Why I don’t worry about our app’s negative reviews

Illustration by Nate Otto.

Our happiest customers are most likely our quietest customers

Like any app developer, the Android team at Basecamp cares about our app’s reviews. We look at them regularly because they can be a valuable source of feedback and a way for us to talk to our customers.

And like any app developer, we see our fair share of negative reviews. As a small team who takes feedback seriously, it’s a bummer when someone doesn’t like our app.

A negative review of Basecamp 3 for Android. 😭

Of course not all negative reviews are thoughtfully written, and much has already been made of how broken ratings and reviews are. Still, it’s hard not to take some of it to heart and let it weigh you down.

But over time, I’ve learned one really important thing…

No matter how many negatives reviews we get, there are a lot of people who really like our app — they just don’t write many reviews. It’s important to remember those happy, quiet customers and not get too hung up on negative reviews.

Leaving reviews just isn’t a priority for many people

Here’s the thing — as much as you want them to, there’s really no strong incentive for someone to leave you a positive review.

For many people, your app is doing its job dutifully and everything is working great. It’s not changing their lives or revolutionizing their world, but it’s helping them get something done. They’re thankful it exists.

But for them writing a review is never going to be a priority. Even if they love your app and are raving to their friends and co-workers about it, giving you written, positive feedback is never going to compete against the hundred other things they’ve got going on in their lives.

You may have even experienced this yourself — do you have any apps installed that you like but have never left a positive review for? I certainly do.

Sure, there are ways to boost your ratings and reviews, and you should take whatever opportunities you can to help your app. But no matter what you do, there will always be a subset of users who are very quiet, but very happy.

Listen to your negative reviews, but keep your quiet, happy customers in mind too

While negative reviews aren’t always useful (particularly one-star reviews with the word “useless” written in it), some can be genuinely helpful.

What’s most important is that you listen to the reviews that have constructive criticism and feedback.

Great feedback from a customer, and an A+ response by our designer, Jamie Dihiansan. He listens, responds thoughtfully, and leaves the door open for a conversation.

Respond if you can, and encourage them to email you directly with more details. Feedback and direct interactions with customers are valuable and show that you’re listening. Consider their ideas, prioritize, and start making your app better for those customers.

But at the same time it’s very, very important to know that there are a lot of people using your app that are perfectly happy with it.

You’ve already done a great job to get to where you are. Don’t lose sight of that.

Be sure to give everything five minutes so that the squeaky wheels don’t cloud your judgement. Continue to trust yourself and your team to make sound decisions based on considerate thought, not knee jerk reactions. And really think about all your customers, not just the vocal ones.

Sometimes our happiest customers do write reviews. 😀

Believe me, the positive reviews and happy customers are out there. You just can’t hear them all.🤘

We’ve been working really hard to make the all-new Basecamp 3 and its companion Android app as great as they can be. Check ’em out!

If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Email me or hit me up on Twitter and let’s chat.

If we had a Roadmap . . .

Some examples of emails we get about our product roadmap at Highrise:

Hope something like this is on the product roadmap.

Is such development planned in your roadmap soon?

I’m following up to see if we can add this to the product roadmap.

You want the truth?

Here it goes. Highrise doesn’t have a roadmap.

Our team doesn’t have a list of features with exact dates for release. We don’t know what’s going to be released on Tuesday, August 23.

We can’t advise when something will be possible. We can’t confirm if something is on our roadmap. The product roadmap doesn’t exist.

We don’t make promises.

And really that’s all a roadmap is. A promise.

A product roadmap is a promise that customers will get something on a specific date.

That’s a real photo of a map at the top of this post. It was an Uber ride Jon and I took from a Boulder hotel in an attempt to get to the Denver Airport.

Highrise is a remote company. This means all of us work where we’re comfortable. We have team members in Chicago, Boulder, Minneapolis, and Charlotte. All over the country.

Remote work is refreshing. It puts all the focus on getting work done. Our ancestors (aka Basecamp), wrote a book on it. We believe in remote work.

While remote work is great, every so often you need to meet your team face-to-face. There is no substitute for being able to look a colleague in the eye when you’re explaining something or giving them a hug instead of saying thank you over chat.

Our team met in Boulder in the middle of March for a team retreat. Michael, who resides in Boulder, told us the weather would either be perfect or it would snow a couple feet.

The retreat was delightful. We caught up and got to know one another better. We made progress on ways to improve Highrise and defined our priorities.

The weather was perfect. We went on a hike together and enjoyed the outdoors. Had a lovely team dinner. The trip was going really well.

And then it changed.

Most of us were scheduled to leave on Wednesday, March 23.

I woke up early and looked out the window of the hotel.

Holy shit.

There was about 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground. And it was still snowing. Hard.

I looked at my phone. Blizzard warning for Denver.

I checked my flights. Still on-time. Allegedly.

