Poor design — “doesn’t say tea”

Reddit user earthtokeebs posted a design he had worked on for his client, Natural Warrior Tea.


Some of the reaction:

It’s very pretty but nothing about this package says ‘tea’ to me

Exactly. Cool tea products usually have that “zen” vibe. Not “let’s go rock climbing”.

Definitely. This doesn’t say “tea” at all. Reminds me of a company that tried to take on the wine market.

There’s so much wine. And wine has always had a culture. There’s historically been a typical way to design a wine. How it tastes. How you talk about it. The history you share on the bottle. How many varieties you have. Even how white and red is supposed to come in different shaped bottles. And wine has become something that you need to educate yourself about to be able to pick something when you visit a store.

But a company comes in and decides, screw it, let’s not make wine for wine drinkers. Let’s make it for people who buy things like ready-made cocktails and beer. People who are in and out of a liquor store and know nothing about wine. So they made only two kinds of wine: a single red and a single white. They used the same bottle design for both. They made them a bit fruitier and less complex in taste which made them more easy to drink by people used to drinking cocktails and beer. It got rid of all the junk about the history of the vineyard and typical stuff on the bottle — going with a simple logo of a Kangaroo.

Critics hated it. “Too sweet.” “Won’t make wine drinkers happy.” But that was the point. This isn’t for wine drinkers. The result: [yellow tail] in just 2 years become the fastest growing wine, and then quickly reached the number one wine in the US.

I agree. This design doesn’t say “tea”, but that’s really the strength of this. Tea is a ridiculous commodity. There’s already a lot of what you think about when you think fancy, “cool”, “zen” tea products. Why not make the tea for rock climbers? Why not focus on the people who want energy and caffeine from tea, but don’t really care for all the flavors and culture that the rest of the tea market caters to.

This [yellow tail] story is just one of a bunch of awesome case studies in: Blue Ocean Strategy. Anyone making products and business should give that book a thorough read. Our goal should be to find market space that is uncontested. A blue ocean. If you try and compete with everyone else you end up in these bloody red oceans competing on things like price alone.

P.S. To see how we ourselves are taking on the bloody space of CRM and finding uncontested waters since we spun-off from Basecamp, you should follow what we’re doing at Highrise and the story on Twitter: here.

Evaluating a redesign

When evaluating a redesign, your first instinct is to compare the new design to the old design. But don’t do that.

The first step is to understand what you’re evaluating. If you just put the new design up against the old design, and compare the two, the old design will strongly influence your evaluation of the new design.

This is OK if nothing’s changed since the original design was launched. But it’s likely a lot has changed since then — especially if many months or years have passed.

Maybe there are new insights, maybe there’s new data, maybe there’s a new goal, maybe there’s a new hunch, or maybe there’s a whole new strategy at play. Maybe “make it readable” was important 3 years ago, while “help people see things they couldn’t see before” is more important today. Or maybe it’s both now.

But if the old design sets the tone about what’s important, then you may be losing out on an opportunity to make a significant leap forward. A design should never set the tone — ideas should set the tone. Ideas are independent of the design.

So, when evaluating a redesign you have to know what you’re looking for, not just what you’re looking at. How the new design compares to the old may be the least important thing to consider.

It’s a subtle thing, but it can make all the difference.

Speaking of reconsidering and redesigning, we just redesigned Basecamp from the ground up. Check out what’s new in the all-new Basecamp 3.

Business game en pointe

Illustration by Nate Otto

Basecamp values the long game: Staying independent, growing deliberately and building a sustainable business over time. Yet so much of the current narrative around entrepreneurship emphasizes breakneck growth, colossal investment rounds and—as Michael Lewis might say—the new new thing. As a result, there’s an entire group of businesses being left out of the conversation. We want to bring their stories to the forefront. That’s why Basecamp makes The Distance, a podcast about the old old things in business.

The Distance features narrative audio stories about independent businesses that are at least 25 years old. You can subscribe to The Distance in iTunes or via your favorite podcast app. We’ve visited a laundromat, a lip balm factory and a family farm, among others, and our latest episode centers on a 47-year-old ballet school founded by two women whose disciplined, no-frills approach to classical dance education laid the foundation for a long-running small business.

