As an avid seeker of knowlege, I see contradicting "evidence" all the time. A long time ago, I learnt to follow what is true to me and hope that it attracts enough people who agree with me in order that my business is validated! Its worked so far.
After all, you could go crazy finding the "right way" or the "wrong way" could bring you surprised success. You tube has always been an inspiration of "getting on with it" , originally no goals, no set plan, unlimited success in 20 months.
Our desire for certainty is the real issue until we accept there isn't any "real rules" and some "mistakes to be made" then we cannot get on with "setting our own rules".
Therefore, I would back "blazing your own trail" every time!".
Loved your article, style, and topic.
Do your own thing!!
Their are those "angel investors" out there who take a "Q" from other successful start-ups and want to clone the early pioneers as a way to go forward with the newbies coming along. If your product is not unique and if it doesn't offer a simpler, streamlined path to being easy to learn, understand and set-up for the non-geek, and the casual onlin visitor, it won't succeed.
The product needs to be simple, not stupid,offer a solution and possibly a reward for the customer to return, and if a blog, it needs to offer quality information, not just rants and raves, unless the blog is called "rants and raves of...Blah, blah, blah.
I own a small website, its "OK", its affordable and it does get a few hits, nothing to make me millions yet, but most of my clients use it for reference only, not to purchase from it.
So Do you own thing, Don't spit in the wind, it may come back to smack you in the face.
Have a great weekend.
Fantastic article. Dharmesh is outsourcing - cool!
Just one thing really: There is a huge difference between following and watching. Twitter is certinly attractive and addictive but a huge time sink. For Evidence
For me, watching helps me build my ideas through some kind of gap analysis.
-- I like your point about making your own choices. True to yourself -- it can be difficult but I agree it's a key component in success. Or at least happiness! @Joe
-- You're right, VCs tend to copy instead of innovate, even when they claim otherwise. Congrats on your website; you're proof that "success" is what you define it as. @Kinglsey
-- Yes, studying the "slow and solid tortoise" might be smarter. Still, I'm not saying we cannot learn
from outliers, just that we should consider which of those concepts apply to our own world view instead of blindly putting them on our to-do lists. @John
-- Great point. Watching is instructive, it's true. Even if you waste a little time, it's OK so long as you recognize it and stop (as you have!). I hope people watch, otherwise no one will read my blog! :-) @So Wait
-- Yes! :-) Although remember "change" doesn't mean "go against every rule we can find," but rather "do what you think is right." Combine ideas you like, then maybe throw in one or two of your own.
Very nice topic and a well written post.
But learning from someone (even an outlier) is different from emulating him or her. With so many smart, successful and happy people (and their blogs) around, you have so many avenues to learn. If you are not sure about what you want, it's hard life out there.
The other characteristic of the outliers (or extraordinarily successful and lucky people) is they are successful in sharing their experiences about how they did what they did.
Though DH did not read a book like "Get Real" before he got real, Jack Welch was not told by anyone about "Winning" before he won, they still wrote the books for sharing their experiences. Unfortunately, it lures readers to emulate them knowingly or unknowingly. Maybe it is the side effect of their charisma?
So, I agree with @philippa, (have the courage to) blaze your own trail!
-- Yeah I know. My wife didn't like it either. :-/ Maybe a little too cruel to MG. @Kedar
-- You're right, "learning from" and "copying everything" are different. You have to admit though, that's not the message you get reading about them. Also if you read blogs from e.g. 37signals or Joel or Zappos, you'll see that they don't couch their philosophy like you did -- they are vehement that theirs is the only way, and anything else is heresy or possibly stupid.
Whoever said "do your own thing"...right on.
The "sheeple" of the world take guidance from experts too literally and just try to copy, copy, copy...to the point of having forgetting why you started in the first place.
You do what makes sense for your business, blog and you will be fine. Besides, most of the folklore around 37Signals, Zappos and co. is just that...folklore.
Nice post, Jason.
