Jason Fried at INDUSTRY 2017
Basecamp CEO Jason Fried talks about ideas with Paul McAvinchey, co-founder of Product Collective, at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference in September 2017.
The Full Transcript
Wailin: [00:00:00] Welcome to a special bonus episode of Rework. In September, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried was invited to speak at Industry, the product conference in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. You can find out more about the conference at IndustryConference.com. They were kind enough to let us share his talk with our listeners, so here it is. A discussion on ideas with Jason Fried and Paul McAvinchey who’s the co-founder of Product Collective, which puts on the conference every year.
Paul: [00:00:28] All right, Jason. This is a huge stage to have two small chairs. But it’s good. It’s fitting to have you here on this big stage, so—
Jason: [00:00:37] Thanks for having me.
Paul: [00:00:38] I appreciate you coming to be a part of this.
Jason: [00:00:40] Sure.
Paul: [00:00:40] So, we’re talking about ideation today so I’d really love to kind of dig into that, to the concept of ideas. And so, I’d like to kind of set a stage a little bit. There’s nearly 700 people here, right? I get most of my ideas when I’m on a run or in a shower. And I’m sure there was many ideas formed this morning and there will be many ideas formed over the next two days. In your opinion, where are these ideas coming from?
Jason: [00:01:12] Um, similar places, actually. So I think there’s kind of different kinds of ideas, right? Big ideas, for me at least, come from the shower. The walk. Sleeping. Stuff that, you know, stuff I’m not working on. That’s where the big thoughts come from. And then the little thoughts come from, the little ideas come from actually doing the work. So, getting into the work. Playing with it. Looking at it. Being dissatisfied with something. Not knowing why. Turning it around. Figuring it out.
[00:01:38] And so, you have the big idea somewhere else. Then, you come to work and work on the little ideas. That’s how I’ve always done it and how I think it works best for us.
Paul: [00:01:46] And so, when you think of a spark, you know, something that just jumps at you. Is there a distinction for you? Or how do you make a distinction between a spark, almost the introduction, and a fully-formed idea which might be Basecamp, for instance?
Jason: [00:02:01] Sure. The idea is not fully formed until it launches is kind of my thought. It’s still evolving constantly until we put it out there. And then, of course, it still evolves after that. But, I don’t think I’m capable of coming to anything with a fully-formed idea. I think I’m capable of coming to something with an initial idea. A concept, a framework. An area of interest to explore. And then, as we get into it the idea fills out.
[00:02:33] So, we’ve never believed in speccing things out ahead of time or in knowing where we’re going. Like, as a company, Basecamp, we only plan for the next six weeks. That’s it. There’s no—I don’t know what we’re doing next year. I don’t know what we’re doing in December. I know what we’re doing over the next six weeks, and that’s it. That’s how we’ve always done it. So, it’s impossible for us to have fully formed big ideas because we can only work on them six weeks at a time. So, that’s kind of how we do it. We just kind of step our way through and figure it out as we go.
Paul: [00:03:01] What’s the disadvantage of not allowing your ideas to fully form?
Jason: [00:03:08] That’s a really good question. My take on it is that to make decisions, you need to be close to the thing you’re deciding. I think the further away you are from the thing you’re actually deciding on, the less accurate it’s gonna be because the information you have isn’t as accurate when it’s far away. It’s like, right now, you and I? We know what we’re doing right now. But ten minutes ago, we didn’t know. And two days ago we didn’t know, and a month ago we didn’t necessarily know. So, you asked this question because of something I just answered. And so, that’s when I think you make the best decisions, is when you’re in the information itself, when you’re right there.
[00:03:52] So, I think that you’re kind of lying to yourself if you think that you can fully form an idea way ahead of time. You can fully form—I should say, you can fully form an idea, but it’s probably not the best one. The best one comes when you’re doing the work and actually implementing the thing that you’re building.
Paul: [00:04:07] So it appears that you’re saying that you need some amount of context to create ideas that matter.
Jason: [00:04:17] You need context to complete the ideas. You don’t necessarily need context to initiate the idea. You have like, the big idea in the shower. There’s no context there. Or, hopefully there’s no—I don’t know. Whatever. Maybe there is. But then, you need to—as you go, you fill it in. And I think only when you put it out there—only when customers can actually use a thing for real. When you ship it, and it’s out there in the world is the idea then closed. Not that it can’t be re-opened, because you do. But only that moment do you actually know if it’s any good. You know nothing about if it’s any good until it hits the market. And I would even argue that you know nothing about if it’s any good until you put a price on it and people buy it. Because, until then, if it’s free, sure everyone likes it. But, when you have to trade money for something, then people make value judgments and value decisions and they have to trade something off. Which is the $50 that I made here, I now need to give to you, and that’s the moment of truth that I think you need to get to. That’s the only time the idea is fully closed.