The next 8 hours of that day were something I’ll never forget.

Jon and I walked to a coffee shop in downtown Boulder and met another member of our team, Grant, to get some work done.

We were checking our flights every 15 minutes or so. Nathan and Lynette’s flight was already cancelled.

Somehow the flights Jon and I had were still on-time.

We needed to get to the airport. And Jon scheduled a shuttle from the hotel.

It was time to go. The snow hadn’t stopped. It picked up.

As we got to the hotel to grab our bags, Jon got a phone call. It was the shuttle. They cancelled.

We had a choice to make.

Try to take the public bus an hour from Boulder to Denver. Or call an Uber.

We chose an Uber. I pulled up my phone and braced myself for what kind of car the driver was going to be in.

Chevrolet Suburban.

Jon and I looked at each other. That might work.

We got in the Uber. Our driver, Marty, couldn’t have been nicer. He was a mountain man. Prepared.

“Alright, gentlemen. It says it should take about an hour and a half to get to the airport. There’s a few different ways we can go. If we get in trouble, I’ve got some blankets and Heath bars,” Marty said.

Marty’s pitch made us laugh. Blankets and Heath bars? We’re not going to get stranded.

As we started our route, the first highway we attempted to go on was closed. This was 10 minutes in.

Marty tried the next route. Gridlock. Bumper to bumper. The snow wasn’t stopping.

Marty said let’s turn around and try another route.

Jon got a notification on his phone. Flight cancelled.

My flight was still on-time. Marty takes us to the next route. More traffic. We’re going at a snail’s pace.

A little over an hour has passed now. I check the Denver Airport’s Twitter account.

A minute later, my flight is cancelled. No surprise.

Now, we’re in no man’s land between Boulder and Denver. We’re not leaving today and we’re not quite sure where we’re going either.

Marty suggests we try to get to a hotel that’s in the direction of the airport. Jon calls what feels like 20 hotels. Almost all are booked.

Jon lands a reservation for us at a hotel in Thornton, Colorado.

The destination is now a hotel in Thornton.

We stopped moving. Must be an accident ahead. Marty takes us on new route.

We’re coming up on 2 hours in the car. I’m starting to think we might need that blanket and Heath bar.

The new route is a little more open. The Suburban is gaining some speed as we approach a hill.

The car fishtails a little. And we’re stuck.

Marty asks if we can get out to push the car.

You might think team building happens with things like trust falls. Nope.

Try pushing a stranger’s car in driving snow with a co-worker. You’ll get to know each other. Fast.

Jon and I get out and head to the back of the car. It’s a white-out. Snow is falling fast. And it’s wet. The snow on the ground is so packed it feels like cement.

We push the car and nothing really is working. A few folks in passing cars stop and help.

The best advice they give us is the road ahead is closed. Turn around. Instead of pushing the car forward, we can go back now.

Marty maneuvers the Suburban and flips it around. We’re moving now.

We all take a deep breath. Share some four letter words. And agree let’s go back to Boulder if we can.

Marty drops us off back at the same place he picked us up. Almost 3 hours later.

We made it. My goodness.

When Jon and I got in that Uber, our flights were on time and we’re expecting to get to the airport in 90 minutes.

The “roadmap” said we’d be getting home today. That was our expectation.

And that didn’t happen at all. It sucked.

This is why our team doesn’t have a product roadmap.

Our team doesn’t like making promises we can’t keep. We don’t like setting expectations and then letting people down.

If we did have a roadmap, I’d bet it would be full of detours. Much like our Uber ride. It would resemble a child’s first attempt at using an Etch a Sketch.

Lots of twists and turns. Backtracking. Turning around. A little messy.

This isn’t to say we don’t have any clue what we’re working on. That’s far from the truth.

Our team has announced over 70 updates since taking over Highrise. Seventy. New features and improvements are announced almost every week. And that’s just what we choose to announce.

We can’t do that without some planning.

Our team has a general idea of what’s coming in the next month or so. After that, we gather the response of what we released and go from there.

Sometimes this means we continue on with what we had planned. Other times it means we have to turn around. Scrap our plans and work to improve what was released in the last few weeks.

For example, when we released Broadcast, we started to notice a frequent feature request. Broadcast makes it possible to email multiple contacts at once. It replaces the need for an extra tool like MailChimp.

But we found people were having trouble selecting a group of contacts to email. Tags and filters were limiting, and it put pressure on our team to improve it. Fast.

This changed our priorities. We scrapped what was initially planned to improve tag filtering. We added company tags and NOT tags in our next releases.

We changed our focus to help people use Broadcast. And that’s not something we anticipated until people starting using it.

A roadmap wouldn’t have helped us there. It would of been pre-determined what we should be working on next.

Roadmaps are predictions and assumptions.

But you can’t predict the future. Priorities change. Shit happens. And you have to adjust.

