Some Signals — Quotidian — 401

(Transcript of video originally posted on 22 Jun 2022)

Extra-terrestrial! Not part of earth… From somewhere outside! Steven Spielberg, in the 1980s, directed a movie titled “E.T”. He introduced that likeable alien character to us too! Probably, in his honour, two famous scientists, Paul Horowitz, and Carl Sagan, launched an experiment to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

They searched through the signals they received from outer space, and looked for something good, something special, something unique, in them. Is it all dull mechanical natural sounds, radio waves and emissions and occurrences, or.. is there something intelligent living out there!? They spent more than a decade, sifting through all those signals. It seems, they were able to identify every one of those countless signals they received, as quasar signatures and blackhole radiations and so on…. All except… 37 signals! They remained unassigned! Unaccounted for! We are going to talk about some of those 37 signals, today!


Four hundred and one! I told you we would be talking about 37 signals, but, sorry, I didn’t give you the whole story!

Actually, there is a company called 37Signals! It is founded by this person — we have met him earlier too, in Quotidians. Jason Fried is his name. He, along with his cofounder, David Hansson, built this beautiful company. And, what’s the claim to fame of this admittedly small company? Take these three, if you want! The CEO has written, or co-authored FIVE BOOKS! I am not going to tell you about the fifth book yet… He has just released it, so, I want to read it before telling you about it!

This CEO and his company has brought into this world a beautiful and powerful web development framework. A web application framework — some of you might have even heard about it. Ruby on Rails! They CREATED this platform! Not just a product, but a product using which products can be built easily! Take that, as claim for fame! Not only that, they have been launching products! As many as five products… Then they cut the number down, and then raised it… BaseCamp. HighRise.. and so on. Some of these products are pretty famous, in some places around the world! Claim to fame of this company called 37 Signals… Alright, but what are we talking about here??

Recently, 37 Signals did a Thuglak. This is a company that was born in the year 1999. Around 2014, this man, Jason, said, “We are going to focus deeply, narrowly, from now on. We have been focusing on too many products (just a handful, mind you!) we are going to narrowly focus, and to reflect that, we are going to change the name of the company, and it will be the name of one of our top-notch products. So, they renamed their company, 37Signals (with that E.T reference!) they renamed it to BaseCamp. In 2022, the same guy said, “We have a lot more ideas for a lot many more products! Email, for example, is begging to be reinvented. We are going to introduce a new product called Hey!, and that’s going to change the world! To reflect that, to convey that we are no longer a one-product company, we are changing our name again…” To what?! “To 37 Signals again!” Fine… “But, there is something really beautiful here. The reason they gave it that name, yes, the extra-terrestrial reference, meaningful intelligence, signal amidst noise, … yes.

But, he created a manifesto and published it. May 2022. 37 beautiful principles. He called them “Principles we hold dear, principles we swear by!” It starts with 00. 37 items like this. Not only that, he made a reference, a back-link so to speak. To the same 37 signals document that he had published way back in 1999.

Even in 1999, he had published a document cataloging things that he held with utmost respect. Firmly believed in. Swore never to slip from. Yes, that set is different, some of them are antiquated, but.. what gumption..! To say, “Here is who we are, and 23 years ago, that’s who we were!” How many companies have the guts to remind customers of a dim past 23 years ago! Think about it! What we are going to do in the rest of the time today is to take a quick look, a short tour, through some of the principles that I felt resonated with the way things worked with me, the way things worked in my company! Let’s get started.

Number One:- He says, “We have an obligation to independence. We have to be independent. That is an inalienable right, an unwavering belief. We are not here for an exit. We don’t want venture capital. We don’t want to become specialists in spending money. We want to become specialists in EARNING money. And, that cannot happen if we have too much money in our hands, if VC money is raining into our bank accounts! We are not looking for an exit!” He even has a podcast. The Distance. If your company has been around for more than twenty-five years, if it has been prosperous, profitable, you can talk to him on that podcast! Special! He says, “We want to do things that no one would give us permission to do. If you have other people’s money in your hands, you would have to follow their guidance on how to spend it! We want to be owners of our destiny! To try things other companies would be afraid to try. We want to SKIP SAFE. We want to do original stuff” If you take Zoho Corp itself, as an example company, at Zoho we do Zoho Schools. We do rural upliftment. We can do these only if we are sponsoring it with our own hard-earned money. There won’t be outsiders questioning our every move. We can check for ourselves, if we are doing it right for the long term. Do you get the point? So, it is an obligation to independence. For 23 years, we have been doing it with our own money, he proclaims proudly. We haven’t been ever in the red. We have always made more money than we needed!

Number Two:- Work isn’t war! What are you really here for? To fight?? If you read articles, reports, and news items, they would have words like these. “Companies CONQUER the market, they CAPTURE mindshare, they TARGET customers, they employ a sales FORCE, they hire HEAD HUNTERS, to FIGHT with competition, they DESTROY the competition, they pick their BATTLES, and finally, they make a KILLING. How MANY words! How much blood! It needn’t always be like this. There can be a Win Win. There is enough for more than one company to work well with other companies and prosper.

If you look at the Animal Kingdom, this is the fearsome crocodile, but there is a bird, called the Egyptian Plover Bird.. When the Plover Bird visits, the crocodile is very careful and mindful not to snap its jaws shut! Because…. rotten meat is stuck in its teeth. It is food for the plover bird, and it is dangerous if it remains in the crocodile’s teeth. What a beautiful symbiotic relationship! So, look for Win Win! We come in peace, Jason says! I want to believe him. I think there are companies who are like that.

