Every six weeks we start working on a new set of improvements and enhancements for Basecamp 3. A new 6-week cycle just began last week so our designers and developers have been collaborating closely. The early days of any initiative are an exciting time. There are lots of concepts, designs, and code being tried out, tossed out, kept in play, and so on. I’m a hands-on guy, so I relish times like these. The further away I am from the product, I’ve found, the less I enjoy my job.
But the process has also highlighted a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time: As the CEO and majority owner of my company, I ultimately have the last word. But because of this, sometimes any word, suggestion, or recommendation is taken as final even when it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve mentioned this to several other CEO-owners lately, and I’ve come to realize it’s a situation many of them face as well.
The way I see it, the last word should always be the last resort, reserved for the most delicate and important issues, ones that can’t be resolved without my input and that affect every one of my employees. Otherwise, I’d much prefer that other people make decisions. If people are waiting around for me to tell them what to do next, then I’m not doing my job well, and I haven’t created an environment where they can do their job well either.
The root of the challenge is that the people I work with closely hear from me quite a bit. I tend to offer up a number of ideas, a lot of suggestions, and plenty of feedback about the work we’re all doing together. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a suggestion from me is just that — one of many ideas on the table. But power dynamics being what they are, no matter how carefully I phrase them, my suggestions are often considered more seriously than those offered up by others. I don’t like that.
I’ve been trying a variety of approaches to see whether I can change this dynamic. I’ve tried stepping back a bit, forcing myself to be less involved day to day in the actual work — but that ultimately results in the opposite of what I want. People tend to notice when someone who doesn’t speak up a lot suddenly chimes in, and I want my words to carry less weight, not more. I’ve tried wrapping my suggestions in friendly disclaimers — “Hey, this is just a thought” or “Hey, just a small suggestion” — but it doesn’t feel right to be stepping so gingerly when the point is to have a free exchange of ideas. I want to be a natural part of the conversation.
I’ve also tried offering my thoughts directly to the people on the team, one on one. I’ve made some progress this way, because it prevents group acquiescence to what I say. But it’s inefficient and still defines my ideas as somehow separate from the wider process.
As it turns out, the tactic I’ve had the most success with is to come full circle and speak up even more in group settings. The more I join the discussion and throw ideas into the mix, the more I diminish the value of each individual piece of my input. But there’s an important additional reason I like this direction: The deeper involved I am, the more chances I have to highlight ideas that are better than mine. And the more I do that, the more I can begin to demonstrate that my suggestions can be easily tossed aside. Which is exactly what I want. I want the best ideas to emerge, not my ideas.
Then, when I really do need to make a last-word decision, I can be very clear about that. I can be definitive. I can announce that this decision is the decision, and here’s why.
A version of this article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Inc. magazine.
At Basecamp we think a lot about the long-term. The company has been around since 1999, the product since 2004, and we even offer our employees benefits for the long run that put their health and long-term happiness before maximum productivity.
It was with this kind of long-term thinking that we launched the first major new version of Basecamp (in 2012) as a brand new product rather than foisting it on everyone as an upgrade. 2004’s Basecamp Classic (as it’s now known) continues to work just as it always has and we’re happy for customers who prefer that version to keep using it as long as they’d like. Change is hard. Particularly when you’ve got deadlines, clients, and work to be done. Suddenly waking up to a completely new version of any software can be so disruptive that some customers waited months or years so they could move to the newer version on their terms. Many others have happily stayed with Basecamp Classic and have no interest in upgrading at all.
When Basecamp 3 arrived in October 2015, it similarly launched as a brand new product. There is no pressure for customers on Basecamp 2, or even Basecamp Classic, to move to the new version. All three Basecamps are here to stay.
How we got here For our first 15 years in business we were called 37signals. We changed our name to Basecamp in 2014 to reflect a new focus on our most popular product and at that time made the hard decision to stop selling our other products. Ta-da List, Writeboard, and Backpack all stopped accepting new customers but for those who have been relying on these products for years they continue to work just as they always have. We became dedicated to supporting them forever (or until the last customer turns off the lights). Internally we’ve come to call this policy Until the End of the Internet and though we’ve only announced it publicly for Ta-da List we’ve been operating as if it were true for all our apps ever since. Today we’d like to make it official.
Until the End of the Internet is a promise Internet software and services disappear all the time because of whimsy (“changing priorities”), acquisition, financial failure or worse. It’s become a risky venture to place your trust and data in services that could disappear at any moment, for any reason, and with no guarantee that your data will be safe, preserved, or even portable. We’d like Basecamp to stand against that.
Here’s what that means:
The day you become a Basecamp customer you can trust that Basecamp will be around. In the event that the Basecamp product you’re using enters a legacy phase you can keep using it, as-is, indefinitely (assuming you continue to abide by our terms of service and keep your subscription active).
Your data is safe. Regardless of status, all of our products receive the same rigorous care when it comes to security and privacy. While we may not add new features to legacy products we’ll continue to apply the latest security updates; maintain the infrastructure that keeps them safe, fast and secure; and continue to offer customer support. Have a question about Ta-da List, fire away!
Basecamp is our life’s work—we’re in this for the long haul. In the unforeseen and unanticipated event that the company or one of our products is acquired by another company, we’ll do everything in our power to make sure the product and this promise live on.