Just like Marty did when trying to get us to the Denver Airport. And the hotel in Thornton. And then back to Boulder.

We don’t have a product roadmap.

But if we did, it would have lots of detours.

P.S. Wondering where our next detour is going to take us? Follow @highrise on Twitter, check out our recent announcements, or ask me @cjgallo.

We’re looking for a marketing-focused designer to join our team

I’m Mercedes, Basecamp’s COO, and I’m leading our marketing efforts. I’m looking for a wonderful designer to lead our visual marketing team.

Designers at Basecamp are a fun bunch who bounce around different projects and do a bit of everything. In addition to graphic design, designers at Basecamp write tight copy, tell stories, design the UX for the website and marketing-related screens in the app, and write the HTML and CSS to make it all work.

While we’re thoughtful and deliberate, we move quickly and like to experiment often, so you may find yourself redesigning something you just designed. It’s all in the service of making something great! You should feel comfortable making new stuff, iterating on existing stuff, and everything in between.

This is your chance to design sites and materials that’ll be seen by millions.

Here are a few things my team worked on over the last few weeks:

  • We completely redesigned Basecamp.com around new messaging, and made the new site look and feel more like Basecamp the app.
  • We worked on a few ideas and designs for making upgrading a simpler process inside the Basecamp app. We’re a/b testing them now to see if they worked.
  • Designed a friendlier way for customers to play with a sample Basecamp and then create their own.
  • We used data to evaluate a log-in/signup issue, offered up a visual design to significantly reduce the problem, and worked with a programmer to implement the fix. We hope to roll this out soon.
  • Helped write and design emails our customers receive once they start using Basecamp.
  • Came up with an idea to help guide customers through the process of setting up a new Basecamp by asking them one simple question at a time. We designed the screens and worked with a programmer to hook them up. This will be launching shortly.

Here are some things we’d like your help with over the next few weeks, months, and years:

  • Continue improving Basecamp.com — design and a/b test a wide variety of alternate designs to see if we can improve signup rates and conversion.
  • Help us figure out the best way to help customers understand how Basecamp can improve their business.
  • Help us do a better job of explaining a variety of key features — either through visualizations, short videos, or storytelling.
  • Explore designs that speak to the different audiences that visit Basecamp.com, and make sure the site is organized to do this well.
  • Updating Basecamp.com frequently so it feels alive and fresh.
  • Support external events through focused landing pages and other collateral.
  • Lend a hand designing and redesigning our help/support materials.
  • Work on a variety of special print projects and surprises for customers.
  • Support anyone else in the business who needs visual/design help or inspiration.
  • And make sure everything we put out there looks great!

Other Considerations

This is an important role for us. Please take the time to read the following questions below before you apply. If they resonate, please apply.

  1. Do you enjoy telling stories and helping customers succeed? How can you demonstrate that?
  2. How does our product market itself? How would you blur the line between product design and marketing design?
  3. How would you use immediate feedback on how your design impacts our customers, their adoption of Basecamp and their success?
  4. Have you ever considered what the purpose of a website for a company like Basecamp should be?
  5. Are you someone who excels at getting your points across visually and succinctly? How do you do that?
  6. Do you like to see how your work can move company levers? What did you do that helped move the needle?
  7. Do you love seeing customers be successful? How do you do that?

Ready to apply?

Great! Here’s a couple more things you should know:

  1. You can work remotely for this job. I am based in CA. We just need to make sure we have some working schedule overlap. Working remotely is just one of our many our many benefits. Our CEO, Jason Fried, recently wrote about those benefits.
  2. We have a long standing history of favoring candidates who put in extra effort into their applications. Whether that’s a video of you introducing yourself or making us a custom website — that’s up to you. We want to know you’re qualified, but more importantly that you want this job and not just any job. Tell us why Basecamp.
  3. When you’re ready, you can apply by sending an email to mercedes@basecamp.com with the word DESIGNER in the subject. We’ll be accepting applications through May 1, and reviewing them on a rolling basis. If this role isn’t right for you, but you know someone who’d be perfect for the role, please share this posting with them.

Good Luck!

What “Sad Affleck” and an open source debacle teach us about success

Adapted from Gage Skidmore

A few weeks ago, two seemingly unrelated events took over our news feeds — Sad Affleck and the “left-pad” fiasco.

Sad Affleck exploded on YouTube with over 22 million plays, having a little fun with critic feedback on the new Superman vs. Batman movie.

And the “left pad” fiasco was about an “npm module”. Npm is a package manager for Javascript, which is a way for developers to list web “dependencies” to include in their application. These might be files they’ve written, but often they’re open source contributions from someone else.

Well, left-pad’s developer, Azer Koçulu, was upset by a trademark dispute with another company, so he decided to pull all the modules he had made from npm. Not a big deal if no one besides you uses those modules. But left-pad is depended on by many apps and developers. And when it disappeared, it crippled apps all over the web.

