I can’t code. I can’t design. I can’t dance. I can’t get in shape. I can’t draw. I can’t give speeches. I can’t write. I can’t invent.
When I was 15 I had a friend named Patrick. We met in driver’s ed.
If you looked at him, you’d probably expect to find him in a mosh pit, or playing insanely loud punk music. You’d be right. But the guy had the voice of an angel and sang in his high school choir.
One night, Collin and I pick Patrick up from choir practice. Collin was our 16 year old friend who we often made drive us around. Poor Collin 🙂
As we were driving to who knows where (some cafe to play chess and drink coffee or to Taco Bell) a song came on the radio that I liked. And I sang it a little.
That weird looking, punk rock, 15 year old kid gave me some advice that has helped shape every single thing I’ve accomplished since.
He warned me that, as I sang, I was trying to imitate the musician on the radio, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. My voice just couldn’t do what we were listening to.
Instead, I should try to cover the same song but do it in a way that suited my voice. My voice isn’t very strong at those high notes. If I was going to imitate anyone, try to imitate someone’s voice that works at this low pitch.
I tried Patrick’s advice, and I sang the song at a considerably lower pitch that was comfortable to me. I remember it sounded now more like Johnny Cash. The result was surprising. It wasn’t half bad, and it was much better than me trying to sing like that guy on the radio.
I’ve never felt like a “web designer”. I’ve been building websites for 15 years, and I’ve done what I’ve needed to do, but I could never get my stuff to look even close to those beautiful creations I admire.
To get past that, I’d end up buying a template someone else made. Or finding really good business partners who could design all the things I couldn’t.
A handful of years ago, however, running my third software company, I found myself alone trying to create a new project.
I didn’t have a partner, or a designer or anyone else to help me. And I didn’t have any money to spend getting the help. A template wasn’t going to cut it this time. I was in a bind.
I don’t have a Dribbble account full of my work. I don’t have a portfolio. I don’t know what awards designers win. I hear there are awards.
But I had to figure out what I can design. I had to figure out a way to design that suits me.
Since I can’t do a lot with color, or illustrations, or shadows, or logos, I’d have to go with very little of those things. It would have to be the basics.
I still looked at people doing amazing work online for inspiration. But instead of trying to step into the shoes of my preconceived notion of a designer, I started noticing elements of projects that I could actually do myself.
I can’t create an identity or logo like Aaron Draplin, but I sure could use Futura Bold and add a little space between the letters like he seems to be doing.
It has no logo. It has zero images. There’s one color on the homepage. Blue.
Thank god or luck or hard work or whatever, I have stumbled on a large number of people that appreciate and love the user experience and user interface I’ve created. I’ve worked my ass off to accomplish this project. But I didn’t expect this.
Of course there’s plenty of blemishes that you might see (and even more that I do). Mountains of things I need to improve and polish. And I’ll never think it’s as good as anything from my heros who I immediately think of when someone says: designer.
But somehow, along the way of getting here, I have figured out a way to design. I found some way to sing this song but with a voice that suits me.
You might not be able to sing like your preconceived model of how a singer sings, but I’ll never understand when someone tells me, “I can’t sing.”
I love print. I love the feeling of physically holding a book and turning its pages, or leafing through a magazine. As a former newspaper reporter, I never stopped marveling at how I could file an A1 story at 5 pm and by early the next morning, there it would be—my words and my byline, above the fold—on hundreds of thousands of papers landing on people’s doorsteps, a weighty tactile thing that had been physically printed and distributed at great expense.
But as a former newspaper reporter, I also have no delusions about the sorry state of print media. I lived through multiple rounds of layoffs and buyouts at my old job, and the real reason I still get the Chicago Tribune and New York Times in print form is because their Sunday editions are basically free with a digital subscription. I read most of my news online. Even in the digital-only world, high-quality sites have had their share of troubles, indicating that the challenges facing independent media are not just about format, but about finding that elusive mix of good content plus the right audience plus sustainable funding.