Paul: [00:05:21] So, most of the people here are in the business of making products for money. With the way you’re looking at it, is there a chance you’re being too mercenary with the idea of ideas and you may be at a point where you’re not allowing a creative idea to be nurtured for the sake of trying to establish a product in a market by selling something?
Jason: [00:05:46] I don’t think there’s a separation. I actually—I should say I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I don’t think because you charge for something that means it’s less creative or that you can’t do something great because there’s a business model behind it. I just don’t buy into that. But I understand that’s something some people think. To me, the price and selling something is just confirmation of whether or not it’s any good. And until then, you just don’t know. Your friends will tell you it’s great. You might test it. They might tell you it’s great. A lot of people love to tell you it’s great, until they have to actually decide if they want to buy it or not. That’s the only moment you actually know.
[00:06:25] So, I think you can be wildly creative or not creative at all, it doesn’t really matter so much. The moment of truth is what does the market actually think about this thing, and that’s only when you put a price on it.
Paul: [00:06:34] So, when—how many staff do you have, again?
Jason: [00:06:37] We have 56 people.
Paul: [00:06:38] 56. And just as an aside, that’s an incredibly small number of people for a major software company.
Jason: [00:06:44] It is.
Paul: [00:06:44] And maybe we can touch on that a little bit later. But, say, Joe Bloggs, one of your employees, comes to you and says, Jason, I had this idea in the shower and it’s wildly creative. What do you say to him? Do you say, hey look, let’s get it out in front of somebody and see if somebody will buy it? Or how do you allow him to nurture it to a point that kind of gets to what you’re saying?
Jason: [00:07:08] Yeah, I would—first of all, I’d say, what is it? And we’d talk about it. And, you know, is it something we could build into Basecamp as it is? Is it a separate product? If it’s a separate product, we don’t really currently do separate products, we just do Basecamp, so, it sort of depends on… I might suggest it as a side project for that person or…
[00:07:26] But, let’s say it’s in the context of Basecamp. Let’s say someone’s like, I’ve got this new idea for To-Dos, what do you think? We would talk about it. Hash it out. Sometimes it dies there. Sometimes it grows there. Sometimes it’s put on the shelf for later. Sometimes we dive right into it and do it. I don’t really know. There’s no predetermined path for ideas. You hear something and you go, shit, that was—that’s really thoughtful. That’s really interesting. Sometimes you hear it, yep, conceptionally I like it but here’s some practical implications that probably make it not as good as it sounds when it hits the street.
[00:08:05] But, I think you need to protect ideas and give them room before you crush them. They’re very easy to crush. And, I think you really need to give ideas space. But, you know, at 56 people, we don’t have room to just explore ideas all day. Some companies with hundreds or thousands of people might have a whole R&D department that’s significantly bigger than our whole company. So, we can’t just—we’re very practical because we can’t just explore all the time. We have to make things that our customers want, and make things that we want.
[00:08:36] So, there’s room for ideas to turn into something. There’s room for ideas to be put on hold. I’m always interested in hearing them, but I think ultimately very few should get through because very few are any good. And that includes my own. I mean, ultimately we probably have a handful of good ideas in our lives. So, just because you’re riffing, and iterating, and brainstorming, doesn’t mean you’re going to end up anywhere.
[00:08:59] I think sometimes people confuse the creative process with—they think an idea has to come out at the end that’s viable. But sometimes you just talk about it for an hour or two and it just sort of—yeah. Even if it was your idea, you’re like, you know, yeah. It doesn’t—there’s nothing there. There was a very, very thin veneer, but there’s no depth. And if there’s no depth, then it just kind of dies, and that’s fine, too.
Paul: [00:09:18] So, playing off your comments you made, and I’m—I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but, my understanding is that you have to put yourself… you have to have the right context to come up with good ideas and I kind of remembered the idea of 95% sweat, 5% inspiration. So, knowing that a person is in a better situation to make better ideas if they’re in the right context, how do you organize your staff based on the quality or the context, or the amount of context that those employees have? Like, are you immediately saying, hey Joe Bloggs, he doesn’t have the right amount of experience so his ideas aren’t as legitimate. Or, they’re not worth as much time to explore?
Jason: [00:10:03] Yeah, anyone is free to submit ideas. We have a place in Basecamp where you can post an idea and share it with the rest of the company. And we invite everyone to do this every six weeks, actually. What we don’t want are constant ideas being put out there. What I want people to do is just have an idea. Great. Think about it. Sleep on it. Let it marinate. Figure out like… the next morning has a way of telling the truth that the previous night does not. So, it’s like, you kind of. If you get a great idea, just wait ‘til tomorrow. Is it still any good? Are you still as excited about it?
