Everything is possible but nothing is free

Every developer has been asked whether building a certain feature is “possible”. The short answer is virtually always YES. It’s possible. Software is the clay of dreams; everything is possible.

What those asking really want to know, though, is one of two things:

  1. Can you just build this thing I want, in addition to all the other things already on your plate, without moving any of your estimates? In other words, can you invent additional time or work hero hours to make this happen? The short answer to that question is always no. No, developers cannot bend time, invent time, or be long-term productive by sacrificing their downtime for your special-request time.
  2. Is this “easy” to do? And by “easy”, let’s take the vaguest, most fuzzy definition of the word that the two of you will never agree upon. This is like two kids arguing which car is faster: the red one or the yellow one? Without further information, you’re not going to make much progress on either question.

Here’s a simpler approach: I would like to have this and I’m willing to pay up to that.

That’s a basis for a conversation worth having. It’s rarely enough for a developer to give you a definitive answer on the spot, but after a couple of follow-up questions, you’re at least likely to know whether you’re in the ballpark.

The catch with framing the request like that is it requires the person asking to make the hard analysis. How much is my request really worth? What other things would I give up to have this thing instead? It forces them to bargain with reality, which is much less appealing than charming the developer fairy into just giving them want they want, no sacrifices needed.

And many developers are surprisingly willing to play their part in this fantasy, because who doesn’t want to be thought of as superhero with magical powers? It’s an addictive role, but also a broken one. You only get so many magic spells before your book is done.

Successfully and sustainably making progress on software together is based on an open dialogue about costs and trade-offs. The more we obfuscate those critical decisions, the less likely we are to get what we all really want: The best software for the time and money we have.

Basecamp was built by hunting for bargains under a set-the-budget type negotiation tactic as described above. Well, mostly. We still succumb to wishful thinking every now and then too, but when we catch it in the act, we try to whack it. Let me know how you think we did.

I’m a boring programmer (and proud of it)

Archetypes for programmers (if you believe all those silly job postings). Illustration by Nate Otto.

I have a confession to make — I’m not a rock star programmer. Nor am I a hacker. I don’t know ninjutsu. Nobody has ever called me a wizard.

Still, I take pride in the fact that I’m a good, solid programmer. One who works hard at his craft and really enjoys it, even without the fancy labels.

Keep reading “I’m a boring programmer (and proud of it)”

Basecamp announces Fun Can Wait™

At Basecamp, it’s part of our DNA to provide our customers with the latest and greatest technology. We know Basecamp is mission-critical software to our customers. And so, we continuously deliver new and improved product features in a timely manner, automatically, to enable you to seamlessly leverage the latest innovations and focus on growing your business.

With our latest release, we did a deep dive on some pain points, and are delivering some quick-win solutions! We’re proud to leverage our Spring ’16 feature: Fun Can Wait™.

The 37,000 foot view

With Basecamp your team will be working together more smoothly than ever before. But to really maximize your ROI you have to keep an eye on your KPIs. It can be like herding cats to get your team to focus. Fun Can Wait™ removes the frivolity from Basecamp, and cranks up your team’s productivity up to 11!

Gone are emoji pictures and animated gif uploads. Animated gifs are a drag on your network, and your bottom line! Instead, motivate your team with inspirational passages from our New York Times bestselling business minimalist manifesto REWORK. Instead of emoji pictures, Basecamp will render the emoji’s name. The paradigm shift from figurative to literal breaks through the clutter. You’ll leverage an increased level of engagement that will surface important information, accelerate pipelines, and impact organic growth.

We’re also leveraging a new notification system: Productivity Booster™. Productivity Booster™ headlights your employees’ response times. If responses take more than 30 minutes, Basecamp will send a reminder through multiple communication channels to remind people their top priority is work!

Your employees’ vacations are ripe for disruption. Set Vacation Hours to productively manage their leisure time. Vacation Hours empower your employees to take a holistic approach to their work. At the end of the day, who wants to wait until vacation is over to catch up on work communications? Going forward, your resources can maximize their productivity, where ever they may be.

Despite these measures, some employees can still sneak momentum-losing merriment into Basecamp. That’s why we’re also adding a flag for items that are too fun. If your employees see an event, message or comment they deem too mirthful, they can flag it for a manager’s review. It’s important to give your employees leverage over each other!

Fun Can Wait™ is designed to leverage your existing technology infrastructure, so with this feature release, we’ve circled back to IE8. Who needs the latest and greatest when you can stick with what’s familiar and reliable?

You can put your eyeballs on it at funcanwait.com

Fun Can Wait™ was synergized by the blue-sky team of Ann Goliak, Vice President of Vernacular Integration; Anton Koldaev, Vice President of Information Technology; Eileen Uchitelle, Vice President of Web Development; Jamie Dihiansan, Vice President of Graphics Design; Joan Stewart, Vice President of Resource Reassurance; Jonas Downey, Vice President of Ninja Design Hacking; Shaun Hildner, Vice President of Audio Visual Systems

One Day on Earth

Every day we hear surprising stories and helpful advice from our users at Highrise in every kind and size of business and we want to spread some of that to the rest of the community too! Brandon uses Highrise to organize thousands of people at his business One Day on Earth, but this story isn’t about Highrise…

Over the years we have shipped more than 1000 cameras to 150+ countries

Wait. What? Does Amazon even ship to that many countries? Here’s a quote from Amazon Global: The majority of items in Amazon’s product catalog can be shipped to over 75 countries.

So, how do you do this?

There is no way that would be possible without our partnership at the United Nations.

🙂 But really, why is Brandon Litman, shipping cameras to so many places?

