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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.

LAST WEEK WITH JASON FRIED

Six Hours of Phone Calls

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In this episode, Basecamp marketing designer Adam Stoddard joins Jason Fried to talk about a marathon session of interviewing Search Engine Optimization consultants. Hear why they squeezed all the interviews into a six-hour block and what it’s like to shop for something you don’t really know anything about.


The Full Transcript:

Wailin: [00:00:03] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:08] And I’m Shaun Hildner. This is another episode of Last Week With Jason Fried where Jason talks about something he’s recently worked on as Basecamp’s CEO.

Wailin: [00:00:18] This week, Jason and special guest Adam Stoddard talk about the six hours, aah! Of phone calls they had while searching for some help with SEO. So here’s Shaun’s interview with Jason Fried and Adam Stoddard.

Shaun: [00:00:33] Well welcome back to another episode of Last Week With Jason Fried and we have a special guest on, Adam Stoddard. Uh, Adam, can you introduce yourself really quick because we don’t hear a lot from you.

Adam: Dan: [00:00:42] Yeah, I am a designer here at Basecamp working mostly on the marketing side of things.

Shaun: [00:00:48] Awesome. And last week, Jason, you mentioned that you had gone through something like six hours of phone interviews.

Jason: [00:00:54] Yeah, it was about six hours.

Shaun: [00:00:56] What are you looking for?

Jason: [00:00:58] We have decided that we’re going to look for a consultant to help us with SEO, search engine optimization stuff. And the main reason why is because we’ve recently discovered that we are basically invisible on Google unless you know, Basecamp. So if you type in Basecamp, you’ll find us. So that’s branded keywords, we’re great. Non-branded keywords, hard to find us. And, you know, for 20 years we’ve been doing it without paying any attention to this. And now that we’re 20 years old, we’re like, we should maybe pay attention to this. Let’s take a look at some of the things and reassess what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. And so we decided to get some help here with SEO.

[00:01:34] And so I put a tweet out saying like, I forget what it was, but like, you know, anyone know any SEO experts or whatever and got, I don’t know, close to a hundred responses probably.

Shaun: [00:01:43] Sure.

Jason: [00:01:43] And we narrowed it down to six, seven, eight companies or people that we were going to talk to, and last week we had those calls. As Adam and I were both on the phone together.

Shaun: [00:01:55] Yeah, yeah. Do you enjoy interviewing?

Jason: [00:01:59] You know, it was cool because I haven’t hired an agency of any sort in a long time and so it was kind of fascinating to me to see how people present themselves. Forget the subject matter. Just how does this agency or this consultant compare to this one, compare to this one, compared to this one specifically. Not about like, the skills and the work, but how they sell themselves, how they describe themselves. I found that to be pretty fascinating because they were all quite different.

Adam: [00:02:22] Yeah, I agree. That was, that was by far the most interesting aspect. Especially having them back to back like that. I don’t know if we would have had the same contrast if that was spread across a couple of weeks. But seeing them just one after another really highlighted the differences of all their approaches.

Jason: [00:02:37] That’s true. And you know, I would actually recommend that anyone out there who’s looking to do something like this lines up calls all in one day because I think it’s pretty easy to forget what someone said and then it’s hard to draw comparisons, I think if you spread this out over a week or two. So I thought that was, even though it was exhausting in some ways it was a useful thing to like, “Get it out of the way” but also to have everyone fresh in our minds. When we talked after the calls, we could sort of, remember what everybody said and really compare and contrast.

Shaun: [00:03:08] What’s different between the interviews you do with a person, a single person, maybe like you’re hiring a new employee versus hiring out, or contracting out for a company. Does that make sense? Or an agency, I should say.

Jason: [00:03:20] It does. No, it does make sense. I think, you know, in this case, I was describing our problem or what we perceive as our problem or the challenge in front of us or whatever we might want to call it. And then I let them do most of the talking, which is probably how you should interview individuals as well. But it’s like when we’re hiring for a position, it’s rarely about, there’s a problem that we have. It’s more like we need to do this job or someone left and we were replacing someone. So it’s kind of a different way to frame it, I suppose. And I think laying out, like here’s what’s—it’s very cut and dry. You can’t find us on Google unless you know, Basecamp, essentially.