That’s why I was delighted to report a story for The Distance on Bowlers Journal International, the longest-running sports monthly in the United States. It is thriving in print—advertising is up! The magazine, founded in 1913 by a Chicago shoe salesman, has a remarkably loyal base of subscribers and advertisers. Of all the stories Bowlers Journal has told, the most enduring one is that of its own longevity and close relationship with its readers. Take a listen:
WAILIN: Print media is dead. Right? We’ve witnessed the long, painful decline of newspapers and magazines and decried their inability to adapt to the digital age. Well, in certain corners of the publishing industry, print is very much alive.
KEITH: For print advertising, we’re already projecting to be up 10 percent. So you know what? The magazine world, it’s about the industries you serve. Now, if you’re broad-based consumer, that’s one thing. But you can’t assume—you can’t associate broad-based consumer publishing with what we do, which is niche-targeted publications. It’s a different world.
WAILIN: That’s Keith Hamilton, and his world is bowling. He’s the president of Luby Publishing, a company whose flagship title is Bowlers Journal International, the longest running sports monthly in the United States. It was founded in 1913, and it’s read by elite bowlers, pro shop operators and bowling center owners around the world. The circulation of Bowlers Journal has been steady at about 20,000 subscribers for the 34 years that Keith Hamilton has worked there.
KEITH: We know who our reader is. We meet our reader at the tournaments. We meet our readers at trade shows. We’re very intimate, probably one of the most intimate magazines with its readership that you can imagine.
WAILIN: The Bowlers Journal audience includes Hall of Fame players like Mike Aulby, who started reading the magazine as a teenager in the late seventies, started on the pro bowlers tour when he was just 18 and made the cover in 1985.
MIKE: You know, it’s kind of the go-to place for anything, especially the higher level of the sport, for us. We kind of kept tabs on it through there and you know, there’s one thing on the pro bowlers tour is you wanted to have a feature article in there because that was the spot where everybody in the industry would see it.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show: the story of a print magazine and a beloved American pastime, both of which have survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars and more, all while retaining an incredibly loyal fan base. 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 coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at https://basecamp.com/thedistance.
KEITH: We publish Bowlers Journal, Bowling Center Management, Pro Shop Operator, Entertainment Center News, Billiards Digest. We can have 42 issues a year come through here.
WAILIN: That’s a lot.
KEITH: It is, because we’re very lean, as you probably noticed. We’ve got six people in the office.
WAILIN: Bowlers Journal has modest origins. It began as a weekly publication, founded by a 56-year-old shoe salesman and avid bowler in Chicago named Dave Luby. The first issue was eight pages long and the back cover had an ad from Brunswick, the bowling equipment manufacturer. The company has advertised on every back cover of Bowlers Journal since that very first issue in 1913.
KEITH: Yeah, Brunswick’s an amazing supporter of this company. Loyal, loyal as the day is long. It’s one of the longest relationships in any industry, I mean, 102 years with one advertiser is pretty good.
WAILIN: When Dave Luby died in 1925, the magazine passed to his son Mort. He was a World War I veteran who loved to bowl, drink and gamble, and he married a Hollywood-raised socialite who once played bridge with legendary actress Mary Pickford. Under Mort Luby’s watch, Bowlers Journal expanded to cover billiards but also lost its beer and whisky advertisers to Prohibition, and the magazine downsized from a weekly to a monthly. To keep money coming in, Mort Luby started a wire service that covered bowling tournaments for newspapers across the country. He also started a tournament, the Bowlers Journal Championships, which are still held today.
In 1967, Mort Luby died in his sleep on a Pullman car traveling home from a bowling industry event in Houston. His son, Mort Junior, took over Bowlers Journal at the age of 25. He still visits the office once a month.
KEITH: Great man. He set out a goal of life and man, he hit it. He hit every aspect of his life. So I got a lot of admiration for Mort. He basically set my life, my career path.