One Day on Earth is exactly what it sounds like. People from all over the world are showing you what the entire planet looks like through their eyes, all at the same time. It takes a herculean effort, and the results are impressive. You can see a teaser of their latest example here:

Let’s learn a bit from Brandon on how he even got started.

If you really want something, you should work to get it.

Brandon Litman

From renting out his Game Boy in elementary school to handling a global film screening in over 160 countries, Brandon Litman has been running businesses for quite awhile. “Doing business was something that always excited me,” he says. Litman started early, and his entrepreneurial drive continued through high school, when he made ramps for fellow skateboarders, and into college.

“The college environment is so primed for young entrepreneurs,” he says. Litman was a licensed skydiver by his freshman year, which brought about his most significant college project. After making a deal with a local drop zone to get volume pricing, Litman coordinated groups of students to do their first jumps, making “a killing on the margins.” Litman organized up to 80 students to do tandem jumps in a single weekend.

To grow his business, Litman looked further afield than college students:

I even momentarily joined the Army officer training program because I thought they would be good to recruit. That didn’t last long — I quit when they asked me to jog with a log on my shoulder.

Though he enrolled in an architecture major initially, Litman quickly decided it wasn’t for him:

I arrived at my first class at USC where, within 10 minutes, I learned architecture was a 5-year program with a starting salary of 35k. I immediately left and changed my major to “undecided”.

Unsurprisingly, Litman says he naturally fell into his school’s business program. After college, he continued growing his business acumen. He worked on plans for a dry cleaning business, and managed new business efforts for an ad agency in LA before starting a video production company in NYC where Litman worked for 8 years.

These days Litman is co-founder and Executive Producer at One Day on Earth — a company started in 2008 with a lofty goal — to have thousands of participants around the world film simultaneously over a 24-hour period. From this initial project idea, One Day on Earth has grown into a foundation that aims to build and support a global community of media creators.

The initial project idea came from Litman’s business partner, Kyle Ruddick.

Kyle edited a brilliant trailer and asked me to take a look. I immediately fell in love with the project and came on board as an investor and advisor. Within months it snowballed into something much bigger and I was obsessed with the project and all it had to offer. It didn’t take long for it to become my fulltime focus.

Several years on, Litman’s responsibilities include fundraising, partnership building and business development. He says producing the initial film concept has been the highlight of the One Day journey so far:

In 2010, when we said we were going to film in every country in the world on the same day, people thought we were nuts. So there was nothing more magical than sharing the film, which was done via a global screening premiere involving 220 locations in over 160 countries, with the flagship screening at the General Assembly of the United Nations (1700+ guests). It was one of the best days of my life.

Mission accomplished. Now what?

With a global focus, Litman’s day is almost always full of meetings and calls. One Day on Earth has community managers to help them coordinate with people around the world, but Litman says international partners and their existing networks have also been an important part of scaling the company.

Looking forward, Litman’s focus in on fundraising. So far the company has been mainly funded with grants, but with new ideas in the pipeline, Litman’s looking for the right investors to help take One Day to the next level. The company is working on a platform to help independent filmmakers and producers organize their own large filming events, similar to One Day’s successful past events.

“We uncovered a great model of engaging people with media creation and we want others to be able to use that model in a turnkey way,” says Litman.

And personally? Litman wants to get away from the computer and work with his hands more.

Working with my hands is very important. It is meditative. It makes you appreciate not just craftsmanship, but also the mechanics and thought put into the everyday things we use.

Litman used to rent space in a wood shop, and says he hopes to find more time to get back to woodworking in the future.

I try to have a project in the works at all times. A few hours a week is all I need to remain sane. You know you are doing something you love when you get to that Flow State and you suddenly realize the sun is coming up.

Though the younger Litman didn’t have any firm expectations of where he might end up, he’s surprised at how small the world seems these days.

“The biggest difference is perspective and the feeling of accessibility,” he says. “I’m lucky to have broadened my personal scope of international affairs and have built a much greater appreciation for the complexities associated with topics we hear debated in the media.”

With such a wealth of experience behind him, the biggest lesson Litman keeps in mind when working on something new. “If you really want something, you should work to get it.” And that’s what he continues to do.

He also says “I probably talk about Highrise too much at parties.” Thanks Brandon! Couldn’t help but throw that one in! 🙂

P.S. If you need help organizing anyone from yourself to thousands of people, you should take a look at Highrise. It’s a utility knife for anyone who needs to communicate online. And you should follow us on Twitter: here.

And thanks to Belle Beth Cooper for doing the interview and write up of Brandon’s story!

Building a lever

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you can move.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about how we work at Basecamp. A lot of the things we do would be considered unusual. 4-day work weeks in the summer, paying for people’s hobbies outside of work, allowing employees to work from anywhere, even paying for fresh fruits and veggies at everyone’s home.

So a common follow-up question I get is: “How would you recommend I encourage my boss to do some of the things you guys do?” These questions often come from people lower in an organization that wished their company would do some of the stuff that we do for our employees.

My follow-up to their follow-up often throws them off a bit. I ask “got a lever?” You might see how that’s an odd question to ask. But at that moment it’s the most important question there is.

If you want to move something, you need leverage — especially if you don’t have the implicit power to make the change. And most of the people asking me the question don’t have the power to force anything through.

So they have to build a lever to maximize their force. You can move surprisingly heavy objects (or stubborn companies) with even a small lever. The best way to begin building a lever is through small victories. Small asks which create the opportunity to rack up wins. Wins lead to more leverage.

Results often speak for themselves. You may think this or think that, and your boss may think differently, but if you can demonstrate that you can produce results, or that progress doesn’t regress if you do it a different way, then you begin to build your lever.

