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Simplicity and its discontents: Jason Fried vs. Fraser Kelton

Those easy sites you like aren't doing much for their founders, according to Adaptive Blue's Fraser Kelton.

NEW YORK--After listening to Jason Fried (37 Signals) give his compelling Web 2.0 Expo talk Wednesday about building companies in the modern world--which could be summed up as "simplify, and don't work too hard doing so"--I walked across the hall to hear Fraser Kelton (Adaptive Blue) discuss the negative ramifications of this strategy.

Kelton posed the question this way in his pre-conference writeup: "What happens when early adopters have become spoiled by single-feature technologies that take no more than a moment to grasp? The challenge faced by the next wave of innovative start-ups for technology adoption increases by an order of magnitude."

The real problem, he said during his talk, is not that Web 2.0 technology is easy to use, it's that it is too easy to build. Which means that there is "too much noise": too many new products vying for the attention of the early adopters who can give a start-up its first taste of success. And blogs don't help, he says: They encourage readers to skim without "chewing" on content, just as they encourage writers to post often and quickly, without writing thoughtful pieces.

In other words, there's a deluge of choice. Yet at the same time, social technologies moving into Web 2.0 products lock users in. Who wants to try a new, possibly better photo-sharing site when he or she has 10,000 photos already in Flickr?

Kelton has two possibly workable solutions to the start-up's dilemma: First, "make magic," he says. But on the back end, not the interface. Build a simple interface to a complicated service that isn't so easily replicated. He points to Google search. Simple UI. Rather complex on the server side.

Second, improve on existing products. Pointing in this example to Summize (acquired by Twitter) and Disqus (we're waiting) as services that add important improvements to existing platforms (Twitter; blogs), Kelton says that a start-up can ride on the success of a previous wave if its founders find a smart way to embed their technology in that of the key players in the market.

Obviously, it's easier to build just another single-function service than it is to come up with a plausible growth strategy and a unique service back-end. So both Fried and Kelton are right: Users gravitate to simplicity and focus. But if your business itself is so simple that anyone can replicate it, you don't have much of a business after all.

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