These two events don’t look related, but what they share in common is more important than most of the lessons I’ve seen taken from them so far.

We at Highrise recently open sourced a project of our own called Snapback Cache.

This was a piece of software we built to help make our activity feeds more user friendly. But eventually I also saw it as something we could spend a few hours polishing up into a open source script.

I didn’t expect much.

But, Snapback Cache turned out to be my most trafficked blog posts in all of March with tens of thousands of readers. It’s generated some very nice new attention to Highrise — a very high return for a tiny investment.

Is this an uncommon experience? Not at all.

“Sad Affleck” looks like it took only a few hours to produce as well. But a few hours turned into millions of viewers. Their next video was another riff on the same Affleck interview, and it racked up almost 74,000 views. Not the same impact, but a nice spillover.

And left-pad is only 11 lines of code. So of course the left-pad disaster generated questions like: Have we forgotten to code? Why do we introduce such potentially destructive dependencies for something so simple? Valid questions.

But I think the more important thing we can take away is that left-pad is downloaded 25 million times… A MONTH!

I doubt Koçulu, could have predicted the impact his module was going to have on the web when he put in the little bit of time open sourcing a simple method. And I couldn’t predict the success we were going to have with our Snapback Cache.

But the great thing is, we don’t have to. For such a small investment of time, we can afford to publish hundreds of things and maybe some of them will add real value (or entertainment).

There are big things of course that we want to make. The Batman vs. Superman movie itself took years and 250 million dollars to produce. But everything doesn’t always have to be so big. We can produce small things that can often have a huge amount of impact.

Keep publishing simple lessons you’ve learned. Don’t feel like you need to predict their success. Don’t feel like you need to spend inordinate amount of time polishing everything you put out there to the public. Even 11 lines of code can be something incredibly useful to so many people.

P.S. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter, and check out the things, big and small, we’re up to with Highrise.

Fire Sale

Illustration by Nate Otto

LION’s products can mean the difference between life and death for the customers of this family-owned company, which makes protective clothing and training equipment for firefighters. From its origins in 1898 as a horse-and-wagon operation selling clothing to farmers in Dayton, Ohio, LION turns out everything from Teflon suits worn by medical personnel transporting Ebola patients to mini metropolises spanning 20 acres that can be set on fire to train fire departments. Fun fact: LION also makes the gear worn by the actors on the NBC show “Chicago Fire.”

LION’s business brings together complex logistics, creative thinking and the ability to manage high-pressure situations — not unlike the customers it serves.


WAILIN: It’s a Monday morning and 65 Chicago Fire Department candidates are gathered at the city’s fire academy for a crucial part of their training. A few months ago, these men and women were measured for what’s called their turnout gear — their protective coats and pants. Today, they’re trying everything on under the watchful eye of academy instructors.

INSTRUCTOR: You’re gonna wear it up to 10 years before you get a new set, okay? So if something is not right, you’re not being prickly about it right now. We need to know if something is not right. Don’t hesitate to say something. Everybody understand that?

GROUP: Yes sir.

INSTRUCTOR: Trust me, we won’t always be as friendly in the next couple weeks, right? This is the day we need this stuff done right…

WAILIN: The candidates are making sure their names are spelled correctly on the backs of their coats, that their suspenders are the right length and they have enough coverage when they bend over or get down on all fours.

INSTRUCTOR: What I’m looking for is nothing that is too tight or that I’m absolutely swimming in. It’s going to be big. Think about it—unfortunately, a fact of the job is you are going to gain weight. Right? On this job. My point is that a little play room is fine in there because you’re gonna wear a sweatshirt, it’s gonna be 40 below sometimes and you’re not gonna be in a little thin t-shirt, so a little room inside that coat is fine. You just don’t want to swim in it, please.

WAILIN: There’s someone else on hand for the sizing exercise. Mike Kucharski is a representative from LION, the company that manufactured the gear for these firefighter candidates.

MIKE: This is the first time they’ve ever put this stuff on. Some of these guys, this is even kind of new to them, wearing this stuff, so we’re now just gonna check it out, see how it fits, make sure everything’s right, that they can move and do their work with this garments on.

WAILIN: Outfitting fire departments across the country is a big responsibility, and LION’s been doing it for almost a half century, using protective materials first developed for the Apollo space program. The company itself dates back to 1898, when its founder started selling clothing to farmers from a horse-pulled wagon. Today, the great grandson of that itinerant salesman runs a global company that provides firefighting gear, training equipment and logistical support for first responders and the US military. Find out how LION went from farmers to firefighters on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

STEVE: This is a picture of Version 1.0 of LION. This is my great grandfather right here, standing next to one of his customers in front of a horse and buggy with Dayton Department Store on it.