Permanence, Trust, and Legacy When they launched, each of our products was our finest work. They were the result of countless hours laboring to build software that is simple, clear, easy-to-use and honest. They remind us where we’ve been, how we got here, and point to where we’re going. We’re proud of these products and honored by all the customers who have supported us over the years, who made our tools partners in their success, and who continue to rely on them every day. This isn’t free or easy but we believe that standing by our customers and our products is the right thing to do.
Is it unrealistic to expect free UI design help? I am working solo on my startup and could really use some help in UI. I am a backend developer and have next to no clue regarding color schemes, typography etc. I have no money to spare either as i quit my job to work on my thing. Can i find anyone online who is willing to lend me a hand in UI design for free ? If so, how and where can i find them ?
The short answer: yes, it’s unrealistic to expect free design help. Why would you expect free work from anyone, unless you’re giving away free work too? Of course, maybe you can find someone in a similar spot who’d like to barter. Hackathons are a great place to find people trading services and potentially great business partners.
But the better answer is: Why are you stuck looking for someone at all? Why get yourself in a corner only someone else can get you out of?
“Because I’m a developer not a designer.” Or vice versa. Or “I’m XXX, and I’m not good at YYY.” Right?
In 2013, a young, filthy and malnourished puppy named Kobe was found as a stray. He was clearly uncared for. Also, his ears were “cropped”. Cropping is the practice of cutting a dog’s ears, and is banned across Europe. Though it isn’t largely banned here in the US, a majority of veterinarians find the practice unethical, since it’s difficult to prove cutting a dog’s ears has a positive impact other than cosmetic.
But that’s not the worst part. The folks who found him believe his previous owners had tried cropping Kobe’s ears themselves with kitchen scissors.
Lucky Dog Rescue of Chicago found Kobe and fostered him, until the Shedd Aquarium of Chicago stepped in and adopted him. Kobe is the fifth dog the Shedd has rescued, and what’s interesting is that they raised and trained him the “Shedd way”, using many of the same positive reinforcement methods they use to train their dolphins.
Today, you can now see Kobe performing a multitude of tricks with his trainers during the One World dolphin show that is incredibly packed with people. Kobe is a hit 🙂
Apart from the lessons we should take from this story about responsible dog ownership and breeding, I think there’s something else that’s very interesting about Kobe and the Shedd.
I remember getting my first dog, Ewok, at the age of 10. She was a beautiful dog, and very much looked like an ewok from Star Wars. I also remember how much I wanted to teach her all sorts of fancy tricks.
Starting with the basics, I tried to get her to sit, lay down and stay. I’d push her butt down, or tug her legs so she’d end up laying down. I was gentle, but I definitely remember trying to push her body to get her to understand what I was trying to get her to do.
And I failed miserably.
She naturally followed close to my dad on walks and was was a great dog. But she never did learn to follow any commands. My dad even built a dog run for her to keep dog waste out of our yard, and that went completely unused.
When I grew up, my wife and I rescued a Husky/Shepherd mix named Bailey, and I wanted to do a better job than I did with Ewok. So we enrolled Bailey in a puppy obedience class — 2 hours, one day a week, for 8 weeks.
And sure enough she picked up stuff quick: sitting, staying, laying down. Even fist bumps, and bowing. I’ve even gotten her to know the difference between her left and right paws on command. And… we can do a trick where she can do math 🙂 She’s just that good at following my non-verbal commands, people don’t notice how the trick is done.
The class made all the difference.
But here’s the thing. The class wasn’t for her. It was for me.
Ewok’s problem wasn’t that she didn’t pick stuff up as quickly as Bailey. It was because I was clueless on how to train a dog.
Our obedience instructor showed me how powerful positive reinforcement was. I could reward Bailey while she naturally did something and then start attaching commands to those same things. So instead of forcing and failing to get Bailey to do something, she just picked up all sorts of things she did before and now thought worth doing again when I asked her to.
It didn’t take a lifetime of learning to be a Shedd dolphin trainer. All it took was 16 hours of learning a new “vocabulary”.
Granted there are people far greater than me at training animals. People who study this stuff their whole lives. But in just 16 hours I opened up a new world and was able to enrich the experience Bailey and I have together in our family.
People often assume that I have better hearing abilities than “normal” people, but this is not true. What is different is that I’ve been trained to have a vocabulary that many people don’t have. So, for example, where most people would say that a particular loudspeaker sounds “boomy”, I might say that there is a problem with resonance at 78 Hz. We hear the same problem — we just express it differently.
Geoff is a Tonemeister, at Bang & Olufsen, the oldest consumer electronics company in the world where they create some of the highest performing audio electronics on the market. Geoff is a master at his craft, but I think he captures perfectly something people miss.
We often look at the people who can accomplish things that we can’t and we just assume they have a talent we’ll never have. They can design things. I can’t. I can’t even draw. They can develop software. I can’t. I have trouble with calculating tips at restaurants. They can build businesses. I can’t. I’ve never even been able to sell the junk in my garage for pennies on Craigslist.
But, what we fail to recognize is how much these folks are accomplishing in that other domain because they simply have a different vocabulary than we have. Sure sometimes that vocabulary might take a decade of medical school to obtain, but others can just take 16 hours. And the impact is palpable in your life.
I was stuck in the same spot as RedditorFor8Years when I was getting done with the Obama campaign in 2012. I was a “software engineer”, and I wanted to build so much, but I didn’t have the money to hire anyone to help out with design. So I decided to see if I could level up my vocabulary.
