For years people have asked us how we work at Basecamp. We’ve shared our business and development philosophies in Getting Real, REWORK, and REMOTE, but we’ve never lifted the veil on our unusual work methods. And unusual they are! Whenever we give this workshop, and show people behind the scenes, we hear “woah!”
What does our day-to-day look like? How do we organize and manage work? How do we communicate across the company? When do we communicate? What do we tell everyone, vs what do we only tell a few people? How do teams coordinate? How do designers and developers work together? How do we gather ideas, consider feedback, break work into digestible chunks, build, and deliver. How do we make so much progress in a short time with a small team?
On March 31, we’ll go behind the scenes and share everything. We’ll show you how we use Basecamp 3 to run Basecamp. Everything will be exposed.
After this workshop you’ll have a new perspective on how people can work together, how and when to communicate this way vs that way, and how keeping everything together in one place is the secret to a few small teams making some really big things. You’ll have new insights into how your own organization, group, or team can shift its perspective and work better together.
None of this has been shared in an interactive setting like this before.
The workshop will be hosted by Basecamp CEO Jason Fried.
Seating is limited, and the first two workshops sold out within 24 hours, so don’t miss this one. Get your ticket here. We look forward to seeing you in Chicago on March 31st!
Note: People often ask… Will this be recorded? Streamed? Can I attend remotely? At this time we’re only doing these workshops live for a small group so we can address everyone’s questions personally and go hands-on when we need to. We may offer an abridged, recorded version of this workshop down the road, we’ll see.
How an ice cream cone has nourished a Chicago family for three generations and 90 years of business.
Opening an ice cream store in Chicago is not for the faint of heart. Factor in a mostly deserted neighborhood and the Great Depression, and the idea of selling ice cream under these circumstances looks utterly harebrained. Yet that’s exactly what the Sapp family did in 1926 when they started Original Rainbow Cone, and their signature treat — five flavors arranged in diagonal slabs — has come to symbolize spring and summer for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side.
Lynn Sapp, the granddaughter of the founders, runs Rainbow Cone today and has ambitions of taking the business national, while staying mindful of her predecessors’ legacy of frugality and resourcefulness that has kept the seasonal business going for 90 years.
You wouldn’t think orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), strawberry and chocolate would all go together, but it’s fantastic. When I visited Rainbow Cone on opening day, I inhaled mine and almost went back for a second one. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. There were people eating rainbow cones in line, waiting to buy more.
WAILIN: There are many ways to mark the beginning of spring in Chicago. There’s the day when Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report for spring training. There’s the day when the heat lamps on the city’s elevated train platforms turn off. And there’s the day when Original Rainbow Cone opens its doors.
(Sound of crowd)
WAILIN: It’s grand re-opening day at Rainbow Cone and at least 50 people have lined up outside the shop’s distinctive pink building on Chicago’s south side, bundled up in winter coats and hats and gloves. It’s an overcast day, with temperatures in the upper 30s, and there’s still patches of snow on the ground.
CUSTOMER: Crazy (laughs). I feel crazy. But hopefully it’s worth it!
Everyone here is waiting for their first Rainbow Cone of the year. And what exactly is a rainbow cone?
CUSTOMER: Orange sherbet
CUSTOMER: Palmer House
WAILIN: Starting from the top: orange sherbet as a palate cleanser, pistachio, Palmer House, which is vanilla with cherries and walnuts, finished off with strawberry and then chocolate at the very bottom. Five flavors, sliced instead of scooped, and arranged at a slight diagonal, with the chocolate just peeking out of the cone and the orange sherbet in an almost vertical slab down the back. Joseph Sapp invented the rainbow cone in 1926, when he and his wife, Katherine, opened their ice cream parlor in a part of Chicago that was still farmland and apple orchards. Today, Joseph and Katherine’s granddaughter, Lynn Sapp, owns the business. This year marks her thirtieth at the head of Rainbow Cone, and she starts every season by remembering the previous two generations of Sapps.
LYNN: I always say a prayer, thank you Grandpa, Katherine and Joe, Mom and Dad, thank you for everything that you’ve given me. I do, I’m very grateful because it’s an honor to do this. You pass it down and you’re part of the thing and you’re up on the counter saying hi to people, “Oh my God, good to see you this year,” and you create a lot of family and friends that way, so people know who you are.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show: The story of how an ice cream cone has sustained three generations of a Chicago family. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp 3. Basecamp 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.
LYNN: They got the money to buy the land that the present building is on and then they got the money to build one story of it. Now, imagine opening a business where there’s no loans, no nothing. Everything is cash…
WAILIN: The 9200 block of South Western Avenue was an unlikely place to open an ice cream parlor, or any kind of business, in 1926. Today, Western Avenue is the longest continuous street in Chicago and thick with traffic for its 24 miles. But ninety years ago, the stretch of Western where the Sapps opened Rainbow Cone was just a dirt road, with nothing around except a few cemeteries. The Sapps believed their store would draw families visiting the cemeteries on Sundays, and they were right. But then the economy collapsed.
