Less Everything with Steven Bristol

Episode 73

August 08, 2012


The Agile Weekly Crew and Steven Bristol discuss Less Everything and lean startup.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. My name is Clayton Lengel‑Zigich and joining me today is Steve Bristol. How are you doing, Steve?

Steve Bristol: Hey, Clayton. Good. How are you?

Clayton: Good. Steve, I actually know you, not you personally, but I know of you. I can’t remember, what’s your partner’s name, your co‑founder?

Steve: Allan Branch.

Ruby On Rails and Lean Startup

Clayton: I know you guys from the Ruby on Rails community. I remember you were doing all of that stuff with…Has the company been Less Everything for [inaudible 00:34] ?

Steve: Yeah, since the beginning, since 2007.

Clayton: I know you guys from that stuff and I remember a lot of the stuff you were doing, so it’s definitely cool to be able to talk to you about some stuff today.

Steve: Thanks.

Clayton: I was looking at your blog, and you made a post about a Lean Startup. One thing that I’m curious about, and anyone that’s in technology realizes, that things that are old become new again.

Do you feel like the Lean Startup is something that is entirely new to you or is that something that maybe you’ve done instinctively with your work that you’ve been doing as an entrepreneur for a long time?

Steve: Yeah, we named the company Less Everything because that’s our philosophy. We believe in doing things Lean or as we like to say, “less.” In fact, the whole Lean Startup movement stole all our ideas and they changed it from Less to Lean.

In fact, Jason Fried of 37signals got most of those ideas from us as well. But, obviously, that was before the company. We were a big inspiration for the first book “Getting Real.”

Clayton: I was an early user. I think I signed up for Less.

Steve: In all fairness, it was actually the reverse, Allan and I had both read that book separately and it was a big inspiration for us. In all fairness, [laughs] that was a joke.

The Lean Startup people did steal everything from us.

The Creation of Less Accounting highr

Clayton: I’ve used Less Accounting, a long time ago and it was a big deal when it came out, in terms of we could do all this great stuff and it wasn’t all this crazy overhead. It seems like it captured the concept of doing Lean Startup stuff in general.

Steve: Absolutely, Less Accounting was our biggest product, yeah.

Clayton: I was going to ask you that. That’s something I would say that seems like it was founded on the same principles and that it seems like it’s evolved from there.

Is that a fair statement that you’ve been able to apply that same value system?

Steve: Absolutely, we actually came up with the name Less Accounting before we came up with the name Less Everything. The company was founded in January of ’07, but Allan and I actually started working on Less Accounting in November of ’06. We were working on that before we even had a company.

The idea was very much making an accounting application that was easy to use, that didn’t have all that stuff that the majority of people don’t need, and don’t understand and just clutters the UI makes it hard to use, and makes it very difficult and to get rid of that and make accounting easy and understandable and doable for the small business owners.

Clayton: Is that something that has certainly looks like it has evolved. I mean it certainly looks like there are more features than there were in the past. Is that something has evolved based on strictly customer feedback?

Steve: Yeah. I mean including Allan and myself as customers and users of Less Accounting. 100 percent of the features came from one of two places. Either it was user feedback or our needs or if we had an idea of like some of the integration we did more as marketing features than as very useful features.

A good example is the Highrise and Basecamp import. Those weren’t really highly requested features, but getting on the Basecamp and Highrise’s integrations page is a good idea for most applications. We certainly have seen a lot of calls from there. The vast majority of features, the nuts and bolts core features, the accounting features, certainly are all based on the needs of our customers and ourselves as customers.

Failed Hypotheses

Clayton: One of the core things about Lean Startup is treating it like using the scientific method and getting real feedback on data and all that stuff.

Can you share examples where you had a hypothesis about something you thought would be a good idea that just totally didn’t work out.

Steve: Gosh. You got me on the spot here.

Clayton: It’s OK if you’re right all the time and you never get it wrong.

Steve: When we first launched Less Accounting, we realized that it’s the accounting system, but since were also doing invoices and proposals, it could also very easily be your CRM system, and so we had this concept of sales leads at the very beginning.

We had sales notes, sales leads, contact proposals, invoices, expenses, deposits, all that other stuff. No one really got the whole sales leads thing. It was something that was probably my idea initially, and I don’t think we did a very good job of explaining how to use it.

People kept asking for projects. They want projects in Less Accounting. Basically a sales lead was a project, but the name was so off that it didn’t ever quite work for people. So, in the end of the first year and the beginning of the second year we removed the feature.

You still had notes. Anytime you send it in to us, for example, we store that as a note so you can see the history of your clients’ interaction, but we removed all the sales notes stuff. We never did actually add projects. We just added tags. A tag in essence are projects. You can change the application, so everything based on just a tag or a P & L and everything else. It gives you a project view of your money.

People Matter More Than Process

Clayton: OK. Lean Startup is something that’s maybe a little newer as far as the Agile community is concerned. Is there anything else that your internal team or any teams you’re working with that you’re using that are more traditional Agile methods, like a Scrum or something like that?