[00:10:41] So, roughly every five to six weeks, people post their ideas. We call them pitches internally, and anyone can do it in the company, and many many people do from all sorts of different groups. But, they’re supposed to write it up in detail. Which means, I want you to think about it. I want you to present it in full as best you can. But we don’t want are just like, hey, what do think of this? Hey, what do you think of this? Hey, what do you think of this? Hey, what do you think of this? All the time. Because it’s actually pretty demoralizing just to throw a bunch of ideas out because you can’t do them all anyway. So, I want people to think about them, write them up, present them to the company and then that’s the way to give them their best shot. To see if they’re going to go anywhere. And these ideas can come from anyone and ultimately, it’s me and a couple other people who decide what we do and what we don’t. But the ideas bubble up from all over the place.
[00:11:26] But I do want them fully formed initially. Of course, they’re going to change as they go, but fully formed initially, so they’re not just like, hey, what do you think of this? Because I think that that sends things off in the wrong direction and there’s not enough depth to it and people take it a bunch of different ways and it fizzles out. I don’t want it to fizzle out. I want there to be an ember that stays lit for as long as it can, and I think the way to do that is to have a certain amount of mass in the flame. Or, in the fire. So you can’t blow it out easily. You can blow out an idea when someone just throws it out there, hey, what do you think of this? But if someone’s put together a whole thing and thoughtfully presented it, it’s hard to blow that out unless there’s really nothing there.
Paul: [00:12:04] Beyond—and I know one of your only investors is Jeff Bezos, right?
Jason: [00:12:07] Yes.
Paul: [00:12:07] And so, he is famed for having people present a press release as a—as the product idea, so you can kind of know the story. So, I think that kind of sounds like something similar, but I’m wondering, when you say mass. What is it beyond a stack of paper sitting on Basecamp, or whatever, how do you continue to nurture that idea as a team? Or, is it expected for the person with the idea to be more proactive about keeping it as a mass. Keeping it as a current subject for discussion?
Jason: [00:12:42] It’s a combination of many things. So, some ideas are posted and pitched that are just so obvious that we should do them that we just do them the next cycle of work. So, we work in these six week cycles, so we don’t—one thing we don’t ever do is drop everything to do something else. Six weeks, at the end of six weeks, we take two weeks off of work. Not of work-work, but of planned work and we talk about ideas. Talk about thoughts, talk about ideas. People can pick off little things. People can basically freelance inside of the company for two weeks every six weeks. And then we talk about this stuff.
[00:13:16] And some things are so obvious that we put them on the slate for the next cycle. Some things are really good but not baked enough yet, so we talk about them, see if we can bake them for the next couple weeks to get somewhere where we feel comfortable getting into it. And then some things, we’re like, this is a great—there’s something here, but we’re not ready yet to do it. It’s not fully formed enough.
[00:13:39] What we don’t want to do, is we don’t want to commit to doing work that isn’t fully formed enough, because then it becomes exploratory work and there’s a good chance we’ll get nowhere with it, practically. Like, we won’t be able to ship something at the end of the six weeks.
[00:13:54] So, it all depends, which is a lame answer, but it just does all depend on how obvious something is, how well presented it was, what the pitch was about. Are we solving—why are we doing this? Not just, is it cool but is there something deeper? Does it fit in with what we want to do? What are the things we cannot do because we would do this? What kind of concrete are we pouring? We talk about concrete a lot in the company, so—
Paul: [00:14:21] And what do you mean by that?
Jason: [00:14:22] Sometimes you make a decision about how people are connected to companies or whatever it might be. In a product. And you’re kind of pouring some concrete that’s very hard to break up and change later. So some decisions you make, they’re like, if we go in this direction, we’re going in this direction for a while. And there are other decisions that are very malleable. It’s like, we can do this, if it doesn’t work, we can do that, no big deal. But, we’re very conscious about the things that might pour concrete, and we’re very careful about taking those on because we don’t want to be stiff.
Paul: [00:14:51] Can you be more specific about the—I won’t say data, because maybe it’s not data but the thing that says, okay, concrete can be poured.
Jason: [00:15:01] Intuition, that’s it. Yeah. Well, actually, it’s a variety of things. Intuition, happiness, like, do we want to—would this make us happy to even build this? Like, would we enjoy this project? Would we use this ourselves? That’s actually probably the number one thing for us is, would we use it ourselves? Because we’re the number one customer for Basecamp, essentially. We built it for ourselves and now other people use it too because they have similar problems and struggles that we have. But we rarely build things that we’re not going to use because we know that we can’t build them as well as we could if we knew we were going to be using them and really understood the problem deeply.
[00:15:42] So, it’s not data. We don’t point to a… 28% say this, say that, whatever. It’s just like, do we want to get into this? Do we want to do this? What are the risks we can imagine, what are the pros we can imagine? And we have a discussion about it, we have a debate about it. And then ultimately someone makes a call and the call is made and then we do it or we don’t. But there’s certain things that we know that we’re doing that are gonna be concrete pours. And we’re careful about it.