LYNN: You open in 1926 and you head right into a Depression. Our original prices were 12 cents for a cone. Well, when you think dinner was a dime for a whole plate of food, 12 cents was a lot. Five cents for a small Rainbow was a lot. So it had to be good. They had to feed you, so that’s why our ice cream is fresh fruit and nuts.
WAILIN: Running Rainbow Cone through the Depression left an imprint on the Sapp family and the business that’s still felt today. Joe and Katherine Sapp had to make sure their product represented more than just an indulgence, that it could fill you up and be worth the 12 cents you might have spent on something else. The Sapps also learned to stretch every dollar. They broke down the cardboard boxes that the cones came in to use as floor coverings and cleaned the windows with newspapers. Katherine Sapp washed everything with Borax powder and vinegar. And the store used the same big freezer, made from oak and metal and batted cotton, for 60 years, until the bottom finally fell out.
LYNN: My grandmother was a very tough woman. She was a very smart woman and Joe, my grandpa, created the cone and Katherine was the vehicle behind making sure every penny was used wisely. Just the other day, I was cleaning and found what they call cardboard sheets that my grandpa’s Sunday dress shirt used to come in for cleaning, and they used to take that piece of cardboard that the whole shirt was folded around and then she would write everybody’s hours, their phone numbers—all of the business was done on a single piece of cardboard that came in my grandpa’s Sunday shirt from the cleaners and that was her records and that’s how she paid people and there was no, no waste. They didn’t have it, you know. There was no waste and even when it got, you know, things were better, there was no waste, because that was a sin, to waste food, to waste anything.
WAILIN: As the economy improved, Rainbow Cone became a gathering place for the neighborhood and a place to escape the summer heat in the days before air conditioning. During World War 2, the Sapps posted casualty lists in the back window, and Lynn’s grandfather installed a radio so people could hang out and listen to the news. But only during the warm months. This was Chicago, after all, and it didn’t make sense to stay open in the winter. Lynn’s predecessors had second jobs — her grandfather was a Buick mechanic and her father, Robert, was a building engineer for the Chicago Public School system. After she bought the business in 1986, she expanded Rainbow Cone to venues like the Taste of Chicago, an annual outdoor food festival that draws over a million people a year. But the ice cream parlor is still a seasonal business, and as with previous generations of Sapps, Lynn faces the pressure of making enough money in the summer to cover maintenance of a 90-year-old building and other expenses during the rest of the year.
LYNN: I’ve made it into a full-time job and just like expanding the product, having other people use it, doing different events, trying to maximize the warm months here and get as much money as we can to pay our bills in the winter. So we store everything we can, you know. Everybody’s like oh, you do so well at Taste, you do so well, all that goes in the vault and is you know, used for November, December, January, February, March when it’s, you know, 20 below and you can’t get in here because the snow is so high.
WAILIN: Lynn is the youngest of four children and grew up in the store, hanging out in a playpen in the back with her grandparents. Her grandpa Joe used to make tiny rainbow cones for her and her dolls, but she only wanted chocolate ice cream for the first nine or so years of her life. As she grew up, she and her siblings put themselves through college by working at Rainbow Cone. But it was never assumed that Lynn would simply inherit the business from her parents. She had to come up with the money to buy it.
LYNN: I had a teaching degree and I was teaching up north, and the roof fell in and the damage was so extensive that my dad was overwhelmed and at this point, he was getting older. That’s when I stepped in and said well, if you want me to clean it up, then I want to buy it, and that’s how we started the negotiation and that’s how I purchased the company.
WAILIN: Lynn started making changes that brought Rainbow Cone out of its comfort zone. She got a van and took the ice cream to festivals around the city to introduce it to people who’d never visited the store. She got rid of the white nurses dresses that was the uniform for female employees, and replaced them with t-shirts. She introduced new flavors like butter pecan, cookies and cream and mint flake, and packaged the five rainbow flavors in pints and quarts for customers to take home. But even as Lynn grew the business, she was mindful of her family’s legacy of frugality and resourcefulness. That’s how she started selling rainbow ice cream cakes.
LYNN: When I bought the store from my dad, I didn’t have any money, so I was invited to all of these birthday parties, anniversary, you know, christenings, you know. Well, I had no money. I had to look at what I had, so I literally made the bottom of the cake, put some ice cream on it. I used to make my own buttercream by hand back then. I do not now (laughs). Now it’s whipped topping product, but that’s how I started, and I’d bring the cake to the party and that was my gift because that’s all I had, so it worked, so it was good.
