Book review: Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

The iconoclastic new book by the 37signals duo is not just bad but dangerous, says John Vincent.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

If this book was just bad then maybe that would be OK, but I fear it may also be dangerous. There is a quote on the cover from guru and entrepreneur Seth Godin that reads: 'Ignore this at your peril.' The main messages the reader might get from such a statement is 'ignore this' and 'peril' - these provide inadvertently pertinent warnings.

Rework: Change the way you work forever is written by Jason Fried, who co-founded a small to medium-sized software company called 37signals in Chicago, and by David Heinemeier Hansson, who joined later. 37signals is a famous company in the world of US tech start-ups, because of its launch of an open-source web application framework called Ruby on Rails.

The authors are demigods in the space that is known as Web 2.0, and they have many 20-something devotees in the US. They are also prolific bloggers, and their first business self-help book was apparently well received. They are happy to be called arrogant, and famously responded to their critics by putting up a slide at a conference that said 'fuck off'.

They write: 'This book isn't based on academic theories. It's based on our experience. We've been in business 10 years. Along the way, we've seen two recessions, one burst bubble, business-model shifts, and doom and gloom predictions come and go.' What is it about Americans that they think 10 years is a long time?

The opening section of the book mostly comprises patronising cliches that sound like they are from Hannah Montana - it's 'reach for your dreams'-type bubblegum. There are 30 or so sections that include 'Learning from failure is overrated', 'Interruption is the enemy of productivity', 'Planning is guessing' and 'Long lists don't get done'.

The authors assert a lot but provide very few meaningful examples to illustrate their points. The result is motherhood and apple pie. The assertions are aggressively communicated and it does not come from a good place. I can't help wondering if they were bullied at school.

Their writing lacks grace and charm. Take, for example, the assertion: 'We all have that one friend who says, "I had the idea for eBay. If only I had acted on it, I'd be a billionaire!" That logic is pathetic and delusional.'

The book is written by people who, I think, would rather be celebrities than businesspeople.

I have the pleasure of working with real businesspeople who care about doing a good job, not talking about doing a good job.

The authors' advice is so sweeping and deliberately confrontational that it misses all the subtleties that actually make businesses succeed. We are told: 'Meetings are toxic.' In reality, good meetings are good and bad meetings are not good, but don't try and make a name for your software company by issuing such over-heated generalisations.

Why do I suggest that this book is also dangerous? Because it provides advice from people who don't have the full experience necessary to give it. Planning, they say, is not recommended. Now that really is dumb. Maybe in a low-risk software company you can 'just do it', but if, like a restaurant chain, you have capital expenditure, or you are moving a factory, you had better make sure you plan the move, the stock-build, the overtime, the working capital and service implications.

I am not sure these guys are real businesspeople. They need to stop behaving like children.

The book is also hypocritical. There is a section called 'Outside money is plan Z', about why you should never take on third-party investors. Yet a quick search on 37signals reveals that it took money from Bezos Expeditions, the VC company that invests on behalf of the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, in 2006.

They say that trying to get big is a mistake and that you shouldn't make plans, yet this is what they said about the investment in their company by Bezos' VC firm: 'We hope this boost of ambition, and Jeff's personal vote of confidence, will help us achieve our big plans.'

The book is rescued by a thread of ideas that focus on one theme - that less ambitious, more straightforward products can often beat 'better' products. And, this time, they give good examples - of the recent uptake of simple fixed-gear bikes, and the popularity of the flip phone (no big screen, no photo-taking ability, no menus, no settings, no optical zoom etc).

And perhaps if the authors had followed the advice about 'build half a product, not a half-assed product' and 'underdo your competition', the book would have been a deal better.

Their point is that 'lots of things get better as they get shorter.

Directors cut good scenes to make a great movie. Musicians drop good tracks to make a great album. Writers eliminate good pages to make a book great. We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts ...

Trust us, it's better for it.' They should have gone further.

PS Maybe they should stick to making software. It looks quite good. Simple.


Rework: Change the way you work forever

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Crown Publishing
£10.99.

- John Vincent is co-founder of Leon Restaurants.

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