Paul: [00:16:11] When you say, “we,” you seem like a fairly diplomatic, nice guy. Are you literally talking about—
Jason: [00:16:19] [crosstalk]
Paul: [00:16:19] Yeah. I don’t know you might be—you’re very confusing. You seem very nice. Are you diplomatic amongst those 56 people where they all, we are “we,” we all make those decisions? Or do you have to be a dictator at times?
Jason: [00:16:38] Yeah, so, I don’t believe in consensus. We’re not looking for consensus. What we’re looking for is a vigorous debate, a discussion about something. And then, depending on whose idea or project it might be, they make a call. And then, Jeff Bezos has written about this too, this idea of disagreeing and committing. So, we’re very big into the idea of disagreeing and committing. So, not about trying to build a consensus. We’re not trying to get everyone to agree. We’re trying to make strong points. Someone makes a call and then you can say, “I disagree with that, but I hope you’re right and let’s make this the best we possibly can.”
[00:17:10] That’s the kind of culture that we have at Basecamp. So, sometimes the decision’s mine, sometimes the decision’s David’s. Sometimes Ryan makes it, sometimes Kristin makes it. It depends on what realm of the business it is and how important it is, whatever it is. And then someone makes the call and that’s that.
[00:17:30] We don’t get around tables and try to convince everybody htat we all have to be unanimous about something. I just don’t believe in that kind of decision making. I don’t think groups—groups don’t actually make decisions. Somebody has to make a decision, so let’s just be honest about that. It’s not that people can’t have a lot of input, and there’s ton of people that have input. But, someone has to make the call.
Paul: [00:17:53] Is there any kind of analogous situations… like, when you say that, I’m kind of thinking of an army where there’s a general who has to make a call right away. Or an astronaut. Is there any kind of analogous situations that you feel like you’re taking inspiration from when you’re acting in that way?
Jason: [00:18:10] It’s probably more like—I imagine like a president or a prime minister or something. Where you’re basically—you have a cabinet and people bring you their thoughts and they try to influence you one way or the other but ultimately it’s on you on the end of the day to make a decision. And whoever that person would be, it’s up to them to make the decision. The general thing—I don’t like that analogy necessarily a general gives orders and the general orders people to do things versus those people bringing the general ideas. It usually doesn’t work that way so much. At our company the ideas kind of come from all over the place and things filter up and filter down, but ultimately someone has to say yes or no, and that’s a person’s job to do.
Paul: [00:18:53] When you first got started, were you any way a general or did you have to grow into the situation you’re in now?
Jason: [00:19:01] Less of a general. I think now that we have 56 people—again, I don’t like general, but I’ll use it—less than 56 people, when we were just three or four or five people, we all just kind of—there was a much tighter dynamic and we just sort of all knew what we were doing the same way. It’s much easier, I think, at that point.
[00:19:19] Business only gets harder, for anyone who’s in a very small business right now, this is the best time of the business. Business gets harder and harder and harder and harder. It doesn’t get easier. So, when people are always saying, well, you know, later. I’ll have more time later. No, you won’t. Things don’t get easier. Things get harder. Primarily because there’s more people involved and any time there’s more people involved, things get harder.
[00:19:41] But when we were much smaller, we all sort of thought the same way. Now, when you have 56 people with different inputs from different places and different experiences. People disagree more on things and you have to make a call. So, at that point, there’s more explanation that’s required when a call is made. And I think that’s the most important thing. When a decision is made, whatever the decision is, it’s important to very clearly communicate why the decision was made. And we’re still learning how to do this, but why it was made, what were the inputs that were considered, why do we say no to these other things, and why are we going in this direction.
[00:20:12] What’s bad is if someone just makes a call. Everyone’s been heard, but someone makes a call and they don’t know why the call was made, then people are like, well, why am I giving input, this is just making calls. Like, who cares. But if you share the full thought process as to why the decision was made, people begin to understand why and I think it’s a much healthier situation.
Paul: [00:20:32] In your mind is there a—when you think of the path that you’re taking, you take an idea and your idea… I kind of see a snake, where you’er going this way and that way. Do you have a visualization of your future journey?
Jason: [00:20:50] Uh, no. I’ve never had that personally or professionally. I don’t have any goals, I’ve never had goals. I’m not trying to do anything or get anywhere. All I’m trying to do is the best I can in any given moment. And that’s all I think I can do. And, so, as far as a long-term vision, like I want to keep doing what I’m doing because I enjoy it today. Will I enjoy it in 10 years? I don’t know. How can I say what I will like in 10 years? Like, people are—I think—people are lying to themselves when they know what they’re gonna want ten years from now. I have a three-year-old son. Ten years ago, I didn’t have a kid and I wasn’t married. My life was so different than it is now, I couldn’t have possibly known what my life was going to be like today, and ten years from now it’s gonna be different again, so I’m just like, what can I do today that’s good. How can I do the best work I can, how can I be the best person I can over the next few days or the next few weeks? That’s about the furthest out that I can see. I think the horizon bends very quickly, very quickly after a few days, a few weeks. And so, if I can do that, then I’m hopefully in a pretty good spot, can be pretty happy, and then if something changes, then something changes. But, who knows what’s gonna happen.
