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Tech Book Face Off: Rework Vs. The Silicon Valley Way

While reading blogs can be quite enjoyable and a great way to get bite-sized chunks of information when you have five minutes here or there, I still greatly prefer reading books. Books package up information in a nice, cohesive narrative in a way that blogs never could. The additional work that goes into organizing thoughts and culling superfluous stuff in a well-written book is worth the extra time that's put into writing it as well as reading it. Books have always been my primary resource when learning something new, and they have always served me well.

What does that have to do with today's Tech Book Face Off? Well, Rework is an edited collection of the founders of Basecamp's (formerly 37signals) best posts from their Signal v. Noise blog. Having these posts curated and presented in book form resulted in a very pleasant experience, but I'll get to that in a second. For something to compare to Rework, I selected The Silicon Valley Way as an opposing viewpoint on starting a business. Both books are very quick reads. You should be able to get through them in a few hours each.

Learn Ruby on Rails front coverVS.Crafting Rails 4 Applications front cover


The founders of Basecamp, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, seem to be a lightning rod for strong emotions in the software industry. They have strong opinions, and they're not afraid to voice them loudly. Most people either love them or hate them. Let's just say I don't hate them.

Their book is much like their blog: a fast paced series of short, opinionated recommendations on how to run a good business. They don't spend much time on any one idea, and their critiques are sharp, focused, and clear. Some of their ideas are common sense, some are counter-intuitive, and some are intentionally confrontational.

You may balk at suggestions like "Underdo your competition" or "Planning is guessing," but they do have a point. And if you're willing to consider what they say, they will certainly get you thinking. I didn't agree with everything in the book, or their blog for that matter, but even the opinions I disagreed with taught me something. Their writing was so unabashedly direct that I could immediately see why I disagreed with them and how I thought differently.

I never felt pushed to take on their views. Jason and David built a successful business in a certain way, and they're presenting that method of building a business as-is. They don't spend time proving out their ideas with studies and references. You can take it or leave it, and they respect their readers enough to make up their own minds about what they're saying. I really appreciated that no-nonsense attitude.

Most of the time I found myself agreeing with them wholeheartedly. Their bit on "Go to sleep" was especially good. They strongly recommend getting good sleep over pulling all-nighters because the later is almost entirely counter-productive. In addition to making you stubborn, depressed, and irritable, it kills your creativity:
What distinguishes people who are ten times more effective than the norm is not that they work ten times as hard; it's that they use their creativity to come up with solutions that require one-tenth of the effort. Without sleep, you stop coming up with those one-tenth solutions.
It's easy to forget when you're working under a critical deadline, but sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break and get some sleep. If you allow your brain to rest, it will likely come up with one of those one-tenth solutions for you that will relieve most of the pressure you were trying to take head-on.

Most of the book was exactly like that - short, specific, relevant advice for being your best and building a successful business. Keep things simple, especially your products. Focus on your customers, help them do awesome things, and they'll love you for it. Stop wasting time doing things that don't matter. It was great stuff in an easily digestible package that's well worth reviewing every so often. And since it's such a quick read - only a few hours cover-to-cover - I'll probably look through it once a year. I highly recommend it for clearing your mind and reminding yourself of what's really important.

The Silicon Valley Way

The Silicon Valley Way was not nearly as interesting as Rework. It's organized into nine chapters on various topics about running a start-up company such as market research and strategy, competition, product definition, customers, and accepting reality. It starts with a discussion of Venture Capitalists' expectations and ends with a discussion on raising money, which is appropriate for a book about start-ups. One of the main concerns in start-ups ends up being how to get and keep getting VC funding.

Each chapter is a series of questions with a short discussion of how to go about answering it and a short example from a real company like Apple or Microsoft or a fake company that the author made up. This is where I pretty much lost interest. I couldn't get into the examples at all. The real examples were trivial and forgettable, like the issues with handwriting recognition not working well in the Apple Newton. This was given as a reason to test out product prototypes with real potential customers. It could have been any unsuccessful product from any company for all the impact it had on driving the point home.

The examples with fictitious companies were even worse. They all seemed contrived, as if the author was pontificating on something that should be obvious. If you just imagine there's this company that did things this particular way, and then this unfortunate thing happened or this great thing happened... There, you see? That proves my point. There was no meat to the argument, no main entree, just an unsatisfying salad of made up rationalizations. It was hardly convincing.

It's not as if I disagreed with most of the advice. It was mostly fine and prudent. I just couldn't bring myself to care about what the author was saying. I was ambivalent. Even for the points I disagreed with, I couldn't get too worked up about it. For example, in the chapter on competition there is a discussion on assessing labor costs of competing products:
Yet by observing your competitors at trade shows, reading their annual reports, visiting their facilities, and counting cars in their parking lots, you can obtain a surprisingly complete picture of how many people were needed to develop, market, and sell a particular product. If you are large enough to have a finance department, ask someone there to calculate your competitor's labor costs. Use this data to benchmark your competitiveness.
All I could think of was, what a waste of time and resources. That effort would be much better spent improving your own products rather than worrying about your competitor's products.

Later, in the chapter on products, the author suggests making a list of key product features and considering competing products to help fill out the list. Maybe, but paying too much attention to the competition will put you at risk of imitating them too closely. It's like when you're riding a bike near the edge of a road. You don't want to look off the edge of the shoulder, because you're going to veer in the direction you're looking. Look where you want to go, down the road, and go that way. Presumably you want to pass right by your competition, so don't watch them too closely or you'll end up in the ditch with them.

Overall, I didn't feel like I finished this book with any more knowledge or insight than when I started it. Really, Paul Graham's essays give much more depth and detail on the start-up world in a much more engaging way than Elton Sherwin does with The Silicon Valley Way. I would forgo this book and read Graham's writing instead.

Opposing Viewpoints

I have yet to address the opposing viewpoints of these two books directly. Both of them tend to agree that products should be kept simple and you should focus on your customers, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.  

Rework takes the stance that a business is best grown organically while staying profitable and developing a healthy, enriching company culture. Things like raising money, advertising, meetings, and worrying about the competition are seen as a waste of effort at best and counter-productive at worst. Especially for software companies, you don't need a lot of money or a lot of employees to get started. Building a high-quality product and selling it to a market that you can easily grow is a good way to take a lot of risk out of starting a company, and it can be done today on a lower budget than ever before.

The Silicon Valley Way takes the opposite approach, and assumes you want to take on a fast-moving industry with large, established companies. To compete, you'll want to get as much outside funding as you can, staff up your company, and concentrate on making a product that attracts a lot of users. Once you're more established, you can figure out how to monetize your product to start making revenue, and hopefully a profit. In this case, a significant amount of your time will be spent attracting investors and getting enough cash to fund your quickly growing company.

Both viewpoints are valid, in that using either method can result in a successful business. There are plenty of examples out there of profitable businesses that bootstrapped their way to success the Rework way and that rocketed their way to huge corporate status The Silicon Valley Way. There are also examples of companies that failed using either approach, sometimes spectacularly. I would imagine that slow, controlled growth would involve a lot less risk and a lot more sanity than fast start-up growth, but the payoff if your start-up succeeds is potentially much, much greater. It's a choice each set of founders has to make for themselves.

As for the books, Rework was clear, engaging, and direct. It was a great read, and it has something in it for everyone, even those people running start-ups. The Silicon Valley Way, on the other hand, was largely forgettable. It never grabbed my attention and lacked the forceful arguments of Rework. I'd pass on it and look for something better on how to run a start-up. If you're looking for a refreshing, no-nonsense guide on how to start and run a business without all of the cruft and waste of today's corporate bureaucracy, Rework is for you.