Rework Mailbag 4
Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are back in the studio to answer your questions. This edition of Mailbag includes topics like why big companies don’t use Basecamp; how they managed the transition from a web design agency to a product company; and what their business partnership means to them. Kristin Aardsma from Basecamp Support also pops in to answer a question about how her team maintains fast response times while making time for breaks.
If you have a question you’d like answered on the next Mailbag, leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850!
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:00:02] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong
Shaun: [00:00:07] And I’m Shaun Hildner. It is that time again for another mailbag episode. Listeners just like you have called or written in with questions for Basecamp co-founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson and in fact other people here at Basecamp.
Wailin: [00:00:23] Thanks for everyone who sent in questions. We unfortunately were not able to get to all of them, but we might save some of them for a future episode. And remember you can always call and leave us a voicemail with new questions at (708) 628-7850. We’ll kick things off with a question for David.
Adam: [00:00:46] My name is Adam Greco. I have a high school senior who’s going off to college next year studying computer science and I wondered what advice you would give to an incoming college freshman so that they can enter the tech workforce is prepared as possible. Thank you so much.
David: [00:01:04] First of all, I don’t really know. I never went into computer science per se. I mean I had a joint degree that technically said computer science, but really was information technology. I think a lot of it goes into do you just want to make computers do stuff? And if so, is computer science actually what do you want to do? Computer science is like the science of computers. There’s a whole lot of making stuff with computers that isn’t about the science of computers. So, I think sometimes it’s almost like the default path that you just think, okay, I like computers, I like programming. I should do computer science. But oftentimes that’s not it at all. I mean, I don’t actually like computer science at all. I don’t like figuring out algorithms that much. I don’t like a lot of a compiler theory. I don’t like a lot of those deep science topics.
[00:02:01] But I love programming. I love making stuff with computers. So I think first of all, the question you should ask yourself is, is computer science really the thing you want. Is learning about compilers and algorithms and so forth? Is that really what you’re excited about? If so, awesome. Computer science is absolutely the place to figure that out. If not, there’s other ways and means to learn about how to make stuff with computers.
[00:02:27] And in fact, computer science might actually turn you off that. I worked with a number of people in my degree, which was the Information Technology and Business degree. When we got to the programming parts, we started at a fairly low level and that level was just too low to interest a lot of people. They got turned off making things with computers because the entry was so hard. And the entrance to computer science really is hard. Like it is a full-on stem science-y topic to learn. Which means very difficult material to get into. So, I’d start with the fundamental question is computer science really what you want? And if so I don’t really have a lot for you. I didn’t do the hard stuff of computer science so you have to ask someone else but figure out if it’s what you want first.
Matt: [00:03:22] Hi, my name’s Matt Brown and really is what are the top two reasons why big companies aren’t using Basecamp? We had a lot of outdated tools, typically on the Microsoft side and it’s very frustrating doing a lot of work about work and I think Basecamp eliminate some of that. But I’d love to see it in other larger companies including my own. So, yeah, that’s it. Thank you.
Jason: [00:03:52] Yeah, well we don’t know for sure, but we have some theories, I would say One is, is that we don’t really have a sales team, sales crew. And I think a lot of big companies want to talk to someone as you kind of expect and we don’t have a phone number. And also our pricing set up, like, all of our language on our site isn’t really about enterprise, so there’s no word enterprise on there, I don’t think. We don’t say contact us if you have more than a thousand employees. We’re just not really angled towards them. So, I don’t think they can even see us or even think that we’re for them. I think those are two particular reasons. So, no salespeople willing to either make the call or to receive a call and no clear call outs on our site to get people to even consider it.
[00:04:36] And then our pricing is just not really… in fact, we’re too cheap. So, it’s like an enterprise… let’s say some big company that has 10,000 employees. To pay $99 a month for Basecamp just feels like that can’t be any good. It just doesn’t make sense. Right? So most of our companies, our customers are much smaller businesses. I think it’s much more appropriate for them at that, at the level.
[00:04:56] And the other thing I would say is, although they may not know this at the buy point, but our product’s just not designed to handle thousands and thousands of users, it can, technically, but the interface design that we came up with for managing people and that sort of thing, like there’s just, it’s not designed for bulk actions in that sort of thing. So it just isn’t a really good fit.
Aaron: [00:05:13] This is Aaron in Irvine, California. I was curious what your reasoning and logic is behind your flat rate pricing for Basecamp, versus a software that’s more feature and tier-based as with most of the competition out there. Hope you’re well, love the podcast and all the work you’re doing, take care.