WAILIN: As Lynn kicks off Rainbow Cone’s ninetieth year, she’s looking at national expansion and franchising opportunities. This is a huge deal for a business that has spent almost a century in a single neighborhood location, despite getting requests from the Chicago diaspora to bring Rainbow Cone to other states. She’s tested the waters a bit by licensing Rainbow Cone to a chain of ice cream stores in the southwest Chicago suburbs, where she personally trained the workers in how to serve it, and she feels like now, the business’s ninetieth year, is finally the right time to introduce her Grandpa Joe’s creation to a bigger audience.
LYNN: People say, you know, you should have expanded years ago, why aren’t you expanding? Because it’s a very unique and special ice cream cone, and I guard it very carefully because I want it done right. The other thing you’re guarding is people’s memories, and it’s memories of the product for 90 years and that, you know, person that walks up to the counter has to have a positive experience because they’re remembering their childhood when their grandma and grandpa bought them, they’re bringing their kids, so it’s not just my rainbow cone, it’s their rainbow cone too. That’s people’s memories, you know, and am I controlling about it? You bet ya! That’s why we’re still here for 90 years.
WAILIN: The nostalgia is strong for Chicagoans like Bridget Powell, who along with her parents was first in line for the grand re-opening.
BRIDGET: They used to ride us up here on the back of the bikes when we weren’t big enough to ride our own, and then we’d ride up here together as a family and get Rainbow Cone several times in the summer. It was something to do together as a family, get ice cream, you know. It was a nice tradition.
WAILIN: On a cold, windy day like this, summer in Chicago can feel like a distant memory or a mass hallucination dreamt up by a population with cabin fever. The re-opening of Rainbow Cone is a reassuring sign that warm weather will be here soon, and taking that first lick of the rainbow is celebratory and nostalgic all at once. Just ask Bridget and her father, Timothy.
BRIDGET: You know what? It’s the best damn ice cream I’ve ever had. I won’t deny that.
TIMOTHY: It’s as good as it ever was.
WAILIN: The Rainbow Cone ice cream has always been made off-site by other companies following the Sapp family recipes. The business has been around for long enough to outlast suppliers and see dramatic price increases in certain ingredients, like nuts. When the costs of running the store go up, Lynn can’t just jack up the price of a rainbow cone. She has to find savings elsewhere. This year, because of an increase in the minimum wage in Chicago, she’s hiring seven to 10 fewer employees — a tough decision for a business that’s always prided itself on giving local high school students their first job. On the revenue side, the store’s big challenge is weather. The only seating at Rainbow Cone is a cluster of picnic tables in the back yard. So if it’s rainy or unseasonably cool, customers stay away.
LYNN: If you’re making a buck today in the food business, I say God bless you because you don’t understand what you have to go through to keep that dollar. For us it’s the maintenance of the building, it’s the maintenance of equipment, it’s, you know it’s paying the city’s fees, all measured in how many cones do I have to scoop to pay for this, that’s true, what am I slicing today? (Laughs)
WAILIN: But Rainbow Cone is nothing if not steeped in a Depression-era legacy of resourcefulness and sticking to it. Lynn says her grandpa Joe was all about quality product, cleanliness and good service. When she gets bogged down in the minutiae of running the business, she thinks back to when it was just her grandparents and a little shack on a dirt road, serving 12-cent cones to families dressed in their Sunday best.
LYNN: It’s not just Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Sapp family, it’s Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Chicagoans who have come here for generations. I mean, 90 years says a lot about a business, so it’s just staying with the basics that even I have to admit, I’ve gotten sidetracked from. With all of the, we have registers now with POS systems that can tell me per ounce, you just have to stay with the basics. And every time I’m like rechanneling Katherine and Joe, saying okay, we have to have the best product we can have, greatest ingredients, we have to have cleanliness here, and then we have to serve it with a smile and make sure we keep doing that. It’s not easy, but you just gotta keep doing it.
WAILIN: Ninety years later, it’s still about the basics: orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House, strawberry and chocolate. It’s the taste of childhood summers for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side, and Lynn understands her role in preserving that important, ineffable link between taste and memory.
LYNN: As the world gets crazier, people want relief. People want a little bite of it’s gonna be okay, and that’s an Original Rainbow Cone for 90 years, it’s been telling people, this is a great fruit and nut ice cream, it’s sliced, it’s not scooped, it’s completely different, and it’s gonna make everything okay. So (laughs) that’s where we’re at.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to sdlavergne and Da Chipsta for your recent five star ratings on iTunes. We would love it if you could leave us a review on iTunes too. You can also sign up for our newsletter and find links to episode transcripts at thedistance.com. 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.
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!”