I started reading books like Bootstrapping Design. Learning a few bits about the difference between serif and sans-serif fonts. Why something can look better by just paying attention to how it’s aligned. Learning how color palettes work. Slightly redesigning other folks homepages to experiment.
With just a slightly better vocabulary and a little bit of practice, I found myself designing things that looked a lot more “professional” than I could ever imagine myself doing.
When Draft was launched, that small upgrade to my vocabulary paid off. I started hearing from people, “Great design!”
Really impressed by @gooddraft lovely web app, lovey design, regular feature updates. Hemingway mode looks really sweet. Kudos.
When I took over Highrise, I was in a similar spot. I was taking over with very little hand holding. Had to build a team from scratch. I didn’t have any designers I could immediately bring on for help.
But… we were bleeding customers. Folks had gotten the impression Highrise was shutting down. I needed to make improvements to the product pronto and get the news out that the product was vibrant, or we were going to be in an even bigger hole.
I couldn’t just sit here for months vetting designers. But I didn’t have to.
When we made changes to Highrise, I now had a vocabulary to make sure the stuff we were putting out looked great. When we made a change, I didn’t have to just throw my hands up and complain that it didn’t look right. I could express myself that the colors were off, the text wasn’t aligned properly, there wasn’t enough white space between the fields. Just having the right vocabulary now gave me insight into the variables we could tweak.
Of course, I didn’t replace my need to hire skilled designers (and now I’m surrounded by some really talented folks), but when I find myself in a pinch, I don’t just give up.
Many of the things we need from other people aren’t the product of being blessed with some god-given gift. But something they’ve been trained to do. And those fields have low hanging fruit that would make enormous improvements in our lives with just a little bit of training and 16 hours of free time.
Disappointment occurs when expectations don’t match reality. And our expectations for software quality are profoundly unrealistic. Thus, lots of people are continuously disappointed — even enraged — by software bugs. They shouldn’t be.
The only reliable, widely used way to ensure impeccable software quality is to write less software that does less stuff, and then spend eons honing that tiny lot. Such an approach, however, is very rarely compatible with commercial success or even programmer motivations (despite what many may claim).
How do you think the market would receive the iPhone 7, if its headline improvement was cutting 1/3 of the features to shrink the code base so it’d have fewer bugs? Yeah, I thought so. While people may get excited in concept by “stop the train, we need to fix the tracks” directives for software development, it’s not what they would buy.
Well, but then there’s the argument: Apple is so rich, can’t they just hire more developers and testers to fix all the bugs? To paraphrase Frederick Brooks: No. Software development doesn’t work like that. Throwing ever bigger teams at problems usually just makes the problems bigger still.
Bugs are an inevitable byproduct of writing software. Sure, there are all sorts of techniques and potions that promise to decrease how many of the damn critters run about, but only the comically hyperbole pretends that complete eradication is possible.
Once we accept that simple fact that software = bugs, we can progress to understand why fixing them may not even be that important a lot of the time. The absence of bugs is simply one parameter of success in software, but not even close to the most important one (with some exception for life critical systems).
Useless software can be entirely bug free, yet remain entirely useless. Useful software can be ridden with bugs, yet remain highly valuable. Or, the value of software depends far more upon the problem it solves than the quality by which it does so.
Sometimes the dichotomy isn’t that black and white, of course. You could have two pieces of software that solve the same problem, and it’s reasonable to think that the one with fewer bugs would do better. Though even that simple statement is often laughably disproven by the market. Factors such as existing adoption, integrations, brand, and fun often trump quality as well.
Given that there are so many factors more important to the future prospects of a software package and its makers, is it really that surprising not every bug gets “drop everything, we gotta fix this” priority? Of course not. But we, as users who hit a bug, still constantly pretend that it is.
It’s really the pinnacle of myopia when we as users demand and demean software makers to fix our pet bug, just because we hit it, and just because it may have caused anything from a slight annoyance to loss of some time.
The value of a any given bug can be rated by the number of users affected times the criticality of the issue. Lots of users are losing all their data due to this bug? Okay, then, Very Damn Important! Fix it NOW! Lots of users are a little annoyed or confused by this? Probably should fix it some time soon. A few users have to spend another 30 seconds on a work around? Unlikely to get fixed any time soon!
Software organizations that stay in business triage their backlog of bugs like that. They do not drop everything to deal with any damn bug. As the economies of scale kick in, so does the magnitude of consequences from such triaging. Large software packages and organizations will have hundreds if not thousands if not TENS OF THOUSANDS of open bugs of various criticality. THIS IS NORMAL. THIS IS EXPECTED.
This is not a call to give up on software quality, quite the contrary. This is a call to remove the highly charged emotional responses of encountering the world as it should be expected to spin. Demeaning developers, questioning their professionalism (whatever that means!), or feigning outrage at that which ails all software makes everyone, including users, worse off.
So next time you hit an annoying bug, give it five minutes before you fire off that indignant tweet. Marvel at the miracle it is that anything as complex as a modern piece of software works at all! Consider the billions of instructions our work-horse CPUs have to get just right for you to enjoy the splendors of computing. Have some sympathy for man and machine.
I’d like to say that Basecamp 3 doesn’t have any bugs. But it does. I’m sorry! Hopefully it provides more value than annoyance. Give it a try.
Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.
In 2006 we launched Campfire, the first modern SAAS group chat and messaging tool for business.
Since then, quite a few business chat and messaging tools like Hipchat, Flowdock, Slack and others have sprung up. And we’ve since rolled group chat and instant messaging (we call them “pings”) into the all new Basecamp 3.
