Pulp Fixing

Piecing together a page of newsprint. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

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.

Graphic Conservation Co. started as Donnelley’s Extra Bindery Department, pictured here in 1935. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

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.

Before (left) and after restoration. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

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.

Before (right—just kidding! Of course it’s the lefthand image) and after. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

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.

Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.

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.

Vellum documents are made from animal hides. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

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.

Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.

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.

I’m New Here…

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.

I’m new here and that’s a good thing! 😀

Highrise 2015 — Getting Stuff Done

At the end of 2014, Highrise was spun-off from Basecamp so it could get some well deserved love, and boy did we give it some love last year.

I don’t how you guys accomplished so much. I really don’t. –dhh

One of the ways we’ve been able to accomplish a lot with such a small team (5 full-time, 1 part time) is by implementing a train schedule:

On day one, I established a train schedule — we’d make major announcements on a regular basis. If something isn’t ready, it misses the train. But an announcement is going out; something better be on it.

Another thing we try to make sure to do is to celebrate our successes. And the amount of improvement we’ve brought to Highrise over the last year is very much worthy of celebration. Here are just a few of our favorite things from 2015.

Top 3 we’re most proud of

These three level up the power you have in Highrise. We kept hearing from customers how important it was to make sure contacts were followed up with if they wrote in, how often people had to export contacts and spend more money to send emails from another tool, and that Deals could be so much more useful if they just had a bit more flexibility. Our solutions were Good Morning, Broadcast, and Deal custom fields.

Good Morning — your group inbox // 19-Oct

Broadcast — bulk email // 1-Dec

Deal custom fields // 16-Dec

But we’ve talked with so many customers and have heard many more important needs and insights. From those chats, we realized customers have too many steps getting data in and out of Highrise, so we’ve been nibbling away at them, making things more automatic and native to the tool itself. We’ve added things like the ability to connect directly to your Gmail account, and auto-forward all your mail from Gmail right into Highrise.

We also wanted to really extend our support for email. So we added the ability to help you collaborate and share important emails you find yourself sending over and over with:

And we rounded it all out with features you’d expect in a full class email client like:

We found we were often getting the same questions over and over, so we started making changes to the Highrise Help site, but found we really needed a complete redo. We released the new help site in July.

And once we did, we saw an immediate decrease in the number of tickets coming in. We love talking to our customers, but it’s even better when we can remove the step of having to reach out to us :).

Speaking of tickets, the number one thing that caused the most tickets is imports. There are so many ways an import can go wrong when trying to get data from one system into another. So we also completely redid how Imports work in Highrise. The biggest change was simply avoiding frustration with better indicators when we find something wrong.

And the number one feature request was an iOS app. We delivered a 5 star app early in 2015:

I have been using Highrise for many years and this new app is just the thing I’ve been waiting for!

Really, the above is just a few things we’ve done. We polished, tweaked, and improved so much more based on all the great feedback we’ve been getting. You can see the full (and much longer!) list on our blog.

And 2016 is going to see more of the same. Improvements to all the things we’ve already added, but we hear everyone loud and clear on what they need. Better reporting, an Android app, more powerful filters and custom fields. It’s all coming. 🙂

And if you haven’t checked Highrise out in awhile (or ever) now may be a good time! We’re just getting started.

Why I work remotely (hint: it has nothing to do with productivity).

Illustration by Nate Otto

These are some of the things I can do because I’m fortunate to work for a company that lets me work from anywhere:

  • Hug my kids and feed them breakfast before they leave for school in the morning.
  • Greet and make a snack for them when they get home; hear all about their day.
  • Work from my favorite coffee shop.
  • Spend a week with the whole Basecamp team in our Chicago office.
  • Spend a week with my team in sunny Austin, TX (while it’s -2ºF in Chicago).
  • Run an errand for a friend.
  • Walk my dogs.
  • Work with a friend.
  • Care for a sick child without taking a sick day myself.

After you’ve read all the books and articles about keeping on-task when working from home, setting up the perfect home office, avoiding loneliness, staying connected, sidestepping distractions, and avoiding interruptions I’d suggest one thing: embrace interruptions.

