People do crazy things when they can’t afford to lose. Being dealt a bad hand, which invariably happens at some point, becomes an existential threat, the brain shuts off rational analysis, the primal mode of survival kicks in. It’s when morals and spines are broken.
Let’s say your business is reliant on just a few big customers. Now any one of them has the power to make you sweat, or worse, by threatening to pull the plug. If you absolutely need their business, you will absolutely do what they say — even when it’s the wrong answer or direction to the overall mission. When your business has been over-tuned for these few edge cases, your dependency deepens, leaving you less open to new customers (and profits).
This is why acting on customers’ requests, rather than on their behalf, is generally a bad idea. Customers know what’s right for them, in singular. It’s your job to listen but then act on the aggregate sense of what most customers would want most of the time. That’s very hard to do if you can’t afford to say no to a single customer.
The same is true with vendors. If you’re relying on a service so much that they can dictate your existence, well, then they can dictate your existence! That’s the recurrent threat and theme of building on other people’s platforms. Or relying on a particular algorithm for search results in, say, Google. Companies make choices based on what’s right for them, not what’s right for you.
Finally, the hardest part is when this is true of employees. If your magic wizard of server mountain is a complete asshole, but only they hold the knowledge of how to keep your business in the air, whatcha gonna do? You’re going to eat their bullshit, that’s what. And that bullshit is going to seep through the whole organization until it has stained it completely.
The easiest way to get yourself out of a bad situation is to avoid it in the first place. Harder said than done, but not impossible if you maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when Golden Opportunities present themselves.
Like when that big prospective client is dangling a huge check that could grow your business by 20%, but the alarm bells are already ringing red on their list of “requests” to make that happen. Is growing by 20% in one jump worth it if it’s off the ledge?
When the vendor offers you a too-good-to-be-true deal if you’d just climb inside their fortress with towering barriers of exit, well, then maybe the power of that social graph should get another thought.
Or when that impressive candidate who’s willing to take a below-market salary radiates contempt for anyone beneath their ninja chops. Is having one superhero on the team worth a toxic environment for everyone else?
Don’t make any of your dependencies too big to fail. Whatever advantage you gain in the short term by saying yes is dread and misery later when you can’t say no.
We designed Basecamp from the beginning to capable of taking individual losses. Most customers only pay us around $50/month. We built an audience and technology base that wasn’t beholden to any existing corporate platform or vendor. Those choices are part of the reason we’re still around after 12 years.
While developing the Basecamp 3 Android app over the past year, we’ve leaned quite a bit on some really useful open source libraries.
These libraries did a bunch of heavy lifting for us. They helped shorten our development time, increase programmer happiness (since we didn’t have to write them from scratch!) and ultimately ship a better product.
Open source is such a deep-rooted part of Basecamp’s culture that I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. I want to, in some small way, show our gratitude to a group of people who probably aren’t thanked all that often.
So, to all of you — the women and men who author and maintain Android open source projects everywhere — thank you very, very much for all your hard work!
There are lots and lots of libraries out there, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out some all-stars that really helped us out.
Big thanks to the teams that build and maintain these libraries — you’ve made our work and lives better! (If you’re an Android programmer, it’d be a good idea to bookmark these if you’re not already using them.)
Facebook’s Stetho: A debug bridge that lets you use Chrome Developer Tools to inspect native UI, resources, and data. We use this quite a bit to debug layout issues and stored preference data.
Flipboard’s BottomSheet: An easy way to mimic Android’s bottom sheet interaction without writing it from scratch. We use this to power our share sheet, and have some ideas about future uses too.
Google’s GSON: Easily serializes JSON into Java objects. We use GSON a lot to serialize JSON data, which makes it a breeze to work with in Java.
greenrobot’s EventBus: An event bus that makes it super easy to implement a pub-sub model. We use events for all sorts of stuff, like updating the UI when a background data call finishes.
Path’s Android Priority Job Queue: A job manager that has simple defaults, but offers a lot of power too. It’s fantastic for running asynchronous jobs and a wonderful replacement for the dreaded Asynctask.
Square’s Retrofit and OkHttp: If you’re doing any kind of API or HTTP work, you need to use these, period. We use Retrofit exclusively for all of our API interfaces.
Giving Back — Turbolinks Android
Like any good citizen of an active developer community, we’re not just going to leech — we’re ready to give back!
In short order we’ll be releasing our first open source Android library — Turbolinks Android. It’s the same adapter framework that’s powered our Basecamp 3 Android app since November 2015, and it’s a crucial component in our native-web hybrid approach. It’s made specifically for Android, and will get your hybrid app hooked up to a Turbolinks 5 web app in a jiffy.
We’ve done our very best to make sure Turbolinks Android possesses all the qualities that we love about the all-stars libraries above: easy to get started, easy to use, fast, and reliable.
We’re thankful that we’ve been able to stand on the shoulders of awesome libraries ourselves, and can’t wait to get Turbolinks Android out to the open source community!
If you’re an Android open source developer and ever want to chat, feel free to contact myself or Jay. We’d love to talk and share ideas!
We’re hard at work making the Basecamp 3 and its companion Android app the best it can be. Check ’em out!
When we launched Basecamp 3 a few months back, we launched a flavor called “Basecamp With Clients.” This version of Basecamp 3 has one big thing that’s different from the standard version of Basecamp 3 — it has something called “The Clientside”.