WAILIN: That career path started when Keith was just a college kid looking for a summer job. His sister knew someone who knew Mort Luby Junior and heard he needed help cleaning a Chicago townhouse he owned.
KEITH: Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday. Pulling up to that townhouse and seeing Mort Luby come out. He was driving a white Buick Park Avenue back then, and you knew right away this guy was something special just by his presence. It wasn’t that I had a desire to get into publishing—or bowling. It was just a job, then.
WAILIN: That cleaning job turned into a stint working in the Luby Publishing office during Keith’s breaks from college. He had been a high school athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball. He was not a bowler. His interest in the sport — and in the publishing business — would accumulate over time. Luby Publishing helped pay for his MBA program at Notre Dame, and Mort put Keith in charge of advertising when he graduated. As he started working full-time, he set his sights on a bigger opportunity.
KEITH: I saw a path to owning the company. Even when I was green with inexperience, I saw that you know what? Mort’s going to retire soon and there’s not really anybody here with the business acumen to step in and purchase the company.
WAILIN: Keith teamed up with Mike Panozzo, a colleague who worked on another Luby Publishing title, Billiards Digest, and had more editorial and journalism expertise. In the summer of 1992, they took Mort Luby Junior to Lawry’s, a Chicago restaurant famous for its prime rib. They wouldn’t officially take over Bowlers Journal until 1994, but it all started with that dinner.
KEITH: Mort was dropping some hints, you know, when I get outta here, when I get outta here, and Mike and I took him to dinner that night, told him we were interested in the company, and away it went. Now it was a long process because you know, we weren’t wealthy guys. Mort didn’t pay great (laughs). So it took probably two years. It was that type of process to get to a proper price and I tell you what. Sometimes, you just have to go through the process. If we went to Mort day one and said, Mort here’s the deal? He would have said no way. You have to go through the rigors of the back and the forth and the understanding of what this means. What this means from a tax perspective. My MBA? I learned that buying Luby Publishing. It wasn’t so much at Notre Dame. Sorry, Notre Dame. Great school. But it was definitely that process there, taught me more than I ever could have imagined.
WAILIN: Bowlers Journal has always been for the high-end bowler, the person who travels to tournaments and spends money on products. The magazine covers professional bowling competitions and provides detailed ball reviews, working with a testing center in Florida that can control variables like humidity and the amount of oil on a lane.
KEITH: Our readers, I’m not kidding, they can own up to six bowling balls because each ball performs differently on a certain lane pattern. They can have the same ball but drill it differently, you know where you put your thumbs? They can drill in another part of the ball. It has to do with the pin and the center of gravity and all that, stuff that I don’t know but I like to think I do.
WAILIN: Keith is being modest. His specialty may be on the business side of the magazine, but he’s picked up a lot of bowling expertise. It wasn’t until about 12 years ago, though, that he really started bowling. He got into it by joining a super tough league in the outskirts of Milwaukee and a more relaxed league in Chicago.
KEITH: At the good league, the challenging league, they talked about their bowling shoes. They talked about the pins. They talked about leagues. Everybody complained about the lane oil. The casual league, nobody talked about that stuff. They played their card games based on strikes and spares and they were eating pizza.
WAILIN: At the first game he bowled with the serious league in Milwaukee, he shot an 88.
KEITH: Some of the people knew me because of the magazine, so they expect me to be a good bowler. So I’m like apologizing for my bowling because I don’t want them to think the magazine is some hack, okay, because I don’t write instruction. I write about the business side of it or I don’t tell people how to bowl. So don’t judge the magazine because I stink. So I remember getting one of those few times in my life, we’ve all been there, you get that red-faced feeling permanating throughout your entire body from head to toe. That was me. It was awful.
WAILIN: But Keith improved, and for the last eight years, he’s averaged 170. Perhaps more importantly, joining that challenging league helped him better understand his audience. And knowing the Bowlers Journal readers is what’s helped Keith and Mike run the company. They know what their subscribers want to read and how to deliver that information better than anyone else.