Keep reading “Why I work remotely (hint: it has nothing to do with productivity).”

Putting on the shipping goggles


One of the biggest challenges of shipping a product is knowing when to put on the shipping goggles.

The shipping goggles make you less sensitive to little nits and scrapes and things that might be able to be a little bit better, but really don’t need to be right now. Stuff that we could tweak, but really shouldn’t be grabbing our attention given all the other high value bits we need to hit.

It’s sort of like squinting — you lose the detail, but you can still see the overall big picture shape, form, and function. Your peripheral vision shrinks, but the center is still bright. Knowing when to squint is a good thing to know.

It’s not that the details don’t matter. They do, but details aren’t fixed — they’re relative. And of course any time you talk about details mattering, you’re speaking in very broad generalizations. Some matter, some don’t. Some never matter, some matter later, but not now. And some really matter now and can’t wait for later. Like everything, there are varying degrees.

Part of training yourself to ship is to recognize what details are really worth nitpicking and when. There are no hard and fast rules here — it just takes judgement and experience. These are skills that build over time. Once you’ve been around it for a while you tend to improve your sensitivity to what’s worth doing before you ship and what can wait until later.

And BTW, nitpicking may be construed as a pejorative, but I don’t believe it is. Nitpicking is a valuable skill, as long you deploy it at the right time for the right reasons. One of the penalties of nitpicking at the wrong time is that nitpicking often attracts a crowd. Someone nitpicks this which is an invitation for someone else to nitpick that. And before you know it, half a dozen people are spending time discussing tiny details that really don’t demand that level of attention.

Again, there are no facts around when it’s worth nitpicking and what’s worth nitpicking — I’m only speaking to the awareness how situations unfold.

We can all get better at this. I’ve been shipping stuff for years, but I still have to get better at recognizing the right moments to bring up certain things. I definitely fall into the trap of spending time making changes to things in the 11th hour that are really perfectly fine and can be addressed later if necessary. I absolutely find myself regretting going down a rabbit hole that really didn’t need to be investigated. I still find myself distracting others with change requests or suggestions that really didn’t need to cloud their vision and sap their attention. It’s hard!!

We just shipped and entirely new version of Basecamp! If you’ve got work to do, and it involves other people too, then Basecamp’s for you. It’s an entirely unique way of working.

A few words of advice to brain pickers

A few times a week I get an email from someone asking if they can pick my brain for 15 minutes. I appreciate their interest in what I might have to share, but when it’s pitched as a brain pick they’re making it hard to say yes.

I’m all for giving back, and I try to do it as often as I can, but I wanted to extend three quick points of advice to people who ask to pick people’s brains.

1. Picking someone’s brain sounds like an entirely one-sided appeal. Give me what’s in your head. That’s a hard sell — especially when you are pitching someone who’s busy and occupied with trying to focus on their own business. Whenever you ask someone for something, always ask yourself what’s in it for them? What can you do to fill their brain rather than pick their brain? So, rather than pitching it as all-take, try pitching someone some give, too. “I’d love to ask you a few questions about X, Y, Z, and at the same time share some perspective I have on A, B, an C.” Everyone has perspective, everyone has experiences that are unique to them. The more you can suggest that it’s a give and take, and that the person you want to talk to could learn something from you too, the better the chance of lining up the opportunity.

2. There’s no such thing as a 15 minute call, or coffee, or meeting with someone you don’t really know. It takes 5 minutes just to say hello and warm up. It takes another 5 minutes just to begin to get into a conversation. And then you’re left with 5 minutes — which is never really enough time to have a substantive conversation (which is the kind of conversation you really want to have). So just be honest and set the expectation clearly, because surely the other person doesn’t believe you’ll only be taking 15 minutes of their time. Suggesting it’ll only take 15 minutes either says to me you’re being disingenuous, or you aren’t sure what you really want to talk about. “I was wondering if you might have a full hour for an in-depth conversation about this product problem I’m struggling with… It’s…” makes me take you more seriously. I still may not have an hour, but I know you understand what you’re asking for.