The Clientside is an exclusive feature in Basecamp 3 built to specifically separate the back of the house (unfinished work in progress that’s only visible to your team) from the front of the house (finished work, client presentations, and communications that the client can see and participate in).
The Clientside allows firms to be 100% sure the client can’t see anything they shouldn’t see, or hear anything they shouldn’t hear. It eliminates all the fear and anxiety that’s often tied up in “Oh shit, that wasn’t for them” moments. I’ll be writing more about the backstory, research, and ideas behind the Clientside in a future post.
For now, I want to share a big improvement we just launched: Approvals.
A ton of client services firms (design firms, consultants, development shops, accountants, lawyers, etc) use Basecamp to run their projects, present work to their clients, and keep their client’s feedback on the record.
Having talked to hundreds — maybe thousands — of client services firms over the years, and having been in the client business for many years, one thing is clear: Getting to “yes” can be difficult. Not a sorta yes, but a real yes. And firms need definitive yesses in order to make sure something was approved. Since future work is based on the approval of earlier work, clear approvals are fundamental to a healthy client relationship.
Yes is the only thing that means yes.
Sometimes people show work to a client using Basecamp and they get a “Looks great!” or a “Wow, nice!” or a “Sweet! Love it”. Sound great, doesn’t it? Problem is it’s not a yes or a no, it’s still a maybe. It’s unclear if “wow, nice” means “yes we approve” or just “wow, nice… looking forward to seeing more.” When money and relationships are at stake, clarity around yes or no is essential. The last thing you want to do is assume someone approved something, then build other work on top of that approval, and then find out that the foundational approval wasn’t actually an approval, it was just a reaction. “That’s great” does not equal yes.
So, we set off to help firms and client alike bring clarity to their working relationships.
Now in Basecamp 3 you’ll see a new button on the Clientside called “Get their approval on the record”. When it’s time to get a definitive yes or no, this is the button to click.
Next you’ll see a screen like this that asks you which person on the client side needs to approve this work, what you want to ask them to approve (you can attach files, images, etc), when you need the approval by (whenever, or an exact date), and anyone on your team you want to cc.
The request for approval is then emailed to the client and marked waiting on your end.
The client then gets an email that looks like this:
When the client clicks the button they’ll see a web page — no login required — which shows the work you want them to see along with any additional description you’ve added. Below that, they’ll see two simple buttons: “Yes, I approve” and “No, not yet”.
The client can click either Yes or No. They’ll then have a spot to leave additional feedback or commentary to support their choice or ask a follow up question. Whatever they say will be record back in Basecamp:
The team on the firm side will also get a notification and a receipt confirming the approval (or non-approval) which they can then comment on and carry on the discussion. Every single step of the way is stored on the record so there’s never any confusion about who said what when. It’s clear for both sides to see, which is key for accountability and part of the fundamental value of Basecamp.
Getting to a definitive yes or no is one of the hardest things in the client business. You don’t want to pester, you don’t want to hassle, you don’t want to have to have an awkward conversation about what “Looks great!” means — especially when thousands of dollars and important deadlines are on the line.
But when you use a system like Basecamp to help you get a clear yes (or no), you eliminate the moments for miscommunication that can unfortunately happen when people use different language to mean different things. Assumptions around approval can really hurt a project. We’re aiming to help you replace assumptions with definitive answers and clarity.
We hope you find this useful!
And it’s just the start of where we’ll be taking Basecamp With Clients in 2016. Lots of very cool stuff coming your way.
Vaguely remember something about the “discovery of electricity”?
A guy flew a kite in a storm, lightning struck, traveled down the string of the kite to a key…When the key was touched, out came a jolt of electricity giving a non-lethal shock to its famous victim. Who was that famous scientist?
Jacques de Romas.
Wait, that’s not right. Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin?
Well, not according to more than a few historians. And the Bordeaux Academy and The French Academy credit de Romas for successfully being the first to complete The Kite Experiment.
Even Mythbusters believe they’ve busted Franklin’s claim — the shock from the reported key would have easily killed him.
Still, if you were to believe Franklin performed the experiment, it was meant to prove lightning did indeed behave the same as electricity. (It wasn’t really about the discovery of electricity. People had already discovered that.) And a guy named Thomas-François Dalibard had proven a month prior to Franklin that lightning was electricity through an experiment similar to The Kite Experiment but using a lightning rod.
So why aren’t grade school kids taught about Thomas-François Dalibard’s discovery. Why isn’t de Romas flying the kite in that painting? Why is Franklin so famous for something he probably didn’t even do?
I enjoy helping entrepreneurs figure out how to start and grow businesses. At a recent talk I gave, one question stuck in my mind. The young entrepreneur asked, “Now that I’ve built a product, how do I get it to spread?”
This entrepreneur recognizes that having a good idea and building a great product isn’t enough.
In a paper studying how we can predict success, researchers found that given a market where people are trying to pick things that are of good quality (e.g. movies, music), as soon as you give consumers extra social information (e.g. number of downloads, likes, stars, votes), the success of good products becomes unpredictable.
We can’t predict successful things just based on how good they are. Our social influence over each other messes up our ability to choose.
So how do we get our products to spread if it’s not enough to rely on making something great.
I believe we can find some answers if we explore why Benjamin Franklin is so famous for his mythical kite.
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, and already at 12 years old he was learning how to build an audience.