We release new episodes every two weeks and each story is around 15 minutes long, amounting to a small but potent dose of business inspiration with a deeply personal story at its core. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode!

The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Check out the all-new Basecamp 3.

Signal v. Noise moves to Medium

When Jason Fried a few months ago suggested that we should start posting articles on Medium, I was skeptical. What possible gain could we have from sharing our stories on someone else’s platform rather than our 15 year-old blog? Turns out, quite a lot!

First of all, the writing and formatting experience on Medium is just excellent. I’ve yet to find another web editor that makes it as easy to produce great looking articles. It’s just the right mix of flexibility and constraint. Writing on Medium is just beautiful.

Second, Medium has a wonderful community and readership that reaches far beyond our natural sphere of influence. Between just RECONSIDER and The day I became a millionaire, I’ve had more than 500,000 people see those articles. We just weren’t getting those numbers hosting Signal v Noise on our own island.

Third, running our own blog system is a classic case of the cobbler’s shoe syndrome. Yes, we’re well capable of technically making a great blog system, keeping it updated, and keeping the design fresh, but it falls to the bottom of the list of priorities against making Basecamp better. So we don’t, and it languishes. Why not just use something off-the-shelve that others have as their sole mission to make the best?

Fourth, Medium has listened to the concerns of publishers. By offering custom domains, we’re ensured that no permalink ever has to break, even if we leave the platform. By committing to never showing advertisement, unless the publisher consents, we can remain with Basecamp as the sole commercial sponsor of Signal v. Noise. Between these two facts, we feel confident about owning our content and our legacy, regardless of where Medium-The-$82M-VC-Funded-Company goes.

So here we are. Signal v. Noise has been around since 1999. That’s more than 15 years! We’re going for at least another 15. Please follow our publication if you care to be notified when new stories are posted (or subscribe via RSS). And if you want to follow along on Twitter, where we’ll move the shorter-form quotes, insights, and video pointers, then follow @37svn.

I’d rather text than talk

Illustration by Nate Otto

Are we truly introverts or just socially and emotionally undeveloped? Here’s how I came to learn that truth about myself, how it’s changed the way I think about making software, and why if you make software Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” is a must-read. If you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this is for you.

I’ve long considered myself an introvert. If you’re a designer or programmer, a self-proclaimed geek, a computer enthusiast — if you live on the web — you may think so, too. Perhaps this sounds familiar: I was content to play alone as a kid spending hours building with Lego, lost in my imagination. I made art, read books, and was fascinated by computers.

The computer would do amazing things if I could master its secret language of esoteric syntax. It was absorbing and stimulated the mind. Predictable and consistent, never doing any more or less than instructed.

Unlike people. They were messy and inefficient and cared about the most trivial things! I wasn’t without friends but my tribe mostly cared about the same things I did. When we did get together it was often to share techniques and experiences from our time in solitary activities. Instead of being intertwined by friendship we journeyed through life in parallel. The things we were passionate about made no sense to adults. They didn’t advance our social standing or impress the girls. So we retreated further.

It wasn’t until the internet arrived that it all suddenly made sense. I remember distinctly in college and in my first job after college the elation to learn that I could be paid to indulge in all the things I was already doing. I was able to work with computers all day long, figuring things out, reading, making, building, tinkering. The internet was wide open and seemingly crafted especially for us geeks. You didn’t even have to take a class — everything you needed to know to make things on the internet was on the internet.

Building the case for introversion

Not only did the web allow me to get paid for work I’d have done for fun but it helped me to connect with other people just like me. We worked and communicated through the web. Email and IM meant no one had to comb their hair, put on pants, make small talk, or stand in the corner while the extroverts had all the fun. Asynchronous communication was efficient and transactional. I didn’t have to ask you about your haircut or pets before requesting the information I needed from you. My “friends” were right there, neatly contained in that narrow little window on my screen. There when I need them, minimized when I didn’t.