Jason: [00:05:32] Flat-rate pricing. So, $99 a month is basically what Basecamp costs right now. And we used to have tiers. In fact, for the longest time we always had tiers. This price… like, I think we started Basecamp in 2004, it was $19, $39, $59, or something. We’ve played with a lot of different numbers over the years. At some point we just figured like, you know, you go into a store and you buy a jar of peanut butter. It’s like, that’s the price. Like you don’t really have tiers of peanut butter, you just have a price. And we kind of want to make it as easy as possible for people just to buy Basecamp. I don’t want them to think about which one am I on or which is the right choice and I want to have buyer’s remorse or feel like I picked the wrong one. Just, if you want to buy, let’s make it as easy as possible to buy. And that seemed to us to be a single price versus a tiered pricing setup.
Wailin: [00:06:16] Our next question is via email, not phone and it is from a listener named Chip. And he says, I really enjoyed reading It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. I was wondering if it might not be all unicorns and rainbows, at least not at first. What have you observed as the biggest challenges one faces when transitioning from the insane asylum to a calm company? What are the biggest challenges you faced helping those refugees make the adjustment? And what lessons have you learned in the process?
David: [00:06:44] I don’t know if there’s so much a transition to calmness. It’s always been at least an aspiration. Basecamp never started crazy. And that’s actually a question we get a lot in terms of oh now you work 40 hours a week. But surely when you were first starting you were working 120, right? And when we say no, and when we say in fact the company and Basecamp itself, the first version of Basecamp was written on less than 40 hours a week.
[00:07:11] I was working 10 hours a week on Basecamp from the technical side and from the design side, Jason and Ryan and Matt had other clients. So, we founded Basecamp on less than full-time work. Which is sometimes hard for people to compute because they have this vision of what an entrepreneur’s supposed to look, act, and behave like.
[00:07:35] And usually that is go all in, go big from the beginning, revolve your entire life around getting something off the ground. And we didn’t do that and we never ended up doing that. So then, when we’re telling the story of why you should be calm, we’re reflecting on essentially a calm company for the past 20 years.
[00:07:56] That doesn’t mean it’s always calm. There’s been phases. We’ve recently had what can reasonably be described as crazy moments at work for sustained periods of times. And we’ve had that in the past, too. But it’s been blips over the course of a 20-year career that there had been these moments that were crazy. But our intention was always to keep the baseline calm, to keep the baseline that most weeks, most of the times, for most years we’ll be 40 hours or less.
[00:08:29] So, we are in some ways a little disingenuous when we’re talking about transition for other people because we are theorizing. We never went through that transition perhaps except to the extent that both Jason and I worked at other companies prior to Basecamp and we saw what crazy was like at other companies.
[00:08:50] So, it’s not like, we’ve never been in an environment where people worked 80 hours a week. We absolutely have. And when we had the opportunity to make our own choices about how to work, we said, not that.
Michael: [00:09:01] My name is Michael Lee from Durham, North Carolina. My question was, I know before Basecamp, y’all were 37signals and I was just curious about the transition from agency life over to product company life. Thank you.
Jason: [00:09:19] So back in 2004 when we released Basecamp, we were still a design firm. So we started out as a design firm in ‘99 and then transitioned eventually into being a software design or software company. And it wasn’t intentional. It just happened, basically. What it was like was, we have this idea, this… we need a way to manage our projects better and so we’re going to build it for us anyway. And in fact, the initial versions of this, I don’t think we’ve talked much about this, but the initial version was like a blog that was manually updated sort of. Really early on. And that wasn’t sustainable.
[00:09:57] I actually think Scott may have been involved with that way back when because Scott worked here for a while, then he left. I think he may have actually done some of that work, if I remember correctly.
[00:10:03] Anyway. We decided this wasn’t… we can’t do this manually, we need to automate this. So we kind of came up with this idea to make Basecamp and we didn’t know what was gonna happen. So we kind of put it together and threw it out there. Threw some prices on it. And it turned out that, I don’t know, about a year, year and a half later, it was making more money for us then consulting was, or design was. So it just became a natural transition.
[00:10:26] And I think every design firm wants to get away from client work even though that’s what they’re all about. I think they all want to sort of escape it if they can. Because client work is very difficult. You have great clients, but it’s still just difficult and a lot of companies are trying to become product companies and it just, we kind of happened to fall into that. That were able to make something that was able to sustain a four or five salaries at the time.
[00:10:52] And then we decided never to look back and we stopped doing client work. Although it was a gradient transition. It wasn’t a moment. We had to make sure it was sustainable, first.
[00:11:03] So, yeah, I think the thing is a lot of companies now that I talk to, people ask me about this question all the time and they’re intentionally looking to switch. And I think when you’re intentionally looking to switch, it’s a little bit harder because you’re trying to put all your eggs in a new basket. We had eggs in a lot of baskets or actually we had clients and this Basecamp thing. It was sort of a side project, actually. It just turned out that one of them hatched in the others didn’t have to hatch anymore, basically. And so, that’s what happened.
