in Business

If Simplicity Sells, Why Aren’t We Keeping Things Simple?

I read a brief but poignant piece by Chris Brogan last week  in which he discussed the importance (and somewhat lost art) of simplicity when it comes to running a successful business. If you’re even a semi-frequent reader of this blog, you know how much I value simplicity and that I am a big advocate of the ‘less is more‘ mindset. This is why Brogan’s post caught my attention, and he raises an interesting point:

If you run a hotel, the business is this: fill beds with happy guests. Everything is geared around that. We can add “at a reasonable operating margin” to pretty much every business, including the hotel business. Restaurants: serve as many meals as possible per hour. TV: get as many viewers per show, and charge ad rates accordingly. Business is simple. We make it complicated for some unknown reason. - Chris Brogan

What causes the loss in focus?

Chris is dead-on. My question: Why do we complicate things? Where did we get off course? What causes us to lose focus on the simple delivery and instead get caught up in everything else?

Why not focus on what you do best instead of paying so much attention to what’s going on around you? As Brogan says, “no one ever won a race looking sideways”.

Competition can serve as motivation, but on the same token can be an ugly distraction and a complete waste of time, causing us to lose sight of the ‘end goal’.

Everything starts simple, but somehow, someway, things get complicated. Even still, I think we can all agree that simplicity is beautiful.

As the end user of a product or service that is being provided to us, all we care about is that it meets our needs/wants and does what it’s supposed to do, right?

Is ‘simple’ good enough?

Or is that all? Is simple out the window because our expectations are higher? Because the bar continues to be raised? Because ‘meeting’ wants and needs is no longer good enough?

One of the commenter’s made an excellent point in his response to Chris’ post:

Simple doesn’t just often win, it almost always wins! Look at 37signals, they keep it very simple. Look at Christmas morning when the kids are playing with the box instead of the toy. If businesses produced what “we” want instead of what “they” want, it would be simple, but functional.

What do you think? Is simple the key to success? If so, why are things so complicated? What can you do or what would you suggest to simplify your business?

Add Your Voice



  1. I certainly think we tend to make things overly complicated, but I also think it's borderline irresponsible to cite, “Business is simple.” I liken it back to baseball coaches saying that baseball is a simple game, “See the ball, hit the ball.” YEAAAAHHHH, there's a little more to it than that. Granted, I know and understand the point Chris is trying to make, but the truth is (at least in my mind) is that while the fundamentals are simple (or should be), the process in which we execute is relatively complicated. This becomes increasingly true in scaling larger companies.

  2. I don't disagree with you at all here Ryan. I think simplicity IS the key to success, but to get there, to create and deliver a final product that is 'simple' takes that much more work. Simple is not always simple, it's not always easy, in fact it usually isn't. Figuring out how to NOT overwhelm your consumers (or your readers if you want to look at it from a blogging perspective) DOES take a lot of work.

    I like your analogy – and I like the analogy used in the post above about us as kids playing with the box our favorite toy came in more than the toy itself. The 'fundamentals' – the general idea – and especially final product should be simple and clearly defined, but that's not to say that the work behind that delivery is going to be simple itself. Great point, Ryan.

  3. With so many companies selling, the only way to get those customers is to appeal to them over the other guys. Sometimes the loudest one is getting those customers, other times it's those who appeal to their needs in different ways. People are complicated. More complicated when they get to spending their money. There are a lot of companies selling the same product, they have to stand out in some way. All to achieve that same goal of selling to more customers.

    Of course it's more complicated than that, but there is a small part of it.

  4. I think we can all agree that keeping things simple is important – but as Ryan makes a great point in his comment above, creating that 'simplicity' takes a lot of behind the scenes work. Less is more also relates to the idea that more work goes into creating 'less'. I think I've gone cross-eyed from all this less/more talk, but you get the point.

  5. It really is a catch 22 and there's no clear answer. If we can brainstorm and figure out the way to appeal to everyone out there, I'm pretty sure we'll be millionaires. Yes, companies will always pay attention to their surroundings, and it's important to keep in tune with trends in an effort to stay 'ahead of the pack', but in this seemingly never-ending race to the 'bigger and better', it seems like we've almost taken a 180 and we're heading down the path of 'less'. Or at least more simplified/”all-in-one”. Instead of buying a camera, GPS, phone, calculator, and gameboy – I'll just get an Iphone and do it all (just an example).