As we geeks became more essential to the companies we worked for we were coddled. They bent the old rules to make us feel comfortable because we were shy and temperamental. Casual dress codes, unlimited Cokes and foosball tables were standard issue. We were special snowflakes who passed around articles to explain why were were so different and how we should be treated*.

It all came to a head for me a few years ago when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Here was the definitive apologetic I’d been waiting for. I didn’t need to feel bad for being awkward, for preferring emails to phone calls, for wanting to stay in rather than go out — it was just how I was. Here introversion was presented as an advantage, not something to be ashamed of. Damn the extrovert agenda!

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

Years ago when I first joined 37signals I was overjoyed at having found an introvert’s dream job. Here I could work from my home hiding behind a computer nearly 100% of the time. Not working in an office meant nobody to drop by for small talk or force me to speak in front of a crowd. Customer support? Email. Meetings? Toxic. We only got together in-person a few times a year.

I remember those in-person meetings reinforced my self-diagnosis. Sitting around the conference table, the ideas and options came fast and furious. I could hardly get in a word. My coworkers wanted to work out the design now, iterating on a whiteboard in REAL TIME! What I wanted to do was take in all the information, go home and work it out in solitude, at the computer. I knew I could think as creatively as anyone else but I needed to do it on my terms.

Why take the risk of sharing a possibly stupid idea off-the-cuff when I could retreat to my cave and craft a perfectly edited proposal or iterate on a polished design in solitude?

Cain’s book validated all of this. I didn’t need to feel bad, this is just how I was and I needed to assert myself such that I could work on my terms. The book even stresses, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured”. So I didn’t look to change, I just kept justifying. Is there anything we’re better at than justifying our faults and failures? And the internet makes it all too easy to follow only the people who agree with us and read only what represents our worldview. I may be a weirdo, but there are thousands of people who are just as weird.

Now my point is not to deride Cain’s book (which is very good) or somehow deny introversion. There is no question that introversion is real and many, many people are wired this way. If you think you might be, “Quiet” is a great read. The problem for me is as great as the book made me feel about my behavior, I don’t think I was actually an introvert.

Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement, introversion having even been defined by some in terms of a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating external environment.

Extraverts are energized and thrive off of being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. They also tend to work well in groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone. They tend to be energized when around other people, and they are more prone to boredom when they are by themselves.

Extraversion and introversion

I didn’t dislike social gatherings and didn’t need to balance social time with solitude in order to recharge as is commonly said of introverts. Some of the best times of my life were in social settings. I couldn’t think of any time with my computer that would crack the top ten. I wasn’t sure what to do. Introversion justified my behavior but the more clinical definitions left me with questions.


It was only recently, years later, in divorce and another book that I found an answer. Divorce viciously unmasked my self-deception. Covering my social and emotional deficiencies in the echo-chamber of the internet and the apologetics of introversion made me feel better but it let the problems fester. In losing everything I was forced to turn to real people for healing. First in the few relationships I had left, later in seeking and forming new ones. I could have stayed home continuing to wrap myself in the comfort of the misunderstood introvert. Instead I sought change. Forming new relationships and asking for help required a humility and vulnerability I’d never thought possible but offered rewards beyond imagination.

Being comfortable with our vulnerabilities is central to our happiness, our creativity, and even our productivity.

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age was the final piece of the puzzle. It’s a rather damning look at how the way we communicate in the smart phone era is killing real, face-to-face conversations in our friendships, families, schools and workplaces and what we’re losing when that happens.

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

The book is particularly focused on a population who have never developed the skills to truly have a conversation in “real time” and how that’s destroying empathy (sound familiar?). How social media offers the unrealistic promise of connecting without giving anything of ourselves. How the ways we’ve become wired to avoid boredom at all costs — stimulation is just a tap away — has assaulted our ability to be secure in solitude, rest our minds, and open them to the serendipity and creativity that comes from unstructured reflection. How even the presence of a phone on the table changes the depth and nature of a conversation.

