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.
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.
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.
When looking at a single screen, the button shape and centering is consistent. Further, a primary button is called out using size, color, and placement – in line with interface guidelines.
Stop up top on the Timer, stop down at the bottom on the Alarm. The Timer and Alarm designs look so similar that visual/muscle memory can lead you to tap the wrong button. Confusing!
Ah, this is what you really want. A design steeped in context. It’s an alarm clock, and you often want to snooze one of those – especially early in the morning when you’re randomly smacking at things, hoping to hit the right thing. So make Snooze huge – no more hunting for that small button in a field of black. And make stop larger too. You could use this with your eyes closed as long as you know the shape of the phone, and which side is up/down. (Note: this is a conceptual design by Alex Cornell)
People tend to look for mentors who are too far afield. A mentor who’s 20 or 30 years on in their career. I think this is misguided.
I think most are far better off seeking mentorship from someone who’s just a little bit ahead of them. Someone who’s a year or so in front. Someone who just went through what you’re going through, not someone who went through it a decade ago.
So if you’re starting a brand new business, talk to someone who started theirs a year ago. Or if you’re about to sign your first office lease, talk to someone who just signed theirs. Or if you’re about to hire your first employee, get advice from someone with a two-person company, not 200. I think there’s a good chance the advice will be more helpful.
That’s not to say you can’t learn from an expert in their field, or that you shouldn’t trust anyone who’s been there done that years ago, but that I believe most of your advice should be relevant advice. And relevancy benefits from recency. Memories fade and myths form over time – the closer someone is to the actual events you’re asking them about, the more relevant the advice has a chance to be.
Yes, history has much to teach us, but history also has much to trick us. Last week is a better predictor of this week than last decade would be.
Yesterday, February 5th, was Basecamp‘s 15th birthday. As a company we’ve been around for 20 years (we used to be called 37signals), but one random Thursday back in 2004 marked the beginning of Basecamp, the product.
The comments are especially interesting to read after all these years. They give you insight into what a launch is like – uncertainty, “I needs” and immediate feature requests, doubt, praise, questions, etc. Every launch is a mixed bag of emotions and opinions. Ours, potential customers, lovers, haters, etc. But that’s what makes it exciting! No one really knows what’s going to happen. Launch day is the easiest day you’ll ever have – it only gets harder from there on out.
There are so many people to thank. Our 100,000 paying customers, our incredible crew who’ve put in over a million collective hours developing the product, supporting our customers, and keeping the machine humming. It’s truly a continued honor to get to work with such bright, interesting, talented, thoughtful, and kind human beings.
But let’s also recognize that we have luck and fortuitous timing to thank. They are a large part of our success. I didn’t used to think luck played a part. I didn’t believe in timing. It’s easy for your ego to dismiss those things as something you didn’t need because you’re so fucking good. Probably not. Of course I was younger and dumber back then. I’ve since learned that luck and timing play an outsized role in anyone’s success. No need to hide from that. It doesn’t make you less of a person, or less of an entrepreneur, to admit you rode the wave of luck.
So, here’s to continued luck! Let’s make it another 15, 20, 25! Thank you everyone.
Psst: We’re hoping luck and timing come together again later this year.
I wish ad-supported services could look at my average usage (# of pages I’ve viewed, ads I’ve seen, etc), and give me an option to directly pay them the same amount they would have charged the advertisers for my slice of views/clicks/etc. No ads for me, they get paid as if they were serving me ads.
I’ll even put my credit card on file. Just show me a running receipt of the charges I’m running up. They get paid the same amount as an advertiser would pay them, I get to support a publication I like, everything’s transparent, and anyone can opt in or out. Don’t want ads? Pay your own way. Ok with ads? Let advertisers support your usage.
Silicon Valley has become especially good at turning software, the highest margin product ever, into many of the worst performing businesses imaginable. With few exceptions, the amount of money being lost by the leaders of the new school is absolutely staggering.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”
Last week I was in NY to record a podcast with Kara Swisher of Recode. I’ve been reading and watching Kara for years, so it was a distinct thrill to finally get to sit opposite her and talk tech, business, VC, why it doesn’t have to be crazy at work, and a variety of other topics. We covered a ton, and it was a fun conversation.
You can listen to the full podcast here. You’ll also find an intro article as well as a lightly edited transcript for the roughly one hour conversation. Hope you dig.
And BTW, if you didn’t know, we have our own podcast called The REWORK Podcast. We record new episodes every two weeks, and sometimes hit with a bonus episode on off weeks. We hope you’ll listen in there as well.