3. Offer to come to them. When you are pitching someone, and asking for their time, you want to make it as easy as possible for them. And one of the best ways is to offer to come to them. Don’t pick a lunch spot or a coffee shop. Don’t even suggest a time (“lunch” is a time, “coffee” is a time). First suggest that you are willing to come to them or meet them wherever and whenever they prefer. That shows you’re courteous, concerned with their time (when they don’t have to go anywhere they save travel time), and it shows you are willing to make more of an effort to make the meeting happen. “If it would be easier, I’d be happy to come to you or meet you wherever is most convenient for you”.

If you follow these three simple rules, I think you’ll increase your odds of landing a meeting with someone. The odds may still be slim, but at least you’re setting yourself up to show that you 1. know what’s in it for someone else (you’re asking but you also have something to offer in return), 2. respect the true time involved to have a substantive conversation (and that that’s what you want to have), and 3, that their location and time is easier for them (and if it’s not, they’ll tell you).

Hope this helps!

The Fidelity Curve: How to weigh the costs and benefits of creating UI mockups

Here at Basecamp we do a lot of paper sketching. Usually we jump straight to code after making a rough sketch. But it’s not a black and white rule. Sometimes we make tappable prototypes to test an interaction, or a pixel perfect Photoshop image to communicate a concept. How do we choose which level of fidelity is appropriate for each project?

I think about it like this: The purpose of making sketches and mockups before coding is to gain confidence in what we plan to do. I’m trying to remove risk from the decision to build something by somehow “previewing” it in a cheaper form. There’s a trade-off here. The higher the fidelity of the mockup, the more confidence it gives me. But the longer it takes to create that mockup, the more time I’ve wasted on an intermediate step before building the real thing.

I like to look at that trade-off economically. Each method reduces risk by letting me preview the outcome at lower fidelity, at the cost of time spent on it. The cost/benefit of each type of mockup is going to vary depending on the fidelity of the simulation and the work involved in building the real thing.

Suppose we have four levels of fidelity…

  • Rough sketch (on paper or an iPad)
  • Static mock-up (eg. Photoshop or Sketch)
  • Interactive mock-up (eg. Framer, InVision)
  • Working code prototype (HTML/CSS, iOS views)

(I didn’t include wireframes in the list because we don’t make them at Basecamp. For us a rough paper sketch is the same as a wireframe, without the extra time wasted on sharp lines and shiny presentation.)

Depending on the feature you’re working on, these levels of fidelity take different amounts of time to create. If you plot them in terms of time to build versus confidence gained, you could imagine something like a per-feature fidelity curve.

Eg. take a simple CRUD web UI, where you’re just navigating between screens.

A fidelity curve for a simple feature. Building real code doesn’t take much more time than faking it.

It doesn’t take much more time to build the real version than it does to mock it when the design is simple. If you were to build out an interactive mock first, you would end up spending twice as much time in total without gaining much out of it.

Going straight to real code is more worthwhile for a simple web UI.

Contrast that with a complicated Javascript interaction. Or a native iOS feature that requires programmer time to build out.

The curve is different for a complex web or native app UI.

If it takes substantially more time to build the real code version, then it may be smart to do an interactive mockup first.

Here’s one thing to be very careful about. If you put too much fidelity into anything that’s not code, you can end up spending lots of time on deliverables that are thrown away in the end anyway. This often happens when people fiddle with colors, positioning, fonts, etc too early.

Spending time on unnecessary details stretches the curve.

These illustrations show that mockups aren’t good or bad, and there isn’t a black and white answer for when to make each kind. But there is a trade off to be made. Being conscious of that trade-off can help you make more rational, economic decisions when people have differing opinions about what to do next in a design process.

We still mainly draw rough sketches on paper or on our iPads when we’re working on UI for Basecamp 3. Now that we offer full-featured iOS and Android apps, I’ve learned that prototyping tools can be useful before building the heavyweight UI code those platforms require. See Basecamp 3: Mobile Prototypes for more.

Why are some people so much luckier than others?