Take working from home as an example. At Basecamp everyone can work remotely. It’s built into our culture. In fact, the majority of the company does work remotely. Out of the 50 people at Basecamp, around 35 people work in cities outside of Chicago (Chicago is where our headquarters are based). Most are in different states, some are in different countries.

But for a company not used to remote working, experimenting with remote working can be met with significant resistance. So if you want to convince your boss that it’s worth the risk, you have to start small. Remember, you don’t have the leverage yet — you haven’t shown any victories.

So what I often recommend people do is ask their boss for a single afternoon a month where they can work from home. Take the first Thursday afternoon of the month. You leave at lunch and work the rest of the day at home. Prove that the sky isn’t falling. Prove that you can get your work done without physical supervision or proximity to your co-workers. Better yet, show you get even more done at home than you do at the office.

Prove it. And once you have, you’ve built a lever. It’s still small, but it’s better than no lever at all. And now you can use that tiny lever to move your boss a bit further than you could before. Now you can aim for a full day a month. Prove that works, then you’ve got another segment to add to your lever. Leverage is forming.

Keep proving it works and you’ll get a day a week, maybe two. Maybe they every other day. Or maybe you can introduce the idea to a few other people you work with and they can ask the boss, citing your success as an example. Share the lever.

Ultimately, the more victories you have along the way, the longer the lever gets. And the more places you can begin to apply it. Now you aren’t just moving the “can I work from home?” boulder, but you can move other things too. How else would you like to see your workplace change? Your back catalog of victories will server as leverage and provide the push you need to make some other things happen.

So, remember, it’s not about how to enact major change. Minor change is a better start. Minor builds on minor, nothing turns into something, and eventually you’ll get the leverage you need to get that major change you seek. It’s not quick, and it may not be easy, but at least it’s a measured approach that’s a more reliable path to progress than trying to brute force your way through to what you want.

Speaking of levers… Basecamp 3 is a lever — it multiplies your abilities to work together without adding more people or carving out more time. It’s allowed our small team to have a force 5x our size. Let it be your lever too.


Why do some families seem so good at passing down success, while others fail?

Today, dog sleds are a bit of an anachronism — a reminder of travel that was important many years ago. In 1925 a diphtheria outbreak occurred in Nome, Alaska. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that was an extremely deadly disease for native Alaskan children who had no immunity.

There was an antidote, but the town’s doctor was out of it. And it was winter. The ports were blocked with ice. Planes couldn’t fly.

Their only hope was to fly 300,000 units of the antidote found at a hospital in Anchorage as far as it could go to Nenana, Alaska which was still 674 miles away.

Dog sleds would have to take it the rest of the way.

So 25 riders, or mushers as they’re called, and 150 dogs relayed across the Iditarod Trail for 6 days of brutal weather to keep the outbreak at bay. Several dogs lost their lives on the way.

Today, the “Iditarod” race helps commemorate that event. A hundred or so mushers take their dogs across 1000 miles. It takes a 1–2 weeks for everyone to complete the race.

And this year on March 15, 2016, Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod. For the fourth time.

Dallas is an interesting specimen of a winner. Not only is he a repeat champion, he also holds the record for being the youngest winner at 25 when he won in 2012. And he set a new record time this year by beating his own previous record from last year! The guy knows how to win.

Even more interesting, Mitch Seavey, Dallas’ father also has two Iditarod wins under his belt and has set his own records. Dallas’ grandfather was a veteran racer too.

Looking at Dallas and Mitch I wonder why is this family so good at racing? Is it luck? Is it something hereditary? Or is there something important we can take from this to help our own kids, students and employees to be more successful?

Or was Dallas Seavey just born to win?

In other news this March, Frank Sinatra Jr. sadly passed away. You probably don’t know much about Frank Sinatra Jr. but you’ve heard his dad’s music. Perhaps the thing Frank Sinatra Jr. is most famous for? Being kidnapped.

Frank Jr. was kidnapped at 19. Some drug fueled kids envisioned kidnapping Frank Jr. as a “business deal” with Frank Sr. They planned on “borrowing” Jr., investing the ransom money and paying back the family. They even refused to take a million dollars from Frank Sr. when he offered it, and stuck to the odd number of $240,000, which was their original ask.

The ransom was paid, and Jr. was returned safely. The kidnappers were caught and sentenced to prison soon afterwards. Rumors however came from another bizarre turn when the kidnappers argued that Frank Jr. had orchestrated the kidnapping himself. Barry Keenan, the mastermind behind the kidnapping, now a wealthy real estate tycoon, has since apologized profusely for what he did and has admitted that Frank Jr. was innocent of the whole thing.

So apart from being one of the most famous celebrity kidnappings, who was was Frank Jr.?

Frank Jr. was a talented piano player, a trained musician, and a gifted vocalist like his dad. But in contrast to Dallas, here’s Frank Jr.’s words about himself:

I was never a success. Never had a hit movie or hit TV show or hit record. I just had visions of doing the best quality of music. Now there is a place for me because Frank Sinatra is dead. They want me to play the music. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be noticed.

I think the disparity between Frank Jr. and Dallas offers an opportunity to learn some interesting things that parents and mentors can use to influence success.

Suniya Luthar is a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. She set out to deeply understand how poverty affects children. In study after study she has looked at the differences between groups of affluent, white, upper-class students and their poor, inner city counterparts. The results were unexpected.