In seeking productivity and efficiency we’re turning conversations into, as Turkle’s puts it, merely “transactional” exchanges of information. We’re treating people like apps that we tap when we need stimulation, close when we’re bored, switch away from when something more interesting comes around and delete when they no longer offer anything in the transaction.

What does this have to do with software?

At Basecamp we make software that helps people communicate, get work done and stay connected. Millions of people use it to increase their productivity enabling them to work when, where and how they want. It works on Macs, PCs, iOS and Android, phones and tablets. It notifies you when a task is due, a meeting is starting or someone needs your attention — anywhere in the world, any time of day. I’m proud to help make a tool that helps so many people get things done but I often worry about the other side. Should I be proud when a mom is using Basecamp instead of watching her kid’s soccer game? Who’s fault is it when dad comes home from work on-time but isn’t really present because Basecamp keeping pinging his phone all evening? Every time Basecamp sends a notification should I wonder if it’s helping someone be a better worker or impeding them from being a better person?

The age of the smartphone is here to stay. Well beyond the days of Web 2.0 our industry is making the best software ever seen. Everywhere you look there are beautiful, fast, intelligent apps that allow us all to do more both simultaneously and cumulatively. We’ve had tremendous success in making people more productive but what have we gained? Do we have more free time? More leisure? No! As Turkle aptly puts it, “We are living moments of more and lives of less.”

Reclaiming Conversation ends with a call to make software that has moved beyond mere productivity and thinks about the human on the other side. Can we make apps that are less-sticky, less addictive, that reward users for completing a focused task then quitting rather than enticing them with something else? Can apps encourage uni-tasking? Can they help users take back their time?

I’m proud to work for a company that’s starting to ask these hard questions and seeking real answers. Basecamp’s Work Can Wait feature let’s users create a clear separation between when they’re working and when they don’t want to be bothered with work—even on mobile devices. This is a great step forward. Granted, many apps and operating systems have recently incorporated similar features the help us manage the noise but the future is here when computers are proactively helping us be more human, not less.

Reclaiming Conversation has completely changed the way I think about people, computers, social media, and designing software. If you’re a parent, a co-worker, or a friend; if you’re dating or married; if you’re a boss; if you make apps; if you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this book is a must-read. It’ll make you think about the way you use software, the ways software can use you, and what you’re losing every time you glance at your phone. Our industry may truly be full of introverts, but I suspect that at least some of you are like me, not realizing how you’ve let these tools change you. I hope I’ve made you curious enough to find out. If you make software, I hope you’re inspired to help your users find balance, too.

Visit Basecamp.com to learn more about the all new Basecamp 3, try it for free and start living like Work Can Wait.

All my RailsConf keynotes

(Due to a scheduling conflict, I unfortunately wasn’t able to deliver my regular keynote at RailsConf 2016.)

RailsConf 2007: A peak at Rails 2.0

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the video for this. You’ll have to make do with the slides alone, as I couldn’t even find the audio for this.

Bonus: If you’re really looking for some old school Rails fun, checkout the original 15-minute blog video. WHOOPS! If you want to see the application that gave birth to Ruby on Rails, checkout the all-new version 3 of Basecamp.

Capturing memories in the best light

When our son Colt was born three years ago, I found the true purpose to why I had spent the past decade studying and practicing photography: Capturing the arc of a whole new life that I co-created.

Family photography is often relegated to the lowest rung of Serious Photography. And I get that looking at pictures of other people’s kids really isn’t all that interesting most of the time. But if it’s your kid, suddenly it’s the most important and profound subject in the whole world.

Colt just turned three, and already I have a hard time remembering the specifics of his early expressions just by digging in grey matter. But pull up a few pictures, and all of the sudden the memory is jogged, alive in the mind’s eye.

It’s the magic of photography that it can serve as key to unlock those treasures you’d otherwise struggle to access. So thank you to Canon, Fuji, and, since Colt was about 1, primarily, Leica. ❤️📷


CHICAGO — December 1, 2015–Basecamp is now a $100 billion dollar company, according to a group of investors who have agreed to purchase 0.000000001% of the company in exchange for $1.