James Scott Bumgarner, more famous as James Garner, film and TV star, passed away recently at the age of 86. Many people shared how great a guy he was and stories about his life.

A few things caught my attention. Not the least of which was how lucky he seemed. How does a guy without any acting experience and who hates talking in front of people land a well connected Hollywood agent to jumpstart his career? Luck?

In 1935, Hollywood created their talent scout system. Just like athletic scouts, folks would monitor Broadway plays and radio for talent. But occasionally they’d “discover” someone in public who didn’t have any acting experience — they just looked like a movie star.

Lana Turner, one of the most glamorous and popular female stars of Hollywood during the 40s and 50s (pictured here at the right with James at the 1966 Academy Awards), is a great example.

She was 16, ditching a high-school typing class and drinking a Coke at a soda shop in Hollywood, when someone spotted how attractive she was. He recommended her to his Hollywood agent friend and soon she was in a movie. Gorgeous girl — right place at the right time — lucky.

James had a right place at the right time story, too.

Before acting, James Garner had dozens of different jobs. He’d work them a few months, save money, quit, coast for awhile, and then find the next thing.

At 17, one of James’ jobs was pumping gas at a Shell station in Hollywood. That’s where James met Paul Gregory who worked at the drugstore across the street manning the soda fountain.

But Paul Gregory had a dream of being a Hollywood agent and talked about representing James.

James after all was good looking — enough people told him so. But James had no intention of being an actor. He just laughed it off.

Years later, James was coming back from a tour of duty in the Korean War and he spotted Paul’s name in Newsweek. Paul was now a stage producer with three big hits.

And about a year after that, while visiting LA and driving back from a failed attempt at getting a job drilling oil wells in Saudi Arabia, James spotted a sign: “Paul Gregory and Associates”. He wasn’t planning on stopping, but all of a sudden he noticed a parking space open up in front of the office.

James parked the car, went inside to visit his old friend, and Paul immediately decided to become James’ agent, send him to acting school, and help get him a job. The rest is a brilliant career in television and film.

It reads like another guy-gets-lucky-in-Hollywood story. But is it?

success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions

Richard Wiseman was a professional magician before he became a famous psychologist. Given his interest in magic, he has a healthy dose of scepticism for things like superstitions and good luck charms. So Wiseman has spent a good deal of his career studying luck.

In one experiment, Wiseman asked people to self identify themselves as lucky or unlucky. Then he gave his test subjects a newspaper. “Count the number of photographs inside”, he told them.

There were 43 photographs.

On average, the unlucky people took 2 minutes to count them all. The lucky people? Seconds.

The lucky people noticed the giant message that took up half the second page of the newspaper. It said, “Stop counting — There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

The unlucky people missed it. They also missed the equally giant message half way through the newspaper, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.”

The “lucky” people weren’t lucky. They were just more observant.

And James was observant.

James fought in the Korean War and had more than a few close calls with death. James explains in his autobiography, The Garner Files, an event that could have turned out disastrous:

Like our South Korean allies, the Chinese and North Korean troops lived on a diet of fish heads, rice, and garlic. One night while on guard on the line, I caught a faint whiff of it coming from the direction of the enemy positions. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew there was someone out there and they were coming closer. Once I sniffed them I could hear them, too. It turned out to be a patrol heading straight for our position. They were just the other side of a rise when I passed the word down the line. We were ready for them and stopped them in their tracks.

His observation of enemy troops nearby likely saved a bunch of his fellow soldiers lives including his own. But it wasn’t James being lucky. It was James being observant.

Wiseman notes from his research that unlucky people also identify themselves as being tense and anxious, so he performed another experiment to confirm how anxiety affects people.

He had one group of people watch a moving dot on a computer monitor while other large dots flashed on the screen. They noticed the large dots. He did the experiment with a second group of people, but this time he offered a financial reward to make them more anxious. This group missed a third of the large dots that appeared.

Anxiety focuses us, but it also becomes an obstacle to observing opportunities in our lives.

One thing you notice from people talking about James’ life is how relaxed the guy was.

Appreciating the relaxed genius of the late James Garner.