I think, though, that it's a little misleading to include the Toyota Production System as an example equivalent to 37s/FC/Zappos (even though I do believe that customer service is hugely important)*. "Lean" production is about building and implementing tight feedback and learning loops - while Toyota itself is an outlier, it's a little hard to think of the drawbacks of an organization that's built to learn.
I'm with you that there's (seemingly) no magic formula for success, but how many of the 99.x% of startups that go out of business try to "buck conventional wisdom"?
*Amazon has a terrific user experience, btw, of which traditional customer service is a part.
Interesting article. Of course, all we have is an understanding of history and a presumption of cause and effect.
BTW, I went write over towww.smartbear.com
to see what you'd done differently.
The site's down.
(Sorry Dharmesh, to hijack your blog post :))
I meant they (charismatic innovators) are even good at sharing their experiences, although they know that theirs is the only way, for "themselves" (or people like them, by nature), not for everyone :)
GREAT article, Jason, and I could not agree more. I often think of acupuncture when I think of this topic. One of the core tenets of acupuncture is that you each person's body is different, and you have to treat the individual. The same applies to startups.
You can learn from the experience of others, but at the end of the day you have to make decisions based on the unique makeup of you company, and that unique makeup is often your most valuable asset.
I found onstartups.com while checking out groups to join on linkedin.com. Your insights are welcoming and your writing is great. I look forward to joining the OnStartups group.
I try to read anything I can get my hands on that has to do with startups. I've been reading 37signal's blog for years - among many others. There's definitely an arrogance out there that I can't deny I might have some day, BUT I wish a lot of these guys wouldn't flaunt their success so much as being based strictly on their home grown practices/rules. Let's be honest here people... the magic combination of lots of PASSION and some LUCK plays a huge part in all of this.
No worries Jason, you sound like a 3rd grader all on your own.
Sorry, couldn't resist. :)
Do your own thing, man... don't worry about 100 years of scientific testing and marketing data that shows how humans process language and what catches their attention... that's just outlier stuff. Who needs to understand psychology when you have an uninformed opinion?
Great article, Jason. All your points are right on the mark. As an early stage product incubation firm (think YCombinator for 35 year olds, business founders who don't code!) we meet a lot of founders and I see them pointing out to Outliers all the time. Getting Real book and stuff like that. If one could write a book to build a successful startup or emulate Outliers, we'd all be running billion dollar companies. There's a lot more to success than a single recipe.
Most importantly, I think you concluded with something I agree. You can learn from Outliers and apply but think of your OWN WAY TO BUCK CONVENTIONAL WISDOM and do it in a way that you believe it and are passionate about making it happen.
Thanks for an awesome articulation of this topic.
Jason - I find myself copying all the time. Similar to yourself it's definitely a product of consuming so much about these other companies I begin to believe that it's the only way!
Thanks for challenging that and getting me to think about how I want to be diff than every other start. What will set me apart!
-- I see your point about TPS, but others might make the same point about any of these guys, for instance that great customer service is always a good idea or that having awesome content on your blog (like Joel) is the #1 best way to build a following.
Of course your point is still well-taken! Ultimately, I ask you for a little artistic license in the interest of making the point more compactly. :-) @Adam
-- Thanks! I like your analogy. "Trust yourself" is right, because even if you're wrong (which you will be a lot of the time!) at least you're consistent and you know what to do. @Matt
-- Yeah, the arrogance can take its toll. It's OK to a point because it makes it easier to pound your point home without hedging, and that makes for more clear and interesting reading. But it's a grind after a lot of years.
-- If you read again, you'll see my conclusion is not
to ignore the ways these folks are successful, but rather that there are many paths to success, and rather than trying to copy all of them you should consider which match your own world-view.
Reason I picked on Copyblogger is actually because you are
so successful! I can see that you might consider it a backhanded complement, but it's a complement nevertheless.
Also, 100 years of psychological research? Really? That's the engine behind Joel's posts?
I think the fact that the "rules" are contradictory (and yet all have merit) is example enough that "research" is not conclusive.