WAILIN: That’s Steve Schwartz, the CEO of LION. We’re in a conference room at LION’s headquarters in Dayton, Ohio that’s filled with mementoes from the company’s history. The artifacts show LION’s evolution from a horse and wagon operation originally called Dayton Department Store to a bricks and mortar clothing retailer in downtown Dayton to a business specializing in uniforms for service station workers.

STEVE: This is a framed set of catalogs from really I would call Version 2 of LION, which is when my grandfather went into the corporate apparel business and we were selling uniforms to service station attendants. So you see, this is back I think in 1941, he was selling a shirt and trousers for the huge price of three dollars and 95 cents.

WAILIN: Most of the service station uniforms came in blue, and LION’s salespeople started noticing that a lot of firefighters also wore blue uniforms. That epiphany got the company into the fire business, initially making what’s called station wear, or the shirts and pants that firefighters wear when they’re not out responding to a call. Today, LION’s customers include the fire departments in cities like Chicago, Honolulu, Phoenix and Toronto. It also makes the gear you see on the NBC show “Chicago Fire.” The manufacturing process is very complex. Even something that seems simple, like an exterior coat pocket, can be customized thousands of ways at LION’s factories in southeastern Kentucky.

STEVE: We have probably over 10 thousand different types of pockets. We make pockets for putting your hands in to stay warm. We make pockets to store your mask, for holding your radio, so there’s just a really infinite number of potential shapes and sizes that we can make. So we’re really in the mass customization business to that extent, and that is something that makes us more valuable to our customers, which is good, but it adds a lot of complexity to the manufacturing process. The average order size for us, even though we’re making tens of thousands of these a year, the average order size is, I think, between four and six sets of gear.

WAILIN: There are 30,000 fire departments in the US and most of them have 75 people or fewer, so each order is small and different from the next. But all of LION’s products undergo the same rigorous testing. Threads have to stay intact up to 536 degrees Fahrenheit before melting. Helmets, boots, zippers and snaps have to withstand 500 degree heat for five minutes without dripping or igniting. LION uses materials like Kevlar and Nomex, which were developed for spacesuits worn by astronauts in the Apollo program. In the case of its CBRN suits — that’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear — LION is just one of two companies licensed to use a particular kind of Teflon. In 2014, US medical personnel transporting Ebola patients wore LION suits. The company doesn’t make Kevlar or Teflon, so it’s somewhat reliant on its suppliers to keep coming up with technological improvements. That motivates LION to actively seek out the best stuff for its gear.

STEVE: A lot of materials in our products are materials that were developed for other purposes beside firefighting that we have found and have adapted to firefighting. We are the only company in our industry that uses a flame-resistant closed-cell foam for padding that does several things. First, it obviously cushions your knees and elbows because it’s foam. Number two, it doesn’t absorb water in the process like open-cell foam would or just fabric would. And so that was something we found that was being used for aircraft insulation.

WAILIN: There’s a kind of tension in what LION does. It’s constantly looking for the newest and best materials, but it also has to sell that technology to customers who are historically resistant to change.

STEVE: The fire service and first responder business, because they are inherently in a business where conservatism is important, take a long time to adopt new technology, but we really feel like our collection of products with the technology we offer are very, very unique.

WAILIN: This challenge and opportunity are also present in LION’s newest and fastest-growing line of business, which is making firefighting training equipment, called props. One example is a tray of water that’s ignited by propane and equipped with sensors that react to water being sprayed on them. LION can build things like a car or a stove around the tray to simulate real-life fires. Another prop is a portable panel, about the size of a small flat-screen TV, that lights up with digital flames and is linked to a smoke generator. The fake fire can be put out with an extinguisher outfitted with a laser pointer or a weighted hose with a digital nozzle.

STEVE: A firefighter can walk into a room and with our smoke generator in operation in conjunction with this panel, see a fire in a room full of smoke. But the fire’s actually a digital fire, and using microprocessor controls, we can actually have the fire spread to multiple panels, so we can have the fire sort of engulf a whole room and have the appropriate smoke go with it.

Here’s the fire extinguisher. It’s got a pin in it, just like a normal fire extinguisher. And then the instructor would push the button to start and here we have a fire, so I’m gonna pull the pin out…Tells me it took 10.9 seconds to extinguish the fire.

WAILIN: Is that good?

STEVE: That’s pretty good. Yeah, yeah. I’m pretty expert.

WAILIN: The digital props allow firefighters to safely train in environments that are more controlled and reduce their exposure to carcinogens, while only making small sacrifices on the realism side. And the props can be placed within larger and more complex scenarios. Steve shows me a photo of a 20-acre training facility in the Netherlands made up of realistic concrete structures.