As Suniya peered into their lives, she found that the affluent high schoolers actually suffered from higher levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse. One argument you might make is that the affluent kids are spoiled and have money to blow on junk like drugs. But as Suniya found, it was more troubling than that. She kept finding evidence of self-medication. These kids weren’t blowing excess money out of boredom, they were using drugs to try to deal with that depression and anxiety. Why is this happening?

One theory that Suniya believes ties it all together is that the affluent kids are simply more alone. From her paper, The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth

Sociological research has shown that junior high students from upper-income families are often alone at home for several hours a week. At an emotional level, similarly, isolation may often derive from the erosion of family time together because of the demands of affluent parents’ career obligations and the children’s many after-school activities

Parents just aren’t around. They’re working hard to improve the careers that brought the affluence in the first place.

I didn’t have a lot of money growing up. But my parents were around a ton. I was in a bunch of activities, and my parents were actively involved even coaching the teams themselves. It was lessons on the field with my dad, or working with my mom at 2am on a science project that helped me learn and achieve.

But now that I feel like I have a pretty affluent peer group, I see different decisions being made. Folks needing to travel to a job or conference, or another late night at the office to make these important careers work. Is the sacrifice worth it?

It wasn’t for Frank Jr.

When Frank Jr. was a teenager Frank Sr.’s career became prolific, on average performing in 2 movies and creating 4 albums every year through the 50s and 60s. As you can imagine, Jr. didn’t see much of Sr.

Jr. would say at some of his shows, “I am now going to devote five minutes to the music of Frank Sinatra because that is exactly how long Frank Sinatra devoted to me.

That’s a big contrast to Dallas’ relationship with Mitch.

Win or lose the race or not doesn’t change the fundamentals of our relationship — that as family and friends. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the biggest competitors and best friends at the same time

Mitch on his son’s accomplishments

Mitch and Dallas spend a great deal of time on family and being friends. As you read Dallas’s own biography,

He grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather Dan and father Mitch

Frank Jr. barely saw his father. Dallas was taught by his.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. -Mother Theresa

A second key point stands out when you read about Dallas vs. Frank Jr. Frank Jr. wasn’t really a Junior. His name was Franklin. His dad was Francis. But at some point, Franklin obtained his dad’s nickname. That’s a tough act to inherit. And inheriting your parent’s legacy isn’t a sure fire plan for success, in fact, it often goes the other way.

Morten Bennedsen, a Professor of Economics and Political Science at Insead Business School, found that firms who pass along leadership to a family member on their departure suffer a 4% drop in value. A drop that’s even more severe for businesses in rapidly growing or highly technical industries.

And not only did Frank Jr. inherit his father’s name. He sang the same type of music. His first professional start was even with the members of the Tommy Dorsey orchestra which had launched his Dad’s career. Instead of Frank Jr. taking a new path, he tried to take the same steps his dad did.

Frank Sr. even had Frank Jr. sing on his Duets 2 album, which backfired for Frank Jr.:

It was the wrong thing to do. The premise of the Duets album was to have Frank Sinatra sing with young artists who were big successful record sellers. I never was. It was nothing but nepotism and it always embarrassed me. I did not belong on those records. I was delighted to do it, but I didn’t belong there.

Frank Sr. also gave Frank Jr. a job. His dad made Frank Jr. the leader of his band when Frank Sr. was aging and couldn’t find a band leader who would work for him any more. “This is my son — his mom told me to give him a job,” Frank Sr. would tell his audience as a ‘joke’. But in the end it was still keeping Frank Jr. under his shadow. Frank Jr. would even wear a dull suit during his dad’s performances and lead the band with his back to the audience all so that he wouldn’t dare outshine his dad.

If you look at Dallas’s career it reads very differently.

When Dallas wanted to finally race competitively he didn’t inherit anything. Instead he spent his own money buying dogs from his father. And his father sold him the b-squad. The “scrubs”. These were dogs that were sized wrong, too big or too little. Dogs who were scared to race, or some that were past their peak or had even been injured. Dogs that Mitch didn’t even want.

It wasn’t easy. It took 4 years before that Scrub squad became competitive and won their first race. And now, Dallas is racing the pups of the Scrubs.

Mitch isn’t giving Dallas handouts, and Dallas isn’t trying to become Mitch or inherit anything from him. He’s trying to beat him using his own unique set of tools.

And that’s an important difference when you think about helping our children succeed. Do you give them opportunities, or do you let them struggle and fight to find their own way?

In the end, Frank Jr. was still a talented musician who eventually found a path and peace with his life. But I still can’t help comparing the differences in how Frank Jr. and Dallas were raised and educated.

And I am by no means an expert of parenting. That’s why I’ll refer to these lessons as I make my decisions and sacrifices around my own career and family, and what my child needs to succeed.

But these same principles can also be applied in companies. It’s easy to get lost in our own focus and priorities. We don’t want to micromanage. But are we really just the absent parent who swoops in every now and then with advice that turns out to be an unhelpful handout? Or do we regularly give our teammates our time and ears, but still room to work out their own ways of succeeding.

Because here’s the thing. Often we think we need to sacrifice time with others in order to keep our own thing going. But I left something out about Mitch.

Dallas may have won 4 times, but he didn’t win them all in a row. He won in 2012, but lost in 2013. Who’d he lose to? His own father. And this year, guess who came in second? Mitch. Mitch even beat Dallas’s record from last year.

By being a teacher and a friend, and helping his son compete on his own, Mitch himself has gotten better. Maybe the student became a master. And the other master got even better.

P.S. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter, or check out what our team is doing with Highrise.

Behind the scenes: How we run our podcast called “The Distance”

Showing the how behind the what.

