Q&A: How do I win in a packed category?

Today I got an email from a fellow who asked:

I’ve been trying to think about my next B2B play but everytime I think of an idea I stop myself due to how saturated the markets are. How do you still win in a packed category? I feel like it’s a lot harder to win now than it was 10 years ago.

-J.B.

Starting something new can definitely be intimidating. Especially when there are already lots of other people/companies with a huge head start. I feel you.

But I’m going to ignore all that and focus on what I think is the bigger concern with the mindset represented in the email: This person asks “How do you still win in a packed category?”

Winning what? Winning who? Winning it all? Taking everything? That’s an insurmountable mountain of intimidation right there. Don’t do that to yourself.

How about just making something that can sustain itself? Why do you need to win it all? Why would you ever want to make it that hard on yourself?

Build something good, keep your costs low, keep your growth in check, hold back your expectations, find some customers, charge them money for your good/services, make more than you spend, and you’ll buy yourself another day, or week, or month, or year in business. Just aim to stay open, don’t aim to win anything from anyone. Staying afloat is a win for yourself.

Just start there. The odds are still against you, but they’re a whole lot better than trying to win it all.

Giving unactionable advice

One of the common dings against our books REWORK and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work (less so with REMOTE), is that we don’t include a lot of actionable advice. It’s a fair swipe.

It seems everyone’s after actionable advice. The advice that tells you exactly what to do. Read this, do exactly that, and here’s the outcome you can expect.

Yeah, no.

Most actionable advice isn’t advice at all, it’s opinion. Sure, you can give someone advice by giving them your opinion, but when you stitch actionable to the front of advice, it masquerades as fact. But it ain’t.

Why don’t we give actionable advice in REWORK and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work? Because we don’t know how you should act. The action required in any specific situation is highly contextual. If we guessed we’d probably be wrong most of the time.

We can’t tell you what to do. We don’t know what you should do. We barely know what we should do! And most of the time we don’t.

What we can tell you, however, is what we’ve done. In our own unique situation, our own context. From there you can form your own opinion about how it applies to your situation. It’s an input, not the input. Maybe it’s a perfect fit, maybe it’s a partial fit. Maybe it’s not a fit at all. The important part of the equation is you bringing your own mind – and your own situation – to bear. Apply that heavily, not actionable advice lightly.

Seek out unactionable advice. You’ll figure more out.

Leverage? No thank you.

Since we began including salaries in our job postings, a few people have asked if it affects the leverage we have over candidates.

The suggestion is that if we tell people exactly what we pay for a specific position, and they would have accepted less, but we’re now on the hook to pay them more than we “needed” to, then they have a leg up on us rather than us on them.

I find this line of thinking abhorrent.

I have zero interest in having leverage over anyone in a hiring situation. Of course we get to choose who we hire – so, yes, there’s power inherent in the act of hiring – but other than that necessity, leverage is the last thing I’m looking for.

Remember, I’m looking to to hire someone to work with, not work against. Starting things out with “look what we got away with!” seems like a terrible start to what hopefully develops into a wonderful, long-term working relationship. Leverage need not apply.

Announcing “Shape Up”, a deep dive into how we work

Back in 2006, we self-published Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web app. It was our first foray into broadly sharing how we work at book-scale. It struck a nerve, turned heads, and changed minds. It offered product people, designers, and developers a way out – an escape hatch. They could finally ditch their way of working that wasn’t working for a new way that would.

Since then we’ve released a number of books, all focused on the business end of things. You could learn how to run a company from REWORK, REMOTE, and our latest mass-market release, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Today we return to our roots. Nearly 13 years after Getting Real was published, we offer the spiritual follow-up. Today we introduce Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. This web-based book explains how we work in replicable detail. It’s comprehensive, yet approachable. A recommended read for anyone involved in software development. And it’s 100% free to read online – we don’t even ask for your email address.

Why now?

Over the last few years, there’s been a renewed, heightened curiosity about how we work at Basecamp. People often ask us how we get so much done so quickly at such a high level of quality with such a small team. And how we keep our teams together for years and years. We’ve written some blog posts about it, but the topic really demanded a book-length effort.

For one, we’re not into waterfall or agile or scrum. For two, we don’t line walls with Post-it notes. For three, we don’t do daily stand ups, design sprints, development sprints, or anything remotely tied to a metaphor that includes being tired and worn out at the end. No backlogs, no Kanban, no velocity tracking, none of that.

We have an entirely different approach. One developed in isolation over nearly 15 years of constant trial and error, taking note, iterating, honing in, and polishing up. We’ve shaped our own way. This book is for explorers, pioneers, those who don’t care what everyone else is doing. Those who want to work better than the rest.