As a company, we’ve been around group/business chat longer than just about any other company in business today. In addition to hearing from our customers for years, our own daily experiences over ten years of extensive group chatting have taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t. All together, we’ve messaged nearly 10,000,000 lines to one another at 37signals/Basecamp since 2006.
If you think building a software product is tough, try building a legendary car from scratch.
I recently watched A Faster Horse, a documentary about the development of the 2015 Ford Mustang. It examines how that Mustang, whose nameplate is an icon in Ford’s history (and America’s), went from idea to final shipping product — a five year process.
The amount of work it takes to produce a new car is absolutely dizzying. Take the following list for example, which is just a small sampling of the thousands of high-level items the Ford team is tasked with:
Initial idea and design sketches
CAD models and full size clay models
Engine and transmission development
Supply chain development, management, and parts procurement
Cost analysis and pricing structures across hundreds of markets
Crash testing and safety/government regulations across multiple continents
Dozens of development mules for hundreds of test drives for ride, engineering, and performance tuning
Final assembly of hundreds of permutations of the vehicle
Global logistics and final shipping to dealers
And if all that weren’t enough, once the car ships, it’s out of your hands. Recalls occasionally happen, but even those are typically for tweaks and safety, not reshaping the car itself.
Compare that to what we do in modern software development:
Initial idea, design sketches and quick prototypes
Write some code, probably with free tools
Find a server for hosting
Do some testing
Pick a price and build a little marketing around it
Ship your product with a few clicks
Iterate and ship it again
When I sat back and thought about how vastly different these industries are, a few things jumped out at me:
The work that companies like Ford do to bring a car to market is truly impressive. The coordination and teamwork is unbelievable, and it’s a real credit to the power of people.
I love working on Basecamp, a product whose fundamental goal is to bring people together to work on getting things done, solving problems, and doing great work — exactly the kinds of things that Ford does to bring the Mustang to market.
The challenges I face in my day to day work as a programmer aren’t really so bad. 😎
It’s that last point that really stuck in my head.
We (myself included) can sometimes get bogged down by the challenges in building software. If you’ve ever had a frustrating day of programming, team battles, or a tough interaction with a customer, you know the heavy feeling I’m talking about.
But compared to building a car from scratch, we’ve got it so good — writing software is easy!
Embrace imperfection and ship it 🚢
Of course I don’t mean to trivialize our work or make reductive statements about our day to day problems. We all have tons of responsibilities on our shoulders to make great products that our customers love. On a daily basis we work on problems we don’t fully understand, critical bugs, and important features, all within a set of team dynamics and personalities.
But as hard as it is to tackle those issues, our struggles are relatively tame. If you take a look at the world around you, I bet you can find products that were insanely hard to ship, arguably much harder than software.
I personally think about the engineers at Boeing who are building massive jumbo jets every day. I’m in awe of construction crews who regularly build 50 story high-rises in Chicago. I’m fascinated by the amount of work that went into building my Nexus 6P so precisely.
A car or airplane has to be near perfect when it ships. A building must have every detail planned and triple checked. A phone must be engineered to the millimeter.
But modern software doesn’t have to be any of those things. We have a huge advantage — we can ship imperfection.
Software development brings us incredible freedom — freedom to build and ship things in days, not months; freedom to iterate and tune until our heart’s content; freedom to plan a little, but not excessively; freedom to be imperfect.
I am all for being detail oriented, but perfection is unobtainable in software. I’ll look closely at every detail of a feature and consider all the angles. Often there are imperfections, but if it’s a close call and the feature is good enough, I’ll always vote for shipping instead of holding it back.
This is not to say you should take shipping lightly. You should always consider the impact to your customers and understand any risks you might be taking by shipping an imperfect feature. And I’m not saying you should go rogue and ship things that fall outside the acceptable standards of your team or company.
But it’s also healthy for you and your brain to ship regularly— to put something out there, feel a sense of accomplishment, and let your customers react to it. You can hem and haw all day, but ultimately your customers will be the true judge of your work, not you or the people on your team.
And hey, if it doesn’t work out, just be glad you weren’t building a car. If something goes really haywire, you don’t have to institute a global recall. Refocus on the problem, reconsider it, fix your app, and ship it again. 🤘
Back in the 90s, just about all at once, everyone decided fat was terrible for you. So an industry sprung up — lead by a company called Snackwells — that replaced all the fat in your cookies and baked goods with mountains of delicious fat-free sugar.
Grocery store isles were stacked with green boxes of Snackwells. Only 50 calories per cookie pack, and zero grams of fat. Guiltless crackers. Brownies without the downside. Eat all you want!
And we all ate! Cause fat is bad! Zero fat is good! Pop ’em in your mouth! Pop another one before you finish the other one! I ate a shitton of these things — especially the devil’s food cake ones. Remember those?
But then something strange happened… We all got fatter eating low-fat foods. We’d never been fatter, never unhealthier. We were sold a solution, but we bought a problem.
We gave up something, replaced it with something else, and eventually looked back and realized we ended up far worse off than we started. We’re still recovering from that epidemic 20 years later.
Turns out fat isn’t so bad. What’s really bad in nearly every situation, however, is sugar. Horribly bad. It leads to lots and lots of bad. As we’ve gotten smarter, we’ve begun to link some of the worst forms of disease to sugar.
This reminds me of a trend happening today. It’s not about food. Any guesses?