He became an apprentice to his brother, James, who taught him the printing business. And when Franklin was 15, James founded a newspaper, The New-England Courant. Franklin wanted to write for the newspaper, but James wouldn’t allow it. So the rebellious teenager just wrote under a pseudonym, Mrs. Silence Dogood.
He was hooked. He kept on writing, and working in the printing and newspaper businesses.
Let’s look at this quote from Mythbusters about how The Kite Experiment myth began:
The American legend likely sprang from an article Franklin wrote for the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1752 describing a theoretical kite-lightning experiment.
There’s Franklin writing an article for the Pennsylvania Gazette.
But Franklin wasn’t just an occasional writer there. He owned the Pennsylvania Gazette! And the Pennsylvania Gazette was the most read newspaper of the American colonies.
Franklin knew the power of writing and owning ways to distribute his messages. So he spent significant time writing for newspapers, publishing books, even running a newspaper — in other words, building an audience before he even had much to spread.
So when Franklin was writing about theoretical experiments, it was his name that travelled far and wide because of the audience he had spent years cultivating.
You’ve likely heard of a recent startup called Product Hunt — a popular site listing new product launches. Its founder, Ryan Hoover, is frequently appearing in technology news and popular blogs, and getting some nice TV coverage.
Most people see the “overnight success”. But if you peek just a little bit further back, you’ll see Ryan doing something similar to Benjamin Franklin.
He was writing.
Ryan was a product manager at a company called PlayHaven. And during his time there, he knew he wanted to create a business, he just didn’t know what it would be. But instead of squandering his time dreaming about starting a business, he built an audience.
He put a ton of effort into his blog, Twitter, and getting articles in popular online magazines like PandoDaily and Fast Company, writing about other people’s products and what made them successful.
And his audience grew.
When the time finally came to tell people about a product he built, he didn’t have to go looking for a way to spread it, he already had it.
Benjamin Franklin also had another genius idea to help spread his work — he created a hub of smart people interested in helping each other out, the Junto.
Look at some of the questions Franklin created to guide a Junto meeting:
In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?
Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? and what can the Junto do towards securing it?
Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?
The Junto was created to help spread the ideas of Franklin and his fellow members.
Before Product Hunt was created, Ryan was creating his own group, Startup Edition. He asked a group of like-minded bloggers, including myself, to blog about the same topic each week. We joined because of our interests, but also because of a slightly selfish reason — the extra value the group brought to each other: shared traffic. If someone like Adii Pienaar wrote a great post, then the rest of us enjoyed benefiting from his blog traffic as he linked back to the group.
And when Ryan had built a product of his own, the folks in Startup Edition were some of the first people to spread the word.
If you’re dreaming about your own business, but reading this while working for someone else, or maybe you’ve already started something, but it’s far from being ready or good, don’t squander this time. Don’t wait. Start writing, teaching, and publishing today. Form groups of like-minded people and friends. So when you do have something of your own to spread, you’ll already have an audience happy to help.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
You can now complete to-dos directly on reports. Before you had to click through to a to-do from a report to complete it. Much faster now and less back and forth too.
We’ve revamped the way you address emails to your client on the Clientside. The new design better reflects a traditional from/to design ala most email clients rather than the previous checkbox-style list we had.
We’ve introduced support for the Microsoft Edge browser. This will allow people to start accessing Basecamp 3 using MS Edge 13+, which is the default browser in Windows 10. There may still be a few nits here and there, but at least people on Edge aren’t blocked anymore.
You can now see which platform someone is responding from when they post a comment. At the bottom of every comment you’ll see a “via…” line. Desktop, iPhone, Android, iPad, etc.
Automatic Check-ins and Schedules now show you who will receive a notification when you submit an answer or post a comment. Before it was anyone’s guess — now it’s clear! Sorry about that.
We noticed that people were mistakenly publishing drafts instead of saving a new version. Problem was that the publish button was the default button when you were editing a draft, so people were clicking that button when they really meant to hit save instead. So we changed the UI around and made “Save” the primary green button and then added a blue “Post” button separately. This should cut down on inadvertent publishing significantly.
A top request has been answered! Now you can view your assignments sorted by date. You can also view any one else’s assignments on the “What’s on someone’s plate?” report by date as well. This way you can see what’s coming up soon for you (or someone else) rather than just seeing everything they have assigned to them.
Major aut0-save improvements across the board. If you’re in the middle of writing (or editing) a message, a document, a to-do, or a comment, and for whatever reason you are pulled away or your browser quits, what you’ve written won’t be lost. When you return back to it you’ll see the text right there in its place so you can pick up where you left off.
…plus a whole bunch of under-the-hood updates to improve reliability, stability, and speed. There always a lot of stuff that people don’t see, but they feel.
More improvements on the way. The iOS and Android apps will be updated shortly with their own batches of improvements. Android has some great improvements around notifications that should hit any day now.
tl;dr: If you let Google Fonts host your type for you, it might look terrible for some users on Chrome, especially Open Sans. Solution is below — you’ll probably need to host it yourself.
A user recently reported having trouble with the typography at Highrise:
This is happening to everyone here at our company. 100+ people here in the building. We took a vote and they had me contact you.
Hmm, that can’t be good.
Let me back up…
A couple of months ago we changed the typography of Highrise. It’s part of a much longer and larger project to refresh the entire app. Over months, we went though dozens of different choices. Eventually we landed on Open Sans. Open Sans is a beautiful typeface Google commissioned and open sourced. And for that reason it’s used in a bunch of places not the least of which are many Google sites.