But ultimately, don’t think of this as a book. Think of it as a flashlight. You and your team have fumbled around in the dark long enough. Now you’ve got something bright and powerful to help you find a new way.

We hope you find it interesting, enlightening, and, most of all, helpful.

Let’s read.

Basecamp is hiring a Head of Marketing

For the past 20 years, we’ve been passive marketers with a little m.

We speak at conferences and on podcasts, we write books (REWORK, REMOTE, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work), we share our point of view on thousands of blog posts, we invented a framework (Ruby on Rails) that changed an industry, and we make products that redefine their categories (Basecamp, Highrise, etc.). And right now we’re working on something new that’s going to surprise people.

We’ve gotten by on strength of product, cult of personality, a unique point of view, running against the wind, and incredibly generous word-of-mouth promotion from our customers. We’re fortunate it’s been working. 20 profitable years in business is the proof. We’re naturally proud of that.

But we feel like we’ve begun to saturate our natural sphere of influence, our current reach. Passive marketing can only get us so far, and we have a desire to go further. Today, if we’re in the mix, it’s by chance, not choice. And because of that, we feel a bit invisible outside of those who know us already.

And it’s no surprise: We haven’t really advertised. Or made it easy for new people to find us online. Lately we haven’t explained our brand particularly well. Or thought much about how we’re perceived in the modern market. We don’t show up in places where potential customers hang out, and we haven’t gone far enough supporting and sponsoring events and like-minded organizations. Basically, we’ve never deliberately focused on actively getting the word out, making sure our brand is positioned properly in the market, or meeting customers where they are.

We lack a Marketing strategy with a capital M. It’s time to change that.

Moving forward, we want to be intentional about creating awareness (how do we introduce Basecamp to people who don’t know us?), prompting consideration (how do we get people who need a product like ours to consider us for purchase?), and driving conversion (how do we get people who are considering Basecamp to sign up, pay us, and start using our products?).

So, for the first time, we’re ready to hire someone to lead that charge and own that responsibility. We’re looking for our first Head of Marketing.

How’s that challenge sound to you?

ABOUT THE JOB AND THE WORK
Fundamentally, this job is about developing and executing a broad strategy to bring more people to the front of the funnel by increasing awareness and interest outside of what we’ve already built. We’re not looking for somebody to spend time on email drip campaigns or improving onboarding. While important, this role is much broader than that. This also isn’t a job for self-described growth hackers.

This is a role for someone who knows how to mix a wild idea with a practical pitch. Someone who’s eager (but not annoyingly so) to pick up the phone and negotiate a major partnership deal. Someone who has an eye for talent, a nose for bullshit, ears close to the ground, and the creative mind of a conductor. Someone who’s previously managed large spends and helped a brand transition through a similar process. Someone who recognizes an opportunity when they see one, but knows how to steer clear of high effort low reward mirages. You see things other people miss, and you know how to put leverage to good use.

And while we’ll support your strategy with a multimillion dollar budget and creative support from the CEO, you’ll start this process without a dedicated internal team. While we have designers, writers, and a data analyst occasionally available to assist, we don’t have a marketing department or spare staff focused on everything you’ll need to get done. This means you’ll initially be expected to identify, vet, choose, and manage external vendors or agencies to help pull off your plan. Building an in-house team is something we’ll discuss down the road.

While some may see this as a disadvantage, we think it’s a big opportunity. You’ll be able to pull in the best agencies, freelancers, shops, and creative specialists to help pull off the plan. You’ll bring us creative ideas we’ve never considered in the past. You’ll challenge our thinking and help us see ourselves in a new light.

In addition to big picture strategy, you’ll focus on practical day-to-day work like fielding sponsorship opportunities that come our way. Keeping an eye on analytics. Reaching out to groups, organizations, movements, events, and other brands we should be partnering with. You’ll also be expected to regularly detail progress, setbacks, and marketing insights for the whole company.

We’re aware that at many companies, this is a multi-person position. Someone focused on the marketing strategy. Someone else focused on brand. Someone else focused on partnerships and sponsorships. And so on. We’re not expecting a herculean marketing turnaround with a single person at the start, but we absolutely believe the right person   can point us in the right direction, guide us, come up with campaigns, be resourceful enough to get them produced, manage the process, study the results, course correct, revamp, and try more things. We know someone has to own this, or we’ll end up where we are today.