In 2011, my husband and I went to hear Umberto Eco speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. When they opened up the talk to audience questions, I started cringing in my seat as a kind of preemptive reflex. Sure enough, someone from the audience eagerly grabbed the microphone and asked Eco if he believed in God.
I intensely dislike audience Q&As at these kinds of events. I understand why they exist, and I always take questions from the crowd when moderating panels, but I’ve come to dread the whole enterprise. There’s always the “This is more of a statement…” person; the question asker who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different event; the pedantic blowhard. At the same Chicago Humanities Festival where Eco spoke, I attended a talk about composing television for music and film where during the Q&A, a woman loudly described the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and then sat down without asking a question. I also once went to a book reading by Joshua Ferris, who mentioned he had gotten an idea for his novel while shopping at Home Depot, and a guy in the front row called out, “What’s Home Depot?” (Ferris, without missing a beat, explained that it’s a store like Menards, where you can buy lumber and tools.)
Asking good questions is hard. I make a living from asking people questions, and I’ve had my share of blunders. As a young financial markets reporter, I once lobbed what I thought was a friendly open-ended question at a source, only to have him snap, “Do you know anything about capital markets, madam?” There was also the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on me at a press conference and I blankly said, “What?” like an idiot because I was spacing out in the front row.
But it hasn’t been all mishaps! I’ve learned a lot about interviewing and asking questions, and my last two years talking to owners of long-running businesses for The Distance have been particularly instructive in how to do interviews for feature stories. (Breaking news and more adversarial interviews for investigative pieces have their own techniques, as do live or broadcast interviews where the journalist’s end of the conversation is equally visible.)
Come prepared but with an open mind.
Sometimes I write down a list of questions and sometimes I don’t. Even if I do have a list of questions, I review it before leaving for the interview but don’t print it out. I don’t like to be so wedded to my list of questions that I forget to listen. Sometimes the best material comes from a tangent or an offhand reference that the person makes, and it’s important to let the conversation wander down those paths.
I do a lot of research before interviews and usually have some idea of what the story’s underlying thread will be so I can focus my questions, but I’m also willing to ditch that angle if my initial instincts don’t pan out. For my most recent story about Office Furniture Resources, a company that buys and resells used office furniture, I had gone in thinking that the business gets its inventory from corporations that go under. I thought the story might have a twinge of melancholy to it, examining how OFR makes its money from reselling the vestiges of defunct businesses. Instead, I learned that OFR gets used furniture from Fortune 100 corporations that are moving or upgrading their offices. That piece of information took the interview in a different direction, and the final story ended up focusing more on OFR’s years of relationship-building and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the used office furniture business.
Ask the right kinds of questions.
All the stories we do at The Distance attempt to answer the question: “What’s the key to staying in business for so long?” But I don’t pose this question directly to business owners. It’s just too on-the-nose. Most of the people I talk to don’t really think in those terms, and if they do have a response, it’s usually kind of canned. After all, if someone asked you, “What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?” you probably wouldn’t have a pithy answer. What’s worked well for me is to ask a whole bunch of questions about how the business operates and how it’s evolved over time. I might also ask the person to describe how he or she got through a difficult period, or how they made certain important decisions. When I transcribe the tape and review my notes, I’m able to pick out some common themes in the discussion and get closer to answering the overarching question.
Open-ended questions are also really important, especially in the kinds of stories we do at The Distance, where the voice of the business owner is critical. Yes/no questions yield bad quotes, so you don’t want to get in a position where you’re just reciting a bunch of facts at the subject and getting them to confirm those facts. You’ll end up with an hour of you showing off all the research you’ve done, and not very much from the person you’re interviewing.
For feature reporting in particular, you often want subjects to set a specific scene for you—what something looked like, where they were, what they were thinking or feeling or wearing. When someone starts describing a scene you think might make a good anecdote for the story, slow down and walk the person through the scene in detail: “So you were sitting here? Where was the other person? Then what did you do?”
Location, location, location
I do all my primary interviews in person at the business itself. Seeing interview subjects in their natural habitat, so to speak, adds a lot to stories. When possible, ask for a tour or to tag along with someone at an event where you can see the person in action. If I have a choice between the person’s office and a conference room, I always choose the former because people’s office decor—what’s hanging on their wall and sitting on their desks—usually generates interesting material. That’s how I learned the president of Carma Labs (the maker of Carmex lip balm) collects motorcycles and self-playing musical instruments, and how the owner of Merz Apothecary ended up reading a framed letter on his wall that had him, his son and me in tears.
Take your time and over-report.
When you sit down to write, you want to be in a position where you are making tough, practically heartbreaking, decisions about what makes the final story. Also, you don’t know what’s the most important or interesting unless you’ve gathered a lot of material. A typical Distance episode is around 15 minutes, with that split between my narration and the tape I’ve gathered. That usually works out to seven or eight minutes of tape from interviews that take anywhere from one to three hours. It’s never easy to leave out so much material, especially since people take that kind of time to talk to me. But all that information lives in the background of the piece, informing the overall narrative and helping me tell the story with greater confidence and authority.
Perhaps the most important tip I can give is to act with empathy and be grateful for your interview subjects’ time, candor and trust. I am constantly amazed that anyone agrees to talk to journalists. A few months ago, I was on the phone with a potential subject who wanted to know what measurable benefits previous Distance business owners have gotten from being featured on the show. I was honest and said “none.” As far as I know, there have been no uptick in sales or life-changing business deals for any of the businesses profiled on the show. The benefits are more intangible—public relations, the opportunity to share your story with an outlet that will treat it with care. If I’m being truly honest, the show and I are the ones who benefit the most. We’re getting great stories that will hopefully keep building our audience and contribute to a conversation about business models based on long-term vision and staying independent.
