The Devil Is In The Details

“The devil is in the details.” I always thought this saying means details are important. That you have to pay extra attention to them. That it’s where the battle is won. Where you make things shine. That the details are where you have to account for extra time in your planning.

All those things are probably true, but today I encountered a different take on this saying.

In Getting Real, a 2006 book by the founders of Basecamp, they recommend you’d better leave them alone, those details, because the devil is in them. Not to ignore them forever, but when you’re just starting out with your product or startup.

The details is where you meet your Waterloo. Where you waste precious time and resources. Where you do stuff that “just doesn’t matter” (another nice one-liner from the same duo).

Instead, they recommend you work from “large to small.” Fix the big and important stuff first, then look at those devilish details if you have time left.

I certainly made this mistake — of sweating the details too early — as Product Manager for our first Saent product.

For example, we spent time very early on to make our Leaderboard account for timezone differences. If the day or week already ended in my timezone but not yours, Saent would take that into account when compiling and displaying the Leaderboard. Not until the day was officially over in everyone’s timezone would Saent end that day and finalize scores.

I thought sweating that kind of stuff, having eye for that level of detail, would wow people and make the difference. Unfortunately nobody really noticed this except me. Instead, the opposite happened: we had a lot of these kind of funky details going on, but we never managed to get the core loop of the software working, and hence couldn’t retain sufficient people to build a viable product and business.

That’s exactly what the Basecamp founders were referring to: first fix the big stuff, then pay attention to that place where the devil lives, in the details.

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