RIP James Garner. One of my favourite cool actors. Always looked so relaxed on screen. A proper film star.

Russell Kane (@RussellKane)

James had a reason to be relaxed.

He and his brothers grew up in a home of mental, physical and sexual abuse. His father would force the kids to sing, and if they didn’t he’d whip them. His stepmother raped his teenage brother and beat the boys constantly.

If that wasn’t terrible enough, James grew up during The Depression in Oklahoma, meaning he, his family, friends and neighbors battled things like the Dust Bowl.

You want to put pressure on somebody, live through the Depression. In Oklahoma. In the dust. After that, studio executives don’t bother you at all.

James didn’t worry about much because nothing could be as bad as the life he had already lived.

Wiseman also found lucky people go out of their way to try new things and meet new people.

Remember all those jobs James had?

And James knew everyone: crew, cast, people in the towns he’d film in. Gretchen Corbet, one of the co-stars in James’ series, The Rockford Files, remembers, “Everybody loved him — but he took care of not only the actors and me but the whole crew. He knew everybody’s name, he knew everybody’s kids’ names.”

This wasn’t just after he was famous. He was doing it constantly.

I used to go around with the three of them — [Henry] Fonda, [Johnny] Hodiak, and [Lloyd] Nolan — as a sort of bodyguard-gofer-mascot.

At the table reading on the first day of rehearsals, Lloyd never had to look at his script. Everybody else was reading their lines, but Lloyd was letter-perfect…Fonda was amazed, because Queeg was a difficult part. “How the hell did you do that?” he wanted to know. “I hired Bumgarner,” Lloyd told him. So Fonda asked me if I would cue him, too, and I gladly agreed.

James considered himself an introvert. But that didn’t mean he didn’t take every chance to befriend someone else. He was happy to clean movie stars’ dressing rooms, or help them remember lines, just to get closer to new people.

One last point from Wiseman’s research — lucky people think the things that happen to them are lucky, even if they’re the same things that happen to the unlucky people.

In another experiment, Wiseman asked his lucky and unlucky test subjects how they would describe a hypothetical situation where the subject was in a bank, and a bank robber comes in firing his gun, shooting the subject in the arm. Unlucky people lamented about their terrible luck at being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lucky people were thankful — the situation could have gone so much worse. One of Wisemen’s lucky subjects noted, “It’s lucky because you could have been shot in the head.”

Again, given James upbringing, you get the sense that he too felt like anything after that traumatic childhood was just a blessing.

In a story James has about having to share a motel room with two other guys:

There were only two beds so I slept on the floor. The two Marines stayed up all night moaning about how unhappy they were — it was their first Christmas away from home and we were all just teenagers — but I was quiet on the subject. They were depressed and homesick, but there I was, lying on the floor, happy as can be.

It’s easy to look at successful people and chalk up their achievements to good luck. And sure enough, some people really do just win the lottery, or get born so beautiful that someone notices them on the street and puts them in a movie.

But if you go back through James’ story:

Paul Gregory was just one of many, many friends James kept making. He noticed his friend’s name in Newsweek, that sign in Hollywood, that parking space that opened up not because he’s lucky, but because he’s so keenly observant. And of course he’s observant; he’s one of the most relaxed people you could have met. He’s just happy to have gotten through that horrific childhood.

Is James Garner luckier than you or me? Maybe. But that’s because James Garner created his own luck.

When I started acting, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was just stumbling around, hoping to get lucky.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Reducing Incident Escalations at Basecamp

Incidents escalated to PagerDuty are generally “all hands on deck”.

tldr; The bottom line is that we had fewer actual site down interruptions and false alarm escalations in 2015.

