Are 37Signals Getting Real?

A recent post on 37Signals’s blog is interesting. Jason wants somebody to help them with customer conversion and retention.

One of the reasons why I like 37Signals is that they truly subscribe to the model laid out by the Cluetrain Mainfesto. 37Signals have without doubt turned their organisation “inside out”, as the Manifesto predicts modern firms will. They have even taken this one step further with the publication of Getting Real – The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this pamphlet is what it says about whether you should pay attention to ideas other than your own. 37Signals say that listening to, or even trying to discover, customer needs isn’t a good idea because it removes you from your own passion for things:

“When you solve your own problem, you create a tool that you’re passionate about. And passion is key. Passion means you’ll truly use it and care about it. And that’s the best way to get others to feel passionate about it too.”

Similarly, when it comes to “feature requests” you should of course be aware of them, but only by the predominant frequency of their occurrence:

“We already knew what needed to be done next because our customers constantly reminded us by making the same requests over and over again. There was no need for a list or lots of analysis because it was all happening in real time.”

The primary problem with this approach is how you deal with the effects of scale in a competitive market. When you have hundreds of thousands of customers, do one or two customers’ suggestions represent just one or two customers, or one or two hundred thousand? You know that hardly anyone takes the trouble to contact you directly with a feature request (particularly if you declare you’ll probably ignore them!), so how do you treat those who do? Not only that, but if you accept that others, including your customers, may know of ways of improving your product, then where do your own opinions lie?

My hope is that with this job post, 37Signals have discovered this issue for themselves, rather than having it discovered for them by the performance of their bottom line. But perhaps after a certain point, passion needs help.