Six Apart Blog

Dollarshort

Our co-founder and President Mena Trott has been sharing her stories on her personal blog Dollarshort since 2001.

Six Apart News & Events

In Defense of Big (relatively speaking)

I've been reading Signal vs. Noise, the weblog from 37Signals, for quite some time and consider the work that they do quite inspirational. One of the best company weblogs out there, Signal vs. Noise covers a variety of topics ranging from usability and design to company culture.

An underlying theme over at Signal vs. Noise is the concept that smaller is better -- smaller in terms of start-up capital, company size, development teams and even hardware. As part of a two-person team that created the initial versions of Movable Type and TypePad, I certainly understand the logic in encouraging small and nimble teams. The eighteen months that Ben and I spent in our spare bedroom coding was probably our most productive for bare-bones software development. Of course, during this same time, we were afforded the luxury of not having to do anything much more than coding and designing -- our project management was done via (what felt like) telepathy.

A long time ago (well, maybe not that long ago -- it just feels like it), Ben and I were at a fork in the road where we had to decide whether we wanted a small, niche company that would serve as a nice lifestyle business or try to be something bigger and take a gamble that Six Apart could make a serious impact on blogging. (A "lifestyle business" is one of those terms that money/funding people use to describe someone who can make a nice lifestyle for themselves with their company, but doesn't really make jobs or opportunities for a lot of other people.)

So here we are -- a big, small company or a small, big company. I've been on both sides of the table and have to say that it's pretty nice where we are. And since the "small is better" argument is very often offered in both elegant (Signal vs. Noise) and ignorant (Generic "Being Corporate Sux!!") ways, I thought I might contribute my reasons to why bigger can be better.

1. More people, different view points. We've got a lot of different people from different backgrounds. When something didn't work at a previous company or project, we can learn from their experience. When problems arise (especially in programming), there are more minds to tackle the issues -- and from different angles. Tunnel vision is less likely to happen when new eyes view a product specification or wireframe.

2. Accountability. If you're in the business of storing people's memories and writings, it's kind of nice to be able to say you have a viable (and visible) business plan. We took funding because we needed the resources to grow to the level where we could feel comfortable taking on a large customer base. Running a business shouldn't be indie rock. Like it or not, your customers like to be protected with mundane things like Terms of Service and Privacy Policies. And if someone's going to trust us with their baby pictures or the blog they're using to promote their business, they want to know we'll be around even when the novelty wears off.

3a. Creating jobs for many people. I tend to hope that people at Six Apart like what they're doing. And, we try to give them a good place to work where they can make software that they believe in. And, they get paid. Someone in our company noted that they have never been at a company where the engineering teams got along so well, so respectfully. That's a huge thing in our book.

3b. It's nice not to always have to bootstrap. It's great to have a nice office sign. It's even better to have a nice office (with all sorts of perks) . While it's important not to repeat the sort of big money spending that doomed so many 90s dotcoms, there is something to be said for not having to make your employees sleep in your guest bedroom/office.

4. The ability to shift roles. If someone doesn't fit the role they are in, there's a very good chance that they can do something else better within the company. A number of people have been able to move into a different position (and even department!) months after their initial hiring. A larger team allows this flexibility.

5. Sticking to what we're good at. Even after our initial funding, Ben used to do all of our accounting and administration and, up until early 2003, I did things ranging from manually creating and sending out Movable Type "Recently Updated Keys" to reviewing contracts and spending hours on the phone with our lawyers. Being a 2-person or 5-person start-up is harder when you're balancing your own workload and the workload of another profession that you're not experienced in.

6. It isn't just an American thing. We accepted our first round of funding from a Japanese firm because we believe that weblogging isn't just an American activity. And, because we are in different markets and on different continents, it's incredibly important that our customers are given local attention. Take our subsidiaries in Japan and Europe, for example: Something as simple as having someone to call who speaks your language is a *huge* reason to want to be a Six Apart customer.

7. Creating products that really make an impact. It's back to our original reason for taking funding. All the press we receive is fine and we appreciate it, for the most part, because it increases the value of the company. But the best part of it all? To learn that my eighty-four year-old grandfather finally understands what we do for a living and to have him say something like "that blogging thing is changing the world."

It may sound corny, but it matters to us to do justice to the medium that's given us so much. Next month is the four year anniversary of the first Movable Type release. Four years. This is something we've cared about for quite a while and we like to think Six Apart is the company of the bloggers, by the bloggers, and for the bloggers. That's a big commitment, and a big responsibility. So we've tried to make sure we're just big enough to tackle an opportunity of this size.

