassionate examination of when it makes sense to run a business in the way that they do versus other ways, you won't find it here. You quickly get the idea that the authors look at other methods of running a business about as fondly as DHH looks at WS-*. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's clearly worked out pretty well for 37 Signals. One can't fail to notice, however, that 37 Signals's products fit within a pretty narrow spectrum. Will their techniques translate to other markets and other industries? Perhaps; perhaps not. Rework doesn't really answer that question.

Did I say quotable? It's full of snappy, almost pithy zingers which are so obviously right that they would seem like tautologies if they were not so commonly ignored:

  • Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.

  • You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.

  • It’s also unfortunate that meetings are typically scheduled like TV shows. You set aside thirty minutes or an hour because that’s how scheduling software works (you’ll never see anyone schedule a seven-minute meeting with Outlook).

I don't think these are empty words. I'm convinced the authors run their company this way. I'm also convinced it works for them. They took their own advice writing the book, as well:
We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it. So start chopping. Getting to great starts by cutting out stuff that’s merely good.

But I don't agree with everything in the book. Sometimes the cuteness of the writing overtakes the point. It's generally true that you should focus on the essentials. But they illustrate this with:
For example, if you’re opening a hot dog stand, you could worry about the condiments, the cart, the name, the decoration. But the first thing you should worry about is the hot dog. The hot dogs are the epicenter. Everything else is secondary.

Guys, next time you're in Columbus, look me up, and I'll buy you lunch at Dirty Franks. I respect what you have to say about business, but we have a thing or two to settle about hot dogs.

Indeed, later in the book the authors make this very point quite elegantly, with a more apropos example:
When we start designing something, we sketch out ideas with a big, thick Sharpie marker, instead of a ballpoint pen. Why? Pen points are too fine. They’re too high-resolution. They encourage you to worry about things that you shouldn’t worry about yet, like perfecting the shading or whether to use a dotted or dashed line. You end up focusing on things that should still be out of focus.

Avoid false precision.

The point here, after all, is not how to run a hot dog business in particular; it's how to run your business. The best way to fail if that is to let details and directions steer you away from the ideas that only you can bring to the table. This is why "look inside yourself" can be a better approach to planning and business strategy than following an off-the-shelf formula. For most people, creating a new, free, application framework is the worst possible way to start a business selling web applications. I've seen many, many people fail at this. Except that for 37 Signals, it worked really well, perhaps because of the specific people who ran the company.

I strongly agree with the authors when they say:
Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

This is why it's OK that Rework can be self-contradictory at times. In one chapter, the authors suggest that you "pick a fight." A good example of this is how Stack Overflow was to some degree a response to "hyphen-site." Only a few chapters later, however, the authors say:
Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision. Your chances of coming up with something fresh go way down when you keep feeding your brain other people’s ideas. You become reactionary instead of visionary. You wind up offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint. If you’re planning to build “the iPod killer” or “the next Pokemon,” you’re already dead. You’re allowing the competition to set the parameters.

Self-contradictory? Absolutely. Again, Rework is not a formula for how people with no interest in widgets can start a widget business. It's written to provoke the reader, hopefully provoking them into keeping their business focused on what they can uniquely bring to the table.

Naturally, this presumes that the reader is, to some degree, interesting, and has ideas for things which could benefit other people. It's not clear to me if everyone has good ideas, but many people don't execute them, or if some people don't execute good ideas because they don't have them. What is clear is that having good ideas and not executing them is little better than not having them.


  • Guest
    Michael Thuma Tuesday, 25 May 2010

    I think it is time to move to Columbus:-))). Dirty Frank is the choice...

  • Guest
    Book Reviews Thursday, 3 February 2011

    Next time I'm in Columbus, I'll check out Dirty Franks!

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