STEVE: I call this Disneyland for firefighters. And so we actually create sort of mini cities that have lots of different buildings and structures. The picture you see here, for instance, has a small sort of small petrochemical complex with tanks and piping. We have a rail car simulation where the rail car’s leaking or a flange could catch on fire. We have a ship simulation where we have an engine fire inside the ship. To the far left, you can barely see it there, we have an underground parking garage. We can have the flames go up the wall and over the wall. We can create what’s known as a flash over effect, which is very very dangerous for firefighters. Essentially the air becomes so hot that the air itself kind of explodes.

WAILIN: LION has built these mini cities in places like Shanghai and Melbourne. It doesn’t have any facilities in the U.S., although it’s hoping to. In contrast, LION’s firefighting gear business is heavily concentrated in the U.S. because it’s had some difficulties expanding that division overseas. Steve likes to be diversified, both in terms of geographic markets and the company’s suppliers. LION has also branched out beyond manufacturing, into software that helps the U.S. Marine Corps track equipment for individual soldiers.

STEVE: We’re managing $2.5 billion every day of Marine Corps equipment through a software system that keeps track by individual soldier what they have been issued, and when they return it, and when they return it, what condition it’s in. And that includes everything from body armor to helmets to canteens to backpacks, sleeping bags—and we won that contract.

WAILIN: Part of LION’s contract involves running 20 facilities around the world where Marines shop for what they need.

STEVE: They literally take a grocery shopping cart and they go through the aisles of our grocery store and they, as I say, squeeze the Charmin to see which of the products they want. And this used helmet looks like this and do I want that, and this flak jacket, is that good enough, and they come back to our station with their grocery cart full of products and then they actually sign on a credit card signature pad, I have taken these items out and I’m financially responsible for them and will return them.

WAILIN: LION doesn’t make any of the Marine Corps gear even though it has expertise in making protective clothing for fire departments. Steve believes that when it comes to the military world, he can compete more effectively and make a better profit by tackling the logistical end, rather than the manufacturing side.

STEVE: That’s always a surprise to people because again, they think of us as a manufacturing company, but since I’ve been CEO I’ve always felt that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea that we have to make everything to be successful.

WAILIN: Steve became CEO in 2006, taking over the position from his uncle on his mother’s side. He had joined LION after business school and worked his way through different roles, from client services to factory operations to sales. He’s cognizant that the products his company makes can mean the difference between life and death, or life and severe injury, for his customers. And taking another step back, he sees firefighters as playing an important role in the economic well-being of towns and cities. LION is working with an NGO to collect used gear for fire departments with fewer resources. There’s a financial motivation behind the program, since LION hopes the recipients of the used gear will eventually become buyers of new equipment. But there’s a social responsibility component too.

STEVE: We figure in our industry there’s probably about a million and a half cubic feet of gear that’s going into a landfill or dumpster that we think much of which could be reused in a country for a fire service either that’s developing or wants to start. What I’m really passionate about is the idea that a fire department is really kind of part of the social safety net of a community. You can’t really have economic development if you’re worried that your building or your business is going to burn down.

WAILIN: And it all comes back to outfitting individual firefighters, like the 65 Chicago Fire Department recruits trying on their turnout gear for the first time. If Steve has his way, LION will be providing their uniforms for their entire career.

INSTRUCTOR: Everybody okay there? So hey, arms up again, move around, feel how it feels in the shoulder. Bend over like I was talking about ’cause I want to see the coverage with your coat on. Perfect, perfect, good, good…

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

I fucking ❤ Mondays!

It’s actually more Fridays I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anticlimax of the week. Sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it.

Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week might have to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, before reality pummels the week and your spirit into submission.

Keep reading “I fucking ❤ Mondays!”

Avoiding the Trap

Learning to Recognize Burnout

It took me a long time to realize what I was feeling was burnout.

I was working at my dream job (Basecamp!), writing software in my favorite programming language (Ruby!). I got to solve fun, challenging problems every day, with people who were brilliant, friendly, encouraging, accepting, and fascinating. The perks were amazing. My bosses were caring, supportive people who really, truly got it, and who would bend over backwards to make the work environment a place where we could all thrive and grow.

I rarely started the day earlier than 8 or 9am, or ended it later than 5pm. Weekends were sacrosanct. During the summer, we even got Fridays off. There was never more work on my plate than I felt I could get through in a few days, or a week at most.

I wasn’t overworked, and it wasn’t just that I didn’t think I was being overworked, or that I was somehow fooling myself into thinking the workload was sane — it truly was just right. The work was great. Ideal. Optimal.

And that was the trap.

When people talk about burnout, it is almost always in reference to the workload. Long hours, weekends, inboxes piling up, deadlines looming. Bosses leaning on you, tempers flaring, coworkers wondering when some task will be done that was assigned to you. I know that when I thought about burnout, this is what I pictured — and my situation could not have been more different.

I wasn’t overworked. But I was tired. I found it difficult to care about the work. My temper suddenly had a remarkably short fuse. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was distracted by — literally — anything. Nothing was too dull to pull my attention away from my assignments. I no longer enjoyed working on software. My productivity plummeted.