Steve: We’re not big fans of Agile or Scrum or process in general. I’ve been writing software professionally for 16, 17 years. I wrote my first program when I was nine, so I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. One of the things I’ve learned in all those years is that people are much more important than process. That’s one of the tenets that gets dropped in the Agile community and the Agile world.

Agile people tend to lean very, very heavily on process and thinking that the process is going to be the key to the successful outcome of projects and getting things done on time and that sort of thing. Certainly, we like a lot of the Agile stuff. We do a lot of Agile stuff ourselves. We don’t ever call it Agile. We just call it how we prefer to work. We were doing that stuff before Agile was Agile.

But, if you hire quality people, then process doesn’t matter. You find a process that works best for people. If they’re quality people, they can probably adapt to different process as the process changes with the personalities that come on board. We certainly like a lot of the Agile stuff but don’t really prescribe to any of it hook, line, and sinker.

Clayton: Yeah, that’s a common sentiment for surely a lot of teams, especially successful ones. What I’m wondering is, with Lean Startup becoming more popular, do you see that being co‑opted by the those same people who are all about process and if you don’t follow all the rules then it’s not going to work?

It sounds like you guys are definitely very true to some of the principles and the values. You’ve been doing that for a long time. Do you see that same thing happening with the Lean Startup community? Or do you think they’ll be OK? They’ll get past that?

Steve: That’s probably true of anything, whether it’s Agile or Lean Startup or any new, cool…They used to be acronyms, and now they’re just little slogans, or phrases, or titles. They’re all good ideas. Ultimately, good people who can see through the bullshit, who know what’s going on, who can perform well, and who are smart senior level people, successful people will tend to be successful.

Unsuccessful people will tend to remain unsuccessful without some sort of intervention. Agile or Lean Startup or whatever might be that intervention. That might be the thing that, “Oh, if only I had more discipline in this, then I would be more successful.” Or that might be the result even if there isn’t that aha moment. But I don’t think that.

I think Lean Startup is just as susceptible to success or failure. It’s the flavor of the day. Most of these things have pretty good principles for their time. I remember once thinking that Waterfall was very, very, good, right?

Clayton: [laughs]

Steve: For where I was in my career and my development, it was good. It was a better methodology than what I was using before. Of course, I wouldn’t do that today, but it’s all a growth process. For certain people, now’s the time to learn. If you’re good or if you will be good, you’ve got a better chance of being successful than if you’re not. Again, I tend to think about people as the asset, not the process or the rules.

Risk Aversion Slows You Down

Clayton: That goes with my next question. A lot of bigger organizations, some corporate whatever, insurance company or something are getting this idea that if they have this innovation lab that uses Lean Startup it’ll do all this crazy stuff. Is there anything to be said for…I’m assuming that your team is relatively small compared to a big corporation. In addition to that, probably be of higher trust. You have a certain culture.

Do you think that the size of the team and the trust and the culture plays a big enough role that not any old corporation could just go adopt this kind of technique and run with it?

Steve: I’d say, the problem with bigger organizations whether they are governments or corporations, scaling things is hard. Since it’s true scaling families, it’s true scaling nations, it’s true scaled governments, corporations, the bigger you get, the harder it is to manage.

You get to a certain point, even as the company grows, small companies tend to be very, very agile. They tend to be very ambitious. They’re fearless of risks because they don’t have anything to lose. They are tiny.

As the company grows, they actually have something to lose and maybe their shareholders, at some point answer to. One of the things that scale does is it makes people more risk‑averse.

Being averse to risk tends to make poor decisions. Certainly, you go to a big corporation and most of the people that work there, their primary job is to not get fired. That’s what they are there to do is not get fired.

Everything else is secondary to that. That creates a lot of roadblocks and a lot of stagnation and a lot of problems, in and of itself. That simply comes from scale and from being afraid to risk.

I think, taking a portion of people and putting them in a lab is probably a very good idea. Anything a large corporation can do that shakes things up and creates the opportunity to fail and it’s OK to fail where it creates an opportunity to have some…you really don’t care about risk anymore, is great.

If they took a development team and they forced them to all work in a bathroom, they’d see increase in productivity. It’s just that changing the climate, changing the nature, changing the culture, and getting out of…you have a stagnant bit of water and you stir it up a little bit and things tend to go better.

It clears up. You can see the bottom. We can write metaphors all day long.

Clayton: Yeah, I think, we’re about out of time, but if I wanted to find out more about you or about your company, where could I go?

Steve: Certainly, you’d start with lesseverything.com. There you can see the blog where Allan and I post and talk about things that we think are interesting. We post a lot of stuff about business.

Definitely, check out lessaccounting.com which is our biggest product, for all your small business accounting needs. We, also, have another company that we run called lessfilms.com where we do short videos and animations, generally, for Web applications, but for anyone that wants.

If you’re looking for some consulting work, you’re looking for someone to build your rails product, then check out lesseverything.com. We’ve got a great consultancy side of the business that’s still doing great work.

Recently, we formed a partnership with cosupport.us. We’re [inaudible 13:39] , so now we can do end‑to‑end. We can build it for you, we can support all your customers while you grow your business.

So, definitely, check out their stuff out at cosupport.us.

Clayton: I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Steve: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Clayton: Thanks.

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