7 Things Your Startup SHOULD Copy From 37signals

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7 Things Your Startup SHOULD Copy From 37signals


A little while ago, we had a great guest post here by Jason Cohen titled “Why Your Startup Shouldn’t Copy 37Signals or Fog Creek”.  In it, Jason makes some great arguments on why you shouldn’t copy successful startups like 37signals.  I (mostly) agree with Cohen.  Blind copying just doesn’t work for reasons Jason Fried (CEO of 37signals) outlines in a follow-up article.  OnStartups Copy Stamp

Here’s what Fried had to say:

“Here’s the problem with copying: Copying skips understanding. Understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is how it is. When you copy it, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath.”

I (mostly) agree with Jason Fried too.  When you copy, you do miss a lot of what made what you are copying successful.  But, although copying specific things is ill-advised, drawing inspiration from and copying certain practices can often work quite well. 

Here are the things I think you should copy from 37signals:

1.  Share your expertise.  Whatever it is you are passionate about or an expert in — share your information.  Contribute to the community.  Help others learn.  Blog, podcast, speak — whatever works for you.  Jason and the 37signals team are phenomenally good at this.  They blog, they speak, they wrote a fantastically practical book.

2.  Be your own customer.  Try (if you can) to eat your own cooking.  A product works out much better when you use it yourself.  Solve your own problems.  Fix the things that annoy you the most.  Beyond just 37signals, there are lots of examples where people built software that succeeded in part because they use it themselves.  GMail comes to mind. 

3.  Minimize unused inventory.  Don’t write a bunch of code that not a lot of people are going to care about and you don’t need today.  We have a tendency to “design for the future” and add features or architectural elements with the expectation that they’ll be useful someday.  Wait for that day.  You might “overpay” if/when you do get around to needing it (because it’s more expensive to add things later), but on average, you’ll be better off not writing that code that you don’t need just yet.  This is not an excuse for poorly designed software — it’s an argument for being selective as to where you design in future expansion. 

4.  Take a stand.  Have an opinion and take a stand.  37signals does a great job with their “less is more” stance.  They have a passionate position and are willing to defend and debate it.  You don’t have to take extreme positions on everything, but there should be something you feel passionately about that you don’t just pick a happy, non-controversial middle-ground.  Ideally, it’s this particular idea that your startup is centered around.

5.  Charge early, charge often.  There is no shame in putting a price on your product.  Doesn’t matter how early it is. Just give customers an easy way out.  Let them decide whether your product is worth paying for.  If not, keep cranking.  Too many startups feel like they need to have the “perfect” product before they can begin charging for it.  That’s almost always a mistake.  Charge early.  Once you start charging money, all sorts of good things start to happen (for example, customer feedback starts to happen, because you actually have customers).  Then, try to charge as often as possible.  Instead of “big chunks” of money changing hands, try to move to smaller, recurring chunks.  Many SaaS businesses function this way (with some sort of subscription or “pay by the drink” model).  It works.

6.  Contribute Some Bits Back:  As you know,  David Heinemeier Hansson, a partner at 37signals is responsible for the phenomenally successful Ruby on Rails.  This benefits them more than the “positive karmic loop” thing.  By contributing to the open source community, they’re able to leverage the power of that community and make the platform they use for their own stuff much better.  But, please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not suggesting you should go out and try to build some platform/framework.  In fact, please don’t try and go do that (99.9% of us should not be obsessing over building platforms/frameworks — particularly folks like you and me).  Just find ways to contribute back — even if they’re small ways.  It’ll help in at least two ways:  You’ll develop better stuff and you’ll attract better people.

7. Build A Community:  Software companies these days are about more than just the product — they’re about the people around the product.  This includes both those that built the product’s users.  Invest the time and energy to foster a vibrant community that connects the people that care about you, the company and the products.  Allow customers to engage with each other.  This is useful not just from a “more value in the software” perspective — but it also helps with respect to competition.  If a big, 900–pound competitor comes after you some day, it might be easy for them to build some of your product features, but it will be much harder for them to steal your community.   