    It takes that much more work to create that 'simple' product, and as you said, it's more complicated than what we're chatting about here, but it's interesting to see where things are headed.

  6. I think you make a great point Ryan, in saying there's a little more to it than simply being simple.

    But when you take a look at how a company like 37signals operates (and read what they've learned in the two books they've written, Rework and Getting Real), you see that in some ways it IS that simple.

    To relate to your analogy, if you say “see the ball, hit the ball” and focus your efforts on that single goal, that's it. There may be some further actions generated to achieve that goal, but those actions are generated because they're NEEDED, not because they just need to be there. In other words, you don't need to make things complicated for the sake of making them complicated, or because that's how it's done elsewhere.

    Good thoughts all around here.

  7. I'm knee deep in trying to keep things simple for a client I have. They are opening an inn and want it to be as successful as possible. They already operate a VERY successful cottage business. How? They've kept it simple. But with the Inn, they want to hit the homer.
    I've created a Facebook page, advisories have been sent for the grand opening, and we invited a state senator to do the ribbon cutting.
    So Matt, yes, I am going cross-eyed with the less/more stuff!! But, simply put (like Ryan did), we do in fact work harder to make things simple. I like how simple this event is turning out, as opposed to something more complex.
    Thanks as always for your great insight… Hope married life is treating you awesomely!

  8. Hey Jason. Thanks for the comment. I am with you 100% here. MANY of my clients come in wanting to hit things out of the park – they want to take on everything at once, be active on every Social Media platform, rebuild their website, harvest e-mails and launch an e-mail marketing campaign – they think “I need to be doing everything to drive business”, when, in reality, it's all about focus.

    Maybe a redesigned website doesn't really make sense – maybe you should only worry about Twitter and not think about Facebook and LinkedIn – every business is different, but above all, an approach has to have focus. I always tell people to think big and start small. You don't need to take it all on TODAY – highly targeted approaches work MUCH better than the 'spray and pray' tactics you see a lot of businesses using – the latter almos always leads to burn out and poor results.

  9. Matt,

    I want to share a quick story that will probably make you laugh a bit. A few years ago my best friend who is an MIT engineer decided he wanted to be able to stream video from the computer to the TV. I know that you might not be able to imagine a time when that was not simple, but there was :). Anyways, he figured out a way to display the computer screen on the tv by running some cables into the living room. But then he realized he had to get up and go the bedroom every time he wanted to change anything on the computer. He started telling me about his plan to build a remote control using RFID and some other stuff that pretty much went over my head. I looked at him and said “dude, why don't you just get wireless mouse and keyboard.” He replied “yeah, I guess I could do that huh.” We had a good laugh at that.

    Part of why I think we tend to complicate things is because things that are complicated give us more of a sense of accomplishment. It's largely about ego. After all if it's easy, then you can't really brag to anybody about it. When you achieve something and it's done with zero effort, nobody cares. When you do it and you've busted your AS@#$ to accomplish it, then you get a certain level of respect. The thing is the most optimal solution to any problem is usually the simplest one.

  10. I think simple works best, but it is a complicated world! The more focused we are, the easier it is to be simple, The more unfocused, the easier it is to try to do too much with too many people and that becomes un-simple.

    I have been told that the best way to help my blog be successful and get lots of readers is to focus down on a narrow niche and cater just to them. Others will come along for the ride, but I must focus on that narrow niche. Whenever I get away from that, things get complicated. I believe this to be true in all walks of life, not just the blogging world.

    Simple equals focus. Complicated equals unfocused.

  11. I agree and disagree with this Steve. I think the focus of your blog should be to write about what you want to write about. If you're writing to a very specific niche, it's very easy to quickly get burnt out and grow tired of what you're writing about. In the blogging world, focus is important, disorientation will get you nowhere, but it's OK to branch out of your comfort zone from time to time. You mentioned that others will come along the ride and, over time, the people that stick around are sticking around because of a connection they've made with YOU, the writer, much more than the connection with your specific topic.

