Behind the scenes of a viral post: Why your startup shouldn’t copy 37signals or FogCreek

Jason Fried declared it “The hot article of the day.”  It caused over 100,000 hits, hundreds of comments, hundreds of link-shares, and a score of missives in my inbox, some angry and insulting, some friendly and congratulatory.

It was my Friday guest post at OnStartups that caused a stir in our little corner of the Internet.

The article: Why your startup shouldn’t copy 37signals or FogCreek

It’s supposed to be a fun article, half rant, half explanation. I’d like to share what happened when this provocative little post shot around the Internet.

I’ve said before that if you say something powerful enough to inspire people, you must accept that others will be offended. It’s the price of doing something noteworthy. Well, I just got a big bucketful of my own medicine.

The OnStartups Reaction

A guest post should embellish a blog with a fresh voice. The goal isn’t to change the subject or exploit the host in the self-interest of back-links. Rather, the goal is to inspire existing readers with the subject matter they’ve come to expect, but with a new style and perspective, to inspire debate and shake the tree.

Readers need not agree with your arguments, but for me it’s important to say something strong enough to solicit passionate discussion, and that means comments.

Many of the comments at OnStartups were positive. Allow me this indulgance; as you’ll see things would soon turn ugly.

“Loved your article, style, and topic.”  –phillipa
“GREAT article, Jason, and I could not agree more.”  —Adam Fisk
“Fantastic article”  —John Stack
“Great article, Jason. All your points are right on the mark … Thanks for an awesome articulation of this topic.”  — Vaibhav Domkundwar
(My fav) “Right on track! It’s good to hear someone else say what I’ve been mumbling to myself. ”  —Big J

And then, Brian Clark pointed on my foot, which had somehow lodged itself in my mouth.

The Copyblogger Debacle

Brian, founder of the excellent Copyblogger, took issue with this section:

Will my blog be unsuccessful because I don’t follow the Copyblogger rules that I should write like a third-grader with titles that look like they came from the cover of Cosmo?

I don’t think so.

When I wrote this, it was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated culmination of a rant against so-called “rules.” Hyperbole for the sake of emphasis.

Oops…  In the process I insulted the author of one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. Brian’s initial response:

No worries Jason, you sound like a 3rd grader all on your own.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. :)

Do your own thing, man… don’t worry about 100 years of scientific testing and marketing data that shows how humans process language and what catches their attention… that’s just outlier stuff. Who needs to understand psychology when you have an uninformed opinion?

I eventually understood his point. I had linked two posts, taking them out of context and labelling them in a way that twisted their message. Had this been done in passing, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered, but I explicitly wrote that they are “the Copyblogger rules.” Of course, they’re not.

Who would have noticed this fine distinction? If 100 people read it, perhaps no one.  But when 20,000 people read it, it happens. When Brian reads it, it happens.

This was to be the continuing theme as the post grew in popularity. As it left the warm blanket of OnStartups, people who would read what they saw in the post, rather than what I meant.

The 37signals Response

For years their book and blog have emboldened everyone from designers to coders to simplify, beautify, and prefer action over abstraction. In my rant against hearing the “same old rules,” was I not crapping all over the inspiration they’ve provided for hundreds of thousands of people (myself included)?

It was argued that I insulted 37signals. I was told that my “terrible example of 37signals … made you come off like the worst of the third rate posers that hang out at ‘yc.’ Embarrassing.”


So it was with great relief that I read the blog response by Jason Fried (founder of 37signals):

I agree [with Jason’s point]. And I’m sure Joel Spolsky agrees too. I think this comment on Hacker News nails it too.

Here’s the problem with copying: Copying skips understanding. Understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is how it is. When you copy it, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath.

Subsequent comments on that post and Hacker News unveiled a variety of perspectives. Some said copying is fine if you don’t have a better idea. Some said you should start with a copy but then make it your own. Some said copying is good for learning but not for growing. Some said you should copy one company, not all companies at once.

Many, like Jason and myself, suggest that rather than thinking of “rules” as ironclad, you should “be influenced by many, copy none.”

Slightly ambiguous

For me, the most fascinating aspect of this experience has been how people have reacted. In many cases they’re not reacting to what I really meant, but rather to what they thought I said.

For example, countless commenters were dismayed that I said 37signals and Copyblogger and Zappos are misguided, that they have nothing to teach us, and that only an ignorant sheep would learn from their example.

Of course if they bothered to read the entire article, they would see that my conclusion was that all these rules could be helpful, even in the face of contradictions, and that therefore you should read them thoughtfully, applying them or not according to your own world-view.

Perhaps I could have been clearer. Perhaps I could have addressed five possible objections and countered the expected misunderstandings. But had I done so, the article would have been long and lacked punch. Perhaps like this one!

In the end, I’m glad I wasn’t so specific. I’m glad people ranted about different topics and tangential issues.

For me, the point of blogging is not to preach, but to provoke. I’m successful when I make you think — not when I get to you agree but when I cause you to reconsider and clarify your own position.

The comments stimulated on this blog, for example, are often just as or more interesting than the posts. To me, that’s success.