I can't speak for Joel's posts, I was talking about your 3rd grader shot (you know that's not what the linked article says). As for "Cosmo" headlines, well, not liking them doesn't change anything.
Anyway, I do agree with your general point. But I would say that putting your own unique spin on sound fundamentals is the way to go, not ignoring those fundamentals just because they work for others.
They work for a reason. :)
-- First, I would like to apologize for my "3rd grader" comment. You're right, it's not what your article says, and after reading the comments left there it's clear that your readers agree with you. Claiming that you (or really your guest poster) really meant it that way is a mischaracterization on my part.
For my own tastes, that article went too far on the "simple" side of the scale. The writing was so short I could barely stand to read it. My choice of words was a personal reaction. However
, at least one of your commentors said it was easier to read than any post he's seen in a while. Clear proof that it's my
tastes, not absolute truth!
So chalk this up to a case of me applying my opinion, perhaps too strongly to be fair, especially since it wasn't an off-hand comment but rather one in context of "Copyblogger rules," where I'm therefore claiming this is really what Copyblogger stands for. Which is doesn't. As a Copyblogger fan myself, I feel bad for having done that.
It wasn't my intent.
Thanks for your understanding. You'll find that OnStartups readers are intelligent; I'm sure those who read through this comment exchange will come away understanding my intent and that Copyblogger is, in fact, a tremendous resource for anyone writing (for any purpose), and that I was employing hyperbole at your expense.
Wow! I spend one day in meetings, post a guest article out there, and you folks get all fired up. Excellent!
I've got my own opinions on this particular topic (surprise, surprise), but will wait a couple of days and write a follow-up blog post about it. (This will give me the needed kick in the butt to actually write something).
Meanwhile, thanks to Jason and for all the commentary.
The biggest lesson I learned from "Founders at Work" wasn't stated in the book: It doesn't matter.
Half the founders proclaimed that the key to success was treating your developers well: Sodas, big screens, Aerons. The other half swore that the key was frugality: desk made out of doors and filing cabinets, folding chairs, bring-your-own-toilet offices.
They all succeeded.
Therefore: The key is to create whatever kind of environment you want to create. Whatever works for you is whatever works for you.
And yes, I'm bugged by the "I have discovered the fountain of genius, and it spake thusly" tone at 37S. Jason Fried keeps being dead wrong, and loudly so, and it keeps ticking me off, because I know better. When he's not wrong, he's just now discovering things we knew 30 years ago. "NEWS FLASH! ADDING DEVELOPERS MAKES LATE PROJECTS LATER!!!11!!!1!ELEVEN!! EXCLUSIVE MUST CREDIT 37SIGNALS!!"
And he keeps churning out profitable services. And I don't. It makes me want to become a raging success just to prove him wrong.
I hope he keeps ticking me off.
Definitely agree here. Copying stifles innovation.
Looking forward to your post, Dharmesh.
Right on track! It's good to hear someone else say what I've been mumbling to myself. The whole idea of "startup" is so pop-trendy now that it's starting got make me nauseated. I like some of these companies. There are some things to learn. However, none of these people know all the answers. Most, if not all, got lucky. We've got to learn what we can from them and then make our own way. In the world of innovation, there's no imagination anymore. Or so it would seem. Think for yourselves people!
This is a great subject, one that I have some pretty strong opinions on.
I recently replied to a post on <a href=http://www.scottjmanley.com/blog/2009/2/3/my-name-is-scott-manley-and-i-am-not-a-social-media-expert.html">my disdain for many self proclaimed "social media experts." Where do they get the impression that they are experts? Well, because they read the blogs of experts, duh! I mean, if you just read Brogan, Scoble & Vaynerchuk front to back, over and over, you'd obviously be a "social media expert" and you'd be leveraging social media to make gajillions like Dell and Zappos do, right?!