    Something to think about. I'm not an expert – just an observation from my experience(s) [both good and bad] blogging over the past several years.

  12. Agreed with your last point Srini – the best solution to almost any problem, any want or need, is the one that can be achieved with the least amount of effort by the end user.

    I think you make an interesting point with your idea of conquering complicated things giving us that sense of accomplishment. I 100% agree there – if everyone took the easy way out, we wouldn't ever get very far – I think my point overall here, in a business sense, is that as a company, you don't have to always focus on the complicated round-about answer to the problem (as in your MIT engineer buddy). Sometimes the best solution is the one that's right in front of you – the obvious one.

    Good thoughts and good discussion as always Srini – and by the way – great chatting with you yesterday. Cheers!

  13. I understand fully what you are saying about getting to the burn out stage quick if you only write about a narrow focus. I have had this problem in the past. I do branch out a little now and then!

    Thanks for the input! I will ceratinly think about what you said!

  14. Take it with a grain of salt, Steve. But, the VERY short story about my blogging tenure is that I became OVERLY focused time and time again (not necessarily with THIS blog) to the point that I had pigen-holed myself. I would write about Social Media Marketing trends because that was what my blog was 'supposed' to be about. Needless to say, I got very tired of writing about what I was 'supposed' to write about and today, this blog is very much an extension of myself. A place for me to be at my best and talk about whatever is on my mind.

    Obviously this stays within reason – I still fall into the Gen Y, marketing, entrepreneurship, lifestyle design niche. I'm not a cooking blog, I'm not totally off the charts – a general theme, yes – a narrow focus, no. I've learned my lesson with that one :)

  15. The key to simplicity is action.

    There's is no real way to do two things at once. We overcomplicate because we aren't in the practice of trial and error in the ways that we were when we were kids and we did things until they stopped being awesome, at which point we pivoted (on a dime) and did something else. We dismissed one simple thing and moved on to the next simple thing.

    My approach to simplicity has always been driven by my experience as a soccer player. I was fortunate to have some great coaches who made me (arguably) a pretty great player, and while I honed my ability to deal with complex situations I learned to boil things down to very simple, very measurable pieces. Taking the most basic and straightforward action without overthinking it always…always…revealed the best and most complex seeming results.

    In business, the same is true. Everyone who sits atop what appears to be a mountain of complexity, ingenuity, and hard work has driven their success by making actionable decisions first of all, and keeping those decisions and actions simple. Boolean if at all possible.

    Anyone who's overcomplicating an idea or business plan or decision is doing so because they don't have confidence in simplicity.

  16. Careful not to confuse what you're supposed to write about with being very focused. You can be very focused and successful (which is not a bad thing at all) without writing about what you're “supposed” to write about.

    I agree with Steve, focus is key. Trying to be everything to everyone ALWAYS ends up in being nothing to no one.

  17. You already know this, but….you're freakin' awesome.

    Is it true you're coming to Chicago soon? If so, I owe you a beer. Please specify time/place/beer preference. :)

  18. I am EXTREMELY focused in what I do, Tim. I think you know me well enough to know that (maybe not). I don't disagree at all with Steve – but focus can sometimes blur with becoming something that you aren't, or something that you don't have an interest in. I was VERY focused on writing about everything 'Social Media' related when I started this blog and moved to Chicago last year, the focus was there, the desire was not, because it wasn't really me – I was writing for the sake of what I thought I was 'supposed' to say and not what I really cared about. Never said focus was (at all) a bad thing. As Steve said, focus is imperative, especially to maintaining simplicity.

  19. So you changed your focus and gained motivation. The extreme focus is still there though now, right? The focus isn't what led to you being pigeon holed or bored or stuck. It was lack of motivation, no?

  20. Great thoughts all around Derek. I have been talking about this SO much with my close friends lately – the idea that ACTION really is everything. There's SO much talk out there that it's easy to get caught up in the complexity – it's easier than ever to lose focus, pay attention to things that don't matter, etc. As of late, I have been focusing much more on ACTIONS rather than words (the old creed about them speaking louder really does ring true). All those folks who are sitting at the top, as you say – you don't see them talking about being at the top (for the most part) – you see them making things happen. Creating. Innovating. Moving and shaking.

