Jason Fried seems like a nice enough fellow, but then he starts arguing with you. Well, not exactly arguing with you but gently poking holes in your working assumptions. For example, you might expect that someone who majored in finance would have done so in order to run a future company. “I just thought I’d be good at it, so I could graduate from college,” the 35-year-old says breezily. “My parents were paying, so they made me finish.”
Fried, who grew up in Deerfield and moved back to Chicago after college, did end up starting his own company—37signals, which makes web-based productivity software for small businesses. Founded by Fried in 1999 with two partners (Ernest Kim, who now works for Nike, and Carlos Segura, the well-regarded Chicago graphic designer), the West Loop–based venture has since become a real maven among tech companies. In 2004, after a few years as a web-design company, 37signals released a software product called Basecamp, an online project management program that it had created to use internally. A couple of years later, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, contacted 37signals and soon after signed on as its sole minority investor. Today, the 16-person company has more than three million customers across its suite of six products.
Fried shares his company’s anti-business-as-usual philosophy in a new book titled Rework (Crown Business; $22), out on March 9th. Pulling together thoughts from the company’s popular design blog, Signal vs. Noise, Fried wrote the book with his business partner, David Heinemeier Hansson, only 30 years old and a tech star in his own right: While working on Basecamp, the Danish software programmer developed Ruby on Rails, an open-source software tool that has been used most notably to create Twitter.
Rework tries to demystify entrepreneurship. “Our goal is just to share what we learned, no more, no less,” says Heinemeier Hansson, a Wicker Park resident who lives for part of the year in Malibu, California. “I have no aspirations to become an expert on anything except stuff I’ve touched myself, as opposed to theorizing on how things should be.” But a lot of the authors’ advice in Rework applies to desk jockeys at big companies. Meetings, for example, are a target. “There’s a ton of indecision in the business world, and that’s what meetings are: opportunities to make indecision and to set up the next meeting,” Fried says. “You’re better off making the decision and moving on.”
Rick Horgan, the book’s editor at Crown, notes that Rework may have the side effect of making entrepreneurship safe for non-MBAs. “The liberal arts major does the sign of the cross before they enter in,” Horgan says. “[The authors] are trying to say, ‘Get over it. You don’t have to bark orders at 20 people. You don’t have to work for the Man.’ ”
Even the editing of the book was an exercise in the authors’ question-everything ethos. At first, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson didn’t want their names to appear on the cover (they do). When Rework ballooned to 57,000 words, the writers whacked it down to less than half that length, which irked their publisher. Then they refused to add back words to give the book the heft of a typical hardcover release. “We were like, we’re not doing that,” Fried recalls. “I don’t think there’s a single piece of filler in this book. It’s all good.”
Photograph: Erika Dufour