All facetiousness aside, I am
a fan of reading, mainly because I believe there are so many smart people out there, and it would be foolish to insulate myself from their collective wisdom. In fact, I'm kind of addicted to the "pragmatic non-fiction" genre. These are the kinds of people that inspire me, and often, they are only accessible through books and blogs. So, from years of reading these kinds of books, I've noticed a few things-
1) There is no ALL ENCOMPASSING right answer. For every guru, there will be another uber-guru who proclaims to know better and otherwise.
2) There ARE consistent underlying principles. For example, I'm trying to design a personal productivity system for myself. I've read the books GTD, The Now Habit and 4 Hour Work Week. By and large, each book takes a different approach and offers different insights into productivity, but by reading them all, I've found some underlying similarities. I’ve found that both GTD & The Now Habit exclaim at the importance of a weekly planning session. This is a significant finding because it suggests that, despite other, micro-productivity techniques/choices, a weekly planning session is somehow more fundamental to a productive lifestyle. This gives me valuable insights for my personal productivity system, because I have a better sense of which habits should be developed first, and which can wait until later.
Likewise, I recently spoke to both Jason (author of this post) and my good friend John Ramey fromwww.isocket.com
to gather feedback and intelligence for my startup. They had some different thoughts/perspectives, but both emphasized the importance of a "pilot program" (we're not a software company, so there's no obvious "beta"). Well, guess what we're doing now? Building a pilot program.
As Brian from Copyblogger mentioned, this recognition of fundamentals is what allows me to build a full solution that is congruent with my own goals/intentions without forgoing existing wisdom.
3) The value is reading a lot of sources is to make your mind more flexible - NOT to find easy answers. Tim Ferris
mentions that the only kinds of nonfiction books he reads are autobiographical. He wants to understand the nuances and considerations that went into making the decision, the "genius" behind the outcome, rather than the technique alone. Being able to refer to tons of case studies should make you a better, more creative problem solver, rather than a less creative copy cat. Why is Mark Andreeson a beast amongst startupers? Because he has direct experience with 50+ startups. That's 50 different data points to evaluable most startup related problems, whereas rookies only have 1. I suspect that the ability to synthesize
that data into new
solutions is his wisdom, and the reason he has accomplished what he has.
To wrap this up before I end up typing a novel, I was recently watching a presentation by Paul Buchhiet of Gmail & Friendfeed fame
, and he actually laughed at all of the people who thought that Gmail’s "invitation only" release was some sort of brilliant, viral strategy, but it was actually a completely honest method of dealing with Google's lacking infrastructure at the time. If you look at the market today, February 2009, you’ll find no shortage of invite only releases, but very few Gmail level products.
Closing thought: I think that as the economy gets worse, entrepreneurs who have chosen to build companies upon solid understanding of their customers, the market, their capabilities, etc., will stand to prosper, while many other, comparatively superficial endeavors will whither on the shore.
"Copy" is a loaded term. Outliers and revolutionaries invariably create new standards. Standards are good for us because they make our lives easier. So I say by all means, copy the standards, but nothing more.
Advice is useful if we understand the advisor's company, its environment, and its objective. Then we can understand why the advice works for the advisor. Then we can understand whether the advice might work for our company, our environment, and our objective.
I often make the mistake of adopting advice and promoting it without considering these factors. I hope I'm getting better!
Great post. I have seen this lot's of times where someone (in particular first time entrepreneurs and wannabes) read a new book and say "ah ha I have found the new bible for my business" and then they run off trying to re-engineer things in their company or resolve to start that business now that they have all the secrets.
For the most part what they are missing is the constant iteration it really takes to take a company or an idea to its greatest heights.
I agree wholeheartedly that there cannot be one idea or premise that creates success and to think that will ensure failure.
The only way to really create successful outcomes is to start with an idea, then turn it into a product, then turn that product into a company and then work it over and over again, trying new things following the inputs that you receive from your customers, the people that work in the company and the markets, and yes all the other people who are willing to tell you what they 'believe' is the key to success.
By doing all of those things you will be able to raise an idea to its greatest potential.