Paul: [00:22:05] What kind of advice would you give a product manager talking to his VP of product who said what you said? Right? What’s your plan, well, I’m pretty good now, I’m going to see how things go. What’s the practical way of dealing with this in a professional role?
Jason: [00:22:22] I think it’s a very honest thing to say, which is, I don’t know. What’s the rush to know things that are unknowable? That’s what I would say. Why are we pretending that we know what’s going to happen? Why can’t we just figure out what we’re going to work on now, keep the time horizon short. Like, in our world it’s six weeks. Could be eight weeks, whatever, doesn’t matter. That’s just the number we picked. Why don’t we do the best we can on that. When that’s done, we come up for air, we look around, we go, oh! There’s a new thing we hadn’t thought of before, let’s do that next.
[00:22:59] To me… if you ever watch—this is going to be a weird analogy—if you ever watch a squirrel, squirrels will run around really fast, they’ll stop, they’ll look around. They’ll go down, they’ll run around really fast, they’ll stop, they’ll look around. They don’t just go. They’re stopping and going and looking, that’s—I mean, it’s weird—that’s kind of how we feel like we are. And I feel like that’s the right way to be, because you move into a new area, a new idea, whatever it is, you have to stop and look around and decide if you’re even going in the right direction versus planning the next 12 ideas. Who knows? Because who knows if the fourth one is gonna impact the seventh one. There’s so much abstraction in the future. The only thing that’s real is now and so I would encourage people just to—to your point. I don’t know how you word it other than saying, like, let’s just be honest with ourselves. We don’t know what we’re gonna want in a year. We know what we want now. We might know what we want in a few months. We have some rough general ideas about what we think we might want later. But let’s focus our energy on what we’re doing right now. That’s all we can do anyway.
[00:24:09] What we imagine doesn’t matter now. It matters when you begin to do it and so that’s how I’ve always been. That’s the advice, if it makes any sense, that’s the advice I would give other people.
Paul: [00:24:15] You said that’s how you’ve always been but was there an event that changed your thinking about this? Or is it something that’s just nature for you?
Jason: [00:24:25] Yeah, actually, I mean, not an event, but a situation or a scenario. I typically have found that whenever you make long-term promises, you regret them. So, this has happened to us a few times in the history of Basecamp where we launch a product. We haven’t built a feature in that people want. People ask for it. It’s February. We go, oh yeah, we’ll do that by the end of the year because, yeah, we’ll do that later this year or by the end of the year, right? Because it’s so easy to promise something later. There’s no work involved in going, yeah, we can do that later.
[00:25:07] And then, it’s July, and you’re like, okay, later’s still a little bit further, it’s August, it’s September, October, November, shit. We made this promise. We wrote it down, like it’s on our website. There’s a roadmap, which we don’t have, but we made this one stop along the roadmap, and now we’re like, fuck. We’ve gotta do this. Why did we promise this? Why? And the point is, it’s not that the idea wasn’t worth doing. It’s that we backed ourselves into a corner for no good reason.
Paul: [00:25:41] But why did you do it?
Jason: [00:25:43] You do it to placate. You do it to make people—there’s a lot of heat. We need this, we need this, we need this and you can’t look away. You’re just like, I can’t handle the heat, so, I’ll just say yes, later. Yes, later is very dangerous. Yes, later is like—that’s the language of regret and pain and a lot of nos to things you want to do. But you do it because it quiets a sound that’s irritating you. And, so, I just think that it’s—you’ve got to be very careful about future promises. And, not only to customers, but to yourself. And that’s why I don’t like road maps. That’s why I don’t like thinking out two years because you’re in a sense making a promise about what you’re going to do. You’re probably going to regret it.
Paul: [00:26:35] Are you going to come across as flighty because you do not have a roadmap or are you going to come across flighty if you set a goal and not reach it. Or does that even matter in your situation?
Jason: [00:26:46] I just don’t—I don’t care. I don’t—I’m not a big fan of setting goals. We’re not goal driven at the business. WE don’t have revenue goals we want to hit or user growth goals or any—we don’t have any goals other than, let’s do the best work we can and create an environment where people can do the best work of their careers. And we want to be profitable as we have been for 18 years. So, I think we’re—those are the things. As far as if it’s this number or that number it doesn’t really matter to us. So, as far as being flighty about not having the—it’s not a thing. And every time we’ve had this fake goal post…
[00:27:28] Look, this is all artificial. Everything we do is fake, okay? What I mean by that is that we make it all up. Basecamp doesn’t have to exist in the world. Your product doesn’t have to exist in the world. This is all something we made up anyway, and so, why make up these more fake things that are goalposts for things we think we want to hit for some reason that we don’t know. Or maybe we’re promising someone else. We don’t have—Jeff’s not really technically an investor, he bought a piece of the company. But like, a lot of people have to make investors happy. I get all that, which is why we didn’t do any of that, because I don’t want to have to make someone else happy who’s already a billionaire. What do I—why—who cares?