    Love your perspective. Hope all is well my friend.

  21. You don't HAVE to focus on ONE thing to be successful. You shouldn't focus on a million different things and spread yourself to thin, but it's also silly to limit yourself. We can agree to disagree, and that's perfectly OK by me. My blog does not focus on ONE topic and I am very happy with where I am both personally and professionally. A blog should be an extension of yourself – and as humans, we inherently have more than one interest, thus, it's perfectly fine to have more than one narrow focus.

  22. You are awesome.

    Is it true you're coming to Chicago soon? If so, I owe you a beer. Please specify time/place/beer preference. Thank you :)

  23. “You don't HAVE to focus on ONE thing to be successful. You shouldn't focus on a million different things and spread yourself to thin, but it's also silly to limit yourself.”

    So which one are you advocating for? Or are you just trying to cover all your bases so you please everyone?

    I think that falls into the everything to everyone category.

  24. Covering my bases? For what reason? Not at all – but to each his own, we're running in circles. My point is exactly what I said. Should you focus on EVERYTHING? No. Should you focus on ONE thing? Not necessarily. You CAN however, focus on several things and still be successful. Several things doesn't mean everything – but maybe that's what it means to you. It's not about being everything to everyone, buddy. It's about being yourself. Again, as with most between you and I, agree to disagree.

  25. Yeah, the draw of conversation only takes you as far as your first awesome
    series of solid action. Then action becomes the pretty girl.

  26. Inspiring post. Simple is a great word. It helps me refocus, pull back and return to what matters most. Like you say, we get distracted by competition, by advice, by life and we stray. Simplicity sheds that baggage.

  27. Complicating a business idea is (quite simply) the fear of getting started. You can come up with memos, meetings, new ideas, and try to figure out every detail or you can get started. I understand that you need to have a great plan to execute, but don't muddy it up or hang it up because you are afraid of failure, or what might happen if you succeed!

  28. Right on. Easier said than done – but simplicity is my solace – It's easy to get caught up in everything that's going on around you, but at the end of the day, simple focus can and does go a long, long way.

  29. I agree with you that there is a such thing as OVER-planning. Planning and plotting is important and key to focus and achieving goals, but you can just as easily get caught up in he planning stage and never quite make it to the point of implementation or action. Talk less, do more…that's the mantra I follow.

    Thanks for the comment, Courtney.

  30. Well , the view of the passage is totally correct ,your details is really reasonable and you guy give us valuable informative post, I totally agree the standpoint of upstairs. I often surfing on this forum when I m free and I find there are so much good information we can learn in this forum!

  31. Definitely without a doubt simplicity is the key to success though simplicity is also a artform, one that need to be honed and refined over many revisions.

  32. Interesting post, thread and discussion. Ironically one of the most complicating things I find in my life is the vastness of noise and chatter and demands of time to consume the social media that has become a way of life for so many of us now. e.g. I was on facebook quite a lot for several months because I was afraid to disengage and miss something… but i'm old enough to remember what life was like before everyone had cell phones and profiles and when people picked up a phone to chat instead of texting. (and I'm not that old 40) It was definitely simpler. And all this technology that is meant to simplify our lives and make is so much easier… just seems to add to the complexity. All things in moderation as the Greeks said, I guess. Keep it simple. Must be why I like to get out in nature in a kayak and just listen to the water and the breeze through the trees. sounds good right about now. :)

  33. Matt, I think that what really makes things successful is personal competition – constantly pushing yourself, your service, your product, your business better than it was last week or last year. It is those people and those businesses that look sideways instead of looking back to reevaluate and inspire future progress. This may or may not be simple to achieve (often innovation isn't totally simple), but it makes sure we keep our focus simple and direct, which is what I think Chris Brogan was really emphasizing.

  34. I like this a lot Rachel. Personal competition – yes – I agree this is what the focus should be on – constantly pushing YOURSELF to be YOUR best. If your defining yourself and your success based on what everyone is doing around you, your going to forever hold yourself back…