This isn’t an article about which mic we use to record the show, or which software we use to edit the audio. This is an article about the people, the coordination, the process, and the way we keep everything organized and on track.

Quick background… The Distance is our podcast about small private businesses that have figured out the hardest thing in business: how not to go out of business. All the businesses we feature on The Distance have been in business for at least 25 years. Many are family run, multi-generational. They aren’t businesses that are in the news very often. But they’re on The Distance every other week.

The three people

The Distance is run by three people here at Basecamp:

  1. Wailin Wong — she’s the reporter who finds the businesses, interviews the owners/employees, writes the stories, and reads the stories.
  2. Shaun Hildner — he produces the show, records the audio, mixes in the sound clips, and makes sure everyone sounds their best.
  3. Nate Otto — he does the custom illustration for each show.

The process

First, we create a single Basecamp for “The Distance”. This Basecamp will hold everything we do for the show — all the communication about each episode, all the to-do lists and process we need to complete to publish a show, internal discussions and announcements about the show, brainstorming sessions, ideas, illustrations — anything — it all lives in this single Basecamp. So if anyone needs to catch up on what’s going on with The Distance, they can pop into this Basecamp and dig right in.

The Basecamp for “The Distance”. We’ve turned on the schedule, the message board, the Campfire, to-dos, and docs & files. Everything related to any episode or any on-going work is stored in this Basecamp.

Once Wailin nails down a business for the next show (maybe she can write up how she picks ’em in a separate article), we create a standard to-do list with all the steps we need to complete to launch the show. Note: We create this to-do list once and then just copy it every time we need it for a future episode — it saves a bunch of time.

Here’s a to-do list for an upcoming show which is set to air on April 12th.

This list includes everything we need to do to launch the show. We typically don’t assign the to-dos since the team is small and everyone knows their role and responsibilities.

As parts of the show are completed, the list gets smaller, but you can always see what was already done:

6 things done, 6 to go!

Since Basecamp lets you comment on anything, we keep our discussions in context. This way we’re not trying to parse our a dozen different discussions criss-crossing in a chat room over days or weeks. No messes here. See those little blue comment icons after to-dos? Those signify threaded discussions about those to-dos.

Here’s an example of a workflow and discussion around illustrating the Rainbow cone episode:

We start with a photograph, and then Nate illustrates it in The Distance’s trademark style. This is all stored in a single thread attached to the to-do so everyone knows where everything is and nothing slips through the cracks. This also makes it really easy to reference later whenever we need to refer back to the discussions or artwork.

The Distance Basecamp also has a message board. This is where we make big announcements about the show internally, share listener numbers, discuss ways to promote the show, etc. Everything is organized by thread so it’s really easy to know what you’re about to read and to refer back to anything later.

The Message Board with a handful of recent posts.

Here’s a post where I was calling for ideas on how we can promote the show to more listeners:

Any ideas anyone?

We use the Schedule inside the Basecamp to call out key dates when people are out of town, or when the next interview is schedule.

A few events coming up.

One day I noticed “Tape All Things Considered segment” on the calendar, so I clicked on the event, said “Woah woah!? in the comments, and Wailin filled me in. Now anyone who’s curious internally about how that happened can read back anytime without having to parse it out from some other conversation that happened somewhere else.

We use the Docs & Files section to keep track of miscellaneous notes, write-ups, transcripts (in folders for 2016 and 2015), a folder for some key illustrations, and some script brainstorms.

And lastly, sometimes we hop in the Campfire to have a quick chat about something. Here Wailin showed us what The Distance looked like on the screen in her rental car last week!

Angling for a Grammy.

So there’s a look at how we run The Distance using Basecamp 3… A nice focused Basecamp with everything Distance related: a single to-do list for each episode, discussions neatly organized around topics, a schedule for big picture dates, a Campfire for quick chats to hash something out, and docs & files to keep track of some of the project artifacts.

We hope that was a worthwhile, helpful look at our process. A similiar method could be applied to any number of serialized projects.

Any questions? Have you ever run anything similar using Basecamp? Any notes and methods you’d want to share with us? We’d love to hear! Please post a comment below.

Independent, Literary, Political

Illustration by Nate Otto

The front window of Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood has signs that proclaim: “Opened 1979/Open Today/Open Forever.” If that doesn’t capture the spirit of The Distance, I don’t know what does!

Our latest episode of The Distance about this 37-year-old feminist bookstore has many other elements of a great business survival story: Risk-taking, creativity, adaptability and a sense of purpose. Women & Children First, founded by two women in 1979 and sold in 2014 to two staff members, is a reminder that even as so much of our political and cultural commentary has moved online in the form of essays and hot takes and tweets, there is still an important place for physical spaces where people can connect in person over the ideas and literature that move them.


(Sound of children talking)

LINDA BUBON: Yay, good morning, everybody! Good morning. Good morning. Welcome to story time! Good morning!

WAILIN: Once upon a time in Chicago, there were two friends named Ann and Linda. They dreamed of opening a special store filled with all kinds of books written by women and about women.

LINDA: Ann and I thought about creating a feminist bookstore in a neighborhood, street level, with a storefront and programming and a real children’s section and we started envisioning this store, and we spent most of a year going around to every independent bookstore in Chicago studying their shelving, the layouts of their stores, how they bought their books. We would get advice from anybody who would give it.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda called their store Women & Children First. Now in different parts of the country, far away from Chicago, lived two girls named Lynn and Sarah. Lynn grew up in Pennsylvania, where she spent Saturdays driving with her parents to different libraries in search of the next book in their favorite mystery series.

