The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0059

Rework Mailbag 5

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Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson answer listener questions in this short but jam-packed mailbag episode. Among other topics, they discuss whether they prefer reading physical books or the Kindle; talk about providing feedback to rejected job candidates; and imagine a world where Jason and DHH didn’t end up working together.


The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one app for managing projects, working with clients and contractors and communicating with your team. Learn more and sign up at basecamp.com

[00:00:12] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:13] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:18] And I’m Shaun Hildner. And it’s that time of year again where we have another mailbag episode where listeners just you called or wrote in to ask questions of Basecamp co-founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Wailin: [00:00:32] We’ll get right into it.

Germaine: [00:00:37] This is Germaine [Bethune?] from Montclair, New Jersey. A while ago I saw on Twitter that DHH went back to reading physical books instead of the Kindle. Was there a reason the switch was made? Since he made that switch, does he know the difference in retention or quality of experience? Will he ever go back to the Kindle?

David: [00:00:59] So I actually use both the Kindle and physical books. And this is going to sound bad, but I use the Kindle for books I’m pretty sure I’m not going to want to keep, which is most newer books. It’s most business books. It’s most biographies or whatever else where I think I’m gonna read this once. I’m never gonna want to look at it again. And then I use paper books for either things I can’t find on Kindle, which has been surprisingly more frequent. Kindle has an enormous library, but it’s almost all recent stuff. So if you want to read a book from the ‘50s or the ‘20s oftentimes that’s not on the Kindle. So I get it for that.

[00:01:40] But beyond that, I’ve also just come to reappreciate the feeling of reading a paper book. And it’s interesting because I’ve tried to diagnose why exactly that is. And one thing is actually a sense of space. A Kindle book has no sense of space. It’s all one page. So whether you’re reading a book that’s 220 pages or 850 pages, it has no sense of space. Which you’d think, why does that even matter? You can look up what page you’re on, but there’s just a sense of accomplishment. If I’m going to slog through 600 pages of something, I want to feel like I’m opening it two-thirds through, and that’s a lot of pages. I actually read that because you know, making your way through 600 pages of, especially, I dunno, some philosophical texts from the ‘50s, like, it’s serious work and I want to feel some sense of accomplishment. The other thing I found is paper is just better in certain circumstances. I’ve taken to liking reading outside and the Kindle is pretty good at reading outside, but paper is just awesome for reading outside. The Kindle is better in other situations, like if you’re wanting to read in the dark or in the bed or whatever.

[00:02:47] But yeah, books are pretty great. I actually brought a book on this trip, which is something I had not done in a very long time. It was , Simulation and Simulacra some philosophical text, again from the ‘50s. And it wasn’t… it was a book I couldn’t get on Kindle. It was a book I kind of felt had some heft to it. I’ve gotten some great recommendations for it. And it was just a sense of, well, I’m gonna be sitting on a plane and there’s going to be ample light and I can read the book here.

[00:03:18] So it’s not an either or. But for me, physical books for things I have higher expectations for. That sounds really mean. And Kindle for everything else.

Jason: [00:03:30] I found out that I don’t use Kindle anymore. I used to, but I find that I don’t read anything I buy for the Kindle. I buy it and it’s the pleasure of buying it and then having the cover show up. And I never read anything. I don’t think I reading on the Kindle. It seems like batteries and electronics. It’s not necessary for reading. It kind of bugs me. So the things that I find disposable, I just buy audio books for and listen to those and then those are kind of gone.

[00:03:53] And in the books that I and/or I buy paperback and then just give them away. So there’s a small one of those… Actually Max Temkin who lives near us, he has one of those small little libraries in front of his house. And I just kind of put my books in there when I’m done with them and just give them away so I don’t have to hang on to them. I don’t have to throw them out. Someone else can use them. But I agree. you like reading off of paper. It’s easier to read, the contrast is higher and I also just don’t feel I need electronics. I’m trying to get rid of some electronics and that one thing. I don’t need an electronic book.

Michael: [00:04:23] Hi, this is Michael from Illinois. I’m wondering if you were to have job candidates read a book as part of the application or the interview process, what book would that be?

David: [00:04:35] Well, I mean, if we’re not going to recommend our own books, which is a little crass, then I think some of the things we brought up as influences at Basecamp is a great idea. I think Maverick is a book that both Jason and I have recommended several times in the past and has served as an inspiration. I think it’s from 1998, Ricardo Semler, which talks about putting together a business in a new, different way. And it is a good way of getting into the mindset that the business is a product and you can keep tinkering with that product and the product doesn’t have to be like any other product. You can make it quite unique and quite your own. And kind of just to open your mind to that whole perspective.

Jason: [00:05:20] I actually have something I’d recommend, which is not a book, but it’s a collection of shareholder letters. So Warren Buffet’s shareholder letters are wonderful reads and they’re great examples of really, really clear communication. And funny and honest and humble communication. They’re really wonderful reads.

