Jason Fried

December 27, 2023

Cars and business

I’m going to draw a parallel that isn’t quite straight, but it’s close enough.

It’s between old (analog) cars and new (digital) cars, simple (analog) businesses and complicated (digital) businesses.

Lately I’ve been driving two distinctly different cars. One from 1970, and the other from 2023. They essentially have nothing in common other than that you sit in them, they have four tires that contact the road, and you control them with a steering wheel and pedals.

Some who don’t care much for cars might say that’s everything in common. On paper I can see the argument, but get behind the wheel of both, and go for a drive, and you wouldn’t say the experiences were equivalent. They’re as different as different can be.

The 1970s experience is analog. Your leg strength determines your stopping power. The road surface below clearly communicates with your ass. The steering wheel actually feels like it’s turning the wheels. The windows roll down by turning a crank that literally rolls them down. Switches snick, dials click. This is a direct experience, with mechanical feedback, requiring full attention and real effort.

The 2023 experience is digital. Nearly everything is abstracted. The brakes are heavily mechanically assisted. Steering even more so. You can’t really feel the road surface because the suspension masterfully absorbs every little detail. Even the buttons have been replaced by touchscreens with haptics. This is an indirect experience, with simulated feedback, requiring some attention and little effort.

Which you prefer is up to you. I happen to love both for different reasons.

And that’s just driving. The gulf is wider when it comes to repair.

With an old analog car, a problem’s cause is more obvious. Linkages are visible, this connects to that, teeth mesh to move gears which move shafts which move wheels. When something’s broken it’s generally confirmable with a common tool and a set of eyeballs. Any mechanic with a basic understanding can diagnose any problem relatively easily — sometime solely by ear. There are only so many things it could be, and they’re all right in front of you.

With a modern new car, computers enter the picture. Engines are covered, sometimes even inaccessible. Cars crash, but so does firmware. This doesn’t turn that, this sends electrons to that, which are then interpreted by circuits and software and systems.  Which one’s to blame when something doesn’t work? It’ll take a while to find out, and at least $1000. Almost anything can be wrong, and you’ll have to leave the car at the shop for a while so they can plug it in and run diagnostics. The human defers to the machine to tell us.

Pros and cons for sure.

Now for the parallels to business.

Through this car experience lens, I’ve come to see businesses as either analog or digital too. I’m not describing their product or what they make. I’m talking about how they’re structured, how they run. An analog business can make software, and a digital business can make pizza.

An analog business is direct. It’s clear what does what, and how it does it. When something changes, you typically know what changed. There’s some suspension to absorb the bumps, but it’s basic — you’re never too far removed from the root cause. There are fewer managers and more doers. There’s less distance between the customer and the maker. Feedback is heard, not interpreted and translated. No decks, just conversations and writing.

A digital business is indirect and abstracted. The structure is obscured, riddled with departments and groups run by other groups. Decisions are complicated because one too many people are involved. What should be simple has become complex — the result of process that serves the prospect, not the purpose. Everything is padded. Getting to someone requires going through something. Customers are a concept, sliced by demographics. Everything’s a presentation rather than a conversation.

As usual, the analogies and metaphors don’t map perfectly, but hopefully you feel what I’m getting at. Does it resonate?

I aim to run an analog business. Direct, clear, obvious, fair, and easy to fix.


About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.