LYNN MOONEY: You know, it wasn’t good enough that they knew in our county which library had the best mystery selection, but no, they had to do inter-library loan, and if they couldn’t wait that long for the book to come, they actually had to drive to that library and borrow the book from there.

WAILIN: Sarah grew up in Ohio, the youngest of four daughters raised by a professional storyteller and an architect. Her favorite book was one that her father read to her, called The Big Orange Splot.

SARAH HOLLENBECK: This book is about how we need to create houses that reflect our dreams, and it’s about a neighborhood where everyone on the street creates a house that shows what they dream about at night. That book sparked my love of reading because it was how my dad and I connected even before I learned to read.

WAILIN: The lives of these four women would come together at Women & Children First, the bookstore that Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon founded in 1979 and sold two years ago to staff members Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Their story is about risk-taking, friendship and imagination — all elements of a good fairy tale, but you won’t find any damsels in distress here. This is a true story about smart, capable women who created a sustainable independent business. Welcome to 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.

LINDA: We were like two kids. We were 28 and 30, and we were like building the dollhouse, you know, from the ground up, we built all the shelving ourselves with help from our friends.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda had met in graduate school, where they studied English and participated in a feminist discussion group with their professors. At the time they opened their bookstore, Lynn was a teenager, coming of age in a household where her mom subscribed to Ms. magazine. Years later, she attended rallies in support of the National Endowment for the Arts during a tumultuous period in the agency’s history. It was around this time that Sarah Hollenbeck was wearing anti-Bush t-shirts to grade school — that’s George Bush senior — and going with her mother to their local feminist bookstore in Toledo, Ohio.

SARAH: It was called People Called Women. It’s still there and Gina is the owner, and she, you know, sometimes said that my mom was why she was still in business because she sometimes she was the only person to shop there that day.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda hired Lynn part-time eight years ago and eventually promoted her to store manager. Sarah started working at the store in 2013.

SARAH: Ann and Linda graciously hired me and then almost immediately put the store up for sale, and took us all aside and told us they were going to retire.

WAILIN: A year earlier, Ann and Linda had asked Lynn and the store’s publicist at the time about taking over the business, but the timing hadn’t worked out. They were ready to restart their search for new owners. Sarah was only about a month into her new job at the store, but she jumped at the opportunity and asked Lynn if she wanted to team up on a proposal. Ann and Linda entertained about seven bids that they narrowed to three. In the end, they picked Lynn and Sarah.

LINDA: I knew them. I knew their principles. I knew how they interpreted feminism and lived feminism in their lives. I saw how they behaved towards customers.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda were looking for qualities beyond the cold numbers of a business plan.

LYNN: It became not just about the money. Yes, they were selling a business. It had tremendous value and they’ve worked very hard to build it up, so of course they needed to get something out of it, but it also indicated that they weren’t just going to chase whoever had the deepest pockets, that there was a lot of room for the personal, the relationships, and a vision for how to um bring Women & Children First into the future, update its relevance, update its connections to women and women writers in the Chicago area, and I think that’s part of what Sarah and I were able to do, is present a real passion for those things and a real interest in updating the store in a way that young women in Chicago would think of it as their bookstore.

WAILIN: A major component of Lynn and Sarah’s business proposal was continuing to hold events, something that had been part of the store’s mission from its earliest days. Women & Children First has long hosted readings by emerging and established authors, children’s story time, panels and book groups. The programs, which are partially funded by a nonprofit arm Ann and Linda set up years ago, give customers a reason to visit the store instead of buying books online. Even as so much of the conversation around feminism and politics has moved to the digital realm via op-eds and essays and tweets, the bookstore serves as a place where readers can connect face to face with writers they admire.

SARAH: A lot of authors have spent a great deal of time connecting with fans through social media and developing that personality of the author and people love it. They love being able to have a conversation with the author, so independent bookstores take that one step further and have that conversation in real time, in real life and we’ve seen just a huge swell of interest, especially among young feminists who want to actually meet the author that they’ve talked to online, that they you know, had this Twitter relationship.

WAILIN: Lynn and Sarah’s plan called for something bold: a major renovation to make a separate event space in the back of the store, so that other people could still shop in the front during events, thus creating a dual revenue stream. But they had to get the money and close the store for a couple months to overhaul the space. Lynn and Sarah raised over $35,000 in an online campaign, tapping into the same spirit of generosity that had driven friends to build bookshelves for Ann and Linda decades earlier. And speaking of those shelves, many of them had been in the window, displaying books that faced the street.

SARAH: That was wonderful in that it showed what we had in stock right now, but it also meant that you couldn’t see inside. So Lynn and I were both pretty adamant that although it was risky, we needed to take the shelves down so that people could see inside and say “Oh, I can go inside.” You know, some people are a little wary about what a feminist bookstore is, especially one that’s called Women & Children First. And we just wanted you to feel invited, to feel welcome, to look inside and say, “Oh, there’s a man in there and I’m a man, I can walk inside.” That was a risky decision and it turned out really well. I think we have more foot traffic now than we’ve ever had.

LYNN: Those shelves in the windows as well as the front counter, had been built by longtime dedicated customers, so there were people who would come in and say, “I helped build this front counter.” It kind of tipped us off to the fact that every decision we made was important, that we had to think things through really carefully, and that we needed to be very mindful of our longtime legacy customers and their memories and their associations.

WAILIN: Other parts of the renovation left behind remnants of a less inclusive era.

LYNN: There were several LGBTQ sections of the store that had always been in the back room and we wanted them to be on the main floor. There was a time in the store’s history when having those books in a back room provided the customers with a kind of privacy that times may have warranted were desirable—maybe not for every customer, but for some customers, and that made tremendous sense for a very long time. But we’re living in a different time now, so that’s not the case so much. And so we wanted those sections, especially the queer fiction, queer memoir, we want them to get more attention.

