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Book review: REWORK by 37signals

As a big fan of the 37signals blog, I’ve had REWORK on my “to read” list since it was released. After I heard what seemed like never-ending rave reviews from acquaintances, I suggested it to the Philly Startup Leaders Book Club (a book club I started at the beginning of the year) and it was voted as March’s pick.

The book ditches the traditional steps of starting/running a business such as writing a business plan, studying the competition, raising money, etc. Instead, it debunks them and provides insightful but concise advice on how to start your project(s) quickly.

My feelings about this book are torn. Although I think it’s a good read, I felt the lessons were choke-full of common sense. Also, I was already acquainted with most of the material from being an avid follower of their work and from my experience with running an agile company. There were a few chapters I didn’t agree with (more on that later). Overall, I enjoyed it as a refresher. I would specifically recommend it for non-business/marketing people who want to create lifestyle businesses and are not familiar with the lean startup methodology.

Some of the highlights:

  • Scratch your own itch – this is how I started 123LinkIt and I wholeheartedly believe in the concept of creating something to solve a problem you’re personally experiencing.
  • No time is no excuse – I used to say that a lot until someone told me that if you want something bad enough, you’ll make the time.
  • Good enough is fine – this was hands-down my favorite section of the book. As a perfectionist, I constantly struggle with the little details. Their main feedback is “when good enough gets the job done, go for it…you can usually turn good enough into great later.”
  • Hire great writers - this section discusses how great writers are instrumental because they know how to communicate effectively and clearly, something you need in every part of your business.
  • Decisions are temporary – the authors state “Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet. It’s not a problem until it’s a real problem. most of the things you worry about never happen anyway.” I learned this eventually on my own. I would have saved a lot of time and headaches if someone would have said it to me sooner.
  • Sound like you – …as simple as that. Users expect formal language from big companies, we startups can take advantage of it.

A list of the sections I disagreed with or I felt were contradicting with other material:

  • Planning is guessing - I appreciate the idea of making decisions as needed. The main advice of this chapter boils down to “decide what you’re going to do this week, not this year.” While I can see how it applies in some cases, I’ve personally found it gets you in a trap of working in the business instead of ON the business.
  • Why grow? – This is one of the reasons why I felt this book is geared towards lifestyle entrepreneurs. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it depends on the goal of the business.
  • Pick a fight – This is a tactic marketers know grabs a lot of attention and it coincides well with the David and Goliath stories. However, I’d rather get along with my competitors then start a conflict war.
  • Say no by default – The idea here is to not document features users request and to automatically decline them. The notion is the best ones will be repeated over and over. While I understand that logic, I feel you end up missing trends and other critical information.

While I had higher expectations for REWORK, I still enjoyed it especially because it was a quick read. It’s a book I would check out from the library (which I’m glad I did), not purchase for my bookshelf.

Thanks to Tom Ciavarella for discussing it with me.

  • http://codyaray.com Cody A. Ray

    Great summary of the highlights. However, given the amount of business that 37signals does, many people would find it hard to call them lifestyle entrepreneurs. They just don’t need 20,000 employees to accomplish it all.

    EDIT: any idea why its showing what I presume is your picture on my comment?

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment Cody. It is pretty amazing what they’ve accomplished with only 13 employees. I didn’t realize how small they were employee-wise until I read the book.

      Re: picture, I just set up the blog so it was a minor glitch. It’s now fixed :-)

  • http://twitter.com/AboutStephen Stephen Belyea

    Great read! I do have a question about the planning is guessing part, though… What happens if you require any sort of financing? I would love to just walk into the bank and tell them that I don’t have a business plan because this book tells me to fly by the seat of my pants… I understand the idea of being flexible enough to adapt quickly… but some measure of documented planning is required… as much as we may all hate to sit down and do it.

    Does the book address that at all, or just tell you to borrow money from your rich uncle?

    • Anonymous

      Haha, that would be nice. They make a big stink in the book about not trying to raise money which I forgot to get into here. It was something to the effect that it takes focus away from your business, that you give up control and spending other people’s money can become addictive. They repeatedly advocate finding another way and it’s probably one of the reasons they published the book :-)

      • http://twitter.com/AboutStephen Stephen Belyea

        Find another way? Well… that’s easy enough…

        Geesh… Yes, I would completely agree with those points… but the fact remains, most businesses have to finance themselves through “normal” channels at some point. If you can do it without going that route, fantastic… but chances are, you’re going to require a investment of some sort, and yes.. you’re going to have to deal with everything that comes with that.

        I’m still curious about it, though.. and even more so 37signals… because I’m not familiar with that website at all… there, I said it. :-)

        • Anonymous

          Essentially, they build productivity tools for small business owners. For example, their todo list service is tadalist.com. I think you would like their blog a lot – 37signals.com/svn. There they talk about usability design and related topics that are applicable to bloggers and affiliate marketers. It’s all good stuff and I learn something new almost every time I visit their site. You should definitely check it out.