Bottom-line, this is an impact position. In time, the business should look better with you on board.  A clear case of before and after. You’ll help us be noticed, be seen, and be found. We should also feel better about ourselves with you around. This is a big responsibility and we are here to support you, cheer you on, and make it happen. We’ve talked about having someone like you on board for years, and now we’re finally ready.

ABOUT YOU
You’re creative. You’re organized. You’re experienced. You’ve done this before. You want to do it again. You absolutely want to do it for us.

We value people who can take a stand yet commit even when they disagree. We’ll often subject ideas to rigorous debate, so you’ll need to stand up for what you believe, but we remember that we’re here for the same purpose: to do good work together. Charging the trust battery is part of the work.

Yes, you’ll need to learn how we work at Basecamp, but we’re also looking for someone to teach us how to work. And once we’ve figured that out, be able to share that story with the world. We should tell the story of how we changed our approach to marketing.

We’re not looking for a superhero who thinks sheer hours = good work. Excess doesn’t impress us – creativity and efficiency does. You’ll have 8 hours a day to work, and, we hope, at least 8 hours a night to sleep. What you do with the other 8 is up to you, never to us. You’ll report directly to the CEO.

ABOUT OUR PAY AND BENEFITS
The starting salary for this position is $181,000. You can read about how we set salaries here.

Our benefits are all aimed at supporting a life well lived away from work. None are about trapping people at the office or cajoling them into endless overtime. Just the opposite. We’re all about reasonable working hours, ample vacation time, summer hours, fitness, wellness, food, education, and charity. See our full list of benefits here. In fact, if you’d like you can browse the entire employee handbook as well.

Basecamp is a remote-work company so you can be anywhere, but you’ll need at least 4 hours of overlap with Chicago time in your normal work-day routine.

We strongly encourage candidates of all different backgrounds and identities to apply. Each new hire is an opportunity for us to bring in a different perspective, and we are always eager to further diversify our company. Basecamp is committed to building an inclusive, supportive place for you to do the best and most rewarding work of your career.

HOW TO APPLY
We want to get a sense of how you think. To that end, please use your cover letter to share with us your take on the following questions:

  1. Tell us how you’ve taken an existing brand to a new place by revamping their approach to marketing. How would you begin to approach figuring out where we stand and where we should be standing?
  2. Give us an example of a small-to-medium sized business that you think markets themselves particularly well? Who’s doing an outstanding job out there? And why?
  3. Since you’ll need to bring in outside talent to get the job done, which creative agencies or freelancers do you think are doing particularly interesting work? And why?
  4. Share an example of a time great marketing caught your attention and turned you into a customer.
  5. Tell us about something you almost bought recently, but decided not to. What failed to convince you?
  6. What’s inspired you lately? What’s the most creative thing you’ve seen or experienced in the last few years?

We value great writers, so take your time with the application. Keep in mind that we do not equate length with substance, so please keep your cover letter to fewer than 1500 words. Stock cover letters won’t do – tell us why you want this job, not just any job.

Click here to apply. We are accepting applications for this position until June 28th, 2019. We’ll let you know that we’ve received your application. After that, you probably shouldn’t expect to hear back from us until after the application deadline has passed. We want to give everyone a fair chance to apply and be evaluated.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Why wear a watch when I have the time on my phone?

As a “technology person” (ugh), people ask my why I wear a mechanical watch when I already have the time on my phone?

I love mechanical watches for a number of reasons – the art, the science, the ingenuity behind the mechanisms, the continuation of a craft dating back centuries, the look, the feel, the freedom from batteries and tethers and cords.

But lately it’s really come down to this: When I look at my watch, it gives me the time. It asks nothing in return. It’s a loyal companion without demands.

In contrast, if I look at my phone for the time, it takes my time. It tempts me. The time is paired with notifications. The time is paired with a big color screen. The time is paired with a temporary cure for boredom. It seduces. It’s a rare moment that you look at your phone and you only see the time. I don’t like that trade.

I use my phone when I need what my phone does. I use my watch when I need the time. I like being on time, I like knowing where I stand in the hour, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the day. I look at my watch a lot, and I just love that it doesn’t look back.


Thanks to Krys for the insight.

A letter from a reader

Whenever we write a book, we include our email at the end so people can reach out and share their stories. With their permission, I’d like to share an email we received this morning from a reader of “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.” Published as written, only their name is being withheld at their request:

Hi Jason, David,

Your book ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work’ prompted me to change my life. Thank you. 

When I started reading the book back in January this year, I was working 14-16 hour workdays, working weekends, and practically had no life outside of work. I was eating unhealthy food because I had no time to cook and my house (I live alone) resounded the inside of a shabby animal’s cage. I was following what was told to me as the right path to success, and I was giving away my life for a boss who somewhere deep down didn’t really care for me at all. My company offered me no benefits and it was a pathetic environment to work in. And I stayed, slogged day in and day out, because I thought I had no choice. 