BTW, some ideas can only get so far and grow so big no matter how many things you try and do to them, recognizing this is probably the greatest skill.
interesting article. I think most of the big successes mentioned are "outliers" and "anomalies" and that there is no magical forumla to be "just like them" unless you were them, in the exact same time frame. Thinking this way also makes you feel better about yourself when you don't succeed as much as expected ;)
You make a great point - not all successful business models are right for every business. How Zappos or Apple has become successful won't necessarily be the best fit for you.
I started Brand Connections while I was still a brand manager. I feel your heart ache when it comes to reading other blogs that direct your attention to one business model. As an example, right now, every blog talks about how to use social media to boost your business. For advertisers and marketing people looking to start their own business (not in social media or online advertising), it takes more than social media to get you started. Where is anyone talking about it?
For you, where is the hard core realities of what it takes to make your business better?
There is not enough specific examples in enough different industries for entrepreneurs to learn from.
Entrepreneurs are going to learn the most from the people within their respective industries that have DONE it. Made their own company a success.
Sure, if you are looking into online retail marketed with social media, Zappos would be a great example. A brand manager thinking about going out on their own would get more from my blog versus Zappos. It's looking for good resources that are similar to your industry or goal.
just by seeing the success stories of couple of companies like amazon and zappos we can not go ahead blindly to start using twitter with out any strategy. Because their business is altogether a different one which required strong customer presence on twitter.
It all starts with your business and your objectives. Then look at what works for other companies that have similar goals. Pick and choose the pieces that will work best for you.
I think that all the stuff is not exactly "how-exactly-to-do-it" (or shouldn't be) but "learn-how-someone-do-it". Famous sculptors needs to learn how to work with stone, about composition and many other skills (conventional wisdom) and after they practically do whatever they want THAN they can break the rules and make it their own way to create brand new things.
But this does not means that sculptors whose just know how and (maybe sometimes blindly) follow the conventional wisdom will not be successfull. Yes - they will not be outstanding, famous or unforgettable, but still their work can be good, solid and usable.
And maybe one argument for plain copying (I do not advocate it): for example Basecamp is considered as a very solid service. It can be copied (even it always be only 30% as good copy but still usabel one). Why? Because not everybody speak English (surprise). And because in some cultures or in some regions may be important some small specific but important modifications. So is it then really BAD to try copy?
Every big idea is partially a syndication, enhancements and new stuff, more or less.
Some wiseguy said: To every axiom there is an equal and opposite antiaxiom.
But wait, some other wiseguy also said: The wise create axioms and fools repeat them.
Hope this explains (or complicates) the conundrum somewhat...
Very interesting trail. I notice no mention of business principles. In my work I have seen good ideas and good teams fail because they lack the practical understanding of business 101. Fundamentals such as job descriptions, organization chart, fundamental HR policy and procedures, avoidance of differential compensation, EEOC issues. A focus on solid internal and external communication. The basics if you will. The platform on which great business plans get executed.
I think it's valuable to look at other companies (and blogs and such) to get good ideas about what questions to ask yourself, and to learn about issues that you had not realized were issues. Your own answers are probably different, since your circumstances are different, but it's great to have hints about things to think about that you might have overlooked. (As Kedar Mhaswade says above, learning is not the same as emulating!)
By the way, about Malcolm Gladwell, I think "Outliers" is not his best work. But his essays and articles for The New Yorker are often fascinating, novel, thoughtful, and well-written. Don't think too badly of him from the reviews of "Outliers". Read his stuff at http://www.malcolmgladwell.com/. (I have no connection to him whatsoever except being a fan.)
People forget that these people were nobody at one point, "Go where there is no path"! 2009 is the year to forget about the Gurus and trust your instincts and innovate! Just put it out there, listen to your results, track them, change them, keep moving towards the goal...be your own cheerleader and have fun getting there....
I believe highly successful companies/startups/people do have commonality, outside of if they use short seat stems or this week's proclaimed social tool-of-the-month. Your assumption that when people offer success examples they are advising that people blindly clone and copy is a little thin.
