I think of myself as wildly ambitious and unapologetically lazy. Though we’ve all heard about the good things that come from ambition, laziness gets a bad rap. That’s unfortunate. I can attribute a healthy chunk of my success to the positive returns of laziness. Laziness has the best ROI in the business.
Let’s start at the beginning. I launched my first real company, a Web design company called Spinfree, in 1996. It was a solo show: just me, a desk in my apartment, and some self-taught mediocre Web design skills. But it was all I needed. The jobs rolled in, and my clients were happy. I could pay the bills, stash away some savings, and work when and where I wanted.
But I wasn’t happy. Rather than building confidence, I was accumulating doubt. As my business expanded, I grew nervous and self-conscious. I began to feel as if my accomplishments weren’t enough, that I had to take things to “the next level.” I thought if I didn’t get there fast enough, I’d be bowled over by the competition.
When I bid on projects against larger design firms, I started saying “we” instead of “I” in an attempt to sound bigger. The proposals submitted by my rivals were long and shiny, so mine had to be longer and shinier. I even began badmouthing the competition — people I’d never met. That’s ugly.
The thing is, I didn’t need to do any of these things. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I was inventing problems. I was making things hard on myself.
How did I figure this out? Laziness. I got tired and let down my guard and wound up learning something important about myself: I love work, just not hard work. I think hard work is overrated. My goal is to do less hard work. And what’s hard? Acting like someone else, writing elaborate proposals I don’t believe in, and flinging mud at the competition. That’s hard and horrible work.
So I put my laziness to work for me. Instead of long proposals, I wrote short ones. Instead of worrying about competitors, I ignored them. And here’s what happened: My company got more work. I found better clients. I slept better. I woke up better. I was happier. And, most of all, running a business became a lot easier.
Fifteen years later, this continues to be the most important lesson I’ve learned as an entrepreneur: Most of the stuff you agonize about just doesn’t matter. Truth is, things are pretty easy and straightforward — until you make them hard and complicated.
This is the ethos that drives what we do at 37signals, the company I co-founded in 1999. We make simple Web-based collaboration software for small businesses and groups. We have millions of users — and millions in profits — but we’re just 16 people. We don’t act any bigger or smaller. We don’t put on airs. We just are who we are.
We don’t worry much about what the competition is doing. We don’t worry about growing pains we don’t have yet. We don’t spend time on five-year plans and forecasts, because in my experience, they just don’t matter.
We invent software, not problems. Real problems will find you; you don’t need to invite fake ones to dinner.
Yet that’s precisely what many business owners do. I spend a lot of my time speaking with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. They e-mail me, call me at the office, hit me up on Twitter, or introduce themselves at conferences and events. And for the most part, they have one thing in common: They’re scared. Worried. Insecure. Just like I was.
It’s easy to see why. Conventional business wisdom breeds paranoia. If you don’t get big fast, you lose. If you don’t obsess about the competition, you will be crushed. If you don’t make long-term plans, you’ll be staggering in the dark.
Come on. Conventional wisdom is tired, upset, groggy, scared, and a pain in the ass to work with. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Instead of spending your time worrying about what could, might, or may happen, spend your time on what matters now. Are your customers thrilled with your service today? Is your inbox flooded with word-of-mouth referrals today? Do your employees love their jobs today? Can people find what they’re looking for on your website today? Be honest with yourself. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, then I’d suggest that you truly have something to worry about — no matter how beautiful and comprehensive your business plan is.
Tomorrow. Eventually. Next quarter. Next year. Five years from now. Exit strategy. Throw these words away. They don’t matter. Today is all you have in business. Tomorrow is just today again. Next week? Seven todays in a row. A month isn’t 30 days. It’s 30 todays.
I’m not suggesting you stop thinking about the future. I’m telling you to stop stressing about it. Go on, get lazy.
Jason Fried is co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software firm, and co-author of the book Rework, which was published in March. This is his first column for Inc.