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.
Makers have a constant 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?
I recently announced that I'm going to make 100 things in 2016. The most common response is "you're crazy." But I'm also hearing this a lot:
Why not just focus on making one thing great?
The Lego Movie took 4 years to make. Avatar took 10.
Woody Allen makes a new movie every 12 months. He's not like other filmmakers:
Allen continues to write and direct his own movies at an assembly-line pace, just as he has for five decades. Some are better than others, but there is no such thing as a really bad Woody Allen movie, and they come along—a new one every year—as reliably as the taxman.1
When asked in an interview about his prolific release schedule, Allen replied:
Jean-Luc Godard said I make too many films. [But] I enjoy making movies. I have many ideas, some good, some not so good. I make them for myself. It keeps me busy.
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 Louis CK, who throws away his material every year. He could focus on making "one good hour" and gradually improve it, but he wants to write new jokes. For Louis, leaving the old routine behind pushes him to get better.
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 the 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.
Mark Zuckerberg focuses almost all his energy on building Facebook, and he seems to be doing quite 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.
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) has lead him to his best work.
This year I want to make a bunch of things. I have a list of ideas. Big, small, simple, complex, silly, serious; they're all on here.
"Because the more stuff you make, the more good stuff you'll make." - Jonathan Mann