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Content Marketing & SEO Blog

Blog about startup growth strategies revolving around content marketing, SEO, CRO, and social media marketing.

A thought on simplicity

Sean Smith

When Alan Shephard was waiting to be launched into space in the Apollo 13 a reporter asked him what he was thinking about, to which he replied "the fact that every piece of this ship was built by the lowest bidder"

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17. [from WikiPedia]

Just a year earlier we had not been to the moon. In 1970, 1 year after going to the moon the THIRD intended ship to land on the Moon was built out of materials crafted by the LOWEST bidder. Think about that for a minute. We tend to shoot for the absolute best even though there is a diminishing return between what will get the job done, and what we really want to get the job done. This comes back to my firm belief in the Pareto's Law [or 80-20 principle] that 80 percent of your results come from 20% of your efforts; twenty percent of your results comes from the other 80% of your effort. Why put in the other 80% effort if what you have will get the job done? Granted, what the Apollo 13 had did not get the job done. The Apollo 13 however DID get to SPACE, with materials from the least common denominator!

This is beautiful to me because it brings my often over-hyping mind back down to humble reality. The new iPhone comes out, do I really need that? What is the purpose of me going off and blowing $600 to break my contract and buy a new phone? Will it get me more than my current 4s? Not much more than an inch or so of screen and a faster processor. This can wait until my phone starts to literally give out. I generally take pride in having just a few key possessions that are VERY nice and that I love very much, a few being my MBP, my iPhone, my iPad, my big JAMBOX and my Gary Fisher HI-FI Deluxe 29er MTN Bike. Regardless of this, I don't need to always feel as if I need the very best in every given space to compete.

I believe there is beauty in limitation.

By defining what we cannot do, we define what we can. That gives us a psychological drive to do what we know we are capable of. Growing up I loved to skateboard but had no parks, ramps or pipes to skate on. What did I do? I got very good at street skating, flip tricks, kicker jumps, technical skating etc. Bring that to a modern-day business example, Twitter. One-hundred and forty characters is all you get to express your emotion, your opinion, a reply, a comment, a link or even tell a joke. Twitter set a limitation and it caught on like wildfire. People are less intimidated to act when there is less of a commitment, an upfront challenge, or if there aren't too many options. Post a picture, write a post, follow someone, reply, or retweet; those are your options.

Another example I have is 37signals, the kings of simplicity in my eyes. If I could model a dream-business it would be 37signals. Not Facebook. You can keep your flopping one-hundred billion dollar IPO, I'll take Basecamp. 37signals builds simple products with low price-points, great usability and design that people fall in love with.

Setting limitations is innovative in itself.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but think about it abstractly. People want governance, people react to limitations in very different ways.. but they always act. This is why every product that sets limitations is never without a backlash of negativity and scorn. David Heinemeier Hansson constantly has to defend the products he makes, from Basecamp to Rails even though they are some of the most loved products on the interwebs. DHH received such constant flack for the simplicity of Rails and how it "couldn't scale." Regardless of the fact that it has a proven track record of scaling, seeing as it is the framework from which Basecamp and Twitter have both been built.

The torch swings both ways however because the people who appreciate simplicity will give their undying love to the products they support! Products built on such precision of detail and simplistic conventions develop a somewhat cult-like following. This is most commonly noticed in Apple's products. I could beat a dead horse but everyone knows the intrinsic value one experiences when interacting with an Apple product. The core attention to detail, the stripping of all but the essential, the deathly pursuit of minimalism literally takes consumer's breathe away.

This is where I return to the beginning.

By creating through means of simplicity, one can produce a product which is craved so much by the consumer that the consumer will forget their own love for minimalism in pursuit of gaining that new level of simplicity.

Do not fall to the trap of producing just to produce, define what you can produce without. Define your problem, and determine the least you can do to eliminate that problem.

I leave you with a quote from a man who lived for simplicity.

"Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?"