Trees and Gardens

Is your passion planting and tending a garden of different products or a single tree that will 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 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; different plants that grow in the same garden.

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."

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.

The best start of the Coudal story is that years later, Field Notes did, in fact, became the hit that defined them. They switched from the garden to the tree and that's just fine! It's worked out great for them and their customers.

Which is it for you?

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 is different from beginning work on a new product.

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, they typically develop outlets for their pent up initiative and creativity. Tree products will sometimes go through cycles of redesigns and rewrites because starting from scratch is a hard habit to break.

Similarly, if someone wants to put everything they have into a tree project that will still be around years later and instead is working on their fourth new app this year, they'll also be frustrated. Those projects will feel incomplete and unsatisfying, their inadequate, unfinished bits an unpleasant reminder.

The company can suffer in that situation, too. 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.