Rework: Book Overview (J. Fried & D. H.  Heinemeier)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Rework" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Jason Fried and David H. Hansson’s Rework about? What is the main premise of their business philosophy?

Co-founders Jason Fried and David H. Hansson of 37signals, a company that creates online management tools, believe that anyone can start and operate a business with fewer resources than they think. In their book Rework, they present a less-is-more philosophy of entrepreneurship, deconstructing the conventional business wisdom and rewriting it according to today’s Internet-based paradigm.

Below is a brief overview of the key points.

Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever

In their book Rework, entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson champion a simpler, cheaper, less labor-intensive way to manage any company. 

They show you that you don’t need an MBA, outside investors, strategic plans, or a board of directors to launch a business. You also don’t need to work 100 hours per week or hire 100 employees. You don’t even need an office. Instead, reject old-school thinking, embrace simplicity, and run your company like a smart, frugal, well-oiled machine.  

Ignore Old-School Business Myths

Much of what we’ve learned about business is no longer true, but plenty of people still buy into the myths. They’re impressed when you run a big company in a high-rise building with a lot of employees, but they’re not nearly as impressed when you work out of your garage by yourself. 

But company growth is highly overrated. What really matters is “appropriate size.” Your one-person company may be far more profitable than someone else’s 100-person company. 

Additionally, many people admire workers who burn the midnight oil to make a deadline or give up their weekends to finish a big project. They’re seen as truly dedicated to their company’s success. But workaholism doesn’t turn profits. Productivity occurs when you figure out the fastest, smartest, and most efficient way to get things done—not when you pull all-nighters. 

Start Your Business

The best companies are ones that produce a meaningful product—one that has a positive impact on the world. Your product doesn’t have to influence millions of people, but it should make at least a few lives better or easier. 

Ideally, your product should also make your own life easier. If you set out to invent something that you personally want or need, you’ll make the best product possible. Many businesses have started this way: James Dyson was vacuuming his house one day and got frustrated by how often the vacuum lost suction, so he invented the Dyson cyclonic vacuum. 

Don’t Seek Outside Funding

Don’t fall into the trap of seeking outside funding or borrowing a pile of cash to start your business. Sure, it sounds great to have a big influx of cash to spend. But it comes with strings attached—like a board of directors who will tell you how to run your company. You’ll find yourself working to please your investors rather than your customers. 

Do More With Less 

You may think you need tons of money to go into business, but you don’t. In fact, you’re better off if you start up your business with as little as possible because it will force you to economize. Don’t hire employees. Don’t rent office space. Don’t pay for advertising. Do everything you can to operate your business on a shoestring. 

Don’t view budget constraints or time constraints as negative limits—working with what you have leads to creativity and innovation as you look for inventive ways to cheaply produce an excellent product, and it will help you keep your product simple. 

Keep Moving Forward 

Once you’ve made a product, it’s time to move forward with releasing it. Most business owners put so much time and energy into creating their product, they’re afraid to release it into the world. They keep tinkering endlessly because they fear it’s not good enough yet. 

Don’t put off your launch because you’re trying to attain perfection. Go ahead and unleash the earliest, not-yet-perfect version of your product. You’ll gain valuable knowledge from user feedback—you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, which you can use to launch product version 2.0. 

Make Decisions—Don’t Sit on Them

Don’t let the fear of making a bad decision slow you down or stop you from deciding at all. It’s far more productive to make the wrong decision now than to put off deciding until later. You can build on a less-than-perfect decision by making corrections and alterations, but you can’t build on an empty void in which no decision was made.

Keep Focused on the Core of Your Business

Consider what makes up the foundation of your business and make that your top priority. For example, if you’ve opened a burger joint, focus on the burgers, not the condiments. If you’ve opened a flower shop, focus on the flowers, not the vases. Sure, there’s always other stuff you could work on, but focus on the core.   

Maintain Your Momentum

Running a business requires expending energy in many different directions. You need to know when your time and energy would be better spent doing something else. Evaluate whether that energy is well spent by analyzing the value of your projects at frequent intervals:  

  • Do you understand why you’re doing this project? What are the benefits of completing it? Who will benefit from it?
  • Is the problem you’re trying to solve real or imaginary? On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this problem? 
  • Is the project you’re working on truly beneficial, or is it just fun to work on? 
  • If you’re adding a feature or component to a product that already exists, are you adding quantifiable value to the product? Will the new feature have a big impact on how customers use your product, or are you just adding features that don’t really matter?    
  • Is there a much simpler solution to this problem or project you’re working on? Are you making this project too complicated?   
  • How would you be spending your time right now if you weren’t doing this project? What is this project keeping you from? 

Build Uninterrupted Work Time Into Every Day

Set up your workday so that you—and your employees, if you have any—have plenty of uninterrupted time during normal business hours for deep, focused work. For example, you might institute a company rule that no one may talk between 10 am and 2 pm each day. “Talking” includes any form of communication—no email, no instant messages. Just turn the volume down to zero and dive deeply into work.

Don’t Waste Time in Meetings 

As a corollary, avoid meetings if at all possible. They’re notorious time-wasters. If you must have a meeting, follow these protocols: 

  1. Set an alarm to go off after an allotted period of time. When the alarm rings, the meeting ends. 
  2. Limit the number of people in the meeting—fewer is always better. 
  3. Set an agenda that includes a clear, specific problem to be solved. 
  4. If possible, meet at the place where the problem is occurring, like at the assembly line or customer service desk. 
  5. Find a solution before the meeting is over and assign someone to put that solution into action. 