Shaun: [00:11:29] The next question we got in is actually for Kristin Aardsma who heads up the support team here at Basecamp.
Dave: [00:11:35] Hi, this is Dave from Middleton, Wisconsin. Question for Kristin. How do you maintain fast response times while still allowing flexibility in schedules for dog walks and other breaks? Thanks.
Kristin: [00:11:48] That’s a really great question and it’s kind of a hard question to answer. I think it’s going to be different for every team and every culture who does support. But for us, this was a struggle to get to this point. For a long time we didn’t have a good self-care model on the team and so people were working while sick, working while they had to go to the bathroom. They weren’t drinking enough water and we sort of, in a way hit rock bottom and had to just take a really good look in the mirror and reevaluate what our team was and how we could be healthy.
[00:12:30] So, we started measuring capacity. We got better at scheduling and we expanded the team and now we have a global 24/7 team. And that allows us some space to remind each other to take breaks, to take full breaks. To take extra breaks sometimes because sometimes you need an extra break and that’s totally fine. Basecamp’s not going to stop you from like going to an appointment sometimes. But we also hold each other accountable and we hold each other accountable I think in really fun ways.
[00:13:05] So Joan is our hydration doula. So we can… we send each other like hydrating memes to make sure that we’re all drinking enough water. Our main role at the company is supporting our customers, but a secondary role that’s really important is that we support each other because this job can be really hard working with people day in and day out. And so part of that is just making sure that everybody’s feeling good and communicating that.
Shaun: [00:13:31] So, how do you personally schedule time for breaks? Is there some sort of like trigger during the day that makes you think, oh I need a break now?
Kristin: [00:13:39] For me? No, I don’t have a scheduled time every day where I take a break. Some people on the team do. For some people I’ve made schedules for them that works for them and they want that and I’m happy to do that for anybody.
[00:13:52] Most people take a break when it feels natural. Either that’s when they need a cup of coffee. They just needed to stretch. They need more water or when they had a particularly hard conversation with someone and you just need to clear your head and walk away from it. But I think that for the most part it’s not. It’s just like a natural thing that happens and the risk there is that you don’t take a break. And that’s where we have to hold each other accountable and notice mood switches and stuff too and just like, hey Wailin! Interesting tone you’re taking today. Do you want to take a break?
Wailin: [00:14:34] No!
[00:14:37] What kind of response times are you looking for? And has that changed?
Kristin: [00:14:39] So, there was a time when we were supposed to answer emails within 10 minutes. And that became five minutes ,and then that became telepathy. Just kidding, it didn’t. But what ended up happening is that the expectation was 10 minutes because we were pretty slow and then we got really busy and we couldn’t maintain the expectation anymore. But we still held onto this expectation and so now I want 100% of the emails answered within an hour and that’s the long end.
[00:15:23] I really would like things answered within 30 minutes and people are so happy about that. When we respond within one hour, people are like, oh my God, that was so fast. And on the flip side, if you respond to an email within five minutes, people think you’re a robot. They do not think you’re a real person. And if they do think you’re a real person, if you’re able to convey that, they think you didn’t even bother to read their email. So, there’s a really a huge drawback to answering that quickly and we are capable at sometimes of doing that, but it’s not the best way to work.
Mo: [00:15:58] Hi, this is Mo from New Hampshire. I wanted to know about more about Jason and David’s partnership. How has the other, particularly earlier in their partnership affected each other’s lives? Thank you.
Jason: [00:16:13] We’re lucky in that we both do very different things most of the time. And then the same thing sometimes. So David’s in the tech, he’s a programmer. I’m not, although like that’s how we met, because I was trying to be one sort of. And I handle the design side of things. I’m sure David can dabble in design, but he leaves that to me and I leave programming to him and I think that’s really healthy. I think it’s probably hard to have two founders who are kind of doing the same thing, but we have a very, I think, clear overlap around like how to run a business and how to treat people in those sorts of things.
[00:16:45] So, I think that’s the really healthy part, which is you have to be able to do very different things and really be two people, not one and a half, but then also be able to be a one in the middle, I think, is sort of the thing that I’ve seen has helped quite a bit. And I think also the fact that hopefully we’re both good writers, mostly.
[00:17:06] David’s a very good writer and he’s become an excellent writer. So, I think that’s something that’s really been easier, too, for us because we can write books together and we can do other things together that are not just internal. So, yeah. I think I think that’s the sort of the important, sort of magic sauce of a partnership.