[00:05:35] And also Jeff Bezos, his shareholder letters are quite good as well. He’s kind of doing it in the same spirit as Warren Buffett. I think those are just great examples of business writing. You don’t get to run into that kind of business writing very frequently. Most of it is very… It’s boring. It’s complicated. It’s abstract. And they’re very clear thinkers and very clear writers. So I’d recommend reading those kinds of things.

Sammy: [00:05:57] Hi Jason, hi David. My name is Sammy and I’m calling from LA. I’d love to know what the biggest mistakes you think are likely to be made when trying to scale a SaaS business from five customers to a hundred customers? And if you have any advice for that process?

Jason: [00:06:12] oing from five to a hundred probably should… There shouldn’t be anything that’s that different between five and a hundred. I think the problem is, is that you’re probably thinking about a hundred. You’re probably thinking about 100,000. You’re going to overbuild, you’re going to over engineer. If you’re thinking about how big you can possibly get, you’re going to do a whole bunch of things that probably don’t matter right now, and it’s going to make things more complicated, harder to change later. It’s gonna take longer, that sort of thing.

[00:06:33] But going from five to a hundred. I don’t think there’s any difference between that.

David: [00:06:37] I’d actually say it gets easier. When you only have five customers, you’re more likely to overspecialize the software just for those five people because you can identify each individual request with a person, just like them. So they end up being a software for those five people. Building software for a hundred people is actually easier because everyone has become abstracted in some way. Yet, you can still reach out and you can still figure out what they meant, or you’re not building this huge thing that has to work for everyone. So, I think if you just start thinking, hey, I’m building this for a hundred people, not for five people, you’re better off.

Mark: [00:07:11] Hi guys, my name is Mark Stevens. I’m a big fan of your podcast and I was particularly interested in your comments on the idea that you have a 21-year-old company and you’re now on year one at the next 20. As I also run a small, much smaller, much less successful software company, which is now in you one of its second 20 years. So I’d be really interested if Jason could unpack some of those thoughts in his next podcast. Thank you very much guys and keep up the good work. Bye.

Jason: [00:07:38] The idea behind this is the first year of the next 20 instead of the 21st year. It was just something I came up with to kind of remind us that the things we used to do aren’t necessarily going to always work and if it’s… 21st year sounds a continuation of before, while first year of the next 20 sounds like an opportunity to do some new things. And so it was more of a mindset and also an opportunity—or actually an invitation, I think, for us to try some new things. And we’ve been talking about some of those new things internally and we’ll be sharing some of those new things next year with everybody.

[00:08:08] But for example, for 20 years we never really had anybody doing marketing. So we hired someone to do marketing now and we’re going to be launching a new product next year, which we said we wouldn’t do for a while.

[00:08:20] And I feel if it was just a continuation of what we were doing, we probably wouldn’t be as open to those opportunities and those moments that we are because it feels a clean break. And I think that’s, you know, if you’re going from your fifth to your sixth year, you don’t need to worry about that. But 20 years is a long time and it’s really easy to caught in groove and caught in a rut and just keep doing the same thing. We’ve had a lot of success. So you kind of look at the past and go, let’s keep doing that exact thing again. And that might work forever or it might not. But I feel it’s always healthy just to say, let’s kind of start fresh. We can still have the same kind of principles here, but let’s think about doing things a little bit differently and force ourselves into that because it’s hard. We’re not practicing doing new things. It’s been awhile. So I think it’s just a healthy a way to approach the next 20.

Wailin: [00:09:00] e also have questions from some people who wrote in. The first one is from Noel and he wanted to know: How do you guys give feedback to people who are rejected at the later stages of the interview process?

David: [00:09:12] So for the past few hires we’ve done, if someone had made it to the phase where they got an interview, which is usually at the last 10, 15 or something that, then they did get some more detailed feedback on it. But I am still not necessarily 100% sold on whether that’s a good idea. I think you have to be extremely careful if you give direct feedback because it’s bound to be taken quite hard. This was the feedback. That was the reason I didn’t land this job, which is almost like a negative space.

[00:09:50] That’s not necessarily why you didn’t land the job. It’s not necessarily you made a mistake. It was simply, out of the 10 candidates, someone stood out more, and what are we going to tell someone? You should be more this other person? No, because first of all you may be just fine as you are and then another company that would be the perfect fit where people would go, like, that’s our number one candidate right there.

[00:10:09] Second of all, is it really our right to tell other people in which ways they were wrong? Is there a right answer for an application? I don’t think there is. There’s simply a right application that speaks to us at this moment in time right now. The same applicant could apply in five years and we’d go, perfect. Could have applied five years ago and like, eh, no way ever.