Font Reach shows over 190K sites using it. It’s the #6 most popular font in their catalogue. The biggest sites on the internet are using it: Google, WordPress, Mozilla. Even Chase, the bank, uses it.
Yeah, that doesn’t look right. But then looking at the screenshot deeper:
It looks like their whole system might be pixelated/non-aliased looking. Turns out having “Cleartype” on can make a big difference. So the solution was just to recommend turning on Cleartype. That should improve Highrise as well as their entire system.
Still, I wondered how many people were having this problem. We didn’t hear too much about it, until the above email from Alex that it was affecting 100+ users in their company.
Ok, so let’s tell him to make sure Cleartype is turned on. Hmm, get some push back. It’s just affecting Chrome, not Firefox. Can’t be Cleartype then as that would be a system wide problem.
Ah, I guess Chrome tries to use some fancy 2D GPU accelerated graphics… But that doesn’t always work on your machine, especially if your video card doesn’t support it. A person in that article: “In my case, “GPU Accelerated Canvas 2D” was enabled in Chrome. I disabled it, pressed the button on the bottom of the page to restart Chrome, and the problem went away.”
But Alex tried disabling this, and it still didn’t work. Besides 100+ people at his company couldn’t possibly have outdated video cards?
So what the hell? Kept looking.
Maybe there’s something specific about Chrome and Open Sans? Bingo.
1. Go to any site that uses Open Sans Normal 400 in Chrome Windows
2. It appears condensed
3. Even on the google font site
uninstalling a local version of the ‘Open Sans Light’ font from my Windows machine fixed the issue.
So Chrome is using the Light/condensed version of the font when it shouldn’t be. When it sees “Open Sans” at weight 400, it picks Open Sans Light locally from your computer. But 400 should just be the “normal” font.
Let’s look at how Google hosts this font using WordPress.com for example.
URL for the remote font file location, or the name of a font on the user’s computer in the form local(“Font Name”). You can specify a font on the user’s local computer by name using the local() syntax. If that font isn’t found, other sources will be tried until one is found.
Aha, so it’s using the local version of Open Sans first, and somehow Chrome thinks Open Sans Light is the same as Open Sans at 400.
How can we fix this? We can stop using local()…
And host them ourselves. Here’s more detail.
1) First, get the fonts themselves from Google.
How about the “you don’t need to download” bit? 🙂 Don’t believe them.
Get the Zip file.
2) Once you have the fonts in the Zip file, you can use Font Squirrel to convert them to the appropriate web format:
You’ll notice that there are no more src: local references. We don’t want anymore collisions. So we use the src of the font on our server. Never on the local machine. We’ve also called it “Highrise Open Sans” in order to avoid any more collisions.
5) Now, when we want to use Open Sans in our CSS, we call for “Highrise Open Sans” as our font-family:
That was a pretty easy change as changes go, and worth it for those folks going through this. I suspect there’s also trouble with other fonts and odd local versions.
One trade-off is that our users will always have to download the font from our servers rather than use their local version. So there’s a performance hit. But since our users are mostly return visitors, they’ll have the font downloaded and cached on subsequent page visits.
Huge thanks to the whole Highrise team for figuring this out, and Grant Blakeman, a designer and developer who has been giving us a ton of help over here, for the solution!
Since Google Fonts, Open Sans, and Chrome are definitely popular, if you’re running into the same problem, hopefully we can save you some pain in getting this fixed!
And he was right. Airbnb’s idea wasn’t just crazy, it wasn’t good — they wanted people to rent out real airbeds, and hosts were required to make breakfast for their guests. After 8 months in business, they were stuck making $200 a week in revenue.
Most of us would have been “smart” enough to give up. But instead they kept on sucking.
At one point they flew to New York with a nice camera to help users update their listings with some high resolution photographs. That helped them book $400 a week in revenue.
Still a laughable amount of money for three guys trying to make a living, but it was enough of a bump to keep them excited.
So they kept on sucking… until they didn’t suck anymore.
Of course, most of us still aren’t going to create something anywhere near as big as Airbnb, but imagine how much we’ll learn if we just start.
The Airbnb guys remind me of a band:
When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and… then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fuckin’ good enough.’ Can you imagine?
It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.
Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana
I was watching my nieces, Madeline and Lily, when Madeline was 3, and Lily was 4. They both sat there eagerly making things. They didn’t have excuses that they didn’t have the right markers or the right paper or the right idea.
I had run out of blank printer paper, so they started making paper airplanes out of magazine inserts. Madeline was thrilled to draw with whatever utensil she could get her hands on. Lily had found a pink ribbon someone had dropped on the street. She picked up the forgotten trash and later turned it into a kite.
Of course, their airplanes didn’t work. I have no idea on earth what Madeline had drawn. And the kite didn’t have a chance of actually flying. But it didn’t matter. They didn’t care. It was a start and you can see them just get better and better at making these things as they practice and practice and practice.
Later I heard of a conversation Lily had with her mom that sums up how little these kids care of what others might deem as “perfection”, and how much they just care about putting their best something — anything — they’ve created into the world.
One of my favorite career stories is this one from Michael Beirut:
I designed little magazines when I was in the third and fourth grades, and I made logos for my friends’ bands when I was in the seventh grade. I could do hand lettering, and if someone wanted an animal in the logo, I could do that; if someone needed a poster for the school play, I could do that, too.
