Copying the Wrong Thing

Jason Fried on why you shouldn’t copy 37signals (or anyone else):

Shouldn’t copying something be easier than creating it? Someone else already did the work, right? The problem is that the work on the original is invisible. The copier doesn’t know why it looks the way it looks or feels the way it feels or reads the way it reads. The copied interface is a faux finish.

A common knock against 37signals’s products is that they work perfectly — if you happen to think exactly like Jason Fried. And so of course none of the knock-off products are very good, because they’re aping the 37signals style without Jason Fried’s direct input. (And by “Jason Fried” I mean “Jason Fried and everyone else at 37signals who helps design their products”.)

What’s worth copying isn’t the final product but the attitude. It really is the case that Basecamp is a project management tool that looks and works exactly how 37signals thinks a project management tool should look and work. It is very much unlike any project management software that came before it. They didn’t start with what customers wanted, or with what existing project management software looked like, or by trying to guess what some group of faceless others would want. They designed and built what they themselves wanted, under the assumption that there were some number of other people who would want the same thing.

What drives some people nuts about 37signals is that their products are not for everyone. But they’ll be the first ones to agree with that. Rather than trying to build things that work OK for everyone, they’re building things that work really well for some people. And how often does building something “for everyone” actually work out, anyway? The closest anyone has ever come, I think, is Google’s web search. Good luck trying to duplicate that sort of success.

The key ingredient I see in successful apps, Mac or web — and, really, in creative commercial endeavors of any kind — is that the creators are building something they themselves love. That’s what you should copy.