KEITH: For example, we cover a bowling tournament. You gotta talk about what happened behind the scenes. Here’s what led to the shot that led to the shot that made him win the tournament. Or here’s what happened in the background. Here’s the friction that was going on in the crowd that you couldn’t see on TV. As long as you deliver original information, original content, you can be in print. Make no mistake about it. And I know our industry right now—it’s still print. We had a great online magazine, great digital magazine for two and a half years, but it just didn’t have the interest, so we had to can it.
WAILIN: This doesn’t mean that Bowlers Journal isn’t looking for ways to evolve. It publishes plenty of online content and has added a podcast featuring interviews with important figures in the sport. Keith thinks the magazine will look much different in ten years. He sees the way his 22-year-old son reads everything on his phone. And the bowling industry is undergoing significant change too.
KEITH: It’s going from a league-organized play base and it’s evolving into more of a nice Saturday night out entertainment. Now instead of bowling centers, they build what we call family entertainment centers, where bowling is an important, significant part of it, but it’s about the martini bar, it’s about the fancy lounge, it’s about the games, it’s about laser tag. It’s so much more than bowling.
WAILIN: These changes put Bowlers Journal at a bit of a crossroads. The growth of these family entertainment centers exposes more people to bowling who might not have otherwise visited a traditional bowling center. But casual bowlers don’t spend hundreds of dollars on balls and shoes, and those are the kinds of people that Bowlers Journal advertisers want to reach. I asked Mike Aulby, the Hall of Fame bowler you heard at the beginning of the episode, if he’d ever bought something after seeing it in Bowlers Journal. He remembered an ad for Ebonite, a bowling equipment company, that featured Earl Anthony, one of the sport’s all-time greats.
MIKE: And there was one where he would wear a trench coat with a Magnum Force bowling ball, and I have an orange bowling ball just because Earl threw it, so through those ads, so you bet.
WAILIN: The challenge for Keith and his staff is to cover the evolution of bowling as an industry and find ways to bring more casual bowlers into the fold, while still providing the kind of deep tournament coverage and ball reviews that will keep their core readers and advertisers coming back for the next hundred and two years.
KEITH: Obviously, we have a proven product, so there’s a lot of value for the 102. But you gotta earn it. You gotta improve. You gotta evolve. You gotta change. You gotta be hungry. You can’t expect business to keep going because you’ve been around for a hundred years.
WAILIN: Readers like Mike Aulby have seen their relationship with the magazine change over the decades. Mike no longer bowls competitively, but he owns a bowling center in Lafayette, Indiana, so he’s interested in reading about business trends. And there are subscribers like Fran Deken, who went from competing on the professional circuit to being a bowling writer, tournament director and high school coach. She started bowling at age 10 and reading Bowlers Journal shortly after that.
FRAN: I was 12 years old. My dad got us a subscription, my brother and myself, and we would argue over who got to read it first.
WAILIN: When Fran was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, she and her brother would drive to the city to attend tapings of a bowling television show, where they would look for the players they saw in the pages of Bowlers Journal. Fran ended up in the magazine herself. The first time was when she won a national intercollegiate tournament as a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa.
FRAN: I love the Bowlers Journal all these years. Some decades have been better than others, but I save lots and lots of copies of it, although I’ve moved many times so I’ve had to unload some of them. But both of us, my husband and I, we always look forward to seeing what’s in the next month’s Bowlers Journal.
WAILIN: The magazine’s subscribers are remarkably loyal. Mike Aulby buys back issues on eBay and knows people who clip the vintage ads to frame as wall art. Keith Hamilton doesn’t take those readers — or his advertisers — for granted, even though he encourages his editorial staff not to back down from covering issues that might be controversial. He just asks his writers to be fair.
KEITH: Every day when that magazine goes out, three days later, I’m sitting there like waiting, I swear to God. After all these years I’ve been in the industry, you’re always waiting. Was there something in this magazine that ticked somebody off? But you know what? What they need to understand is, first of all, we have to do that. Because if we wrote a hundred percent of the time everything is great, it loses credibility. And the things that we’re writing about won’t have any, won’t matter.