By the way, if you’re wondering how Umberto Eco responded to the question about whether he believed in God, he said: “I don’t speak of private questions in public. Anyway, the only thing I am pretty sure—God believes in me!”
Before joining Basecamp, where everyone can live and work wherever they want (look at our desks!), I commuted to an office where I had a cubicle. I’d always worked in newsrooms, which tend to be livelier than a many other workplaces—TVs blaring, reporters having loud arguments with recalcitrant public officials and corporate spokespeople on the phone. Even so, my last cubicle was a little dreary, so I gave it a makeover with neon pink damask fabric wall coverings and matching accessories that imbued the space with a Laura Ashley fever dream vibe. It improved the quality of my work life immensely.
Office workers spend a lot of time at their desks—eight to ten hours a day. And it’s easy to take that furniture for granted. For Office Furniture Resources, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, commercial furniture is its lifeblood. OFR buys desks, chairs and cubicles from Fortune 100 companies that are moving or upgrading and resells that furniture to businesses with smaller budgets. A five-year-old Herman Miller or Steelcase chair has a lot of life left in it, and OFR has built a healthy business on finding new homes for all that gently used office furniture. It’s an industry that operates completely behind the scenes yet touches the lives of office workers everywhere.
WAILIN: Twenty-five years ago, Tom Quinlan had just moved to Milwaukee and was looking for a new job after almost 20 years working at a Chicago company that sold office furniture. One day, he ended up on the phone with someone back in Chicago that he knew through his old job.
TOM: Someone asked me, he said: “I’ve got a bunch of furniture here. Would you be interested in taking it?” And I said, “Oh, okay.” So I, I drove to Chicago and they walked me back into this warehouse and I think there was like a hundred chairs, and the guy goes, you know, “Will you take these hundred chairs for me?”
WAILIN: They were red guest chairs, the kind you might find in a reception area or a waiting room, and they were made by Steelcase, a big office furniture manufacturer. Tom’s old job had been managing the warehouse of a Steelcase dealer, and he knew they were well-made chairs.
TOM: And I said: “Okay, I don’t have to pay for these hundred chairs?” “No, just take ’em because it’s gonna cost us more money to throw ’em out than it’s worth. We just want you to take ‘em.” Oh, okay. I think I can probably sell those chairs.
WAILIN: Tom loaded the hundred red chairs into his rental truck and put them all in the basement of the two-flat in Milwaukee that he and his wife, Suzanne, were renting.
TOM: And then, you know, Suzanne, who came home from work and she went down to the basement and she said, “What the hell are you doing with all these damn chairs? What’s gotten into — that’s crazy!”
WAILIN: What Tom did with all those damn chairs was start a business called Office Furniture Resources, or OFR. This year, it celebrates 25 years of buying and selling used office furniture, everything from cubicle panels to credenzas to filling cabinets to carpets. If cubicle walls could talk, what stories would they tell? Well, we’ve got one of those stories today, and you’ll hear it on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. We use Basecamp to run our show, and I should mention that OFR also uses Basecamp. As a general rule, we do not feature Basecamp customers on The Distance. This was an oversight on my part and I apologize for it. We’re still sharing this story because I really like it. So let’s get back to Tom Quinlan and the hundred red chairs in his basement.
TOM: I said, “You know, there’s an opportunity I just couldn’t say no to, and I think I can sell these chairs.” And then, at the same time, I had a friend who lived in Milwaukee. She had some time on her hands, and I said, I think if I taught her what I know about furniture, I bet you she’s gonna be able to go around to local businesses and sell these chairs.
WAILIN: That friend was Nancy Kidd.
NANCY: My name is Nancy Kidd, and I am employee number one.
WAILIN: At the time, Nancy had a bunch of different jobs, like working at the local YMCA and selling ads for a fitness publication. Tom put two of the red chairs in her car and told her if you sell these, you can keep half the proceeds.
NANCY: I went into this print shop and I actually had to get some printing done and I said, “Hmm, you guys don’t have any place to sit down in here while you’re waiting.” And they said, “Oh yeah we know, we should get some chairs.” And I said, “I have a couple in my car.” I said, “These are Steelcase 454 guest chairs. They weigh about 75 pounds each. They are built like a brick shithouse and they’re gonna be 75 bucks each.” And he said, “I’ll take ‘em.” I said great. So, took them out of the car and they gave me 150 bucks. I drove over to Tom and I was just like—that was so much money to me. When he gave me that 75 dollars, I was like oh my God. Whatever. I’ll do whatever.
WAILIN: That was how it all started. Tom and Nancy sat in the basement — Tom on a big leather chair, Nancy on a little green chair that belonged to Tom’s toddler son—and they worked the phone.
NANCY: I would call people and I would say, um, “Hey you know, I was wondering if you had any 30-inch deep cantilevers. Oh, you do?” And Tom would nod and say, “How much?” And he’d write something on a paper and I’d say, “How much are you asking for those? Oh, 5 percent? Five cents on the dollar? The list price? Oh yeah, okay, um.” And he would, like, hand signal and tell me what to say and do and I would say it and do it and buy stuff.
WAILIN: It was just Tom and Nancy in those days, so Tom would drive around picking up furniture himself.
