Case Study: 37signals

Big Think: What are the common mistakes new businesses make?

Jason Fried: When you borrow money from somebody else, you’re on their schedule, you’re renting time. When you have your own money, or when you’re generating money through customers, you own your own time, you own your own schedule, and so you can take your time. We can take 10 years to do something because we have revenue coming in and there’s not someone saying your loan's due in three years, you know. So I think a lot of people struggle because they start of by borrowing money and then they’re sort of on someone else's schedule and they don’t have time to sort of get in the groove. So there’s some of that. I think people just typically just try too hard, actually. That’s weird because you have to try hard to succeed, but I mean try hard on the wrong things. You focus on the wrong things too early. And those can range, depending on the business you’re in.  

I guess my point is, I don’t think it’s competition that puts these businesses out of business, I think it’s the business themselves putting themselves out of business by hiring the wrong people, being afraid of making money, spending too much money early on, maybe getting a storefront that's too big if you’re a physical store. You know. Doing all that stuff when you really got to focus on the product first and keep it as small as you can and if you’re going to open a bakery, open it out of your house first. Just make – I mean, that’s probably technically illegal in some place, but make some... if you want to open a cupcake bakery, make some cupcakes and sell them at the Farmer’s market for six months, for a year first, on the weekends. See if it works. If it works, okay, now you have some people who like your cupcakes, you’re selling out every weekend. Now maybe you can move into something else. Instead of saying, "I’m going to open a bakery" and go buy a storefront and some expensive machinery and stuff like that. So I think people kind of start a little bit too quickly sometimes too and they should just make their time and starts something on the side and see where it goes.

Big Think: How did 37signals transition between business models?

Jason Fried: The big thing for us was that, we started out as a web design firm. And we were doing client work for hire—web design work for hire. And it was great. We were doing really well and things were going all right. And then we hit on this idea to make project management software. Right? But we didn't stop our client work business to build software. We started building software on the side. So we treated the new product like Base Camp, which was our first product, as a client. So we still were doing client work. So there was an overlap. So we kind of treated Base Camp as a side project, as a side business and let’s see what happens. And it turned out in a year or a year and a half later, it was making more money for us than our consulting business. So then we could stop doing consulting—which was a great day—and sell software instead.

But we didn’t say, like we’re going to stop doing consulting and start doing software the next day because that’s very risky. And I’m not a big fan of risk. I know like the whole entrepreneurial myth is like you know, the risk, take on risk and the entrepreneur with the risk. I just don’t buy that. So I think side businesses, trying something on the side, spending a few hours a week, seeing where things go first is the right way to do it. And especially if you have a day job. People dream of starting their own business, I don’t recommend people quit their day job and start their business. I think you should start your business on the side a couple of hours a night, a couple of hours a week, see what happens. You know, use your day job salary to pay the bills, to fund your new idea, and then maybe a year later you’ll be all right and you can do that. So, the business model shift for us was a slow and gradual shift making sure we were able to sustain ourselves on the new model before we give up the old model

The co-founder of the web application firm discusses common pitfalls of starting a new business and the need to be flexible with your business model.

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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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