Shaun: [00:03:59] Fix that.

Jason: [00:03:59] Yeah, fix that. Like how would you fix it or how would you approach that problem? Now, when we get down to talking to finalists for a design job or something like that, we do actually present them with a challenge and have them do work and we pay them for the work. So there is that part of it at the end of the process. But in the initial early stages, it’s not about presenting something, it’s more about letting someone present themselves to us.

Shaun: [00:04:25] Adam, what are, what sort of stuff are you looking for when you hear these pitches?

Adam: [00:04:28] Yeah, so, I have a lot of skepticism about people in this particular industry. So I’m kind of looking at it from that perspective of like what’s the bullshit that they’re slinging me? And using that as a caution against probably hiring that person. And then the people who were, I think that jumped out to us are the people who actively dissuaded against the typical bullshit that is kind of rife in this particular industry.

Jason: [00:05:02] Yeah. They acknowledged the fact that like, look, a lot of the, let’s say, audits that would be done, there isn’t proprietary software that these agencies have that there’s some like genius breakthrough thing. It’s like they’re all using the same tools.

Shaun: [00:05:14] Right.

Jason: [00:05:15] And some of these people didn’t tell us that and some people said like, look, you’re going to get the same thing from pretty much everybody. Essentially, they’re using this tool or that tool, or that tool, or that tool, and then they’re regurgitating it or reformatting it and delivering it to you. And I think Adam and I would agree that there’s something nice about just hearing someone tell you the truth about that versus thinking that this team is magic, and that team is not. There are differences between people and approach and whatever and figuring out priorities and what matters and what doesn’t. But the general digging is pretty much all done by machine and the output is going to be very similar.

Adam: [00:05:50] And, you know, there’s this… with agencies, and particularly in this industry, there’s this kind of baseline desire to make problems bigger than they are because then you look like you’ve got solutions that you can sell to someone. And it’s really helpful when people who are a little more honest can be like, well, yeah, this stuff actually isn’t that big of problem, but this other thing is probably something you should focus on.

Shaun: [00:06:20] I like that. Honesty as a selling point when hiring.

Adam: [00:06:21] Yeah.

Jason: [00:06:23] Yeah, I mean, and this last guy we talked to, who we liked. You could almost say honesty was a shtick… was shtick for him. Like in a sense, where he’s like, this industry is stupid. There’s a lot of people in the industry that are going to sell you some shit you don’t need. Like you know, I could sell you shit you don’t need. Like he’s… he was honest about it, but you could almost like, if you couldn’t read that, you could be like this is his shtick to try and dissuade us from going anywhere else. But, I felt like he was just really actually being straight with us and not using it as a gimmick, which I did appreciate quite a bit actually.

Adam: [00:06:56] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:06:57] What are the other selling points we’re looking for?

Jason: [00:07:00] We did all of the calls, I think except one of them by video. Maybe not. Maybe two of them we didn’t do by… Most of them were video calls. And that was interesting because… Actually, no, two of them were not, and I think the rest of them were. Anyway. Two of the people we liked worked from home and weren’t putting on any fronts. They were just like, Hey, I’m this guy who does this thing and I think I do a good job and here’s what I do and I’m knowledgeable and here let me share my screen with you and show you some of the things I do. And, the other guy was like sitting near a window at home. He’s like, my kids are outside. I like working at home. Like it was interesting how at least, and I am not speaking for Adam, but I suspect he might feel the same way, that like we just kind of related to them a little bit more than the agency-based companies that are a little bit more about like you didn’t really know who each person was.

[00:07:49] Is this a sales person? Is this an account rep? Are they the ones who are going to be doing the work? Are they going to pass it on? And there was a lot more talk about… at the agencies it’s like we. We do this, we do this, versus these, these two individuals who are like, I do this, I do this. And sometimes they said we, but it was like we means them and someone else. So, that was… nothing… I didn’t go into it thinking that that would be attractive, but it was particularly attractive, was just to have small groups or individuals who are just really good at what they do work with us. Adam, did you kind of get the same read there?