All along, I had no idea that what I was doing was called graphic design. I lived in the middle of nowhere at a time when no one knew anything about something like graphic design.
By accident, I happened to find a book in my high school library…it was called Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art. I opened the book up, and it was like receiving an instruction manual for my future career: it was all right there. I was about 15 at the time, and I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
This bears repeating: one of the world’s preeminent graphic designers didn’t know graphic design was a thing — let alone a job you could get paid for — until high school.
He knew what the idea of graphic design was, and he even knew how to do it. But he didn’t know what to call it.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to gaining skills in a given domain is knowing the right words. Being a beginner is intimidating because you don’t speak the same language as experts, who have often forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
If you’ve ever had to talk to a car mechanic, you know how it feels. In the immortal words of George Costanza:
Of course [car mechanics] are trying to screw you! They can make up anything, and nobody knows! “Why, you need a new Johnson Rod in here.” Ohh…a Johnson Rod…Yeah, well, better put one of those on!
Here’s another example. Millions of people use iPhones, but they don’t know the official names for all the interface widgets and the underlying stuff that makes them work. It doesn’t affect their ability to use an iPhone, because the iPhone is well-designed.
I went to Twitter, then hit the thing that said “Notifications”, and a new screen came in, then I saw some messages, and it stopped working.
By contrast, an iOS developer knows the domain words, so they can be more precise:
The customer opened the Twitter app, then selected the Notifications Tab in the Tab Bar. The Notifications Table Viewrendered for a moment but then the app crashed. The issue might be the Notifications View Controller or some malformed data in one of the notifications.
In product design, this is related to User Experience (UX). Part of a UX designer’s job is making sure a product’s internal language is either hidden away, or translated into common words that users can understand and interact with. If you don’t do this, you might end up with this kind of thing.
A customer support rep’s job is the opposite: they translate customer-speak into domain words so a specific problem can be resolved — especially in the case of a bug report that gets passed along to developers.
Here’s one last example. I’ve been an obsessive music fan for most of my life, but I’ve never formally studied it, so I don’t know the terminology. Check out this video of Jeremy Leaird-Koch building an electronic song from scratch on an OP-1. (Jump to 1:25 or so.) Be sure to watch the subtitles.
If you make it through the whole video, you’ll see a ton of expert language:
Ambient poly lead
I’ve put in 30+ years of music listening, and these phrases might as well be in a foreign tongue.
So it’s not enough to have exposure to the outer surface of a domain. If you want to level up your understanding, you have to be willing to feel ignorant for a while and study it in depth, until you find your sea legs and pick up a handful of those all-important words. There’s no magic to it. This willingness, and a lot of practice, is all that separates the experts from the beginners.
Once you’ve learned a bit of lingo, you’ll find that the words help you ask questions. The questions help you learn how things interact. When you know how things interact, you can start understanding the system as a whole. And pretty soon, you’re an expert too.
As experts who’ve put in the time, then, how can we make things more approachable for beginners? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply eliminate all jargon and special words? Then we’d have no problem, right?
Well, then we’d have a new problem: we’d have no way to talk to each other! Any sufficiently complex system needs names for its component parts— otherwise there’s no way to talk in detail about the system. So eliminating internal complexity isn’t always possible or even desirable. Still, there are a few things we can do to help.
Use plain words instead of fancy words.
For example, if you’re a programmer modeling a message sent by a client, call it ClientMessage instead of ExternalActorSubmissionContent.
Give abstractions familiar names, so they seem less foreign.
In Basecamp 3, we called group chats Campfires and direct messages Pings. They’re still abstractions that users have to learn, but at least they’re helpful names—a little descriptive and a little less intimidating.
Listen to how beginners talk about the problem, and inherit their language.
We did this recently by noticing our customers called Basecamp projects “Basecamps.” They’d say, “Oh, I made a Basecamp for that.” So we ran with it and called Basecamps Basecamps instead of Projects.
If you’re in the privileged position of being an expert at something, don’t forget what it felt like to be a beginner. Let those battle scars inform how you communicate, and choose your words with intention. If you need a reminder of how it feels to be a newbie, just pick yourself up an OP-1 and let me know how that ambient poly lead turns out!
We worked hard to make Basecamp 3 the clearest and friendliest version we’ve ever written. Check it out and see more examples over at basecamp.com.
Human history comes with a long paper trail, and there’s a company in Chicago whose mission is to preserve and restore that physical record. Graphic Conservation Company is a 95-year-old lab that specializes in repairing works on paper—anything from illuminated medieval manuscripts to personal family documents. It has undertaken some incredibly complex projects over the years, including restoring the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment. Graphic Conservation can smooth wrinkles, remove ancient adhesive residue and even create new paper from scratch to patch holes in damaged items. Listen to our episode on the business or scroll down to read the transcript.
While reporting this story, I discovered a small personal connection to Graphic Conservation Co. The business started as a specialty book-binding department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company. It’s where my dad, who immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in the 1960’s to attend college, worked as an electrical engineer for his entire career. He started at Donnelley during the period that the company sold its Graphic Conservation Department to its then-managers, who made the lab into a private business. Donnelley’s legacy lives on at Graphic Conservation Co., which still uses equipment from the 1930’s. You can see some of those machines in the photo below, taken in 1935.