From the earliest times, communications has been a key to distributing knowledge and education. What others have encountered and the results of certain actions have been valuable for individuals to construct their own unique behaviors and plans of action. How different would society be if each of us had to learn individually that petting a tiger might lead to missing appendages or that the pretty red berry on the vine might not be the best thing to eat.
Rather than starting with exceptions, how different would your observations be if you started building a pattern based on the commonalities? I know, this is just a blog and hence it's faster/cheaper/easier (in under a thousand words) to poke at than it is to build a sustaining theory. People write books for that.
Covey's Seven Habit's or even Jim Collin's Good To Great are decent examples. If you twisted Covey's examples to pertain to successful companies rather than just people, I think there is still meaning. Paraphrased from the Seven Habit's:
- Be proactive
- Act with the end in mind
- Prioritize effectively
- Figure out the "win-win"
- Understand to be understood
- Continuous involvement in self-renewal and self-improvement.
Just an observation. Too much focus on communication and not enough focus on listening and thinking through the impact of hastily grabbed and applied solutions. We all need to talk a little less and listen a little more.
Besides the 37 signals example (really bad experience) i agree and like this post. Good job!
It is not easy to decide the best example to follow.
You make some good arguments.
Sometimes it's just a matter of being at the right time and place with the right product. Then... if you need a bit of extra money, write about it and get people to pay for your view.
Challenging times. For a little border view of things I strongly recommend TED.com. A great variety of ideas and views.
I am interested in any other sites that deal with finance and startups that can be recommended.
To echo many of the comments, the approach of one success story does not guarantee success for others.
The main thing is still to offer a great product or service and be able to tell a compelling story around it.
Most of these 'new rules' tend to be examples of people trying stuff for the first time (generally a good thing). And because it's new (and they are good at marketing their approach) these approaches gain some traction. Sadly, all too often, they then become the cookie-cutter ways of approaching all business.
Strangely, they then don't seem so new or interesting any more.
I just finished reading the famous 'Fooled by randomness' book by Taleb, and it really relaxed how I regarded people that have had success.
I dont worry too much now about what people did etc, and I try to filter out people who are now famous for selling their content to others about how they made it big in business. If I won the lottery could I write a book about how I pick numbers using my secret sauce
Great article, like all your blogs. Im going to subscribe...
One comment...I totally agree with your concepts. I have always felt strongly anti-Web 2.0, and you will see that in my own articles (stormdetector.com). Not saying this for a backlink, but to say that I agree....you absolutely do NOT have to participate with whats hot and cool, and have feel you have to follow the sheeple to see success. As a matter of fact, the soothsayers, you will find, often are correct, but it takes time for the masses to come to the realization. Take AJAX, or MySpace or YouTube. The last two last I heard still hadnt made a profit. Well YouTube may be different, but certainly many Web 2.0 commercial sites have not proven that the gimmic of drawing eyeballs makes money online all the time. AJAX has proven to be nothing but more web candy, as opposed to the earth-shaking Web innovation people made it out to be. Same for offshoring....its made inroads and a global reality, but IT jobs in the US last I checked had an unemployment rate half what the rest of the jobs in the US had...ie, plenty of work for high paying IT US programmers.
I have actually predicted all these scenarios would unfold like this. The point is, you do not need Twitter, but you do need a brain and a good idea and an itch to scratch in business to succeed. You dont need a FaceBook account to make friends, nor AJAX to build a website that does well. You can post your own video online on your own website, and probably make money with the SEO it provides than you will waisting time uploading to YouTube. In the end, innovation is really just that.....innovation, or creating something different and innovative. In that light, why follow any of these trends....if you want to be successful! Does that mean I dont use Facebook...no I do. I also use AJAX, and have led teams of offshore people and made many friends there and found great talent. But as far as success, none of those things have anything to do with success in IT business, ironically, though the IT rags of the world will tell you otherwise. Follow your own creative juices and break free of the pack and you will find success. Get mired in following the trends and as they all have slow deaths, your business will as well. The only way to do well in business, is to look beyond them and do something 180 degrees completely different.