WAILIN: From the start, Women & Children First has aspired to lift up the voices of people like women of color and survivors of abuse. The store has also been about women helping each other in different ways. In the early days, when the store was in its previous location, Linda and a staff member shared childcare, with one watching the kids while the other worked. The author Ann Patchett, a bookstore owner herself, once offered to overnight Lynn and Sarah a projector that they needed for an event. And of course, there’s the partnership between the two owners of Women & Children First, now in its second iteration.

LYNN: I think Sarah is the perfect business partner for me here. She has just so much creativity and energy for things like events and programming and how to market the store and I wish I was that person. I am not that person, but I sure know that you can’t run a successful business without that skill set.

SARAH: We’re very lucky and we know a lot of bookstore owners in Chicago who do it on their own and I don’t know—I literally do not know how they do it because we really need one another to do all the many, many things that need to be done in a day.

WAILIN: The number of feminist bookstores in North America has dwindled in the last few decades from a hundred to about a dozen, depending on who’s counting. Back in 1979, it was extremely difficult for a woman to get funding for her own business. It was a radical notion that Ann and Linda could start a venture—and not just any business, but one centered on elevating women’s voices. With all of the harassment that many women face online for expressing their opinion or simply existing, the role of Women & Children First looks as revolutionary as it did 37 years ago.

SARAH: For me as a woman, I think it’s very risky to comment in online platforms and the thing about having an event in real time is we really strive to create a safe space for commenting out loud with your voice and not with your fingers. I think that will never go away because unfortunately the Internet can be very dangerous for women to voice an opinion. This will never be an unsafe place for women to voice an opinion and I think that’s where we’ll always stay relevant.

WAILIN: At Women & Children First, there’s cause for optimism. Linda sees a lot more dads at story time than she used to. And Lynn and Sarah are encouraged by what they see too.

LYNN: It’s completely standard now in a book about fire trucks that some of the fire truck drivers will be women in children’s books, or in a book about outer space, that some of the astronauts shown in the children’s book will be women. So things like that give me hope.

SARAH: I have had a ton of emails every day from young feminists who want to propose an event to have here, a dialogue of some sort that is really exciting to me because they’re younger and younger. They know what feminism is, they are really upset about the patriarchy. They know it’s a force and they know they have to fight against it. There’s kind of an energy in the air around feminism that I find very exciting.

WAILIN: While Ann has fully retired, Linda still works part-time at the store. You’ll find her leading story time, straightening the shelves, and participating in discussion groups. The work is never quite done.

LINDA: I feel successful now, not because I made a lot of money in my life, but because I learned to live without needing a lot of money and to find my satisfaction and the happiness that comes and goes when you’re living a life of purpose. And that has made all the difference in the world.


LINDA: All right everybody, that’s it for today! Don’t forget April 9th coming up on a Saturday. We do ask a one dollar donation for story time and I hope you all have a great week. See you next week!

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times for her help with this story. 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.

Be the Plumber

A 30-something immigrant with no fancy education or consumer product experience started a company in 2003. The product’s first sales came out of the trunks of cars.

9 years later, the company’s products were being snagged by people checking out at Walmart and sales exceeded $1 billion.

How the hell did that happen?

One of the hardest parts about supporting customers is seeing things from their perspective. There were plenty of customers who knew the product better than me when I first started at Highrise 17 months ago.

That’s not a great feeling. Because people are asking you questions and you’re supposed to have answers.

How do you get to know the product better?

You use it.

In my first 12 months at Highrise, our team tried using the product more and more. We assigned tasks for following up with customers. We tracked email with our dropbox addresses. We built support to autoforward in tons of mail.

We were learning the product, but we really weren’t using it as much as we could. Especially for supporting customers.

The majority of my time was spent in help desk software. That’s where I was replying to customers. It wasn’t spent in Highrise.

One day, our CEO, Nathan, asked me what would it take to use Highrise to support customers?

My first reaction was that wouldn’t even work. There is no support queue. It would be terrible and slow us down a ton.

But Nathan knew if we could pull it off, it would mean our entire team would spend a ton more time in Highrise.

By using Highrise, it would become more useful to us and our customers.

But it wasn’t going to be all ice cream and nuts. It was going to be tricky. Rough spots were ahead.

Our team started small. One of the first things we announced was autoforwarding support for Gmail.

All email was being autoforwarded into Highrise. It was a firehose of information. Overwhelming. Noisy.

It became impossible to search and find information. It sucked.

But if our own team was having trouble with it, customers probably felt the same way.

This shitty experience put pressure on us to make it better.

A little later our team built a way to connect Gmail and send emails directly out of Highrise. Our support email address used Google Apps, so we were inching closer to being able to support customers with Highrise alone.

The first version to send email out of Highrise was a bit underwhelming. You couldn’t attach files. No way to CC or BCC others.

It was good enough for us to start using it, but there was still too much friction.

Weeks later we introduced rules including a way to only forward in email from existing contacts. This reduced the noise and made it easier for us to use Highrise. The firehose was no longer always on.

It was still hard to find notes and emails when searching. Tons more email was still in our account. So we improved search and made it easier and faster to find things.

When replying to customers, we sometimes needed to copy others or attach files when replying to customers. So our team made it possible to CC/BCC from Highrise and followed that up with attachment support.

More progress. But still more pressure too. No queue for emails. We had no idea what needed to be replied to or what was outstanding or important.

Next, we introduced a personal assistant. We call it Good Morning.