The kinds of projects that Graphic Conservation takes on fall into a few general categories. There are works of art, like this 1871 Currier and Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire. The piece arrived at the lab with discoloration from acidic framing materials. The conservators cleaned up the acid stains.
Much of Graphic Conservation’s recent growth has come from individual clients bringing in personal documents like immigration papers and marriage licenses. The lab has also worked on mementos like old letters, photographs and tickets. Below is a marriage license from 1894. The document was very brittle and was rolled up in fragments. Conservators flattened all the pieces, put them together and filled in the parts where the ink was gone.
Another personal item that came into the lab was this Holocaust identification card. In this case, Graphic Conservation’s staff used Japanese tissue of a similar tone to patch the holes and stabilize the document. The goal here was repair and preservation, so the conservators did not fill in lost ink as they did for the marriage license above.
Besides art and personal documents, Graphic Conservation also works on priceless documents. The most notable recent example is the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln and others, had been folded and wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility.
Graphic Conservation’s staff re-humidified and pressed the document repeatedly over many weeks to remove the wrinkles and help the ink re-adhere to the vellum. It did this project pro bono for the state.
Graphic Conservation has more before and after examples on its website. If you have a document you’d like to get repaired, the company will write up a technical condition report and give you a quote for free. (The staff does need to inspect the item in person at their office in Chicago.)
WAILIN: In 1864, a year after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a lithographer in Chicago made 52 commemorative copies of the proclamation. These were called broadsides and each one measured 18 by 24 inches, with a portrait of Lincoln in the middle and some additional illustrated vignettes.
TANNER: Visually, I just love kind of the cadence of it, how it’s illustrated on top. Then you read the first part of the proclamation and then it’s illustrated right in the middle and there’s a beautiful picture, a portrait of Lincoln front and center, and then it’s handwritten again at the bottom.
WAILIN: That’s Tanner Woodford. He is the executive director of the Chicago Design Museum and a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Of the 52 known copies of this commemorative broadside, number 28 belonged to Tanner’s grandfather, who kept it on the wall next to his television.
TANNER: I’m not really sure, honestly, how it came into his collection and I asked him several times, and each time I got a different story (laughs), so I think at some point he was just being a grandpa, you know (laughs), just telling me stories, just trying to get me excited about history.
WAILIN: There was the story about how an ancestor rode horseback across the United States burning down towns and stole the document. There was the one about how Tanner’s grandfather found it in the wall of a house he bought. And there was the story about how the family is somehow related to Zachary Taylor or Herbert Hoover or maybe both. Whatever the real story, the broadside of the Emancipation Proclamation passed from Tanner’s grandfather to his mother to him, and by the time it reached him, it was showing its age.
TANNER: There’s a big piece of yellowed tape at the bottom where there was previously a rip and somebody else had tried to tape it and put it back on their wall. There’s a very large stain that takes up, probably, what do you think, that’s an eighth of it or so? And it looks like it was some sort of a water stain at some point in time, and then there are pretty clear rips throughout the entire thing from where it had been rolled and you know, maybe carried on horseback, I have no idea.
WAILIN: Tanner wanted to look into getting the document repaired, but he didn’t know where to go. And then one day, he was giving a friend a tour of his museum and his friend said, hey, you like art history. I know someone you should meet.
RUSS: Hello, my name is Russ Maki. I’m president of Graphic Conservation Company.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company in Chicago is 95 years old and specializes in repairing and protecting works on paper, anything from fine art to historical artifacts to personal documents. On any given day, Russ Maki’s team might be removing decades-old masking tape from a Matisse or piecing together a marriage certificate found in someone’s attic or preserving an illuminated manuscript from the fifteenth century.
RUSS: It’s also, frankly, the only business I’ve ever been in when I’ve delivered a product and everyone in the room has been in tears. There’s a phenomenal connection between paper and the human record and what that means to people, and we think about that a lot here.
WAILIN: Every piece of paper that comes into the lab tells a story — not just what’s on it, but the story of its own creation and the journey it’s been on since then. And now you’ll hear the story of Graphic Conservation Company on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. 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. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with co-workers, 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.
RUSS: There’s no predictability to this business whatsoever. I have no idea what’s going to walk through the front door and that frankly is some of the fun of it. Every day we get something new and sometimes it’s through, you know, a FedEx pack or UPS. Sometimes it’s an armed courier. Sometimes it’s just, someone just knocks on our door and says, “I’m here.”
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation keeps a narrow focus on paper and vellum, which is a material made from animal hide. The company’s clients include institutions like art galleries, auction houses and museums, which might not have in-house paper experts or, in the case of museums, need extra help getting an exhibit ready. Increasingly, the lab has been seeing business from individuals with personal or family documents.
RUSS: Somewhere, tucked into their crawlspace, they have a marriage license that’s their great grandparents’ or an immigration paper from Ellis Island as they came over, and it’s usually in pretty bad shape. It was probably rolled up at one time and then crushed between a book or whatever, and they realize that, “Hey, there’s only one of these, and we’d like to preserve that for our future generations.” And they find us through the Internet, which is the big change in this business. So the average client ranges from an individual who has never done this kind of work before, who doesn’t know what a conservation lab is all about, to a very sophisticated, educated client that has collected art at the highest levels for their entire lifetime.
WAILIN: The work that comes into the lab can have significant financial value, like if they’re collectibles or pieces of fine art. Or they could be items whose value is measured in sentimental or emotional terms. The company once repaired a letter that a client’s father had written to Santa Claus in 1930, during the Great Depression, admitting that he hadn’t been very good that year but asking if Santa could bring him an apple for Christmas.