WAILIN: Bowling doesn’t have the visibility of other sports. There are no household names like Tiger Woods. There are no glamorous pop culture references, like what The Color of Money did for billiards back in the 80s, although movies like Kingpin and The Big Lebowski are cult hits. And bowling isn’t an Olympic sport, despite intense lobbying efforts from the industry, including an unsuccessful bid to get it into the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. What bowling does have going for it is widespread consumer appeal, and that’s helped keep the sport alive.
KEITH: What’s great about bowling is that you can be male, you can be female, you can be child, you could be senior citizen. There are no barriers for you to bowl. Now, I can’t go out and play basketball anymore. I pull a hamstring just looking at the court. But I can bowl! Okay? I can bowl. My grandmother bowled up until 90. That’s the beauty of the sport, so that’s the reason that it appeals to everyone. And everybody has a good time bowling. Nobody comes back from bowling and says they had a bad time.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. I send out a newsletter every two weeks where I round up other interesting stories about long-running businesses. To sign up for that, visit https://thedistance.com and scroll down to the bottom to enter your email. 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 https://basecamp.com/thedistance.com.
Happy 2016! We hope you had a great New Year’s Eve with family and friends. While it’s officially time to leave 2015 behind us, here’s a batch of Basecamp 3 updates from December:
Adminland, the most boringly powerful section of Basecamp, gets an update! Top two requests fulfilled: Now you add new people to the account straight from here (without having to add them to a specific Basecamp first) and bulk change which Basecamp’s someone can see.
We’ve added annual billing options to every Basecamp paid package. Prior to this annual was only available for the Basecamp Big (enterprise) package. Annual billing is great for those who have to expense Basecamp — a single bill once a year is so much simpler than a bill every month!
Improved sorting of the My Assignments menu to group to-do lists by Basecamp. This is more predictable than the old random-order version, and eliminates a situation where the same Basecamp could be listed multiple times in different spots.
You can now turn off the Clientside in a given Basecamp, without having to archive or delete the Basecamp. This way if you were just kicking the tires of the Clientside feature in a given Basecamp, you can keep using Basecamp with your team without having to involve a client.
The Android app now features multi-account support. As more and more people set up additional Basecamp 3 accounts, it’s now a whole lot easier to quickly flip between accounts without ever having to sign out.
Major improvements to sign-up and sign-in flows. We’re continuing to refine and improve these. There’s no reason they should ever be the slightest bit confusing. Sorry about that!
Account owners can now add themselves to any Basecamp in their account. Before people could create Basecamps without the account owner knowing.
Better handling of time zones on signup.
Improved compatibility with keyboard control (tabbing through fields) and screen readers. We still have more improvements to make here, but this is a great batch of initial improvements.
We now include the title of the first to-do list on the To-dos card. Previously, we suppressed the list title until a second list was added to the set. This was confusing because customers were adding lists but not seeing the titles, leading them to think the title had been removed for some reason.
The schedule for sending the “David H. started chatting in All Basecamp” notifications has been changed. Before, we’d send one notification every 12 hours. This meant that busy Campfire chat rooms that never stopped being active just ran on this funny schedule of saying “David H. started chatting” every 12 hours, even though that room might have been active for a long time. Now we’ll only send the notification if a Campfire chat room has been quiet for at least 6 hours. If a chat room is busy 24/7, we won’t send any special notifications. The purpose is to draw attention to a fresh round of discussion after an extended silence.
Live filtering of the Campfire menu so you can jump to any Campfire quickly.
Fixed a bug where users who were removed from a Basecamp still received to-do completion notifications if they were the creator, assigned, or subscribed. Now if you’re not part of the Basecamp you won’t get any notifications from Basecamp.
…and a variety of other fixes, tweaks, and improvements!