Here’s a non exhaustive list of contributing factors to these improvements over the years:

  • Eliminating scheduled maintenance that would take a site offline
  • Limiting API abuse (and a general decrease in the number of abuse incidents)
  • Automated blocking of other common abuse traffic
  • Fairly generous ongoing hardware refresh with better distribution across cabinets
  • Completely new core and top of rack network switches
  • Hiring the right people (and the right number of people)
  • Moving to more stable storage (EMC / Isilon to Cleversafe)
  • Taking control of our public Internet connectivity and routing (Our own IP space, our own routers, carefully selected providers, filtering traffic)
  • Right sizing database hardware for every major application
  • Better development / deployment practices and consistency in following those practices (local tests / ci, staging, rollout, production)
  • Practicing incident response and keeping play books up to date
  • Vastly improved metrics and dashboards
  • Better application architecture and design choices with regard to availability and failure modes
  • Being ruthless in our tuning of internal monitoring and alerting (Nagios) to only escalate alerts that really need to be escalated
  • (Full disclosure we actually had more incidents escalated from our internal monitoring this year. The “quality” of those escalations is higher though.)

“How do I get out of my writing rut?”

Weird truck

Often I get asked a variation of:

I’ve been writing for a couple years, but I have no more inspiration, and little readership. How do you write? Where do you get inspiration? How do you get out of the rut and get people to start reading?

We all get this way. But here’s a few things that have helped me keep pushing through that, and eventually ended up with some stuff that’s done well on places like my blog Ninjas and Robots, or Signal v. Noise, and have even found their way into The Huffington Post and Fast Company.

1) Create a schedule, and go with what you got.

Years ago I felt I was doing a somewhat decent job writing, but I just wasn’t getting any traction. Dustin Curtis had just launched a new blogging platform called Svbtle that was getting a lot of attention and was only publishing authors he had invited. I didn’t have an invite. But I knew his attention could rub off on me. So I took a shot, emailed him and showed him some samples of my work.

As I hit send, I felt very pessimistic about my chances. The other folks writing on Svbtle were much better and had better followings than me.

No way I’m getting an invite.

I got an invite.

Huh, I should stop assuming things won’t work.

But writing on his blog network came with a caveat, publish one thing a week. I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t, but I assumed he’d kick me out, and I really didn’t want that. I needed this opportunity. So I kept publishing once a week. If I was up against the end of the week and hadn’t had inspiration, I would just find something to even take a picture of. Like that truck I saw as I walked down the street.

Or I saw an interesting article in Esquire about Bill Murray. Again, under the gun to get something published that week, I wrote up a few sentences on why I thought it was interesting.

Not my most brilliant post — turns out to be one of my most trafficked posts.

Don’t worry so much about meeting the schedule with the same quality and quantity. Running up against your schedule deadline, find a picture of something interesting and write a hundred words about why it’s interesting. That’s it. Write a yelp review even. Get some personality in that review and put it on your blog. Just do something, anything, to keep the momentum going. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself.

The momentum will actually push something through that your weird brain pessimistically thought was terrible and turns out awesome. As journalists like to say, “Go with what you got.”

2) Stop writing the same thing.

If you write about yourself, start writing about other people. Or vice versa. I personally like to share a lot of anecdotes about my life, but I find I get into a rut. I don’t want to talk about me all the time. Especially if I’m going through some really tough struggles. But there are so many interesting people to write about. Here’s: a great example on my blog. I took myself completely out of it. Just wrote about someone in the news (James Garner) who had recently passed away and how cool his life was. A lot easier to write about him, when I feel stuck writing about myself.

3) Take a class!

I don’t know why we as writers stop taking classes. They are great places to learn new things and get yourself on a schedule. There’s probably a ton of places to find a fun writing class. I took one at Gotham.

It was in that class actually that I wrote that article above about James Garner that went gangbusters. It was another thing pushing me to write something different. If you’re stuck on your blog, I’m sure a homework assignment can shake some new stuff loose.

4) Bands don’t keep playing the same song in the same place. Write somewhere else.

Find a new place to share your stuff. Stop the blog for a bit. Get your stuff in a magazine, the Huffington Post, wherever. Go pitch some editors for some guest posts and articles.

5) Bands also don’t keep playing completely original songs at each venue either.