RUSS: We made facsimile copies of the original for each of the siblings to have in their house, and to remind them that you know, if you ever thought that you had a bad day, you really have not had a bad day.
WAILIN: Then there are those rare jobs that involve priceless works. In 2011, the lab restored the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, which was one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln, needed months of painstaking work, which Graphic Conservation did for free in this case. Russ remembers the day it arrived.
RUSS: When the team, along with the security personnel, left the lab, we all stood around it, the entire team. Not a word was spoken for minutes. You’re looking at a watershed moment in American history and I think the exact word count of the Article 1 of that is 35 words: that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime shall exist within these United States, or something to that effect. In 35 words, slavery was abolished. Today, that would be a 2,000-page document, right? So you’re looking at the utter simplicity of the prose. You’re looking at the magnificent calligraphy on this vellum document and you can just transport yourself back to February 1st, 1865, when it was signed and what Congress must have looked like that day as that was taking place. People risked their lives by signing that document and they knew they were risking their lives, and sure enough, President Lincoln was dead 75 days after he signed that document.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company has a staff of eight people working in an 8,000-square foot lab with an expansive view of a railroad yard, the south branch of the Chicago River and the skyline, all serving as visual reminders of the city’s industrial past and present. The company itself comes out of this legacy. Graphic Conservation started in 1921 as a specialty department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company founded in 1864. The department was originally called the Hand Bindery or the Extra Bindery because it focused on restoring fine books and making hand-tooled leather bindings. The group later moved from books to paper and was renamed the Graphic Conservation Department. In 1982, as the economy was in a recession, RR Donnelley sold the department to the managers who were running it, and Graphic Conservation became a private company.
RUSS: So we were part of Donnelley for the better part of 60 years and have been separate and apart from them for the last 34 now, and today our work — we do some work in book, but we’re one of the largest private paper conservation labs in the country.
WAILIN: Graphic Conservation still uses some cast iron book presses and other equipment, including a pencil sharpener, that date back to the 30s. A lot of the paper conservation process itself has also remained unchanged. And even though no two projects are quite alike, the lab sees a lot of the same problems over and over. They deal with rips, creases, water damage, tape residue or the telltale brown stains of acid burn. Maybe the document got so brittle that it flaked off into little fragments that have to be pieced back together like the world’s most tedious jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces that come in are newspaper pages or print advertisements or tickets, things that were never meant to last very long. Other times, something was put in a bad frame and got damaged. Russ, who became owner of Graphic Conservation in 2009 after working at a specialty paper company, doesn’t blink at much anymore.
RUSS: We had a client call us from a high-rise building. They, for some reason, on a windy day, decided to open all their windows and I think they got their art framing supplies from a big-box retailer, and they had one single hook in the wall for each of their four Warhols. Well, the Warhols flew off the walls, and unfortunately they were framed in glass. So glass shattered each one of these, or punctured each one, and we had to repair them. So yeah, we’ve seen it all. (Laughs)
WAILIN: And the lab’s conservators have fixed it all. They’re able to erase acid burns and water stains, to smooth out creases and scrape off ancient residue from adhesives, sometimes spending hours on a single square inch of paper with a microscope and a scalpel. The staff fills in holes by taking antique paper that matches the piece being repaired, reducing that paper to pulp and reconstituting it. If there’s missing artwork, the conservators can even paint in the lost image or text in a completely seamless way. The company has created new paper to fix posters, photographs and even a letter from the Boston Red Sox to Babe Ruth in 1918, agreeing to pay him a thousand dollar bonus for the season and another thousand if the team won the American League pennant that year. Russ has the before and after images of the letter framed in his office.
RUSS: He cashed both checks (laughs). So it was a good year for the Babe. (laughs)
WAILIN: I see a couple little holes, and some tape on the top left corner by the letterhead.
RUSS: Exactly. So we repaired all those areas of loss and as you can see on the right, the image post-restoration was brought back to life.
WAILIN: What are those blobs under the “Yours truly?”
RUSS: Insect damage. So insects had literally eaten away part of the paper. And you’ll see that with old documents that aren’t properly stored, frequently. It’s sad, but there are some bugs out there that really enjoy eating paper. Silverfish, especially.
WAILIN: Every job that comes into Graphic Conservation requires a series of judgment calls on what kind of treatment to use, and how far to go in preserving or repairing something. In the case of a Holocaust identification card, which arrived in extremely fragile condition, the team filled in missing pieces with Japanese tissue of a roughly similar tone, but didn’t recreate any printing because the purpose was to stabilize the document for posterity, not alter it. With the state of Illinois’ copy of the 13th amendment, which had wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility, Russ and his team discussed what to do for months before starting the treatment, which involved re-humidifying the vellum, pressing it, and slowly repeating that process over many weeks.
RUSS: Ours is a business where you get one shot at it to do it right. Again, everything we do here is the original art or the original document and there are no do-overs.
Russ’ staff members have backgrounds in studio art, chemistry and conservation. The company trains from within, hiring interns and developing them into part or full-time employees. Christina Marusich, the head conservator, started as an intern when she was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been working here for over 30 years. It’s amazing to think that interns are allowed to handle the documents that come into the lab. As a visitor, I was terrified of accidentally sneezing on something, like the Albrecht Durer print from the sixteenth century lying on a worktable that Russ pointed out on a tour of the lab. But interns need literal hands-on experience to learn how to do the work. Here’s Christina.