Are you a 37signals fan?  Did you read “Getting Real”?  If so, what other practices or philosophies do you think they use that most other startups should emulate? 

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Aug 31, 2009


Great compilation Dharmesh.  
One thing that Jason has been advocating lately is the concept of making by-products, the often missed opportunities of leveraging your main work and selling it twice (or even more times).  
By the way, I´m anxious to see their new book...

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 12:01 PM by Eric Santos

For iPhone developers, the app-store in-app-purchase model offers a great way to implement the "charge early, charge often" point that Dharmesh makes above (point 5). 
I'm in the process of implementing that for one of my apps and will blog about it later this month

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 12:39 PM by Ram

I completely agree with point #2. I call it "eating your own dog food". It tells potential customers so much if your company actually uses the product or service that you offer.

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 1:48 PM by Carol Cox

My favorite 37Signals advice is that planning is actually just guessing. Start-up companies rely on their agility and by spending too much time planning, you're really just limiting your options in the future. 
That's not to say you shouldn't be prepared for different scenarios, but it's normally a mistake to assume that you can predict how things will play out in the future.

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 1:53 PM by Tyler King

Agreed -- don't copy, steal. 
You want to make it your own: understand the good ideas and incorporate them into your work. 
Stand on the shoulders of giants, you'll see farther.

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 2:49 PM by Patrick Fisher

I am a big fan of 37signals and did read the book. I like their whole lean approach to building apps and the "just start." 
Not all of what they do I agree with. The whole build without a specification approach works to a certain point but for hardware (mostly what I do), it doesn't work all that well.

posted on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 3:06 PM by Jarie Bolander

#2 is key.If you don't believe in your products and services, who will.  
Passionate people give the best, the sad thing is they normally get eaten alive by the system.

posted on Tuesday, September 01, 2009 at 7:32 AM by Scopulus

As a customer of 37s, I can tell you one thing you shouldnt do that 37s does so well: ignoring your customer demands. 
Go look at their forums at the feature requested and the demand for a product roadmap.

posted on Tuesday, September 01, 2009 at 2:24 PM by Zed

We are big believers in #2 and #1 is equally as important. 
In fact we just recently posted about our own experience in the dog food isle: It's strategic planning dogfood time- Part 1!<a/> 
I has and continues to be an important experience, being able to use and improve our product.

posted on Tuesday, September 01, 2009 at 5:27 PM by Ed Loessi

Very nice list. I agree all startups should be doing all these things.

posted on Wednesday, September 02, 2009 at 8:09 AM by Parag Shah

def read "getting real" must read for stratup entreps. I don't remember the exact phrasing but essential lesson is "start small, launch early and often" I think many people sit on the sidelines with a good idea becuase they feel like everything has to be perfect, "market, team, funding etc., etc". which of course is rarely the case. Throwing up a less then perfect product teaches you so much about the actaul oppertunity and what needs to get done to make it sucessful.

posted on Wednesday, September 02, 2009 at 2:53 PM by Hasan Luongo

I am a huge fan of 37Signals. Read the book and can hardly wait for the next one in March. 
Building for yourself and solving your own problems is a real eye-opener. I had often thought about it, but never implemented anything. Once I built an app for myself, within the first week I knew what it needed and didn't need. Using it yourself will give you incredible insight. 
As far as copying, I have been screaming foul about copying for awhile now. Mainly in the JavaScript world. IMO too many devs are grabbing plugins/frameworks when they are not needed. They are using them for everything. In return they do not understand what their code is doing. It's gets to be a mess real fast. 
Copy the idea, but use your own implementation.