[00:28:11] Like, that’s what it is. When you take on investors, you’re making billionaires richer and then you’re absorbing all the stress and all the stuff to make someone who’s already loaded slightly more loaded. Doesn’t—not for me.
[00:28:29] Anyway, now I’m totally—I forgot what we were talking about, so I’ll stop.
Paul: [00:28:34] Well, I can jump into something else.
Jason: [00:28:33] Okay.
Paul: [00:28:35] You’re building—the ideas that you have are for a product that you’re building for yourself. That’s a very—I can’t say it’s a fortunate position because it seems like it’s luck, but I would imagine that most of the people in the audience today are not necessarily building products for themselves. They’re building it for a nurse or a dog.
Jason: [00:28:58] Sure.
Paul: [00:28:58] So, how do you—it could be. I bet there is. How do you apply what you’re teaching there to somebody who is doing that?
Jason: [00:29:12] So, first of all, I think it’s harder, much harder, to build for other people because you’re judging quality and fit by proxy. What I mean by that is that they have to tell you if it’s right or wrong, and that means they have to use language. Or emotion. And these are hard things to translate sometimes. So, someone might go, oh this is great, but it’s not. Or they might go, I don’t like it because of this, but it’s not really because of this, it’s because of that. They just don’t know how to explain that because that’s not their job. Their job is not to explain the nuances of product. So, it’s very difficult, okay? So, I just want to—if you can avoid building things for other people… now we’ve built things for other people. We’ve built things for our customers, but we built things for ourselves first. We’re in it together, basically just for them, kind of. Is a way to think about it.
[00:30:04] The best thing I can encourage you to do is to get to know the people you’re doing things for and not—don’t ask them about your product. Get to know what they struggle with on a daily basis at work. Or, if it’s a dog, that might be hard. But, if it’s—the dog owner.
Paul: [00:30:19] I was talking about the dog owner—
Jason: [00:30:19] I hear you.
Paul: [00:30:19] In fairness.
Jason: [00:30:21] I hear you. You’ve gotta understand their day and what they’re dealing with, not in a vacuum. So, a lot of companies will talk to the customers and they’ll talk about their product all day long. The product is not what someone’s struggling with. Someone’s trying to do something. Someone’s trying to make progress on something. I think Bob Moesta, who’s gonna talk this afternoon will probably talk about this stuff. About progress and the jobs people are trying to get done. The things they hire products to do. This is really important thinking that’s changed our thinking quite a bit.
[00:30:52] And so, you’ve just got to talk to people but not talk about yourself. Companies are so good at talking about themselves. But what do you think about this feature? What do you think about that feature? Those features—it’s not about the features. It’s what are they trying to do.
[00:31:02] So, you’ve gotta do the best you can to truly understand them as best you can. But also understand that they’re still—something’s gonna be lost in translation. So, if you can become more like them, you’re in better shape than I think the alternative, which is just doing things for them.
[00:31:24] So, for example, I think this is really cool. I think MailChimp did this, or is doing this. They opened a retail shop because a lot of their customers are retail customers. And so, they don’t know anything about retail, really. I think I’m telling this story accurately. They’re opening or they opened a retail shop just so they could understand what that whole world is like. What it’s like to check someone out at the register and like, to capture their email address and to follow up—
[00:31:49] They didn’t really know, so they built that. And I think that’s a really cool way to do iit as well. Become more like your customers.
Paul: [00:31:53] So, it seems like jumping back to the ability to come up with good ideas when we’re talking about context is the ability to understand those customers at a deep level.
Jason: [00:32:05] And I want to actually correct myself in a sense, here. Because I think context is important for ideas, but also, I think being far out of context is important for ideas as well. So, it depends. Context is important when you’re working on the thing but I think it’s great to—for example, I don’t look at my industry for inspiration, ever. I don’t look—and I don’t think anyone in industry should look at the industry for inspiration, because you’re going to end up copying.
[00:32:31] I walk into a building like this and I’m blown away by it. And I look at the details. And, why am I blown away by it? What is it? Is it? It’s so many things. It’s the scale, it’s the size, it’s the colors, it’s the fact that they chose different color glass up here. It’s the way it’s painted and the reliefs and the gold leaf and whatever is here.
[00:32:49] I look at this stuff, architecture, which is way out of context from software development, technically, but really it’s the same. A space is a tool. I make a tool. Space feels like something. Our tools feel like something. And people come here for a reason and they come to Basecamp for a reason, and when I look at things like this, I try to study these details versus, like, the top ten apps in the app store. I don’t care. It doesn’t—that’s not where I look for inspiration.