CHRISTIA: We work a lot as a team, so we’re working alongside each other and can — just learning how things should be touched and moved around and examined, so a very conscientious group here, very gentle and quiet, you know, no fast moves (laughs).
WAILIN: At Graphic Conservation, minor treatments cost in the mid to high hundreds of dollars, with more complicated jobs going well above a thousand dollars. But the company doesn’t charge for assessments. When prospective customers bring in something to be examined, the lab provides a complimentary condition report and outlines a proposed treatment. It also gives a quote, with a guarantee that the final price won’t go over that amount. But there’s no requirement to commit to anything. When Tanner Woodford brought in his copy of the Emancipation Proclamation broadside, it turned out that Graphic Conservation had worked on a different copy of that same broadside, and Russ was more excited to see Tanner’s version than anything else.
TANNER: It wasn’t even so much him trying to sell me on the process. It was more of him just being blown away by seeing another one, you know, just geeking out. That’s the thing I love about them, is they care so much about the artifacts that come in and they’re so knowledgable about them and it’s almost like when they fix them, to me, I get this feeling of really giving this thing back to the world. Russ was like, I just want to see it, if you could just bring it by sometime and I can give you a quote if you’d like, but I really just, I want to see another one.
WAILIN: Tanner did get a technical condition report and a quote from Graphic Conservation. He wasn’t ready to get the work done yet, but on Russ’ recommendation, he replaced his grandfather’s old frame with a better one. Tanner is saving for the restoration work. In the meantime, he hangs the document in his apartment near his television, just like his grandfather did.
TANNER: I could take the Emancipation Proclamation and put it in a flat file and keep it safe for much longer than if it’s hanging on a wall, but what’s the point of having the Emancipation Proclamation if you can’t enjoy it? If anybody ever wants to come see it, just shoot me an email (laughs). I might regret saying that, but (laughs).
WAILIN: When the time is right for Tanner to get his copy of the proclamation repaired, he’ll know where to go. And Russ and his staff are patient. They plan to be around for a long time, focusing on what they do best, and not chasing after bigger volumes or faster growth.
RUSS: To be candid, I don’t want this business to grow beyond a certain point. It’s kind of selfish on my part, but I really, I want to know all of our clients. I want to know every job that’s in this lab. I want to maintain our reputation as being absolutely sterling in this business, and if it gets to the point where we have more work than we can handle, the possibility exists that we can disappoint, and we’ll never do that. The element of trust is gigantic in our business because if you’re going to find us to have us do some work for you, more than likely, you’re sending us one of the most important things you own — important either in terms of financial value or in terms of sentimental or emotional value, and we pay a great deal of respect in that process. It’s important. So we’re not gonna overburden ourselves and we’re certainly not going to over promise.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Tanner Woodford for telling me about Graphic Conservation Company. If you want to see before and after images of some of their projects, I’ve included them with the transcript of this episode. Look for a link to the transcript 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.
A couple of months ago, I made a big decision. I joined Basecamp as its first-ever COO. Once I came aboard, I was immediately reminded what’s tough about joining a new company.
There’s a lot about the company you don’t know.
And one of the hardest things is where to start.
Especially when you’re in a new role for a company like Basecamp.
I had a head start. Jason and David were clear and unwavering about the charter from the outset: We want to operate the company with as much love and attention and care as we already put into building our products. We want Basecamp the company to be outstanding at every level.
That still leaves a lot of wiggle room. Where do you start with a company that is already so great to begin with? A company that trusts its employees to choose and figure out what to work on. How I can I do that when I’m new?
But that’s the magic. I’m only going to be new once. Being new wasn’t the predicament, it was the breakthrough.
I came in with fresh eyes and an open mind. It was like wearing 3-D glasses. Everything was intensified. I had no pre-conceived notions and plenty of room for new thoughts. I had the gift of fresh perspective.
So what did I do with this gift?
I spent the first week going through our company basecamps. Luckily it was all waiting for me: The marketing basecamp, the team OMG (our support team) basecamp, the data basecamp and many others. They were all there with their to-do’s, message boards, documents and threaded discussions. It didn’t matter how long ago my colleagues commented in these basecamps. It was all there for me to see, review and learn from.
I asked for and received written responses from almost everyone in the company to a message I posted seeking advice for newbies. My colleagues were helpful, generous, funny and a little irreverent in their responses — just like our culture. Advice ranged from …and never, ever, drink the Malört to drink the Malört, it’s totally fine. It’s only gross when you can smell it, are drinking it and for a few short hours afterwards.
I was in several hang outs with my colleagues. Each hang out was different. I listened to their questions and asked where they thought I should start.
I went to our meet up. I got to meet almost everyone in the company face-to-face. It was great. I tried to speak everyone personally and asked them what they thought I should focus on first.
After that I asked questions. A lot of questions. Some were in one-on-one pings and others were in response to threaded discussions about specific topics.
I read books that were recommended to me.
I helped answer support tickets for our customers.
I listened in campfires and piped up when I had a question.
Then something magical happened. Big rocks (from Rockefeller Habits) started coming into my field of view. All the interlocking pieces came together in my mind’s eye. I chose (with a little help from Jason and David) and figured out which big rocks to focus on for Basecamp.