9 Comments
dcaulk said:
September 14, 2005 5:47 PM

Mena, it's not very professional to take stabs at 37Signals. :) Sorry but "big" is out and "small and smart" is in. You're points are interesting but purely subjective. I've been on both sides of big (15) teams and small (3) teams and I can tell you there are pros and cons to both. The bottom line is that the success of your company/product is not based upon the size of your company but the quality of your people and the skills they bring to the table.

Just my 2,
Daimon

Tom Dyson said:
September 15, 2005 4:33 AM

What an irritating comment: Mena goes out of her way not to criticise 37Signals; of course her points are subjective (that's why they're interesting); she, like Daimon, has experience of both large and small teams, her comparison of which is broadly the point of the post.

dcaulk said:
September 15, 2005 9:37 AM

Tom,
Take a look at the 37 Signals response to this article. They reveal some of the "stabs." Of course it's all very light hearted.

Alexandra von Maltzan said:
September 15, 2005 3:09 PM

Dear Mena - we love you guys and I am certainly grateful for your fantastic enabling platform. But I was just now horrified to read that you guys don't support ping-o-matic. Or at least that is what they are saying . Please excuse the intrusion here, but I thought you'd want to know asap.
Keep up the great work.

okito said:
September 17, 2005 2:18 AM

Mena writes about the benefits of being big and Jason responds. Great debate. But the truth is, there are good things about both big and small and your customers really want you to be both.

okito said:
September 18, 2005 4:34 AM

I just posted a blog entry about this called "The Big Act", but trackbacks are not working for some reason. Click the "okito" link to go there.

"Mena writes about the benefits of being big and Jason responds. Great debate. But the truth is, there are good things about both big and small and your customers really want you to be both."

Alec Kinnear said:
September 20, 2005 8:12 AM

I've been a customer at both companies - sixapart and 37signals - from the launch of Typepad and the launch of Basecamp.

Customer service at sixapart has been outstanding. Customer service at 37signals has been wretched.

At sixapart, customer service is handled by a specialist department. At 37signals, customer service is provided by Jason Fried himself. As he is overworked, he is curt, dismissive and off-hand.

David H. Hannson has done such a great job coding basecamp that people put up with Jason's snash. But the technology is outstanding at sixapart as well.

While 37signals has been hitting customers with 25% to 100% price increases and restricting features (which the price increases were supposed to already have paid for), sixapart has managed to maintain prices, add features and quintuple disk space.

Between small and big, I have to say big looks much better from here. I'm not buying the small is better line anymore.

It may be a great way to start a company, but it's a lousy way to run one. Keeping a big company small smacks more of avarice than anything else - not wanting to pay the salaries of the requisite talented support personnel.

September 20, 2005 8:13 AM

I've been a customer at both companies - sixapart and 37signals - from the launch of Typepad and the launch of Basecamp.

Customer service at sixapart has been outstanding. Customer service at 37signals has been wretched.

At sixapart, customer service is handled by a specialist department. At 37signals, customer service is provided by Jason Fried himself. As he is overworked, he is curt, dismissive and off-hand.

David H. Hannson has done such a great job coding basecamp that people put up with Jason's snash. But the technology is outstanding at sixapart as well.

While 37signals has been hitting customers with 25% to 100% price increases and restricting features (which the price increases were supposed to already have paid for), sixapart has managed to maintain prices, add features and quintuple disk space.

Between small and big, I have to say big looks much better from here. I'm not buying the small is better line anymore.

It may be a great way to start a company, but it's a lousy way to run one. Keeping a big company small smacks more of avarice than anything else - not wanting to pay the salaries of the requisite talented support personnel.

Jason Fried said:
September 21, 2005 8:54 AM

For the record, I do answer all customer support and I'm very passionate about customer support. I respond to 90% of all questions within 30-60 minutes during business hours (and often times within 10 minutes) with clear, direct answers. We'd like to move towards 100% and we're working hard to get there.

As is par for the course in any business, some people are never satisfied with any support they receive. There's not much we can do about that other than to continue to do our best to keep as many people happy as we can. And our record demonstrates the vast majority of our customers are thrilled with our services and our support. And we're working to get better all the time.

As far as Alec's comment above about "restricting features" and this feature being related to a single price increase, well, it's just not true. People are certainly entitled to their opinion, but they aren't entitled to spread non-truths. Just as Typepad offers different features at different price points, so does Basecamp. When we added Time Tracking we added it to the Premium and Plus plans because we consider it a Plus and Premium level feature just as "Full HTML editing" and "Custom CSS" and "Search and replace within posts" is a Pro-only feature in Typepad. Further, our of the hundreds of features in Basecamp, there are only 2 that are are available only to Plus and Premium members, Time Tracking being one of them. We think that's a pretty fair ratio.

So, thanks for the feedback everyone. This has been a nice debate regarding the merits of big and small. There are certainly advantages to both structures and I look forward to continuing the debate.

Leave a Comment