But when I started struggling with this emotional and professional paralysis — these classic symptoms of burnout — I figured it had to be something else. Maybe I was just bad at time management? Maybe I was just tired? Maybe I was getting sick? But when the weeks turned to months, and the months to years, I began to realize there was more at stake.

Too late, it turns out. And while I eventually realized that what I was feeling was — somehow! — burnout, it wasn’t until long after I left that situation that I discovered literature about the subject, which showed me that overwork is hardly the only — or even the most traumatic — cause of it.

Two researchers — Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter — have done extensive work on the subject of occupational burnout. They describe six “mismatches” between employees and their jobs, which can lead to burnout. As you might expect, one of them is indeed “Work Overload”, but the one that spoke most strongly to me was “Lack of Control.”

I wrote about my history with burnout in greater detail in “To Smile Again” — but the gist is that I experienced some emotional trauma around some software that I had created. The trauma was due primarily to wrong expectations, but after thinking about the experience in retrospect, and comparing it against this idea of “lack of control”, I began to understand that my burnout could be traced back to this moment.

Maslach and Leiter describe “lack of control” in terms of rigid organizations that squelch creative problem solving, and prevent employees from experimenting with new ways to tackle challenges. This was not my experience. However, that one traumatic experience caused me to perceive, in that instance, that I was not going to be allowed full control over this project, and it was that perception, rather than the full reality, that colored my subsequent experiences with software development.

Funny things, human psyches.

Another anecdote related to “lack of control”. It might shed a bit more light on how my own perception incorrectly colored my interactions with work.

Basecamp (the software) was our bread and butter, representing the lion’s share of the company’s revenue. And yet, Jason and David began talking about writing a new version of the app, to be released as a separate product, called Basecamp 2.

To me (and other coworkers as well) it sounded like madness. 🙂 Rewrite our most successful product from scratch? Compete with ourselves? It simply isn’t done. We had many debates internally over this, including whether we should rename the product something else entirely, and how to handle API compatibility, and so forth. I had some strong opinions. I felt like the step was folly. I was afraid we were going to sink our flagship.

Jason and David listened with the utmost respect to all opinions, responded to the points they felt they could contribute to, and ultimately made the decision to move forward with a separate product called Basecamp 2. I had severe misgivings, but I did my job and helped finish and launch it.

And what do you know? It was a huge success. The flagship didn’t sink. Instead, we had the beginnings of an armada.

Jason and David handled the situation internally with great delicacy and sensitivity, but in the end they had to make a decision, and I was on the losing side. At the time I was already in the throes of burnout, so it should be no surprise that I felt again that “lack of control” (though I didn’t know to call it that). Could they have handled the situation any differently? I don’t think so. I think they did great — but my perception of the situation furthered this sensation of things spiraling out of my grasp.

Maybe, if I had been able to identify what I was feeling then as “burnout” — if I had known that more than overwork can cause it — things would have turned out differently. Maybe I would have learned to come to grips with it, and conquer it sooner. Things would be different today, I’m sure.

Maybe it’s not too late for you, though. Perhaps, like me, you aren’t feeling particularly overworked. But are you feeling irritable, tired, and apathetic about the work you need to do? Are you struggling to concentrate on simple tasks?

Then maybe what you’re feeling is burnout, too.

Talk about it. Share what you’re feeling with your boss, coworkers, friends, family. Recognize it for what it is, and try to figure out what has caused it. From there, you can start to take steps to fix it at the root.

Yes, burnout is a dark place. But it doesn’t have to last forever!

Burnout is serious, and we need to talk about it more. I described my own journey into and out of burnout in “To Smile Again”, and I’d love to hear your own experiences. Have you struggled with burnout? Have you conquered it, or are you still struggling? Share your journey!

Don’t pose the question if the answer can’t change your mind

There’s an undeniable appeal in seeking broader consensus from your customers, employees, and partners in decisions big and small. When your direction has the legitimacy of a wide backing, it’s invigorating and enabling. Making progress together is more fun and effective than making progress by edict.

But you should temper your temptation to pose questions to which you aren’t really interested in hearing an opposing answer. Seeking legitimacy is a double-edged sword. When it “works”, and the asked reaffirms your preferred choice, it’s great! But it often doesn’t, and they don’t. This is where problems arise.

And it’s true whether you query for opinion or fact. If you ask your customers what’s most important for us to work on next, you better be prepared to build a faster horse. If you tap the data oracle to see whether your redesign worked, you better be prepared to revert if it didn’t.

The problem is that it’s really hard to formulate a question without falling in love with one of the possible answers. In fact, many questions arise from the infatuation with one of those answers, and serve more as post-hoc justifications than genuine inquest of inquiry.

Say you already have a destination mapped out on your mind’s road map, but you want to be seen as being “responsive to customers”. Or you’re already loving the redesign, but you just want to cover your ass in case business was to drop.