TOM: We would go into a building and we would buy a floor of furniture and at the time, back 25 years ago, we didn’t really have a warehouse or a facility to bring it out, so we would try and flip it. So we would take it out of the building and then try to resell it to another dealer, used furniture company that’s in our business, and that business could be in Chicago or it could be in California, Texas, Ohio. It didn’t really matter.
WAILIN: Eventually, OFR got big enough that Tom needed to rent a warehouse in Milwaukee. Today, the business has locations in Milwaukee, Madison, St. Louis and Chicago. When companies are looking to get rid of their office furniture, usually because they’re upgrading or moving, OFR comes in, takes everything apart and hauls it away. It then resells those used chairs and desks, either to another furniture dealer, to a business that’s looking for office furniture, or to shoppers that walk into an OFR retail store. Whenever big corporations jump on new trends in office furniture, like going from tall cubicles to more open spaces with lower walls, it’s good business for OFR.
TOM : You have the Fortune 100 companies. All this product that they decide it doesn’t work for them, trickles down to the rest of us. And there’s a lot of the rest of us. We don’t sell used furniture to the Fortune 100 companies. We take their furniture, we work with them because they have to get rid of it, and then we basically trickle it down to small, mid-sized firms, 50 to 200 employees, that they don’t have the budget but they have the need. And that’s our typical customer profile. A lot of people think that we get the furniture from companies that are going under or are bankrupt or out of business. That’s not the case at all. Ninety-nine percent of the furniture that we get are from companies that are redoing their space for whatever reason.
WAILIN: The process of removing office furniture is known as liquidation or decommissioning, and it’s intense, physical work. A single workstation — that’s the industry term for a cubicle — can consist of hundreds of individual parts that have to be taken apart.
TOM: So we’re doing a job downtown and it might be like, maybe a floor or two. Square footage is maybe 30, 50 thousand square feet, so you know, an average downtown building floor is anywhere from 25 to 50 or 70 thousand square feet. You can fit about a hundred workstations on an average floor.
WAILIN: The decommissioning is usually done at night. The furniture is loaded onto trucks and transported to a warehouse about 15 minutes from downtown Chicago. OFR might shuttle 15 to 20 truckloads of furniture to the warehouse on any given night. After 25 years in the business, Tom can estimate with uncanny accuracy how many truckloads are needed for a job. Nancy remembers when she and Tom did a walkthrough of a big downtown office.
NANCY: We must have walked 30 floors of the building. I mean, it was just like (sound) crazy. We got to the end and somebody said, “Well Tom, how many trailers do you think are gonna come out of this building?” And Tom said a hundred and five, and I think a hundred and six or a hundred and three came out of the building at the end and I’ll never forget it. His mind is just a trailer load.
WAILIN: The used office furniture business is heavy on logistics and manual labor, but it’s also built on human relationships because Tom and his staff need to know which Fortune 100 corporations are planning to move or redecorate. In the Midwest, OFR is tight with the big commercial real estate firms that manage office buildings. It also has contacts at new furniture dealers and local moving companies and installers, all of which can recommend OFR to their customers. The network that OFR has built is one you only get by being around for many years. And it all started with Nancy and a recipe box.
NANCY: Tom said we need to connect with every installation company in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri. So I would go to to the library and get the Yellow Pages or the microfiche and get on those machines and write down phone numbers and then make phone calls, hey this is what we do, you know, do you ever have a need for this, do you have a garage full of stuff we can buy from old de-installations. I had four-by-six index cards and I had like a recipe box, and I alphabetized it and I would get on an airplane with my recipe box.
WAILIN: The result of all those phone calls and relationship building can be seen in OFR’s warehouse in Des Plaines, Illinois, a few miles from O’Hare International Airport. It’s just one of the company’s warehouses, and it’s packed to the brim.
TOM: This is 50,000 square feet of office furniture. There’s probably easy, a thousand workstations in here. There’s probably 1,500 chairs. There’s probably a couple thousand filing cabinets.
WAILIN: For OFR, the ideal liquidation is one that yields a lot of furniture with a high resale value, like Herman Miller chairs that are just five years old and have probably another 15 years of life left in them. On the other end of the spectrum is furniture that is outdated, like wood laminate surfaces that were designed to hold clunky desktop computers or big filing cabinets from the days when cubicle walls were higher and companies stored a lot of paper. There’s just not demand for that kind of furniture anymore. So the wood laminate goes to a landfill, along with stuff like fabric. Metal gets taken to a scrap yard for recycling, although it’s kind of a bad deal for the company right now.
TOM: The price of metal is really going down. The last time I looked, it was like 15 bucks a ton. A year ago at this time, it was 275 dollars a ton. So that’s a huge deal in our business because people always ask that question: “Am I gonna get any credit back for metal?” Well, at 15 bucks a ton, it costs us more money to put it on a trailer, bring it to the scrapper, than we’re getting back, so it’s a losing proposition for us, so we have to charge for that. When you were getting 275 a ton, you could actually give back to the customer credit for the metal.
WAILIN: OFR has faced other economic pressures, like Chinese imports that sell for the same price, new, as gently used furniture from Steelcase and Herman Miller. Then there was the most recent recession, when Fortune 100 companies kept decommissioning their offices but smaller businesses stopped buying furniture. It was incumbent on OFR to show customers they could create a nice space for a fraction of what it costs to buy new furniture, like $200 for a Steelcase chair versus a list price of $1,000. There’s another, more abstract sales pitch too, one that’s about convincing businesses that a more inviting office space leads to happier workers and increased productivity.