Good Morning helps us organize and respond to incoming activity that needs attention. It’s our take on a support queue.

Now we were damn close.

We couldn’t tell who was replying to what. Our team sometimes replied to a customer twice because we had no idea someone else was already replying to them. Definitely not ideal.

Our team built presence to see if someone else is responding, and it improved. No more replying to the same customer twice.

By the fall of 2015, our team was using Highrise to reply to every customer email. Something I thought wouldn’t be possible.

5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava will tell you he grew his product company to over $1 billion in sales with combination of common sense and a sense of urgency. By not doing dumb stuff.

Bhargava claims his company isn’t efficient at all. They just don’t do useless stuff. He cut out everything that didn’t make money, didn’t improve the product, or didn’t make the customer happy.

Business isn’t complicated to Bhargava. It’s just do useful stuff. And avoid useless.

That belief turned 5-Hour Energy into one of the most popular consumer products in the world.

Bhargava, who dropped out of Princeton after one year, doesn’t believe in MBAs. Why? They’re useless.

It’s a simple thing. If you’re going to learn plumbing, go learn from a plumber that has actually seen a pipe. That has fixed a leak.

Not just written about pipes, lectured on pipes, and researched pipes.

I’m not for theoretical plumbers.

Manoj Bhargava, Why a MBA is Useless

Our story is similar. Our team made a commitment to using Highrise more. Instead of being theoretical users of the product, we became customers of it. We depended on it.

We felt the pain our customers were telling us about. It wasn’t pleasant. But it gave us a new insight into what it was like to use the product. It forced us to improve Highrise and to do it quickly.

Sometimes you have dig in and fix it from the inside. It might take a little pain, but it may also be the only way you’ll figure it out.

This post was inspired by this talk from Manoj Bhargava.

P.S. Curious about how we’re applying this to Highrise now? Follow us on Twitter, check out our recent announcements or ask me @cjgallo.

Transforming a screen with a few questions

Some scraps and learnings from the workroom floor

Recently I’ve been working on an update to Basecamp 3 that’ll give people a couple more options for how they sign up and log in to Basecamp. People will be able to choose from using a password, their Google account, their Facebook account—or all three.

Huh, why write about that, there’s nothing special there? I know, right!? I’m not sharing this because there’s anything groundbreaking in the feature, but because I found myself re-learning the importance of looking at my work critically, and honing things in by asking and answering a few simple questions along the way.

So, as we start offering multiple methods to log in to Basecamp, we need to also provide a place for people turn each method on or off. Let’s dive in and take a look at my first iteration on this screen.

Getting the mechanics in place

I started by carving out a screen to hold all the login options that are available to a person. I was thinking about this screen as an unfortunate (but necessary) evil for letting people toggle these login options.

Take one look at this first iteration and it’s clear that my attitude was showing through 😳. Sure, you can turn Google off. Yes, you can start using Facebook. Yeah, you can figure out which options are on or off…you just have to read every single word on the page!

The mechanics were there, but there was no soul, and no clarity.

What is this really about?

I’m still not clear what I’m looking at here or what the options actually are… Ok, I finally figured out I’m using Google…

…right now there’s a lot of parsing to do. You could have Facebook on, but you’d have to scroll through two other options first that are calling you to do something. It’s unclear if this screen is informational, or transactional, or both.

After getting the above feedback, I realized I hadn’t really stopped to think on what this screen was really about. Sadly, this is a mistake I’ve made many a time! It can be all to easy for me to start with the mechanics and then just leave it there.

So I asked myself, what is this really about? After a bit of thought, it was clear that I was hoping to do two things:

  1. Give current state of the world
  2. Offer any additional options

Explaining the current state of the world was something I was already trying to do in each individual login method’s copy, but totally failing to express holistically. If these two things were really the purpose of this entire screen, why not structure everything around them?

A big step forward. Now the screen tells me what’s set up right now, and what my other options are. But…it still lacks clarity and precision! I have to read the entire thing to actually understand it.

The first time around I missed the forest for the trees—state was expressed in the individual blocks, but not holistically. This time around I missed the trees for the forest—the screen has the right structure, but the blocks are confused and seemingly unaware of their context.

I mean, who wants to read three paragraphs just to get a sense of what there current options are?

How can I make this clearer?

Now that the screen’s structure reflected its purpose, it was time to tighten things up and double down on making it as clear and precise as I could.

Could I say this more efficiently?
The first step towards clarity was to remove a lot of words.

“Right now you can log in with…” becomes “Today, you log in with…”

“You can add the option to log in with…” becomes “Add more ways…” because folks already know what we’re talking about.

The paragraphs describing how “you’re set up to login…” for each active login method are just repeating what the heading tells us. Drop those.

Sometimes words are too wordy, and an image can speak more efficiently. Adding icons for each login method made it easier to see what’s on/off without even having to read beyond the headings.

Oh, and speaking of headings, we don’t need that “Login options” title up top anymore — gonzo!

(oops, just noticed that “login” should be “log in” here!)

The final (for now) product is a lot better. The whole and the parts are working together. It’s clear what the state of the world is, and I can easily see my other options. The words are precise and clear.

The questions I asked along the way

Like I said, no groundbreaking designs here, but I was surprised at what asking a few questions did to transform this screen.

Here are the questions I used along the way:

  1. What’s this screen really about?
  2. Is the overall screen oriented around that purpose?
  3. How about the individual building blocks?
  4. Could I say this more efficiently?
  5. Is there anything I could remove (or add) to make this clearer?

If you haven’t already, head over to Basecamp and start a free account. You can get going with either a password or your Google account—we haven’t gotten to Facebook yet.