Ignore the Competition

Don’t create products that mimic your competition’s products. If you let your competition define the rules of the game, you’ll lose. Instead, inject some of your individual passions or obsessions into your product. Suddenly, you’re fresh and original and the competition won’t be able to copy you.  

You might even want to position your company as the antithesis of your competition. For example, the car company Audi positions itself as the young, fresh alternative to old-school luxury cars like Mercedes and Rolls Royce. Customers love taking sides in a product war, and if they dislike your competitor, they’ll automatically side with you.

Be Prudent About Upgrades  

Don’t feel like you have to constantly upgrade your product so that you’ll be able to keep your first customers forever. If your customers outgrow your product(s), that’s fine. Go find new customers who need your product exactly as it is. Aim to appeal to a certain type of customer rather than any one individual whose needs may change over time.

When a customer requests a change to your product, your default response should be a polite “no.” Liberal use of the word “no” keeps you focused on your priorities rather than distracted by continual product tweaks. If customers are asking for a change that is truly worth making, you’ll hear that request repeatedly and from a lot of customers. Only then is it worth considering. 

Promote Your Product on the Cheap  

Previously, you had to buy expensive ads to reach potential customers. Now, you can reach them via the Internet for free (or nearly free). Tweet about your product. Write a blog about it. Shoot promotional videos and post them on Instagram or YouTube. You could get a lot of attention, and if people are interested in what you’re tweeting, blogging, and posting, they’ll probably be interested in your products, too. 

While your competitors are out selling their products, you can make your brand stand out by teaching your customers what they want to know about your industry. Giving out useful, free information builds brand loyalty. For example, a wine shop owner teaches people about wine on the YouTube channel “Wine Library TV.” 

Shun the Press Release

To attract the attention of the mainstream media and get them talking about your company, don’t go the traditional route and send out hundreds of press releases. Journalists typically ignore press releases because they don’t know who is sending them and the releases rarely contain anything newsworthy. Instead, try a more targeted, personal approach. If a journalist has written a story about your industry or competitors, contact them by phone or write them a personal note that explains why your company might make a good news story. 

Choose Small Media Over Large

For the best results, concentrate your efforts on smaller media outlets. Sure, you’d love to get your product featured on the cover of Time magazine, but that’s unlikely to happen when you’re first starting out. Instead, target the niche media—blogs, newsletters, or magazines that focus only on your industry. The smaller media outlets are actively looking for stories, and their audiences are specifically interested in your industry (and thus more likely to be interested in your company than the general public). You might get a surprise bonus: Stories that are covered by trade publications are sometimes picked up by much bigger media outlets. 

Add to Your Team (or Don’t)

When you think it’s time to hire someone, ask yourself if there is any way to avoid it. What would happen if you didn’t add another employee? Does that job you’re hiring for really need to be done, or can you get by without it? Is there a machine or a piece of software that can do the job instead of a person? 

If you believe you must hire someone, don’t put your trust in resumes, fancy degrees, or even 30 years of experience. Instead, hire your best candidates to do a 20-hour “tryout” project for you, and then you’ll get to see the quality of their work. 

Don’t Hire Until You’ve Done the Job

As the business owner, you need to know how to do every job in your company. Before you advertise an open position, spend some time doing the job yourself—even if it’s a task you aren’t trained to do. This is the only way to know if the position should be full-time or part-time, what questions to ask potential employees, and whether the person you hire is actually doing a good job. 

Manage Your Reputation 

Sometimes mistakes happen. Maybe your product has a bad flaw. Maybe it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Thanks to the Internet, anything and everything your business does (or doesn’t do) can go viral. If your business screws up, don’t deceive yourself that you’ll be able to cover it up. Own up to your mistakes. Tell your customers immediately. If it’s warranted, tell the news media and the general public. The top person in your company should deliver the news along with a sincere and detailed apology.  

Handle Your Customers With Care

Even when everything is going smoothly, you still have to watch out for your company’s reputation. Friendly and efficient customer service is always critical. Customers hate being put on hold. They hate hearing canned messages about how much the company cares about them even though no one will take their call. But they’re over-the-moon happy when their calls or emails are answered with speedy, personalized service. 

You don’t even need to have a perfect solution to their problem or question. Just saying you’ll look into it and get back to them will make them feel valued.  

Help Your Employees Thrive

A great company culture develops over time through consistent positive actions, not by installing foosball tables or espresso machines. If managers treat their employees kindly, kindness will become part of the company culture. If employees leave work daily at 5 p.m., then a healthy work/life balance becomes the norm. 

Create a Workplace Where Everyone Can Flourish 

Focus your energies on creating an environment in which every employee can do his or her best work. Even a mediocre employee can do outstanding work in a nurturing environment. Give your employees the tools, space, privacy, respect, and trust they need to achieve greatness. Don’t create needless bureaucratic policies—like having to get a manager’s approval to leave work for a dentist appointment—that make them feel like they work for Big Brother. 

Communicate Simply and Clearly 

Use positive, direct, clear language when dealing with your employees. Don’t use industry jargon or corporate-speak in the interest of sounding “professional.” And beware of absolutist language like “I need this by the end of the day,” “we can’t spend more time on this,” or “you should be able to do this easily.” These kinds of directives create unnecessary tension and stress. 

When you “need” something done immediately, try phrasing it as a question: “Do you think you could finish this by the end of the day?” 

Along the same lines, limit your use of “ASAP.” Most things don’t really need to happen as soon as possible. Every request is not equally urgent, so save ASAP for when it really matters. 

Rework: Book Overview (J. Fried & D. H. Heinemeier)

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Here's what you'll find in our full Rework summary :

  • Why the old-school process of starting a business doesn't work anymore
  • Why you should completely ignore your business competition
  • How to hire employees and help them thrive

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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