We’ve got some great Basecamp 3 stuff cooking for 2016. Just yesterday we started working on a variety of new projects — many of which we hope to have ready for you within the next 6 weeks or so!
Thanks again for using Basecamp 3! Loving everyone’s feedback so far! Keep it coming!
I’ve been doing some archeology through our archives lately. I noticed a few patterns, including discovering a series about what it’s like to spend your first few weeks here at Basecamp. Looking back over the years, it’s neat to see people’s experiences evolve over time as our company as grown.
I thoroughly enjoyed taking a dive through time in these posts and seeing echoes of their experiences from my own trial month. I definitely felt vulnerable and not the most confident in myself when I started 4 years ago. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I was dealing with impostor syndrome as I dropped into a new team that I couldn’t even physically see most days.
Faking it until I made it helped, but that festering feeling of fear persisted. I think my eventual cure was, and still is, a relentless drive to leave the campsite cleaner (and better) than when I found it. Even if it’s a single line of code, a comment, or a little ping saying thanks — it matters.
This insight from my trial month continues to ring true:
One thing I learned really quickly was that our users are creative: If you give them the ability to do anything, they will do everything!
I’m surprised and delighted on a daily basis with how people use Basecamp. Our Everyone on Support days remind me of this on a regular basis! Since that first experience learning about how our users extend our products and their functionality, I’ve been hooked on helping them get even more out of our apps.
My coworkers have also reflected on starting at Basecamp and how it’s impacted their life, craft, and outlook. Here’s a few other highlights from other “first month” posts:
The 37signals community is huge! Every change is noticed — sometimes within minutes of being launched. Receiving instant feedback to your work is great (at least so far 🙂
I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how much everyone genuinely cares about the user experience with the applications they maintain. Everything from page response times increasing by a few milliseconds to minimizing interruptions during deployments or even the impact of the number of http redirects on load times — it’s all constantly being discussed and debated.
I enjoy finding the common threads that weave across everyone’s experiences with their first few weeks. We’re constantly learning how to make this onboarding experience better for our new employees, and we’re not perfect at it still. Out of everyone’s first month posts so far, there’s a few lessons to be learned:
It takes some time to get used to the REMOTE culture, but it’s worth it!
Finding your balance and making your schedule your own is paramount.
Breaking things (sometimes immediately) is OK and expected.
We’re all in this together, despite being so physically apart!
I’m hoping we will have more to share about our first experiences in 2016. If you have something (or someone) that made starting at your job special, I’d love to hear about it.
“How do you juggle it all?” is a question I’m asked regularly. Usually with an undertone that I must have some secret. A trick. Is it sleeping just 5 hours per night? Is it working 12 hour days for months on end? What is it!?!
The common lore of Highly Productive People is that they just work harder. Often superhumanly so. They have a singular focus that turns their drive to 11. The media loves to recount these feats of marvelous stamina and determination.
I don’t fit that mold. I usually sleep a good 8.5 to 9 hours every night. I take pride in making work fit the traditional 40 hour/week constraint. I have no drive for more, more, more.
If I have a trick, it’s a focus on the quality of each individual hour. That doesn’t mean Time Management, in the 1990s sense of the term, slicing each hour to the last minute, and squeezing it for every last second of peak productivity. But it does cover a realization that all hours are not created or spent equal.
An hour haunted by stress, interruption, sleep deprivation, or frazzle is not worth the sixty minutes its allotted. It’s a low quality hour. You’d be foolish to expect that you can turn such dirty input into clear accomplishments. Garbage in, garbage out.
40 hours of work every week is a king’s keep. I contend that almost anything can be accomplished with such a glorious budget. But not if you squander it on meetings, multitasking, or poorly defined problems. There’s no limit to the amount of time that can be wasted like that.
Well, there’s a physical limit. And I suppose that’s where many people find refuge. I gave it everything! You can’t blame me, and I can’t blame myself, for failing to accomplish when every second was spent. I left nothing for myself, so have mercy, they rationalize.
