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The rule that took Amazon and Twitter from startups to mega businesses

Twitter founder Evan Williams and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took their small startups to world-class companies. (Images: Getty)

Amazon and Twitter are both successful companies that evolved from very humble beginnings.

One started as an online bookshop, while the other was a "microblogging" service that limited posts to 140 characters.

Although they hardly overlap in functionality, they each followed one common rule to grow and eventually dominate their worlds: Gall's Law.

The law comes from US author Robert Gall, who wrote a book called "General Systemantics" in the 1970s.

The idea is that a good complex system always originates from a foolproof smaller system.

"A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked,” reads the often-quoted passage.

"A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system."

Both Amazon and Twitter followed this philosophy to stop their systems from getting bloated with annoying features. They added new functionality as they witnessed customer behaviours.

Twitter, when it started in 2006, only allowed users to publish posts of maximum 140 characters – nothing more, nothing less. 

It had no retweet, reply or hashtagging functions.

According to a CBInsights report, it was only after users tried to mimic retweeting and replying within the constraints of the system when the company introduced them as functionality.

"As co-founder Evan Williams put it, it wasn’t even clear 'what [Twitter] was' in those early days, and the product took several turns before settling on what it is now," stated CBInsights in its report.

It wouldn't have been far-fetched for Twitter to have thought users might want sharing and replying. 

"But cultivating an openness to what users actually did, rather than assuming they knew exactly what to build, was key to how Twitter developed into the product it would become."

What happens if you ignore Gall's Law?

So what happens if you try to put in all the bells and whistles too quickly?

ICQ is what you have.

Older folks would remember ICQ in the 1990s as the first messaging – and arguably a social media – product that found mainstream fame.

The software caught fire with the public late last century and boasted more than 100 million accounts at its peak in 2001, according to CBInsights, during a time when not everyone had home internet access.

Then it all went downhill.

"ICQ started branching out from its core utility by adding features around shopping, music, games, and even careers – resulting in a busy interface that felt removed from the purpose of the product," stated the CBInsights report.

Just a few years later, Facebook took its place in the zeitgeist where ordinary people connected online.

Dropbox co-founder and chief Drew Houston gave his take in 2010 while answering a question on Quora.

"ICQ became so comically bloated that they released an 'ICQ Lite' version, but by then they were already on the decline," he said.

"In fact, feature bloat is how most consumer web and desktop products suffocate themselves: portals (Yahoo, MSN, AOL, etc), social networks aside from Facebook (Friendster, MySpace), file sharing (Kazaa vs Kazaa Lite) and media players (Winamp)."

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