Book review: Working hard is for suckers, and other secrets to success

A new bestselling corporate manifesto rages against the machine.

Nothing sells like an anti-hero. The past century of American literature is littered with them, from Scarlett O’Hara to Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden. Popular music has absorbed the punk rock ethos that produced scabby icons like Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain. And the movie posters most often hung on dormitory walls pay tribute to the likes of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, or Twilight‘s emo vampire, Edward. If you want a cult instead of an audience, sell a compelling antihero. Better yet: become one.

It’s not clear whether Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson set out to market themselves as Internet anti-heroes, or whether they really are every bit as cranky and contrarian as their reputations suggest. The two are partners in 37Signals, and while they’d prefer you didn’t call it an “Internet company” — too many negative connotations of boom and bust and spending money on stupid things — it’s hard to know what else to call it.

Founded in Chicago in 1999, the firm’s output includes the web-based project management platform Basecamp, and a company ethos that’s broadcast through their heavily trafficked “design and usability” blog, Signal vs. Noise . That ethos is now packaged up in Rework (Crown Business), already a bestseller. Co-authored by Fried and Hansson, it’s the firm’s second book, and while their first, Getting Real, focused explicitly on web-based app design, their latest effort aims to bottle their disdain for their peers and competitors, and provide a contrarian manifesto for anyone starting a business.

“This book isn’t based on academic theories. It’s based on our experience,” they write off the top. “We’ve seen two recessions, one burst bubble, business-model shifts, and doom-and-gloom predictions come and go — and we’ve remained profitable through it all.” Though the firm claims millions of dollars in annual profits, they’ve chosen to remain small, and in so doing, they reject practically every truism about how to run a successful business. Their sixteen employees are scattered across eight cities; they don’t bother with advertising or PR, or even budgets, plans or meetings. They don’t have a board, and as a rule, they turn away offers from outside investors (with the exception of founder Jeff Bezos, who was allowed to buy a minority stake on the condition he never pressure them to go public, or to scale up and sell out, literally or figuratively). And they do it all with a cultivated sneer that’s earned them extensive media coverage, and praise from the likes of marketing guru Seth Godin.

That sneer is applied to conventional business wisdom throughout Rework‘s 80-odd brief chapters, as Fried and Hansson briskly dismiss some of the alleged principles of success. “Learning from mistakes is overrated,” they write, dispelling the old maxim that a startup should fail early and fail often. “Other people’s failures are just that: other people’s failures.” Plans are dismissed as glorified guesses, unless they’re bite-sized and immediate-term. The idea that growth is inherently a good thing is rejected out of hand. The word ‘entrepreneur’ is taken behind the barn and shot, on the grounds that it “smells like a members-only club.”

Other sacred cows for the slaughter: delegation and meetings. Delegators, they say, “clog the pipes for others by coming up with busywork. And when they run out of work to assign, they make up more.” And delegators love to act self-important at meetings, which are inherently a waste of time. They produce little actual progress, draining resources exponentially, and of course, “they often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.”

Forget too, the notion that pouring long hours into your job is in any way a good or noble thing. Workaholics are simply those who don’t work efficiently enough during the day, and forgoing sleep is suicidal, except in the rarest of circumstances. As for mandating the number of hours that their employees work in a week, Fried and Hansson say they don’t care, so long as the work gets done.

Beyond the self-conscious bluster of aphorisms like “Emulate drug dealers” and “Good enough is fine,” the ideas in Rework mostly centre around a belief in the power and importance of self-limitation. They don’t see the point in growing for growth’s sake, or in compromising your product’s essence to cater to a potentially larger audience when the one you have is sufficient. They find inspiration, for example, in celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, whose reality television adventures include salvage jobs on failing restaurants. Among his first steps is always to reduce the number of options on a restaurant’s menu, from 30 down to 10. “When things aren’t working,” they write, “the natural inclination is to throw more at the problem. More people, time, and money. All that ends up doing is making the problem bigger. The right way to go is the opposite direction: Cut back.”