Covering your ass to yourself or others might give you some temporary comfort, but it won’t cover the deficit of ambition in the long run. Resignation is a coping mechanism for the beaten.
What you need is a set of refinement techniques. You need to actively work on increasing the purity and quality of your hours. Here are a few that I use:
Do I really need to be involved in this?
Gluttonous curiosity is the siren song that seeks to loop you into all manners of discussions, decisions, and events that you’re likely not a necessary or even important component.
It’s hard to accept that while your insight or experience might be useful to other people, it equally might not be nearly useful enough to offset the cost of yet another head at the table.
The value of just skimming that email, turning down that meeting invitation, not depositing your two cents in that chat seems abstract in the moment. But diligently refraining from chiming in and collaborating is what gives room for making more important progress on fewer things.
Could this wait?
Some problems need to be dealt with today, lest they compound tomorrow. Best deal with those right away. But they’re in the minority. Most problems and opportunities are just as valuably addressed a day or a week or a month from now.
Putting something on the back burner means it might well have dissipated by the time you give it a second look. Wonderful! That was work that then didn’t need to get done. Or just appeared more important than it really was when you first thought about it.
The longer you delay solving a problem, the more you’ll know about it. Lots of pains just go away by adding idle time.
Can I bail on this?
The road to a day wasted is paved with heroic attempts of throwing good hours after bad. Mistaking the depth of a problem is a reliable error of working life.
The crime comes when you continue digging after realizing the hole needed is thrice as deep as you anticipated, without confirming that the solution is also worth thrice the effort originally budgeted.
Learning to give up is a critical skill for making your remaining hours count. Sunk cost is a sucker’s bet.
Am I ready for this?
Sometimes it’s the problem that needs more time to ripen, and sometimes it’s you. We are not equally capable or fit to tackle all problems at all times.
If my head is in tune for writing this week, it’s a good time to complete the copy for the new website, but it’s probably a bad time to organize the work for the next quarter. If my fingers are itching to code, then let’s solve that bug that’s irked me for a month, not try to redirect the passion to doing 1–1 interviews that week.
Our motivations ebb and flow. Swimming with the tide instead of against it is just so much easier. And as detailed above, most things can wait until the water that needs to carry them comes back up.
Even with a strong repertoire of techniques for making each hour count for more, you will still fail regularly. Maybe all the work that needs doing this week just doesn’t include anything you can muster the motivation for. So it slides and you feel shit.
But there’s great comfort in knowing that this happens to everyone. With far more often than most are willing to admit. Despite a finely-honed perception for high quality hours, I still churn through junk frequently. Leaving me with much less than what I had hoped. So it goes!
What matters is increasing the aggregate quality of your hours over the long term. Not to stress when you fail to turn out a perfect batch.
Once you’ve built an awareness and appreciation of quality time, I doubt you’ll feel the same pull to keep chasing more, more, more. The difference between an uninterrupted string of four quality hours versus a few days of crap hours is a revelation.
Even if you squeeze and squeeze to get more hours, maybe you’ll get another 20–50%? Refine the ones you already have and you might get 200–500% more value. That’s the true 10x.
The trick to juggling it all is to stop juggling.
I spend most of my quality work hours building Basecamp. We just released a brand-new version 3, which has a special Work Can Wait feature designed specifically to increase the quality of your working hours by avoiding interruptions. Give it a try!
Working with people is messy — the more people, the messier it gets. There’s no way around that. And while you may know your own mess, finding something in someone else’s is quite a challenge.
So we wanted to make sure Basecamp 3 made it easy to find what you’re looking for, no matter what fragments of information you may have handy. We’ve got every angle covered — sometimes from multiple angles!
Let me play out a few real-world scenarios below and show you how Basecamp 3 makes it easy to find what you’re looking for — especially when you don’t know exactly what it is.
“I know Jamie said something about that yesterday, but I don’t remember exactly how he said it or exactly where he said it.”
