More stuff or better stuff?

Update: Since writing this (in 2015), I've changed my mind on this topic. In retrospect, I've learned that building multiple products at once, or even building many products in succession, is often counterproductive. For me in particular, building "100 projects in a year" was not super helpful, from a business perspective. Previously, I'd also tried the "12 startups in 12 months" challenge. Like Jon Yongfook, Robert Maidla, and others, I found that it misdirects your focus on the wrong thing (shipping), vs what you should be doing (searching for something people want).

Should you make multiple things, or just focus on one?

37signals started making products 16 years ago. Their early hit was Basecamp, but they went on to release over 11 products (notably Backpack, Campfire, Highrise, and Sortfolio).

Then in 2014, they decided to focus. They sold, shut down, or spun-off everything except for Basecamp. In their announcement, they explained why:

We've released so many products over the years, we've become a bit scattered, a bit diluted. Nobody does their best work when they're spread too thin. We certainly don't. We do our best work when we're all focused on one thing.

But then, in 2019, they've flip-flopped again! Jason Fried announced they were working on a second product (in addition to Basecamp). 

This is the maker's dilemma! 

Should you make more things, or focus on one thing?

Putting all your energy, attention and time in one direction has lots of advantages. It can improve the quality of your work. You have fewer distractions. A higher level of commitment can bring higher returns.

But is making multiple things always bad?

Stand-up comics, like Seinfeld, spend a lifetime perfecting one routine. If you see Seinfeld perform today, his show will be very similar to the one he performed 3 years ago.

On the other side, we have Dave Chappelle, who release four unique standup specials in 2017. He could focus on making "one good hour" and gradually improve it, but he wants to write new jokes.

Sometimes "making more" means producing better art. The more you make, the more you learn, the more you practice, the more you iterate, the more you improve.

Tom Kenny shared this example with me: a ceramics class was divided into two groups. One group was told to produce one high-quality piece. The other group was told to produce as many pieces as they could.

Which group produced higher-quality ceramics? You'd expect it'd be the group focused on quality. But here's what happened:

A curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

The group focused on "quantity" was moving fast and learning each time they created a new piece. The other group got caught up trying to achieve perfection on their first try.

It's OK to focus on one thing: Nathan Barry focuses almost all his energy on building ConvertKit, and they are doing very well.

But it's also OK to put your energy into multiple things. Richard Branson has created over 100 businesses in his lifetime. Virgin Group also seems to be doing quite well.

In certain categories, you need to produce a lot of material to get a "hit."

I saw Jonathan Mann speak at XOXO in 2014. Jonathan is a guy who publishes a song a day. He's recorded over 2,543 on his YouTube channel. By his estimation 70% of his songs are OK, 20% are bad, and 10% are good.

For him, creating something new every day (and publishing everything, good and bad) lead him to his best work.

Currently, I'm focusing almost all of my energy on building Transistor

But in the past, I was focused on multiple projects. I think making lots of stuff is especially helpful when:

  • You're learning new skills.

  • You're primarily focused on creating content.

  • You're establishing yourself in a particular industry.

  • You haven't found "a big hit" yet.

There are seasons for both; times to focus, and times to wander.

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015. It's been updated since then.

Published on November 13th, 2019
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