How is a business like an apple tree? Sharpen your pruning shears and find out.
Back in July, I wrote about our efforts to bring more focus and discipline to 37signals by parting ways with some of our older products. We were so committed to eliminating nonessential offerings that we decided to sell a service that was generating $17,000 a month in profit. "We're a small company with a small team," I wrote, "and we have to use our resources wisely."
Today, we're about to launch two products. Both of them are significant departures from the way we usually do things. And we have a bunch more ideas in the pipeline.
Whatever happened to that newfound emphasis on focus? Was that a mistake? Did I change my mind?
Let me explain--by telling you about my apple trees.
I live in Chicago but own some property up in Wisconsin. There's an old stone farmhouse, a couple of barns, some majestic oaks, rolling prairie, a river, and a few apple trees.
I've been trying to learn how to properly prune them. The trees are handsome and healthy, but if you don't pay attention, they can grow unwieldy and succumb to a variety of ailments. There are any number of reasons to prune a tree. You might do it to make it look prettier. Or you might trim one area in order to favor other limbs. It could be to cut away disease or to prevent a new disease from taking root. It could be to get the tree to generate more fruit.
So I'm regularly taking a saw or shears to my apple trees. Sometimes, when I'm done, I step back and am not necessarily pleased with what I see. In fact, a freshly pruned apple tree can be a sad sight, looking thinner and weaker than it did before you started. But that's an illusion.
In almost every case, cutting things back is a way of favoring what is left. You help the tree flourish by picking the winners. What's more, pruning opens up new opportunities for your tree. Light gets in where it couldn't before. Air circulates better. And new growth appears. If you did the pruning right, you've given your tree a stronger foundation for the future.
Now, back to my business. A few months after cutting back our product line, something unexpected happened: We sprouted some new ideas. During a discussion about one of our products, a couple of ideas suddenly emerged for new ones. I can't go into specifics just yet, but one is a variation on an existing product, and the other is entirely new, something we've never offered. We're finishing them up right now and are pretty excited.
I am convinced that these ideas never would have emerged had we shied away from cutting some of our old items. Or, to put it in more arboreal terms--as a business, you won't grow strong new limbs if you don't prune the old ones.
In fact, I believe that a healthy company is like a healthy tree: Well-developed roots (your vision), a strong trunk (your people), and vibrant leaves (your products) work together to convert the sun (revenue) into energy (profits).
Hokey? Perhaps. But I often find inspiration in nature. Besides, it's high time we entrepreneurs stop using those hackneyed sports and military metaphors. But that's a topic for another day.