TOM: When you sell your house, the day of the open house, you always have a fire going in the fireplace, right? You’re trying to make people feel like this could be my space. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sitting there on Sunday with a nice fire? You’re just trying to give them that warm and fuzzy. Commercial furniture is the same feeling. You want people, when they get off the elevator, to feel like, I can spend the next eight to ten hours here.
WAILIN: OFR doesn’t just extol the virtues of used office furniture to potential customers. It furnishes its own corporate headquarters with chairs and workstations from liquidations. Last year, it decommissioned Google’s former office space in downtown Chicago. Google took all its chairs when it moved further west, but the company left behind some very nice Herman Miller workstations that convert from regular to standing desks.
TOM: Those are really hip. Everybody wants those; those are great.
WAILIN: Tom’s wife, Suzanne, who’s in charge of OFR’s finances, uses one of those sit-to-stand desks. Nancy Kidd has a special piece of furniture in her office too — the little green plastic chair that she used to sit on in Tom’s basement. The green chair originally belonged to Tom and Suzanne’s son, Jack, who was just a toddler when the business was founded and is now 26 and works in the Milwaukee warehouse.
TOM: You know, actually, in the last few years, he’s really probably the one that really makes it all work for us. He’s autistic, so for Suzanne and I to watch him grow and have a social environment at work, it brings tears to your eyes.
WAILIN: Tom has watched other long-time employees grow up and raise families of their own while working at OFR, and those are relationships he takes seriously. He believes in promoting from within and having everyone try each other’s jobs. Like if someone gets hired as an accountant, they might spend some time offloading furniture from trucks, just so employees understand every facet of the business.
TOM: Suzanne and I, we’re there all the time and there’s nothing that is above us. You have to maintain those relationships and be willing to do whatever you’re asking someone else to do. You should be willing to do and that is true when you’re 21 and that’s true when you’re 65. People have to understand that you’ve done that and you know what you’re talking about. They’ll respect that.
I would say 80 percent of my day is communicating to employees. The other 20 percent, I’m getting coffee. The interaction with your employees is like what makes me come to work every day. That’s the fun part. You’re watching them grow and you’re giving them the ability to grow.
WAILIN: As a used furniture guy, Tom never gets to see what the new spaces look like after a customer moves. But he always tells them, it’s okay. I’ll see the stuff in 10 years. And he knows better than most people that there’s still a lot of value in old furniture.
TOM: The reason why we’re successful and we started this business was the fact that I walked in that warehouse 25 years ago and I saw an opportunity to sell those chairs. I want everybody that works for me to feel the same way. They have to be able to recognize and see opportunity and then jump on it, and then live with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you don’t do it at all, you’re dead.
WAILIN: Nancy saw an opportunity, too, when she walked into the print shop and asked if they wanted to buy the two red chairs in her car. Those chairs are still at the print shop. Tom’s thinking of paying them a follow-up visit.
TOM: For our 25-year anniversary, we thought maybe we should go back and see if we can buy those chairs back and replace them with something a little bit nicer. I’d make it worth his while. And I’d bring him nicer chairs, too. I’d replace ’em. Wanna make sure that he’s happy.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find us online at thedistance.com, where we have links to episode transcripts, and on Twitter at distancemag, that’s @distancemag. 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.
Hello from Team iOS here at Basecamp! We’ve been hard at work making Basecamp better for you, here’s just some of what’s new…
Better sharing Basecamp 3’s share extension has been redesigned and powered-up. Post a funny GIF in a Campfire, Ping Zach that URL, or drop a PDF into Docs & Files all without leaving the app your’re using or launching Basecamp at all! Basecamp even remembers the places you share to most. If you haven’t yet made this part of your Basecamp workflow—definitely give it a try.
Pin me! Now organizing the Basecamps and Campfires you use most is much easier. Pinned Basecamps and Campfires stick to the top of the list for quick access—just tap the pin. Now, for instance, you can easily jump into a Campfire even if you’re not following it.
More control over what’s new Our Basecamp is a busy place, every day there are tons of new notifications about new Pings, comments, @mentions or Campfires. Swipe on any unread or recent item to see more options for dealing with it quickly. Swipe and Mark as Read to clear it or tap Unfollow to prevent any further notifications from the thread. Make a mistake? You can always swipe to Mark as unread and pop it back into the unread list.
More fun! Basecamp is a serious tool for getting work done but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with your team. Basecamp 3 for iOS now supports third-party image keyboards like Bitmoji, KIMOJI and all of your various moji-based keyboards (you’re welcome, millienials!). In fact, you can simply paste images (Hello animated GIFs!) right into Pings and Campfires, too.
And that’s not all… Swipe-to-go-back is even easier (just swipe toward the right on any screen to go back, not just from the left edge)… see who’s been talking in new Campfire activity… a brand new flow for starting new Pings (even with multiple people)… plus tons of bug fixes and behind-the-scenes improvements to speed and stability.
As always Basecamp 3 for iOS is free, get the latest version with all these updates in the App Store. Thank you so much for using Basecamp, for your kind words, and great suggestions! Stay tuned, we’ve got a lot more in the works—let us know in the comments what we can do to make Basecamp even better for you!
Basecamp 3 works where you do on iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, and anywhere you’ve got a web browser and an internet connection. Your first Basecamp is completely free so try it today, it takes just a minute to sign-up.