37signals as an Indirect Competitor to Google



Note: This was originally part of the lead-in article for this Video Interview with Jason Fried. I wrote it, and then decided it was too much copy for an intro.

37signals is not Google

When you walk into 37signals’ office space just west of Chicago’s Loop, you would have no idea that you were walking into the headquarters of a tiny little company that has been the inspiration for many a startup over the past few years. There isn’t even a sign on the door announcing the office as the World Headquarters of 37signals “the company that has helped redefine the way people construct web applications (using Ruby on Rails) and conduct business (simply and without distraction)”. In reality 37signals doesn’t even have an office of its own, it sublets space from a Chicago design firm named Coudal Partners. After having visited Google in early August, I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons – where Google has invested in a massive campus encased in solar panels and the best chefs money can buy, 37signals has a sublease, a few Macs, and a modest break room. Where Google employs thousands, owns an airliner, and the combined net worth of the two founders could easily recapitalize a failing bank, you could probably assemble 37signals in a small shack and still have space for a few more.

…but they compete well (indirectly)

Even with these massive imbalances, I think that 37signals is an indirect competitor with Google in the business web application space… I think they are winning and have the advantage. Yes, I know Google could likely crush almost any competition with the resources it has, but I can’t be the only one who has noticed that Google lacks any sort of comprehesive business collaboration tool similar to Basecamp. Sure, they have GMail, Docs, Google Calendar, but there is just something about the combination of these more complex projects that doesn’t “gel”. I’ve almost never successfully used Google Calendar in a workplace environment, and while I’m constantly sharing Google Docs for my work at O’Reilly – I’m just as frequently posting thoughts to a Writeboard in Basecamp. Basecamp feels more instantaneous and personal, I can recognize relevant bits of information without wading through distractions, and if I have feedback, I send an email to the founder the company and ask him a direct question. Try that with GMail.

Ok sure, but 37signals is no still Google

Because I can just see people at the Googleplex, shaking a fist at the monitor and calling me insane, I’ll back down a bit from the comparison. 37signals isn’t “beating” Google directly, but the absence of a simpler collaboration and project management tool from Google seems like an aberration. Admittedly, Google and 37signals are not direct analogs, and I’m certainly not trying to make the case that 37signals has “defeated” Google here. While Google and 37signals both create hosted web applications that aim to replace traditional shrink wrapped software, Google certainly has a much larger business portfolio, a more global approach, and the ability to both expand into and create new markets. 37signals created a bunch of little web apps (but, again, they compete…)

So, while I don’t think there is a real shooting war here, I think 37signals has indirectly gamed Google. Google sells a series of tools to business that can be used for project management, yet many of those same business elect to buy a Basecamp subscription. If you are a company paying money ($50/seat) for Google Apps, you shouldn’t need to use Basecamp… err.. but many do? Why? Because there is something to be said for the simple, constrained, limited functionality that Basecamp provides.

Whatever, I’m a rambling madman.