Adam: [00:08:19] Yeah, I mean… I came from the agency world, so I’m just predisposed to not really love going through the whole, like, Ooh, you’re going to deal with an account manager and we’re gonna talk with everything over a conference line with like 12 people. There’s just so much bloat that comes with working with a lot of agencies. So yeah, it was definitely appealing to… at least the prospect of working with just individuals who have expertise, instead.

Jason: [00:08:53] It was also interesting to look at the follow-up. So, some of them emailed me immediately after the call. Others emailed me the next day. Some just said thank you. Some had like a little mini report, like a presales thing. Like here’s an here’s a little bit of a… here’s a free sample, essentially. Some shared that in email form, some shared as a PDF, some had a deck, some were like clearly pre-formatted and just stuff like piled into it. Or, like, templated into it, poured into it, I should say. Others were a little bit more custom. So it was just kind of neat to see how everyone presented themselves after the fact. And then some didn’t reach out at all, which is fine too. It was just different and that was kinda neat to see. I hadn’t seen that in a while.

[00:09:33] It also reminds me just how hard it is to choose anything.

Shaun: [00:09:36] Sure.

Jason: [00:09:36] Like, that you don’t know anything about. And it reminds me, like, we should do a better job of explaining Basecamp to people. People come to Basecamp, they have a problem. Like, I don’t know how to manage my work or my team or we’re not getting things done on time or things are kind of all over the place or I’m trying these other tools, but it’s a total mess. Like, I need to get my shit together, we need a process, we need to get organized, we need everything in one place. That’s the thing they feel. And they come to Basecamp and it’s like, and somehow they find Basecamp, maybe through recommendation or whatever. And you realize just at that moment how, because I know we need SEO help and I’m hearing from SEO experts and it’s still hard to decide which one to go with.

[00:10:16] And when people are shopping for software, it’s really hard to decide where to go. Most of the time you’re not even talking to somebody, you’re looking at a website and trying to read stuff. So it’s just a good reminder of what it’s like to not really know anything but to know you need something and then not be confident or sure about which one is going to be the right pick. I think at this point we’re feeling pretty good about it, but it’s just a good reminder to have to go shop for something you know nothing about.

Shaun: [00:10:39] Yeah. I mean I just bought a bicycle, but that was on Adam’s suggestion.

Jason: [00:10:44] Yeah. If you just had to go out and buy a bike because you knew you needed a bike to ride, like you could just go buy any bike and any bike would’ve been fine.

Shaun: [00:10:50] Right.

Jason: [00:10:50] But the moment you begin to consider at least two options, it becomes hard to choose. Because you might pick the wrong one or the one you pick is… you could’ve gotten by with the other one or it didn’t matter anyway, but you stressed over it. There’s just all these things that are really interesting about choosing something and it’s a good reminder. I think especially, sometimes we know what we’re buying and you just, like if you’re a bike expert, like I can go do this myself.

Shaun: [00:11:16] Right?

Jason: [00:11:16] But if you don’t know anything, I don’t know that much about SEO. Like, I don’t know, who do you trust? What do you believe? Are they just blowing smoke up my ass? Like how do you know? You kind of don’t know. You kind of have to do some research, which is work and who has time for that? People are already doing their job and then you have to… you have to try to read someone’s character and go, are they bullshitting me or not? Or you have to check references and there’s just a lot of work involved. It’s a lot to make a choice.

Adam: [00:11:41] Yeah. And I think in this particular case, what helped, at least for me, kind of push it in one direction or the other is how much specificity and how clear they were about like why Google is working the way they… Why it works the way it does or why they’re taking a specific approach. One of the first agencies we talked to, pretty much every answer to something was this very broad kind of like, oh, well we’ll collect data and big data and machine learning. And it was all just very vague and really didn’t inspire any kind of confidence.

[00:12:19] Whereas the people we liked, it was like, here’s the actual work that I’ve done in the past. Here’s real work products that you can see and/or getting into like, well, Google is doing this for this and this reasons and just offering these kind of very clear, cogent explanations for things and that, at least for me, helps kind of build confidence that they do know what they’re talking about.

