37Signals is dead, and the tech community is looking for a new legend to build itself on. Indeed, the Chicago based company is still moving, but it’s only the ghost of what it used to be, at least from a cultural point of view.
For almost a decade, 37Signals has been inspiring a large part of today’s startup spirit. In a twist worth the golden age of the cinema, the small design studio became a must be for a generation of developers and small business all over the world.
But the 37Signals era is over, and the young Buffer is on the way to become the next legend of the startup world, and this may have some unexpected consequences.
The rise and fall of 37Signals
37Signals has a special place in the tech and business story. It’s not one of those billion dollar companies that popped out from nowhere before it crashed a spectacular way. 37Signals is about creating a spirit, making the tech scene dream, and changing the way people work. No less, no more.
Don’t even look at their products, you’d probably be disappointed. To be honest, they mostly suck, and using them is extremely frustrating, as they barely do the job. 37Signals products are simple, too simple, and that’s probably a part of the legend, but that legend would not exist if you only striped bare a project management tool. As agent Fox Mulder used to say, the truth is out there.
37Signals legend was built on communication. It was built with their blog, Signal VS Noise, their productivity books, and incredibly helped by the timing they released their internal Web development framework, Ruby on Rails.
In 2006, they released Getting Real, The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application. Getting Real was all about building simple products and changing the way you would manage Web application. It was a wonderfully marketed crossroad of Getting Things Done time management and Xtrem Programming philosophy. Getting Real was not their first book, but it was the first that had a real impact on the way people work.
In 2010, they pushed Rework, co written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Once again, it was beautifully marketed. Imagine: the author of Getting Real and the creator of Ruby on Rails explaining how you should work (to be like them). What they didn’t say is “what works at 37Signals… works at 37Signals”, but no one cared. People, startups were dreaming of being (part of) 37Signals.
Despite selling well, 2013 Remote came too late. If Getting Real and Rework were visionaries in terms of project and company management, talking about remote working is laggard. Huge corporations like Atos have already embraced partial or full remote working, and even though most companies are not ready for it, there’s nothing new anymore.
I’ve often heard that every startup need to grow up and become an adult company. I believe this has what happened to 37Signals a few years ago, and if few you doubt about it, their recent rebranding into Basecamp should convince you more than anything. The Web is made of stories and legends, and that one is over.
Buffer and the culture of transparency
Every once in awhile, a legend dies and another one rises. It happens everywhere, because we’re mortal and everything we build must come to an end.
As 37Signals legend is vanishing, the Web needs a new legend, Startups a culture to identify and they may have found it with Buffer. Buffer have neither published any book nor released any badass open source framework yet, but the young startup is on the path to become for the 2010’s startup culture what 37Signals was for the 2000’s.
It’s Ironic to see how Buffer’s following the road 37Signals paved for them, and how they’re probably doing it faster and better.
As a product, Buffer is the lovechild of Getting Real and Eric Ries lean startup. When I started to use it in late 2011, it was just as good as I needed for a little more than MVP you want to pay for. Since then, they’ve been constantly improving, trying and releasing an iterative way. I recently came back after not logging in for months. It was still the same, and very different at the same time.
But Buffer is more than just the product.
The young startup publishes an awesome blog, maybe the best I’ve read for a while. They use it in a wonderful way both to spread their cultural point of view and to attract new clients. The blog gives tips about contend marketing, productivity, self improvement, startup culture, and indeed the life at Buffer.
That’s where Buffer diverges from 37Signals, bringing something fresh and new in the startup culture. 37Signals was all about dropping the ancient model of software development and becoming more productive, Buffer is about transparency, well being and self improvement.
Transparency is not something you see a lot in companies culture. Even the coolest startups still believe the less you tell about you, the less you leave your competitors to have a grip on. This means NDA all over the place and leaving no one but the founders publicly talk about the company. In a public company, this is useful: any announcement car affect the stock market. From a startup point of view, it’s stupid. Overlooking the competition is the cause of many companies failure. Unless the competition really becomes a problem, you probably have bigger problems to deal with. Period.
Buffer is transparent about revenues, salaries, figures, even the most embarrassing ones, their way of working, and they give other companies lots to think. I love that culture of transparency, and lots of people around me love it as well.
When I read what they publish and compare to 37Signals books, I have 2 feelings it took me time to decipher.
The first one is about the way they address their readers. Signal VS Noise is a lot about “that’s the way to do it”, and people assume that’s the way they do it. I don’t remember reading anything about “we tried this and it didn’t work so we tried that and…”. Buffer does the opposite, either relating to their experience or figures to publish “science baked” posts.
The other one is about the target. Signal VS Noise is (was, I don’t read it anymore) a blog by geeks for geeks. 37Signals books were written by geeks for people who have a flexible enough state of mind to accept and experiment their theory about work. Back in the days, Signal VS Noise was definitely targeting innovators and early adopters. Buffer’s blog target a much wider range of people, with now quite common topics – life hacks and productivity are not nerd stuffs anymore - to introduce their culture.
The final difference is about people. Buffer’s a lot about people, and about their people.
The latest thing that started to boil my mind is their personal improvement hackpad. Every week, Buffer employees write down their personal improvement goals, and how the previous one went. And it’s public. I still can’t decider whether or not it’s too much transparency or just genius, but I’m very tempted to join the trend. That’s just so much about what they’re promoting.
What it means for startup culture
From the outside, Buffer culture is exactly what you’d love your company to do: promoting well being, people (not juste employees) self improvement, communicating like the coolest startup on earth.
It’s awesome, incredible, wonderful… too good to be true.
Back in the days, when I was meeting people who wanted to “be like 37Signals”, I used to say: “what works at 37Signals… works at 37Signals”. The company size, its people made their very special state of mind possible, and whatever they wrote, only them were able to apply it, so copycats were doomed, sooner or later.
There’s a trick with Buffer way of communicating, a trick they don’t write about. As I’m finishing this post, I’ve very mixed feelings about it.
It’s about transparency.
Buffer communication works because transparency is not part of most companies culture, and the reason why they can allow themselves to be transparent is because they’re successful.
Transparency about your mistakes and failure is easy when both are behind you, or without consequences, or when it can leverage your public communication. Telling people that you screwed up when they’re directly concerned by your mistake is a lot harder.
People love to hear about startups post mortems, but no one wants to hear about a company that’s struggling to find clients, money, or to build a product. And no company is foolish enough to communicate about that if they want people to trust them and become clients.
People love to hear what healthy people do to be even healthier, but no one want to hear about ill people fighting illness. People are OK with transparency when it’s about success stories, but not skyrocket ones, because they want to hear what they’re going to become next.
I definitely love reading about Buffer, but my feeling is they only target the riches, and it will, once again, leave most not that successful startups in the shadow.