Founder Jason Fried informed his employees about the new deal at a recent company-wide meeting. The financing round was led by Yardstick Capital and Institutionalized Venture Partners.

In order to increase the value of the company, Basecamp has decided to stop generating revenue. “When it comes to valuation, making money is a real obstacle. Our profitability has been a real drag on our valuation,” said Mr. Fried. “Once you have profits, it’s impossible to just make stuff up. That’s why we’re switching to a ‘freeconomics’ model. We’ll give away everything for free and let the market speculate about how much money we could make if we wanted to make money. That way, the sky’s the limit!”

Proof that Basecamp is now a $100 billion dollar company.

A $100 billion value for Basecamp is “not outlandish,” says Aanandamayee Bhatnagar, a finance professor and valuation guru at Grenada State’s Schnook School of Business. Bhatnagar points to a leaked, confidential corporate strategy plan that projects Basecamp will attract twelve billion users by the end of 2016.

How will the company overcome the fact that there are only 7.3 billion people alive today? “Why limit users to people?” said Bhatnagar.

In order to determine the valuation of companies, Bhatnagar typically applies the following formula: [(Twitter followers x Facebook fans) + (# of employees x 1000)] x (total likes + daily page views) + (monthly burn rate x Google’s stock price)-squared and then doubles if it they’re mobile first or if the CEO has run a business into the ground before. Bhatnagar admits the math is mostly a guess but points out that “the press eats it up.”

To help handle the burdens of an increased valuation, Basecamp hired former YouTube exec Craig Mirage as Chief Valuation Officer earlier this month. Mirage hopes to replicate YouTube’s valuation success at Basecamp. “Of course, the investment comes with great expectations. But you should see the spreadsheet models we’re making up. Really breakthrough stuff,” said Mirage.

Basecamp will lead the new global movement filled with imaginary assumptions on growth and monetization potential,” he continued. “We’re excited to roll out a list of unconfirmed revenue possibilities that involve crowdsourcing, claymation emoticons, 4D touch, in-app garage sales, goofy looking goggles, social stuff, and an app store. Also, everything we make will include a compass.”

What’s the difference between time and attention? A lot.

I recently realized that if I’m too busy to take something on, I shouldn’t say “I don’t have the time”. In fact, I often do have the time. It’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for someone.

What I don’t have — and what I can’t squeeze in — is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time. So what I should say is “I don’t have the attention”. I may have 8 hours a day for work, but I probably have 4 hours a day for attention.

This summer a guy wrote me out of the blue asking if he could intern for me this summer. His email was great — clear, thoughtful, kind, inviting, confident but not pushy, and not too long (but long enough to say what he had to say without leaving anything out). He was studying at Harvard Business School and was going to be back in Chicago this summer.

He asked if he could swing by and say hi. His email made it easy for me to say yes. So he did, and we had a great session. We spent maybe an hour or so together. I learned about his background, what kind of stuff he was interested in, what he wanted to learn, what he could teach us, etc. Then we riffed on a few ideas. It was natural, flowing, effortless. Really promising.

Then I told him I’d think a few things over and get back to him soon. He checked in a few weeks later, and I said I’d get back to him soon again. And I didn’t.

A month or so after that I wrote him and told him I was really sorry. I’d mislead him — and myself — thinking I had enough time to take on a intern that summer. I wanted to, I really liked him, I thought he’d be great, but I just didn’t have as much time as I thought I had to even consider it more and line up work and spend time with him, etc.

But really, as I thought about it, I realized I had the time. Every day is the same 24 hour cycle. Every workday around 8 hours. Surely I could have found even 20 minutes a day to work with him. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find the time. I couldn’t find the attention.

My mind fills up with a few key projects and that’s it. I’m absorbed by those. That’s where my attention is. Had I made 20 minutes here and there for him, I’m be physically present in that moment, but mentally I’d be elsewhere. And that’s not fair to either of us.

Time and attention aren’t the same thing. They aren’t even related.

We’ve since talked a few more times, and we caught up again last week. I think I’ll have more attention next year. We’re going to keep in touch, check in from time to time as he finished up school, and then try again.