They repeat their hits or their latest album. They might improvise and riff on old songs, but they reuse a lot. That’s beauty of #4’s advice about finding new outlets to write — you can recycle some of the ideas you are most proud of. James Altucher is great at this. It’s like the guy is a writer Everywhere. And you see some of the same stories. But that’s fine. Very few people are like me and reading his stuff on all these different places. He’s out there making new audience members constantly from these new channels.

6) Practice your idea muscle.

It’s been super interesting hanging out with Jason Fried these days since I took over Highrise. The guy always has an idea for something. A new book, a new blog post, a new product. Only executes on a tiny fraction of those things he thinks are worth it, but man does he have a wealth of things to pick from.

Need a little push to do the exercise? Come up with lists. Everyday, push yourself to come up with lists of things to write about. Most will suck. But don’t let your brain atrophy. Keep coming up with stuff.

7) Get out and do some new things.

Go to a new museum, or weird place. Pick up a new or strange hobby for a bit. Go buy some strange magazines you’d never ever buy. Learn what other people are reading and caring about. Lots of interesting things to draw from those experiences.

8) Copy someone else’s template.

I’ve literally taken writing I’ve liked and dumped it into my writing software and just written on top of it, working to match the flow and structure, deleting their stuff as I go.

Go find a writer that you like, and write something using their piece as a template. Maybe you try and copy their tone. Or structure. How they use analogies, or anecdotes. Or even copy the argument. Try to make their same argument with a different analogy or method. It can be freeing to use the constraint of someone else’s writing.

9) Stop writing. Talk.

Pretend you’re giving a talk instead. Or some kind of presentation. Get out of the chair and walk around with your phone recording your voice. Moving and talking have a way of loosening up whatever it is.

10) Put together chocolate and peanut butter.

Take two unrelated things, stories, or people and show everyone what makes them so interesting together. Why was writing Frankenstein like stealing cars? What does Elon Musk have in common with a boy who wants a pet moose?

Take things that people haven’t put together before and put them together to show what an interesting combination they make. Fries and milkshakes? Yes, try that.

11) Buy books like they’re free.

When you’re broke, like I’ve been many many times, you need to find some creative ways to get by and you get to complain all you want about the prices of books (Like wtf college? Why do you keep releasing new versions of the same text book when all that changes is mostly page numbers and not the physics of the universe. There goes another $80 down the drain for the “new edition”).

But I don’t get most other people’s hangup with how much books cost. If you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, and buying a $20 book isn’t going to change the food you buy your family, give yourself a huge budget to buy books.

If there’s something I’m really interested in, I’ve turned off the nag in my head, “oh man, this should be 15% less. I’ll wait.” Or “I’ll wait for the library”. I need more ideas, quicker; instead of waiting for the rare library visit.

The other weird thing people feel about books is that they’ve “invested in it”. This leads them to feel, when they realize they hate the book they “invested in”, they can put it down for fear they’ll waste their investment. But they never finish the terrible book. So they rarely get to another.

Throw more books away. It’s a sunk cost. Forget about the past “investment”. Move on to something interesting.

I buy books like they are free. I saw a physics textbook that looked interesting. Maybe there’s something in there to help me think about problem solving. Oh it’s $99. I don’t care. I didn’t even finish it. I got something interesting out of it after a couple chapters, might make its way into an article, and the book is there if I want to learn more physics.

Again, if you live on a tight budget, you have to be a lot more careful. But if you want to introduce yourself to new thinking and options as a writer, and your budget has money for clothes, drinking, eating out, vacations, cable, televisions, etc., I’d rethink the lack of allocation you have to books, magazines, and anything that can potentially get new ideas across your brain faster.

12) Stop hitting the delete key.

I want to create something out of nothing but nothing isn’t a great place to draw from. -Mitch Hedberg

Just write. Free write. Take your writing software or notebook and just go nuts. DO NOT DELETE or edit yourself. You need a body of thoughts before you can edit. You need that place to draw from.

Don’t underestimate paper either. It’s a great place to just flow. Typing can be too slow to get all the thoughts out there.

I hope that’s helped some. If there’s something else on your mind and you feel like you could use some more help, please don’t hesitate to ask. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter, or see where all this writing stuff led to what I’m now doing with Highrise.