[00:33:16] So, what I’m saying is, is that, technically I’m way out of context when I’m looking at this, or when I’m walking—when I go to a botanical garden or something and I look at the leaves and the shapes and the colors and the textures. That informs me on thinking about color moreso than, like, what is this other app doing with color? I don’t care what the other app is doing with color. Like, what has nature done? It’s kind of figured it out. What has nature done? How many different variations are there out there and why does yellow and purple look so damn good together when it’s next to this light green? Like, I don’t need to know, I just know that it’s true because it’s in nature. So that’s where—that’s how I’m out of context to make some of these decisions.
Paul: [00:33:54] For a web app that I created once, you came out with—I think you had a blog about the process you went through to create a home page that was very much focused on a picture of the user and all this business. So, I totally stole idea and made our web app look exactly the same. So, how do you prevent—no, you’re not going to prevent people from doing this, right?
Jason: [00:34:19] You can’t.
Paul: [00:34:19] But, if people are always on your heels, are—is this ever going to trip you up? Are you going to be moving fast enough? Is this whole process going to slow you down too much?
Jason: [00:34:32] I used to care a lot—in the early days, a lot of people copied us, and it used to really eat at me. And then, it just—at some point you realize you can’t do anything about it anyway. And I don’t think it’s flattery. I don’t buy into that either. I just don’t care because what can I do about it? You can’t worry about things you can’t control. What, am I going to send lawyers after everybody? I’m not that person who sends lawyers after anybody. I don’t sign contracts, I’m not into that kind of stuff. I don’t like the legal sides of business at all.
[00:35:07] So, they’re gonna copy it? They’re gonna copy it. But here’s the problem with copying. The problem with copying is you don’t understand why something was done the way it was done, so what you get is a moment in time but you don’t know where to take it. So, now you’re—then you become a follower. So, you copy, and then you follow, and then you’re never gonna. You don’t get anywhere, I don’t think. You’re kind of always stuck behind something.
[00:35:33] We’re proud that Basecamp looks like—when we release new versions of Basecamp, they look like nothing else. And some people would say, well, they don’t look like the current trends, and I would say you’re absolutely right. We want Basecamp to be quirky and a little bit unusual all the time. And do some weird stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense in the current world. Because that’s just an idea that we have that we’re comfortable with. We don’t want to chase and follow.
[00:36:00] I just think that you cheat yourself. When you copy—it’s one thing when you’re learning something new, copying is a great way to break down the—mechanically if you copy something, you can understand how this works into this, and this pushes this, and this gear does this, and whatever. But when you’re copying a design, you don’t understand the thinking behind it.
[00:36:20] When you copy someone’s HTML and break it down for example, or CSS. Then, you can tweak things and you go, oh, I see why they did it this way, because it’s like a mechanical connection, if I change this number, this happens. But if you copy a visual look, you don’t understand why. I think you’re just hurting yourself technically. So, I just don’t care when people copy us and I had to get over it, though. It took me a while.
[00:36:40] And I see people who are new get really frustrated when someone copies them or steals something. And I’m like, your ideas probably aren’t original either. Very few people have—I don’t feel like we have original ideas either. Ideas are out there. You pull something that you think makes sense at the time that you do it. As long as you understand why you’re doing it, I think that’s all that matters.
Paul: [00:37:00] People here are going to be exposed to many different products on stage and out here. What would you say to them when they see something that we need to have that. What should—
Jason: [00:37:13] You mean like someone’s product, like the competitor has something that they…
Paul: [00:37:17] Yes, say they’re in analytics and there’s another analytics thing, and said, we’re missing that, we need it. What—how do you take a step back and start thinking originally?
Jason: [00:37:26] The first thing I would say—how do you know? There’s a lot of stuff in your product, in my product, that we thought were great ideas that people don’t use. And so, when you see someone else’s product and you’re like, oh my god! That’s fucking great. You don’t know. It may suck. It may not be used at all. It may be almost right. There’s a tendency to look at a competitor’s product and people get nervous and so they think they have to have that. But then you’re just building their—someone else’s product.
[00:38:01] That’s not to say you shouldn’t be inspired by an idea that’s great. But, to say that you should have it circumvents the understanding. Like, why haven’t you come to that conclusion already? Maybe you have and it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe your customers are different.
[00:38:16] We also tend to assume that everyone’s customers are the same. There’s a lot of striation and variation in customer bases and just because you’re in the analytics business and you’re in the analytics business doesn’t mean you share customers and that your customers are the same. So, because they have it, like, for example, most of our customers are small business owners. Fewer than ten people, okay? A lot of the people in our industry, in our space, or whatever you want to call it, they build enterprise software. They love going after big companies. I don’t give a shit about big companies. I don’t care about big companies. I don’t want big companies as our customers technically. Luckily there are very few small—or very few big companies, and many, many, many small. Five million plus small businesses in the United States, and a few hundred big guys that everyone wants. Take ‘em. I’ll go after the Fortune Five Million. You can have the Fortune 500.
