New Ideas Must Use Old Buildings

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Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Secco Pagliaro; photo by the author

In her seminal work on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote:

As for really new ideas of any kind — no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be — there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

I’ve always loved this quote. Jacobs was writing about the economics of urban building construction, but her thesis — that everything new owes a debt of gratitude to, and in many cases is dependent on, everything old — rings true in just about every circumstance.

Quite literally, in the early days software startups lease office space in old, less-than-glamorous buildings because they cannot afford anything nicer. (The CEO of a former customer used to judge vendors by the thickness of the carpets in their offices. Too plush, he reasoned, and the company wasn’t spending its money wisely.) Amazon Web Services is at this point an “old building” — a preexisting foundation without which the greatest software companies of the last decade may not have succeeded. Isaac Newton would have described this as “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Jacobs’ thesis was on my mind as I prepared to take on a new challenge. Jason M. Lemkin has written about how we’re entering a golden age of SaaS: the playbook has been written and refined, and there are more people who have done it successfully than ever before (although competition to hire those people is intense). And yet, time and again one hears horror stories about new executives coming in, changing everything that works and is unique about a company (because they “have a playbook that works”), and failing. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself — I know I have.

What works and is unique about a company is, to use Jacobs’ metaphor, old buildings. You won’t be successful without them. It’s easy to find things that aren’t working; it’s harder — and I would argue somewhat counterintuitive — to focus instead on what is working, so that the company can do more of it. For example, key positions may be filled by people who lack the experience you’re accustomed to seeing for the role. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing amazing work. Similarly, some processes may not align cleanly with your preconceptions of “best practice.” That alone isn’t a good reason to abandon them.

The photograph at the top of this post is from a recent dinner party. The producer of the wine, Paolo Bea, has refined its craft over many decades, and the dinner was an opportunity to experience this progression over the course of nine vintages. What the wines showed was a continuous refinement of what worked. Improvements have been made over time — new ideas — but always housed in old buildings. It’s a model that executives taking on new challenges might consider following. I know I will.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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