Number Three:- Small teams are especially beautiful! You can’t recapture it if the team grows large. In particular, if a team grows large, they can’t do small things… That’s the power of small. You do what NEEDS TO BE DONE rather than overdoing it. Doing what all can be done! If you look at this Dilbert comic strip, it conveys it clearly! “Do you realise that no human would be able to use a product with that level of complexity?” Version 1 of the product would be useful. Version 2 would be usable. Version 3 will introduce a new feature. Version 4 will be unrecognisably more complicated and complex. Why!? Team has grown in size. Bureaucracy has set in. Jason says, “We believe in small teams”. In fact, he goes on to say, “We work with small customers and small clients. We are small. We like small!” Interesting!

Number Eight:- A really beautiful concept, laid out in Eights! He talks about this 8 / 8 / 8. How many CEOs do you know who talk about SLEEP!? He says, Eight for work, Eight for life, Eight of sleep! That is how you should split your life. It is NOT work/life balance, it is work/life/sleep balance! Not stopping with that, he gives us a book-recommendation too. “Why we sleep” — by Matthew Walker. Read this book, understand the mysteries and the special importance of Sleeping! How many CEOs do YOU know who recommend that you sleep more?! Hats off!

Number Eleven:- What does this say? It talks about NOT emulating the office! He says, “Thanks to the pandemic, the office has been brought home! Not necessary! You can work remotely, yes, but don’t try to do all the meetings you used to do at office, at home too! No need to bring everything over to Zoom, have fewer meetings! There is no need to know where everyone is, what they are doing, trust them more!” I find it difficult, it is a challenge. I am eager to know what each person in my doing at any particular moment. It is not a question of just trust… It is also a question of letting go. That things will pan out well enough, soon enough. You don’t need to know everything. That wisdom. He also adds a beautiful line, “ASAP is Poison. There is no real pressing need to make everything happen LIVE and at the moment. Try asynchronous communication too. I have asked you the question when I found it feasible. You prepare and send me the answer at a time YOU find feasible”.

Number Nineteen:- Nineteen is about paying people, and not paying mailing addresses. People should be paid what they deserve, what they are worth, and not based on the cost of living of the neighbourhood they are living in. Sounds a bit controversial. How can a San Francisco salary equal that of a Chennai salary? But, that’s what he is proposing. Companies hire people. Not mailing addresses. So nice to hear (at least!) Everyone in the same position should get paid the same, no matter where they live or who they are — anywhere in the world. Bold claim. Implementation, legal aspects, I have no idea what hairballs they would be. But, it is evident what he respects. And, regarding that, I have a good feeling! Anywhere in the world. Think about that! Is that even possible? In this company, it seems to be!

Number TwentyOne:- It talks about Knowing No! Simple word! Always, you have this choice. Should I say Yes? Should I say No? When you say No, it is very clear, you are saying No to one thing. But, when you say Yes, do you realise? At the end, you have said No to a lot of things. Steve Jobs approached this same precept from a different angle. When we bring a feature into a product, before we say Yes to it, before a single Yes, we actually have a thousand Nos, he said. Saying No. Diplomatically. Practically. Learn to say it!

Number TwentyTwo:- What does it tell us? It is about StayUps. StayUp? Is there a word like that? Oh, it is supposed to be “next version” of Startups! Anybody can build a Startup, it seems. Has it been around 23 years? Has it ever seen profit? Has it stood on its own legs? That is a StayUp! “We prefer to champion StayUps! Companies who have proven their worth, figured out what their business is all about, and strive to stick around for the long term”, Jason says.

Just last year, at Zoho, we celebrated our twenty-fifth year. 25th year of profitability. 25th year of standing on our own feet. 25th year of championing other StayUps like ours! There’s a good resonance here.

Number ThirtyFour:- He says, “Sleep on it!” He had advised us that ASAP is poison. He gives additional advice. He says, “If you have finished some work, and you think about it at the end of the day, you would have a WOW feeling. The end of the day has a way of convincing you what you’ve done is amazing! You will be on top of the world! But… The next day morning, the next morning has a way of telling you the truth. What did you do really, the previous day? How much more remains to be done? What are the hastily done things from the previous twenty four hours that have gone horribly wrong? So, the advice is, even if you are sure, end of the day, don’t rush your decisions, sleep on it!” A few days ago, we had encountered a book titled, “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind”. So, take it slow. Kahneman thinking. System Two. Take it easy. Take it slow.

We have come to the Closing Thought. I had told you, Jason Fried, in 2022, refers to the original document written in 1999! I went ferreting out there. Is there some signal that is really beautiful, worth including. There is one Signal, in that 1999 version, where he talks about Copy Righting. The right way to write! Firstly, do not cut the budget ever, when it comes to copywriting. Don’t let the designer or the developer wear a second hat and do a so-so job! Get a writer! Look at the words. He says, “Seduce me. Entice me. Entertain me. Educate me. Don’t be cryptic. Don’t be stupid either. And, finally, please don’t be dull. Only if your writing passes all these tests… there is a chance… That famous eight-second rule for memory and attention… if you want to grab the customer and pocket them for life, please do not skimp on this budget.” Think about it then. We will meet again soon. Namaste!



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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.