[00:39:10] So, when I see a competitor’s product and they have this amazing thing. Well, they might have the amazing thing for the enterprise customer. My customers may not give a shit about that at all because they have different struggles and different problems and different things they have to deal with. So, I just think my point is it’s very important to—you don’t want to close your eyes. But you also don’t want to get worked up over something that you don’t really know if it’s any good.
[00:39:33] I’ve seen people write articles about Basecamp, about our website or whatever. And they’re like, brilliant idea, and then we A/B test something, and it’s like that brilliant idea was a shit idea. But it looked great because they didn’t know. And so—I hear people talking about some things that we’re doing that are great and I’m like, actually they’re not so great.
[00:39:53] But how would you know? You don’t know unless you do your own—you build it yourself and find out and really know your customers. So, anyway. Does that make sense? I mean, am I?
Paul: [00:40:03] Does this make sense?
Jason: [00:40:04] You get that? Okay. Well, I don’t know.
Paul: [00:40:07] It’s a big room.
Jason: [00:40:08] Make sure you know your customers. Build for them and not someone else’s customers.
Paul: [00:40:11] So, let’s say, if somebody in the audience has found themselves in a situation where they’re like, oh, our product is pretty much Basecamp and it seems like it’s pretty much the same customer. You have, is it two and a half million accounts?
Jason: [00:40:27] We have a few million users. We have about 130,000 paying companies, monthly, that pay for Basecamp.
Paul: [00:40:32] So…
Jason: [00:40:33] But users, there can be tens or dozens or a hundred users per, so that’s where that bigger number comes from.
Paul: [00:40:39] So, I’m going to ask you to give away a secret here, but how do you—and they’re smaller, imagine this, how do you attack Basecamp by doing ideas better?
Jason: [00:40:52] So, if you’re trying to beat Basecamp or something like that?
Paul: [00:40:57] Yeah.
Jason: [00:40:57] Yeah, I think—I mean, I will always tell people to underdo someone else. Like, underdo the competition. Everyone’s obsessed with outdoing the competition. Add more stuff. More. Underdo. The market is always the biggest at the low end. People always miss this. I don’t know why. Everyone’s going upmarket all the time. The market is biggest at the low end. People who are basically, for us, it’s like, people are like, you guys compete with this company or that company. No, we pretty much compete with emails, phone calls, in-person meetings. Losing shit. Shit slipping through the cracks. A business owner not knowing what the hell is going on in their business. These aren’t software problems. These are just problems people deal with when they’re working with groups of people. And so, any one of our competitors has a tiny overall slice of the market ultimately because the market—they’re moving up into areas. The biggest market is the people who don’t use anything at all and are struggling just to do the basic shit, which is what everyone’s struggling with.
[00:42:01] So, I would say if you want to be Basecamp, like, Basecamp does—let’s say Basecamp does 15 things? Do three of them better. Or four of them better, or whatever. Whatever. But the point is, underdo. Simplify. I think you have a hard time going wrong by that. Companies always make things more complicated as they go. Which is why we build a brand new version of Basecamp every four years from scratch. We keep the old ones around for people to use them, but we always start from scratch roughly every four years to build a brand-new version so we, ourselves, have to start over. Because you accumulate things and scars and mass and features that you can’t turn off. And if you just—if you’re on one constat roll, your product becomes really complicated and big.
[00:42:49] So, when we get to start over every four years, we get to start small again.
Paul: [00:42:52] Interesting.
Jason: [00:42:52] Yeah.
Paul: [00:42:54] I’ll ask one more question.
Jason: [00:42:54] Sure.
Paul: [00:42:54] Kind of more of a broad thing. Ten years ago, what would you say to yourself in regards to the process of building products. What would you just shout at your future self?
Jason: [00:43:10] I don’t know if this is about products, but it kind of—most of the stuff you’re going to worry about doesn’t matter anyway. Is probably what I would say. Either this competitior or this decision or this hire or whatever. Most of that stuff that you just worry about doesn’t matter. So, I think it’s just a—to me that’s just a little bit of a confidence-inspiring thing. There’s so many things in your head, most of them don’t really matter that much anyway. There’s a few things that probably matter and you’re probably, hopefully worrying about those, but you’re probably worrying about other stuff too. There’s that.
[00:43:51] The other one is be very very very careful what you say yes to. When you say yes to something, you’re saying no to hundreds of things. When you say no to something, you’re saying no to one thing. And actually, no is a more precise answer. And you can decide one by one what to say no to, versus when you say yes, you’re saying no to a lot of things, because now you’re doing something which means you can’t do other things. So I think thinking about the precision of the answer is very important and it gives you a lot more control to be good with no and to be very rare with yes.
Paul: [00:44:29] Awesome.
Jason: [00:44:28] Yeah.
Paul: [00:44:30] Well, this has been great, Jason, thanks.
Jason: [00:44:31] Yeah.
Paul: [00:44:31] Round of applause, please, for Jason Fried.
[00:44:35] Applause, and fade out.