OnStartups

Why Your Startup Shouldn't Copy 37signals or Fog Creek

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on February 6, 2009 in strategy 49 Comments

The following is a guest article by Jason Cohen, founder of Smart Bear Software. He blogs about startups and marketing at http://blog.ASmartBear.com.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of getting lectured about how my business should be more like Toyota, and like Zappos, how my blog should be more like Joel Spolsky and like Copyblogger, and how my software should be more like 37signals and like Apple.

OK, not "lectured."  It's my own fault for reading too many blogs about how to run my company and how to blog and how to write software.  But still!

Just because someone has success with a product or strategy doesn't mean you should copy it.

Will my blog be unsuccessful because I don't follow the Copyblogger rules that I should write like a third-grader with titles that look like they came from the cover of Cosmo?  

I don't think so.

My discouragement begins with incompatible advice. For example, we're regaled with how Zappos uses Twitter as part of their phenomenal customer service which they cite as the reason for their success. Their embrace of Twitter is so complete, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh even wrote his own Twitter beginner's tutorial.

All hail Twitter. But wait! Seth Godin, the 12th most popular blogger in the galaxy, says that social networking sites like Twitter are saturated with garbage to the point of uselessness. In fact, Seth doesn't use Twitter at all. Huh.

So which is it? Transformative or useless? Key business strategy or waste of time?

Same with blogging. The top 10 most popular blogs post more than once per day; some have used this as evidence that frequent posting is how to get popular. But when I look at my own list of favorite bloggers, most post once or twice a week at most, and some successful bloggers insist popularity increases when you post less often.

I've gone link-crazy here to illustrate a point -- that this isn't just a few people chatting about pros and cons, these are armies of bloggers, writers, and CEOs vehemently blasting away at each other. What's a little startup owner to do with all this? Who has the free time to study and research all this?

Surely the conclusion is that Twitter won't make or break your business and posting frequency won't make or break your blog.

The root problem is that the so-called "examples" we're supposed to learn from are outliers.  An "outlier" is a data point well outside the normal range -- a statistical anomaly.

Malcolm Gladwell, winner of my award for Smartest Carrot-Top Lookalike, just wrote a book about outliers

Like his other works, it's well-written, entertaining, and often incorrect.

Still, he presents evidence that at very high levels of achievement, no factor can be used to predict the success. For example, Nobel laureates are just as likely to come from unknown schools as from the Ivy Leagues.

I've noticed this in professional sports too. Kids learn the "right way" to throw a baseball, but watch major league pitchers and you'll notice they all do it differently. On a bicycle there's a correct seat height and top tube length to maximize power and prevent injury, but Jan Ulrich won the Tour de France with a short seat.

Because outliers are so far outside the norm, standard rules don't apply. 

This "outlier principle" -- that extreme success is not due to simple, controllable factors -- explains the contradictions above. Zappos made over a billion dollars last year because of fantastic customer service while Amazon is the largest online retailer and doesn't even publish a phone number.

Both work because even something as fundamental as how you deal with customer service doesn't explain runaway success.

In fact, if I could pick something that all these companies have in common it's that they aren't afraid to buck conventional wisdom if they think it would be contradictory to their culture.

These companies have redefined "conventional wisdom." Is it your turn to buck the trend?

How much can we learn from outliers? Surely they have something to teach us, but when should we blaze our own trail? Leave a comment and join the conversation!