posted on Wednesday, September 02, 2009 at 3:48 PM by Scott Radcliff

In their book 'Getting Real' they have mentioned 'Less is More', but less doesnot mean less in form of all the features. That is to say if you were planning to build 10 features in your product, instead make 4 or 5 but build them well and launch early.In other words the most important feature or the feature that you think will make the product to sell, should be done in the best possible way, and other features can be thought of later

posted on Thursday, September 03, 2009 at 12:26 PM by Rajat

Is it just me, or is "Minimizing unused inventory" one of the hardest cards to play? 
As an entrepreneur, your partners and investors constantly want to see what's down the road...and they expect your product to do the same. 
What's the best way to get around that (other than simply ignoring them)?

posted on Thursday, September 03, 2009 at 1:50 PM by Tanner Christensen

My small company operates on a new but a highly competitive market. You would not believe what all the companies on this market do to get customers. Only be having a free version and offering outstanding support for free have we been been able to get a significant share. It is a huge gap between using something for free and having to find your credit card. Will see if we can ever monetize it.

posted on Sunday, September 06, 2009 at 12:16 AM by James

I think its true, lots of people try to copy what they think they see happening, however, without a true understanding, they waste time and energy. 
Dr. Letitia Wright 
The Wright Place TV Show 

posted on Monday, September 07, 2009 at 7:48 AM by Dr. Wright

Great post Dharmesh. 
I see these as "patterns" that can help you define and grow your proposition - but as you point out you first need to be very clear about what your product is about, what problems it solves and focus on delivering the core features that resolve those needs.

posted on Friday, September 11, 2009 at 4:12 AM by Chris Neal

I read the 37signals book after seeing it referenced here. It's a good book and has nuggets of valuable information. 
A good number of points mentioned in the book are pretty natural for a startup. You don't really have to read a book to watch out for it. If there is no funding, you are clearly constrained in time, features and functionality. I disagree with some of the points mentioned in the book from my experience so far. But, who cares? People want to hear from other people who are already successful. That's how humans are trained! 
You don't get to hear from a pile of startups which more or less followed the similar approach as in book, but still failed.  
At the end of the day, no matter how great the product is, you need to have lot of luck and a really good sales team. A good sales team can pretty much sell anything. 
<a href="http://www.sterizon.com/wihome/home.php?utm_source=onstartup&utm_content=7things>http://www.sterizon.com 

posted on Monday, September 14, 2009 at 5:07 PM by Subba

The best products/services if copied correctly but also adding new value can create an even greater value proposition! 
For example, Twitter made a "lite" facebook status update application and it has taken off. 
Building a community around your product is the best marketing tool as it travels virally and you don't even need a sales team!  

posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 11:01 PM by Ben Book

While I really enjoy much of this article, I have some issues with "#2 Be your own customer. Try (if you can) to eat your own cooking." 
I think it is the default IS to build something you know, for whom you are the customer. 
However, I also believe this can get in the way of good business. 
When the owners/employees believe they are the target market, it is so easy to not do the work to listen to the actual target market or to agree with what the target market says when it disagrees with what you feel/want. 
So while 'eating what you cook' allows you to make some intuitive and quick decisions that you otherwise might not be able to make, it also skews you towards believing how great the food tastes because you made it and how everyone else will love it because you love it. 
Being your own customer also tends to keep your emotions involved at what can be an unhealthy level. For example, one rule of business is that sunk costs are irrelevant. If a cost is truly sunk then it has no impact on current decisions and should not be taken into account. But when the sunk cost is a feature that you want that is halfway implemented but testing poorly with the target market, it is hard to get out of your own way and you will tend to argue that the sunk cost part of the feature is a good reason to sink more costs into completing it. 
So, sure, be your own customer, but make sure that you rigorously seek the target market's input and let them, not you, rule the product. 

posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:00 PM by Carrie Requist

You've articulated what I've been telling our company for the last few years, but you did it much better then I've been able to do. Thanks for summing that up for me. Great job!

posted on Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 4:56 PM by George Morris

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