However, as i read your book, things started to make sense to me. What your book said made a lot more sense to me than the life I was living. It was like a world was opened up to me, one I could not imagine. I thought success wasn’t achieved on anything less than 80 hour workdays. And I almost prided myself on being able to live through them. 

Today, I just five months later, I have been able to change my life. I moved my job to a much bigger firm that gives me a lot more job satisfaction and a lot more time for myself in life. I was able to up my salary by half in this transition and more importantly, get access to a lot more knowledge and resources at work to help enhance my development. I was able to get access to things like healthcare, and even small bits like fruit water at work which helps me stay hydrated throughout the day (whereas even water breaks were seen as bad at my previous workplace). I am able to cook meals for myself almost everyday and I am able to workout on alternate days. I come home by 5 in the evening, and most importantly, I am happy. I very so happy in life, as opposed to being a miserable little person who snarled at everyone all day long. 

I really hope more people are able to understand what it is that you are trying to put across with your book. Thanks a lot for putting the book together and all the best!

With Regards,
A tech-impact writer based out of Gurgaon, India
name withheld by request

How Amazon Prime came to be

It’s always inspiring to read about the early days of an idea. About the doubt, the pushback, the impossibilities, the models telling you it’ll be too expensive, the “but, but, but…”, the breakthroughs, the vision, and the drive when you just have a hunch. The knowing that there’s no way to know until you try. These moments are often wrapped with unusual combination of vulnerability and confidence. I find them fascinating. Here’s an oral history of how Amazon Prime came to be.

Evolving and explaining how we run our company

As we write in “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work“, you should treat your company as a product too. To improve a product, you listen, learn, (re)consider, concept, and iterate. The same approach should be used to improve your company itself. How you work, how you manage, how you develop and communicate policies and procedures should all improve through iteration as well.

With that, we wanted to share how we’re improving through iteration on the inside. We recently updated our Employee Handbook (which anyone in the world can read) to clarify a few key points:

First, what are the different responsibilities of an executive vs. a manager vs. an individual? At some level the differences are obvious, but at the edges it’s not always clear. And where there’s murkiness, there’s often confusion and then conjecture. In the pursuit of clarity, we recently added a section to the handbook defining these responsibilities.

Second, what happens if an employee finds themselves in a situation where their performance has been called into question? Not knowing where you stand when there is a problem – or not even realizing there’s a problem at all – is an uncomfortable and unproductive place to be. You can’t do your best work when your mind is riddled with anxiety stemming from existential questions about job security. To clarify the process for helping identify and resolve such problems, we recently added a section to the handbook that details our newly formalized performance plan process.

Third, what does it look like to build a career at Basecamp? At many software companies, work is a job – and a relatively temporary one at that. The average tenure at Amazon and Google is only around 12 months. At Basecamp, our average tenure is 5 years (our team page shows how long everyone’s been here). Given that, it’s important for us to define what progress looks like at Basecamp. To help clarify those details, we recently updated our handbook page on making a career at Basecamp to include more details on progression, titles, pay and promotion, and the review process.

As you can see from the last updates times/dates on our Handbook, how we run the company, and how we explain how the company runs, is always being updated. Our Employee Handbook isn’t printed and forgotten. There’s no been there, done that. It’s not a project that ends. Rather, it’s continually updated updated and republished. And while some pages may be steady at a few years old, many have been updated within the last few hours, days or months. We’re always aiming to be clearer, fairer, and better, and we find that publishing our Handbook out in the open is an especially handy way to keep us improving – and honest about how we do it.

We believe publishing how a company works is a public good, not a private act. When customers choose to buy your product, they should know what kind of company makes it. We think that the more open we can be about our internal practices, the more comfortable the public – our customers – can feel about doing business with us. Spending money with a company is essentially voting for a company. We want our customers to feel proud when they vote for us.

A great ad

I’ve always loved this kind of design. It’s clear, it’s colorful, it’s honest, it’s approachable, it’s folksy, it’s effective. ALL CAPS works. “NO JOB IS TOO SMALL” is impossible to improve on (it also says this in huge letters on the front of the truck). “Rain, sleet, or snow the gutters must flow” rhymes (and they’re right!). You could argue that the URL is too small, you could say it’s messy because there are too many colors, fonts, styles, etc. But I’d say so what? How does any of that make this a bad advertisement on the side of a truck? It’s beautiful – and ugly – in all the right ways.