Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Trees and Gardens

Is your passion planting and tending a garden of different products or a single tree that will live and grow for years? Think about where your heart is and build your company so that its success doesn’t turn it into something you’re not.

One or many?

Most teams set out to develop one successful product, either by building the entire company around it (such as Asana, Sprintly, and Glitch) or creating a series of products until they find the one with the most traction and potential. Once they find the one, the focus shifts to the breakout hit and the other experiments are usually abandoned.

Others build a portfolio of related products, whether productivity software, games, development tools or something else. Different products, yes, but in a way, branches of the same tree, sometimes sharing a common foundation.

The most unique approach is the one taken by Jim Coudal and Coudal Partners. As he explains in this great CreativeMornings talk, they’ve kept the agency model, but eliminated the clients. The diversity of products and projects (from Field Notes to Layer Tennis) is absolutely intentional. From the Twitter bio: “Unable to focus. OK with that.”

The goal isn’t to finally figure out what they want to be when they grow up; the goal is to not grow up. They don’t want a single hit to define who they are; success is exactly what they’re doing. Coudal’s example of how much you can accomplish if you don’t set your mind to it is a continual inspiration.

Which is it for you?

You don’t want to find yourself in a place where who you are and the product or products you’re building are in conflict. When you thrive in the garden and end up dedicated to a single tree, it’s easy to become frustrated and less productive. Adding one more feature to an established product, solving issues of scale, and refactoring code are very different from beginning work on a new product and smaller products in general.

I’ve talked with designers and developers who can’t imagine working on the same product year after year. When they end up in that situation, often as a result of great success, they typically develop new outlets for their pent up initiative and creativity. If they have influence over the direction of the product, the result is frequent redesigns and rewrites.

This sounds completely unintuitive, but sometimes startups suffer by not having enough products.

The same is true in the opposite case. If someone wants to put everything they have into a tree project that will still be around in 20 years and instead is working on their fourth new app this year, they’ll be equally frustrated. Each of those projects will feel horribly incomplete and unsatisfying, their crude simplicity and unfinished bits an unpleasant daily reminder.

The company can suffer in that situation as well. Projects that should be released quickly to gauge interest can take months more than needed as design and engineering decisions are made and re-made as if a tree that will outlive us all is being planted, instead of a small garden experiment.

Know yourself, your team, and what success is for you, and build a place that honors and embraces that.