14 January 2006
The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
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From Joel Spolsky's forward to a new book regarding software startups aka "MicroISV"s, his first and presumably most important piece of advice is: "Don’t start a business if you can’t explain what pain it solves, for whom, and why your product will eliminate this pain, and how the customer will pay to solve this pain."  On the very same web page however -- on all the web pages on joelonsoftware.com in fact -- there is a pane in the left hand column the first link of which is "more about (Joel)".  Following that link leads to a paragraph with the heading "Fog Creek Software" (Mr Spolsky's own software startup) in which he recounts:  "We didn't start with a particular product in mind...."

There's no mention of this in the foreword.  Too bad, because an explanation of this seeming change of heart is probably what could have made this piece meaningful, instead of a misplaced plug for CommonLisp.  Indeed, these inconsistencies and irrelevancies smack of nothing more than jumping on the Paul Graham bandwagon.

So which is it Mr Spolsky?  Do as you say?  Or do as you do?
Posted by htmatters at 7:47 AM | Comments (6)
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Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
It's not such a contradiction as you think. You can start a company to solve one problem, then discover an even better one in the process. A lot of Y Combinator startups do.

Posted by Paul Graham on January 14, 2006 at 12:28 PM

Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
Paul, how can you not see the contradiction? Joel says in the forward to the book:

"Number One: Don?t start a business if you can?t explain what pain it solves, for whom, and why your product will eliminate this pain, and how the customer will pay to solve this pain."

Yet on his About Me page, he states:

"We didn't start with a particular product in mind: our goal was simply to build the kind of software company where we would want to work, one in which programmers and software developers are the stars and everything else serves only to make them productive and happy."

I agree lots of companies start out trying to solve one problem and end up solving another, but that's not the point. The point is: do those two passages contradict each other? Yes. Based on his own words, Joel started his business violating what he now calls rule Number One in his book. People do this all the time: they become successful and in an effort to explain their success, they try to fit it into some kind of structure or process. This is why I distrust all after-the-success and after-the-failure stories - history has been rewritten.

For what it's worth Joel, it's natural, we all do it, and it's very difficult not to when you're trying to explain how you did something considered successful. So don't feel bad. I'm waiting for Paul's CMM book so I can figure out how he built his company and sold it to Yahoo! for gazillions. So, Paul, when's your book coming out?


Posted by scott AT scottg.net on January 14, 2006 at 5:17 PM

Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
There is a difference between Spolsky talking about him, and Spolsky talking about a new entrepeneur he doesn't know much about.

He knows he has lead a team with a very sucessful product. He knows how to talk to clients. He knows a lot of people in the industry.

He can't make those assumptions about someone young and new to the bussiness arena, wich is the intended recipient of the given advise.

Posted by Nicolay77 on January 14, 2006 at 7:09 PM

Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
Re: Nicolay77

But still the contradiction remains. When he started his business, he didn't follow rule Number One, yet that's what he advises others to do. I would also like to know why the change.

Would he have been successful if he had followed Number One? Yes, probably, but not because he followed any particular rule. His success has nothing to do with any of those things; it has to do with who he is, how he has made decisions, how he has responded to events, the environment he found himself in and a lot of work. And some luck. Business, like any other art form, requires doing and learning from that doing. It's all one big experiment.

Then again, he might have failed if he insisted on knowing what problem he was trying to solve beforehand, or what product he was going to create: he never would have started the business, because he didn't know until after starting what was actually going to work. He just knew that he wanted to start a software company "where we would want to work, ...". Really, that's the point. Do something you want to do, and figure out the rest as you need to. All these steps and processes, ugh. They just complicate matters and make you think the world works in an orderly and reasonable fashion.


Posted by scott AT scottg.net on January 14, 2006 at 10:42 PM

Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
umm, ever think that maybe his advice to "[only] start a business if you can explain what pain it solves..." was learned bitterly through real world experience ? :)

Obviously I know nothing about the success of his business but I personally have learned my best lessons via failure.

Posted by Kumar McMillan on January 16, 2006 at 12:49 PM

Re: The Irrelevance of Joel Spolsky
I'm sure Joel's advice has come from (bitter?) real world experience, and most business advice I've heard and read advocates the same thing he does in his Number One rule: know what you're going to provide before you start.

But Joel started his business focused on the development environment and the people and figured out the product later. And Jim Collins discussed how companies have gone from "Good to Great" by focusing on hiring the right people first, and _then_ deciding what they were going to do. So maybe whether you start your business following a set of rules or not doesn't really matter. Just start the business however you want, and see where it goes.

If Joel thought how he started his business was the best way back then, but now thinks following his list of rules is a better way now, so be it. We all change our minds. There's just the question of what led him to change his mind about it, which would be really useful information for many of us thinking about starting a business.

Here's an article about rational design in software development, but which I think is applicable to to this subject, to starting and running a business and other things. Enjoy :)

"A Rational Design Process: How and Why to Fake It" by Parnas and Clements:



Posted by scott AT scottg.net on January 17, 2006 at 11:49 AM

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