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Jennifer Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka

Stop Acting Your Size

I recently spoke to Jason Fried of 37 Signals about the session he will give at CTC this year. 37Signals is the maker of the popular online team collaboration service Basecamp, as well as Writeboard (document editing), Backpack (shared notes and lists) and Campfire (web-based group chat). I first heard of 37Signals two years ago when a colleague suggested we use Basecamp to keep a cross-organizational team on the same page for a joint venture I was working on, and I was impressed at the time at the quality of the product (especially its ease of use) given the tiny size of the company. Since then, the company has grown in its user base (though they do not share their stats so we don't know how much), in its product set, and massively in its visibility (they've been covered in BusinessWeek, InformationWeek, Forbes, Business 2.0 and many others), and I assumed that it had grown in employees as well.

Not so. 37Signals is still seven people.

That's one small company. It's also the correct size of a team, according to the consensus of a panel discussion I participated in recently. You can have close communication with seven people, and at that size, collaboration tends to happen naturally. Ironic, then, that 37Signals helps teams enhance their collaboration with technology. Basecamp and Backpack started as tools the company built to use for themselves in their web shop. It enabled them to grow without adding administrative and coordination overhead. At last year's CTC, Paul Budnitz of Kid Robot talked about how he took his company from startup to $5.5M in three years with a staff of five, using Basecamp to keep everyone on the same page.

Jason has become an advocate for small and writes about its advantages on his company blog. His formula for success involves early prototypes, fast iteration, lowering the cost of change, keeping the customer close, getting the right people, embracing constraints, agile development and transparency. As he says, "Give people just enough to solve their own problems their own way. Then get out of their way."

It's remarkable what Jason has been able to do with just seven people, but whether 37Signals is destined to steal a piece of the enterprise collaboration pie is unknown. The more interesting point to me is that they embody what large companies want from collaboration: speed, flexibility, accountability. To marry the power of the enterprise with the agility of the start up is the holy grail.

One company that seems to have been able to do this well is Google. Most big projects there are tackled by teams of six, which are assembled and disbanded with frequency and ease. Their process shares a lot in common with 37Signals, including early and broad customer feedback, fast iteration, a focus on talent and agile development, but they do it with around 5,000 employees. Matthew Glotzbach, Google's Head of Enterprise Products, is going to share their secrets for keeping it small on such a large scale in Tuesday's plenary session at CTC.

So if you're at a large company and your needs and resources for collaborative technologies goes beyond what a lightweight web-based application has to offer, why should you care about 37Signals? Think of them not just as a possible vendor but as the face of your next competitor. Is there a team of seven people out there who could identify a need in the market you serve, use agile development and a streamlined design and launch a compelling, accessible offering within months? Or could your current competitors start tackling projects in small, flexible teams, improve communication, creativity and accountability and reduce their time to market?

If you think the answer is still no, then let me change the question: Great communication, quick decisions, little bureaucracy, and overhead so low you can afford to take risks: wouldn't that just feel great?

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