David: [00:17:24] Yeah. I think it really is in that overlap of the Venn Diagram, that the combined circle is larger and that you feel like you’re pushing forward in the same direction. That we’re putting different parts into it and we’re getting more than the sum of our parts. That either of us individually working, we wouldn’t be getting even close to half of what we’re putting in. We will be getting much less than that. So I think that that’s just, it’s energizing to have that sense of, we can make things together. And I mean a lot of things we’ve made for Basecamp has just been Jason or I or then later involving other people. But just that sense of like, if things get tough, we can always just scale it all the way back to two people and then we can kind of push through. I think there’s just sort of a shared bond in that that’s important even if that’s not the day to day reality obviously.
[00:18:19] And I think also just having different cultural backgrounds to some extent definitely is helpful. Jason is American. I’m Danish and I brought a lot of sort of Danish sensibilities to some of the things. And Jason brought a lot of American sensibilities to some of the things and the mix between those things is a good mix that there’s a lot of things to be learned from the overlap which… and it’s not just about having different sets of skills but also have different backgrounds all together.
[00:18:53] That that helps you get a broader perspective and to have more interesting arguments, really. I think we’ve had, I mean thousands of arguments over the years and that those arguments don’t just end up being complete echo chamber of oh, we’re all the exact product of the same cultural, societal influences, is really helpful. And I think we’ve both taken a lot away from the other, from that perspective, but still remain kind of these separate backgrounds and using that to the full effect.
Wailin: [00:19:31] How early on did you two realize that you shared the same core sensibility around values? Like staying small and growing slow and not taking outside investment? Because like when you hired David, you hired him for a very specific task and not, you weren’t like interviewing for like a co-founder.
Jason: [00:19:50] Yeah. When we first met, I mean we didn’t talk business. It was, I didn’t know how to do something in PHP. And David did and he wrote me an email and it was really thorough and thoughtful and explained the problem and the solution well. And so that was like the initial… You know, sometimes you read something from someone and you’re like, oh, I understand them because how they write and how they explain things. Like he has a clear mind here. Because I got a bunch of other emails from other people. I’m like, I’m as lost as I was before. So, I think that was a really helpful thing right there at that very moment. But we didn’t know anything else about each other at the time. We’d never met. I’d never heard of him. He’d been reading our blog, so clearly he knew who we were. But, I suspect that perhaps he was reading our blog because we had similar sensibilities. I just didn’t know that about him because we hadn’t met before.
David: [00:20:41] Yeah, that definitely was part of it. That I was attracted to 37signals in the first place from having that overlap of like, this is weird. How’s there a design company that doesn’t have any graphics on its home page. It’s just a list of essays, essentially. Some of them as short as a single line, I believe. That was… Just spoke to my contrarian nature that, yeah, I like that. I like that it’s pushing against something, that it’s taking a stand.
[00:21:11] And then of course, I mean all the way back to, I just looked up the Way Back Machine actually from I think, like 2000 and one of the first blog posts I found was Jason ranting about dot com businesses not making a profit. And I thought like, yeah, I can relate to that. So, I think there was some of that, but then a lot of it, I think we just kind of discovered over the years.
[00:21:31] We started working together in 2001 and we actually didn’t release Basecamp until 2004. So there was a good three years of working together on things before Basecamp. We worked on something called Singlefile, an application to track your books. We worked together on some client projects together. So there was good opportunity to make sure that this was a good fit.
[00:21:55] I think that’s the other thing about this myth of entrepreneurship is that like, Oh, you find your founder and like you immediately know that’s a great fit and then you go off and change the world, right? We totally didn’t do that. We spent three plus years working together where if that hadn’t been the right fit, we would have gone like, all right, like I’ll work with someone else. So, by the time we started Basecamp, not only wasn’t it a risk from a business perspective, we weren’t risking the business to start Basecamp.
[00:22:25] It wasn’t a monetary personal risk in terms of, oh, we have to mortgage the house to do it. It wasn’t even a relationship risk. We’d already been working together for three years. It wasn’t like we just went on a blind date and then said like, oh, let’s start a company together.
[00:22:38] And I think that’s healthy. I think having a sense of feeling each other out and making sure that that’s right. There’s certainly plenty of stories in business of people who start a company together and then they realize actually they don’t like working together very much. Or they see the world very differently and then it turns out to be surprisingly painful, like it’s not that fun to work with someone you are ethically or morally completely the opposite of, or you just don’t have the same working style or the same sensibilities. There’s gotta be enough overlap and figuring that out before you take the deep dive of starting a new business. Good thing.
[00:23:19] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:23:24] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:23:31] You can find us online at rework.fm where we post show notes for almost every episode. We are on Twitter @reworkpodcast, and as always, you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850.