If that’s the goal, you need a little ambiguity. You need to make a strong stand just on the other side of conventional wisdom. Not necessarily to be right, but to cause everyone to think and discuss. That’s how we all get smarter.

A final lesson in humility

It was just two weeks ago that I implored you, dear reader, to admit when you’re wrong quickly and genuinely.

OK, my turn to walk the walk. The conclusion of the Copyblogger Debacle is that I apologized, both in the comment thread and in a private email.

The result? We had a pleasant exchange and it ended well. We’re now introduced, even if it was in an unfavorable and emotional manner. I’ve now met one of the titans of the blogosphere; perhaps it’s not the end of the story.

I’ll close with the text of my apology. The lesson? Sometimes even screwing up can lead to new adventures.

First, I would like to apologize for my “3rd grader” comment. You’re right, it’s not what your article says, and after reading the comments left there it’s clear that your readers agree with you. Claiming that you (or really your guest poster) really meant it that way is a mischaracterization on my part.

For my own tastes, that article went too far on the “simple” side of the scale. The writing was so short I could barely stand to read it. My choice of words was a personal reaction.

However, at least one of your commenters said it was easier to read than any post he’s seen in a while. Clear proof that it’s my tastes, not absolute truth!

So chalk this up to a case of me applying my opinion, perhaps too strongly to be fair, especially since it wasn’t an off-hand comment but rather one in context of “Copyblogger rules,” where I’m therefore claiming this is really what Copyblogger stands for. Which it doesn’t.

As a Copyblogger fan myself, I feel bad for having done that. It wasn’t my intent.

Thanks for your understanding. You’ll find that OnStartups readers are intelligent; I’m sure those who read through this comment exchange will come away understanding my intent and that Copyblogger is, in fact, a tremendous resource for anyone writing (for any purpose), and that I was employing hyperbole at your expense.

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  • I only skim read it after 37signals linked it and thought ‘Yep, totally.’ We all spend far too much time trying to be something we’re not instead of using that time to figure out who we actually are.

    It never occurred to me that WW3 had broken out in the comments, and I don’t think you deserved quite so much flak.

    That was good post (enough that I subscribed to both OnStartups and your own RSS feeds), and so is this one.

  • Jason

    @Hayley — Thanks for your kind words of support! I don’t fault everyone else actually; I think it’s just what happens.

  • Dale

    Haven’t read the guest post yet, but it seems like you hit it when you said people will read what they want instead of what you meant. Seems like you were saying something tongue in cheek and it made for a pretty entertaining post. My opinion is probably didn’t need to apologize, more clarify. But it all turned out great so oh well!

  • You are so right though!
    It is hilarious when people take a rule, and apply it everywhere possible! Understanding the context is soooo important!
    Unfortunately its more painful than hilarious when you are working with such people!

    And I thought the crack at CopyBlogger was funny! : )

  • Whoa! Talk about courting controversies.

    I’m glad the incident brought out positives. The thing with guest posts is that we’re not on our territory and its important to think if the new audience will understand what we’re trying to say?

    Had you added "Jason offers his tongue in cheek and quite possibly inappropriate views in today’s guest post" or some such thing in your introduction, it might not have offended the people targetted in the post such as copyblogger and 37signals. It’s important to make fun of yourself before you start on someone else.

    Now that it has happened, it’s safe to say that at the very least it shook people up out of their stupor and forced them to think instead of blindly following.

    Brian Clark is brilliant. Copyblogger has become a blogger/freelancer’s bible – and rightly so. But it’s healthy to have people on the other end of the spectrum. Just not so blatantly attacking :)

  • Jason

    @Dale: You’re right — All’s well that ends well.

    @Pratik: Thanks! I think it’s coming down 50/50 about the Copyblogger dig.

    @Samar: You said it better than I. I think in the end it’s better to make controversy, but you’re exactly right. Did I cross the line? It’s possible, but if so hopefully only just…

  • When I saw your name at the top of the OnStartups post, I couldn’t help thinking that we must be circulating in the same places – I keep seeing your name come up. At any rate, good post, it made me think a little bit…

    I read exactly what you meant.

    If you had taken a dig at anyone less than Brian Clark it might have been a cheap shot, but what you had was totally appropriate. Seriously, the post was written as if it came straight out of the Copyblogger rulebook – starting with the headline. From someone who reads both your and Brian’s blogs, it’s obvious you’re at least taking a little inspiration from him.

  • Jason

    @Brian: Yup, inspired for sure.

    We all have to be careful when reading the same stuff — it’s easy to create an echo chamber.

  • Jason,

    Being a first time reader, and not being at all familiar with 37Signals, I am not able to make informed comment with respect to your guest post.

    Nevertheless, from the sound of things, I am glad that you had the humility to apologize, even though much of what your critics were going on was taken out of context.

    I guess this is one thing which all bloggers have to be prepared for. As blogs grow in popularity and influence, this kind of thing is bound to happen, and blog owners will increasingly be subject to a harsh form of criticism, even though some of it may be misguided.