That idea applies to competing in the marketplace, too. Rather than engaging in a costly Cold War — type strategy against your peers, proudly “underdo” them. “Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition.” They point to the Flip camcorder, which racked up a sizable market share despite offering a fraction of the features of its rivals. “Don’t shy away from the fact that your product or service does less. Highlight it. Be proud of it. Sell it as aggressively as competitors sell their extensive feature lists.” And, “If you think a competitor sucks, say so.”

This kind of corporate misanthropy may be polarizing, but the authors aren’t apologizing. “Strong opinions aren’t free,” they write. “You’ll turn some people off. They’ll accuse you of being arrogant and aloof. That’s life. For everyone who loves you, there will be others that hate you. If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.” That’s something of which Fried and Hansson will likely never be accused.

Executive summaries

The Devil’s Casino : Friendship, Betrayal, and the High-Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers (Wiley)
Vicky Ward

Dick Fuld wears the dunce cap in the public imagination because he was CEO of Lehman Bros. when the ship went down, but Ward, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, delves into the company’s history and culture and builds her narrative around the “Ponderosa Boys,” a group of four fast friends, including former president and COO Chris Pettit, and eventual Fuld No. 2 Joe Gregory. Though the four were once a fast unit, helping drive Lehman to prominence after it went public in the ’90s, an internecine feud forced the talented Pettit out in 1997 (he would die in a snowmobile accident just months later), with grave later consequences for the company and the badly exposed Fuld and Gregory.

As by now you’ve no doubt read a thing or two about the Great Recession, the book is most successful not in its analysis of the Wall Street firm’s terminal decline but when the tale is at its pulpiest, uncovering intimate affairs within the company’s executive structure, or detailing a visit by one of the former Ponderosa Boys to a medium in hopes of making peace with Pettit’s spirit. Though the principals in Lehman’s downfall may think of themselves in grander, more tragic terms, Ward makes clear — if it needed restating — that pulp is as much as they deserve.

Balance Is a Crock, Sleep Is for the Weak: An Indispensable Guide to Surviving Working Motherhood (Avery)
Amy Eschliman and Leigh Oshirak

“If you haven’t figured it out by now, everyone else is also going through this crazy existential crisis. … All it takes is missing a gymnastics recital because you couldn’t get out of work in time … or missing a marketing meeting because the kid threw up on you again.” South of the border, 24 million moms have either part-time or full-time jobs, and of those working mothers, a quarter have kids under the age of six. As Eschliman and Oshirak put it, “That’s six billion mornings a year where moms struggle to get the kids out the door and make it into work on time. … Six billion lunches packed for the next day and dinners that have to be thrown together at the last second.” Authors of the blog, their goal is to offer advice for all facets of working motherhood, from keeping your career moving forward to keeping your relationship intact. The emphasis throughout is on the practical — how to navigate the use of a breast pump in the workplace or at conferences, how to balance the demands of your work schedule with your child’s unscheduled illness, how to get your partner to pull his or her weight at home — and the tone is frantic, honest and funny.

Jimmy Stewart Is Dead: Ending the World’s Ongoing Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking (Wiley)
Laurence J. Kotlikoff

The kindly, magnanimous George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life wouldn’t last a minute in modern banking, a world in which the good people are outflanked by the “fast-talking con artists, river boat gamblers, and highway men,” says Kotlikoff. An economics professor at Boston University and a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, the professor is among those who believe that our financial system is inherently malformed, and that without submitting it to radical surgery, our relapse into crisis isn’t an “if” but a “when.” His solution is to prevent banks (including insurance companies and other financial institutions) from leveraging their clients’ assets to make gross financial plays: “Limit banks to their legitimate purpose — connecting lenders to borrowers and savers to investors — and don’t let them gamble.” Gaining traction among some of Kotlikoff’s academic peers, limited purpose banking, he says, would be remarkably simple and easy to implement, and here he maps out a vision for what the system could look like in practice in America. And if the “pass-through mutual fund system” he advocates would result in a more arduously regulated financial marketplace, Kotlikoff argues, it would be one more transparent and honest about who’s actually assuming what risk.