Jason: [00:12:44] Yeah. You know, in addition to that, we didn’t schedule the calls with our recommended contact methods. So like we didn’t say we’re gonna use Skype. We didn’t say we’re going to use Zoom. We didn’t say we’re going to use whatever. We just said, let’s set up a call at two. And then they used whatever they use to reach out to us. And I thought that was also pretty interesting cause some of them used the video and some of them did not. And I thought the ones who used video just had an advantage because…

Adam: [00:13:09] Totally agree.

Jason: [00:13:09] Yeah. One of the guys just like, I don’t know, he’s just like, kind of, we’re all over the place and he’s like, let me just show you my screen. I don’t know, let me just show you these tools. We’re talking about tools. Let me show you the tools.

[00:13:16] So he flips on his laptop, there’s shit all over the place, which is fine. But it’s just like, it shows like he’s in there and he’s like going between tabs. Like this tool gives me this and this tool gives me this. And if you plug this in over here and it’s just like you could see this guy as being practical. He knows how to do the work. And that was very confidence-inspiring compared to some of the other people who were way more abstract like Adam was saying. And then some were like really abstract, like even just in the language they use. Everything was a “solution” and it’s like, just, can you explain something to me? And they just weren’t able to. I’m sure they know their stuff though, but they just weren’t able to explain it to me, to someone who doesn’t know enough about this stuff.

[00:13:54] So, I thought the people who made the choice to show us their screens or show us their faces put themselves at an advantage. And what’s interesting is that it could have been seen as a disadvantage. And I suspect for a number of people it would have been. Like, hey, here’s my messy room that I work in at home. Or, you know, that might be seen as like, well I’m not a professional or I’m not, you know, good enough at this to make enough money to get an office and have a fancy background or whatever the hell it might be. But they just didn’t care. They were confident in their work and it didn’t matter. The setting didn’t matter. And I really appreciate that too.

Shaun: [00:14:31] That sounds more of an advantage for this specific situation, individual versus agency than if you’re hiring a new employee. I think video could be seen as a disadvantage because of some subconscious biases and stuff like that.

Jason: [00:14:44] Certainly.

Shaun: [00:14:44] What are you subconsciously telling yourself based on what a person looks like?

Jason: [00:14:47] Yeah, no, there’s no question—

Shaun: [00:14:48] But when it’s an individual versus a faceless agency? Putting a face to anything is great, right?

Adam: [00:14:53] Right.

Jason: [00:14:53] Right. Yeah, and I think a big part. True. That’s actually a good point. And part of it too is just simply being able to show us your screen was something that was, it wasn’t even the face. I mean, it was show us your screen, but also it was subtle things like when someone, when you can see someone’s face, like you can see when they’re nodding and you can see when they’re shaking their head and you can just see some of these things that make you feel like you’re headed in the right direction. You’re onto something or you’re off, or they don’t understand what you’re saying or you’re not explaining yourself clearly. It’s those little subtle cues that are quite valuable when deciding on somebody to hire like this, which is not a permanent position. This is like a temporary three-month gig or something like that. I really felt like that was useful for them.

Shaun: [00:15:33] So what are the next steps? Do you guys have more initial interviews?

Jason: [00:15:37] We’re done. We did the six in one day or five or six, whatever it was. And then, we reached out to one of the guys who we liked, but he only did part of SEO. So apparently there’s kind of two sides to SEO in a sense. There’s like the content strategy side and there’s also the technical SEO side and he’s more of a content strategy guy. And I asked him like, do you do some of this technical stuff? Because we could probably use an audit and have a good sense of like where we really stand and what are we doing right and wrong structurally. He goes, not really, but I’d recommend this person. Why don’t you just get in touch with them? So that was a follow-up call that we had today with this other person. And I think, after the call, Adam and I got back on the phone and chatted a bit and we have made our decision. So I’m gonna reach out to who we’re hiring tomorrow. Or, who we’d like to hire tomorrow and get the project going.

Shaun: [00:16:28] Great.

Jason: [00:16:29] So hopefully in a few months we’ll be able to see some results.

Adam: [00:16:32] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:16:33] Fantastic. Well. Thank you both so much.

Adam: [00:16:36] Yeah, you’re welcome.

Jason: [00:16:37] Yeah, thanks.