[00:10:36] And second of all, the amount of time you can invest in giving a thorough response to someone is somewhat limited. We’re not going to spend five hours really breaking it down in all the ways you can improve. We’re going to spend, I don’t know, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour. I have a tendency to think that that kind of feedback is a little bit shallow and it’s bound to be taken very deeply.

[00:10:59] That’s an inherent disconnect when the feedback is not necessarily that well thought out, , simply because there isn’t that much time to do it and the person is gonna take it very hard, it feels an unfair trade. So I get that also hearing nothing sucks too. There’s not a great answer out of here. You didn’t get the job. You wanted the job. That’s going to be a disappointment, but does it really help to be hit over the head again with the ways you weren’t a fit for this? I’m not so sure, but we have been doing it and trying the best that we can and in terms of some of the technical roles that we’ve been hiring on, perhaps in some of those cases, things can be a little easier because it’s not, well these are the ways you’re inherent traits as a human are unfit for this role. They’re just, here’s some technical pointers to some of the material you submitted and why it wasn’t quite what we were looking for.

[00:12:01] But even that, I don’t feel great about. I would not want to give anyone feedback. So, I’m glad that I haven’t had to. Any time we have very diligent people who’ve tried their best to do it, but I think it’s one of those things that sounds better than I think it actually is.

Jason: [00:12:16] The only thing I would add as I’m thinking about the marketing position we just hired for, and we had basically six finalists and none of them did anything wrong. You know, they were all excellent. And the top four, the final four, actually were all leading candidates. They were all in first place at various times in the whole thing. It’s just, end of the day you make a decision based on a whole bunch of intangibles and how do you feel this is gonna work?

[00:12:41] And there’s some subtleties in the answers that people give. You’re really picking this apart at the end of the day with great finalists. You’re really… it’s hard to say if you would have done this, it would’ve been different. That wouldn’t be fair, either, to say. So it is very, very difficult.

[00:12:56] WhatI did, I think, for the marketing thing was I just sort of told each person what I really liked about them and just said, we gave the job to someone else. I don’t forget what the wording was, but basically here’s what I really liked about your application and I think that that is maybe a better use of that moment. This was great. You were very thorough. You’re very tenacious. I really appreciate your approach. You’re a great writer. These things are going to serve you well, we just went in a different direction for a number of, you know, whatever the reasons were. I didn’t really detail them out because it’s—again, at the end of the day, people are so close at that level that the details really don’t matter. It’s just here’s what you did well.

David: [00:13:33] The other problem with providing too specific negative feedback is it invites a discussion where someone feels they perhaps have to defend themselves or, oh, well, let me explain it in a different way. And at that stage you’re past the point of conversation. The decision has been made. In some ways, this is a little like when you let someone go. You can have a discussion about why that is, but actually, well, you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t have a discussion. You can have a layout of some of the reasons that contributed to this, but don’t get into a discussion. The decision is already made. If you give someone hope that they can talk their way out of it, and they really can’t, you’re just giving them false hope and it’s just going to be an even shittier experience than it already was.

Wailin: [00:14:15] And then we got a question in a Signal v. Noise comment. This is from Christopher in Germany

[00:14:22] He says: If you hadn’t met David back in the day, who would have done the programming for Basecamp? Would you have tried to do it yourself? Outsource or hired someone to do it?

Jason: [00:14:31] I don’t think Basecamp would’ve happened.

David: [00:14:33] I approve of this message.

Jason: [00:14:37] Just because when I met David, I didn’t have Basecamp as an idea to begin with. But products are… they’re a mix of circumstances and opportunity, of personalities and I kind of felt like we had certain level of confidence at that time to make something together. We were making it for ourselves, initially anyway. But I’m not so sure we would gone to the product level. I wouldn’t have gone and looked for someone to do this. In fact, before David, I think, we didn’t have any programmers doing any programming ever. We’d only done website redesigns and we probably would have kept just doing visual redesign. So we never would have even thought that we could have done a product, that required any backend engineering.

[00:15:18] Like, I tried to do some PHP stuff and got to a shitty place and I never would’ve thought that we could release anything that I made like that. So, I don’t think we would have made Basecamp.

David: [00:15:28] I’m going to use this in my next salary negotiation, by the way.

[00:15:35] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:15:39] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:15:45] We’re always collecting more voicemails for the next mailbag, which will be in about six months. The number is (708) 628-7850.

Shaun: [00:15:55] You can find show notes and transcripts for this and all of our episodes at our website, Rework.fm and we’re on Twitter @reworkpodcast.

[00:16:04] And a special thanks to Keith Palmer from Orlando, Florida, who called multiple times and had very kind words for us.

Wailin: [00:16:10] Thanks for making our day.

[00:16:12] Rework is a podcast by Basecamp. Basecamp streamlines the way you manage projects, work with clients and communicate company-wide. Try it at basecamp.com.