Channeling 37Signals (and Kathy Sierra): Beating the Competition by Underdoing the Competition

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler. – Albert Einstein

I’ve been reading Rework by 37Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The book is loaded with wise, relentlessly succinct and deliberately sharply-written advice to succeed in business in a web-enabled world. 

There are plenty of insights in Rework worthy of several blog entries, but one that especially jumped out at me was Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s advice to “underdo the competition.” This is also one of the blunt implorements on the back cover, including: Emulate drug dealers(!) Pick a fight(!) Happily, each is elaborated upon in the book to successfully deliver a salient point.

As for underdoing the competition:

Instead of entering into a “one-upping, Cold War mentality” with competitors, “do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problem and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition.”  (Rework, p. 144) …

In the end, it’s not worth paying much attention to the competition anyway…Focus on competitors too much and…(y)ou wind up offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint. (p.148)

Simplicity is clearly a strong product differentiator.

As product examples proving their point, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson point to the increasing popularity of plain-vanilla fixed-gear bicycles that are cheap, easy to ride, and require less maintenance, as well as the Flip, a best-selling compact camcorder with no bells or whistles – except that the market has decided “ultra simplicity” is the one bell/whistle they really need.

Actually, I found an example of my own while looking for a web-based to-do application. There are plenty of fine (and free) online organizers out there, but the one I settled upon was perhaps the simplest one available: TeuxDeux by “studio-mates swissmiss and Fictive Kin.”

In keeping with Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s advice, take a look at the one and only screen you work with in TeuxDeux. You have just logged on with your new free account and here is your blank canvas:

There are other to-do applications that run rings around TeuxDeux in terms of features, options and automation, but, just looking at this screen, can’t you tell just by looking at it how to use it?

Instead of learning how to use their to-do application, might most people want to hit the ground running and start using their to-do application immediately?

The element of absolute simplicity is critical for any winning software application. With perfect simplicity, the time it takes to go from an absolute beginner to successful user must be as short as possible.

This winning observation is from Kathy Sierra and her grand slam home run of a blog, Creating Passionate Users (Dec 2004- Apr 2007) here:

For most of us, our user wants to use our tools (software, books, sermons, screwdrivers, saddle, music) to do something else ([solve business problems], learn, find inspiration, build a deck, ride a horse, dance). So we try to think about the thing they want to do, and how quickly we can get them through those two thresholds:

1) The point at which they stop hating you (your company), the activity itself, or their complete inability to do anything useful.

2) The point at which they start feeling like they kick ass. While passion is not a guarantee at this point, the chances of someone becoming passionate before this are slim.

And it’s not always about the product–sometimes it’s all about framing, documentation, and learning. It’s about [straps self into buzzword appreciation chair] attenuation. Turning down the gain. Narrowing. Focusing.

and also here:

We will resist the siren call of the market, because we believe the best path is:  Give users what they actually want, not what they say they want. And whatever you do, don’t give them new features just because your competitors have them! … Be the “I Rule” product, not the “This thing I bought does everything, but I suck [at using it]!” product.

(BTW: An excellent update on, and an appreciation of, Kathy Sierra and retrospect of some of her best posts is here, by David Barnes. Nicely done, sir).

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