We instinctively know that simply picking a direction based on gut alone is hard to rationalize, both to ourselves but especially to others. So we seek to dress up the instinctual pick in more neutral, objective clothes and pass it off as just an innocent pursuit of the “best answer”. But it’s often baloney and the whiff travels.

Better then to simply admit when your gut is going to be in charge and own it: “We’re doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do, and that’s that”. When you say that out loud, it’ll surely feel a tad uncomfortable, but at least it’ll be congruent. Everyone knows when the leader is just seeking reaffirmation of a choice already made anyway, so dressing it up as a question is merely a ballroom dance of charade. We nod, we smile, but we know.

The other advantage of owning up to the discomfort is it will serve as a natural check on the number of gut moves likely to be made. Few people, however bold, are happy freezing at the top of the mountain alone, even if they get an unlimited stack of edict paper to fill out in return. We all want to be loved and accepted, not merely be effective. Well, most of us anyway.

By the same token, some times you really just need someone to pick a path and go with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Embrace it (judiciously).

The strong leader is neither someone who makes all the choices or none of them, but the one who knows when to do either.

Why I love ugly, messy interfaces — and you probably do too

Illustration by Nate Otto

Beautiful. Fresh. Clean. Simple. Minimal. These words have been dominating design discourse for a while now. In case you’ve managed to miss them, check out this review of portfolio websites over on Creativebloq. The word beautiful is used 6 times, and simple 11 times. In one article.

Designers use these words to describe their values, goals, and results. They plaster their portfolios and resumés with them. Non-designers use them too. They’re everywhere.

If you’ve hitched a ride on this wagon, you might have a website that looks something like this:


Lovely designs like this have become so commonplace that beautiful and clean are almost baseline constraints for new projects. It’s like every designer had the same Pinterest coffeeshop fever dream, and decided the whole world had to become lifestyle-chic.

And that makes sense, really! Everyone likes easily digestible things that look bright and stylish. Nobody wants ugly, messy stuff.

Or do they?

Here’s some ugly design that’s unbeatable.


Here’s some cluttered design that’s quite popular.

Adobe Photoshop CC

Here’s some complex design that 1.5 billion people use every month.


So…wait. If beautiful, fresh, clean, and simple are so important, why hasn’t someone upended all of these products with something nicer? It’s not for a lack of trying. There are countless simpler, better-looking Craigslist and Photoshop competitors, for example.

The answer is that these products do an incredible job of solving their users’ problems, and their complex interfaces are a key reason for their success.

Let’s say your goal is to make a global peer-to-peer commerce network. That’s a big, complicated project to tackle.

You could attempt to reduce your solution down to a minimal version, cutting out features and reducing density in the name of beauty and simplicity. Here’s a Craigslist redesign concept like that. (Designers sure hate Craigslist, don’t they? Has any other site had more unsolicited redesigns?)

Craigslist redesign concept by Aurélien SALOMON.

Or, you might decide that you really can’t cut features, because it’s more important to nail every use case you care about. (Remember, you have to support a huge number of scenarios to reach table stakes for this project.) Now beauty and simplicity are instantly a much lower priority. Making something useful comes first.

For another example, think of Photoshop. How many graphic designers who idolize Swiss Style also use Photoshop every day? Probably most of them. Yet Photoshop’s UI is the antithesis of minimal — it has more nasty junk drawers than your parents’ unkempt basement. It doesn’t matter at all, because people don’t come to Photoshop for inspirational UI. They use it to get the job done.

In other words, sometimes this isn’t so great:

When this is what you really need:

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting you should go clutter up your design work, or make it look crappy on purpose. I’m also not suggesting that the examples above couldn’t be improved.

My point is: there is no single right way to do things. There’s no reason to assume that having a lot of links or text on a page, or a dense UI, or a sparse aesthetic is fundamentally bad — those might be fine choices for the problem at hand. Especially if it’s a big, hairy problem.

Products that solve big, hairy problems are life savers. I love using these products because they work so damn well. Sure they’re kind of a sprawling mess. That’s exactly why they work!

We needn’t all pray at the beautiful minimalist design altar. Design doesn’t have to be precious. Toss out your assumptions and build what works best.

We made Basecamp to be one of those life saving, big hairy problem solvers. Check it out now at basecamp.com.

This post was adapted from a talk I gave at University of Illinois Webcon.

Being tired isn’t a badge of honor

Whenever I speak at a conference, I try to catch a few of the other presentations. I tend to stand in the back and listen, observe, and get a general sense of the room.

Lately, I’ve been hearing something that disturbs me. A lot of entrepreneurs onstage have been bragging about not sleeping, telling their audiences about their 16-hour days, and making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the way ahead. Rest be damned, they say — there’s an endless amount of work to do.

Keep reading “Being tired isn’t a badge of honor”