Ever happen to you? You know someone said something somewhere, but you can’t remember exactly what it was or where they said it? Unless you can rifle through your memory for a keyword, A standard keyword search isn’t very helpful here.
In Basecamp 3, just head into the “Find…” section, leave the keyword field blank, and just select “Comments” and then “Jamie Dihiansan” and hit “Go”. You’ll then get results showing everything Jamie commented on across every Basecamp you both have access to.
“Someone told me Ann’s been doing some amazing QA work lately. I’d love to see what she’s been up to.”
I this case I’m not specifically looking for any one piece of content, or even anything specific — I’m just looking to find out where Ann’s been pitching in. It’s more about discovery than it is a traditional search.
So I’d jump into the Reports menu and select “What has someone been up to…”
Then type Ann…
And then I get the “Here’s what Ann Goliak has been up to” report that shows everything she’s done on Basecamp in reverse chronological order. Comments she’s made, to-dos she’s added or completed, files/images she’s shared, deadlines she’s posted, etc. If she’s done it, it’s on this report. And now I know what Ann’s been up to!
“Where are those sketches Ryan posted?”
You know Ryan Singer’s been working on some concept lately, and he mentioned he shared some sketches in Basecamp. You don’t remember where or when exactly, only that they were sketches. Easy!
Head into the “I’m looking for an image or file…” search on the Find screen.
Then just type in Ryan Singer. Now, I could have also selected “PDFs”, or “Video” or “All files” from the “Images” menu, but since I knew they were sketches, and I wanted to filter everything else out, I just selected Images.
And now I see all the images Ryan has shared — no matter where they were shared (in a Campfire chat, in a message, in a document, attached to a to-do, attached to an event, it doesn’t matter). And there they are!
“I have no idea who shared it, or where they shared it, or what they called it, but I know someone put that PDF I need up on Basecamp.”
This one happens all the time. You know it’s in Basecamp, you know it’s a PDF, you don’t know what it’s called, you aren’t even sure of what words to look for, you only know it was a PDF and you need it now! Easy!
From the same “I’m looking for an image or file…” search in the previous example, just select “PDF” and leave everything else as it is. Then hit Go.
You’ll get back a list of every PDF uploaded to Basecamp, most recent first. If you knew more info like who shared it, or which Basecamp it was in, or even a keyword, you could have entered that too to get more specific. But in a lot of cases you don’t know the specifics, you just know the generalities. Basecamp 3 has your covered.
I don’t know what I’m looking for, I’m just looking.
This one sounds kinda silly, but it’s very real and very common. You want to jump into a Basecamp and just have a look around. You’re in a discovery mindset. What’s happened today? What happened yesterday? Who said what? What topics did the conversations revolve around? Was there new work added to do? Was anything completed? Anyone share any visual concept or ideas I might want to check out? Who knows! You only know that you want to know.
Basecamp 3 makes this super easy. For example, let’s say I wanted to see what’s been going on in Team OMG. “Team OMG” is our customer service’s Basecamp. I just visit their Basecamp and scroll down.
At the bottom of every Basecamp is a full history log of everything that ever happened in that Basecamp — all the way back to day one. It’s basically everything flatted by time — new/completed to-dos, discussions, files that were shared, new documents, schedule items, comments, answers to automatic check-in questions — they are all here organized by time.
Now, on top of all this you can of course search by keyword. That’s the easy one. You can also filter your searches just to a specific Basecamp, a specific person, a specific kind of content (“just search the schedule”), etc. But I hope the examples above give you a sense of some of the other ways you can find what you need in Basecamp 3!
The Richardson family arrived in Spring Grove, Illinois in 1840, when brothers Robert and Frank each claimed 80 acres of farmland that had become available for homesteading. Successive generations of Richardsons tried their hand at cash crops, dairy cows and pig production. But it was the agritourism business that proved the most sustainable for the 175-year-old family farm, which today is operated by the fifth and sixth generations of Richardsons. The family sells cut-your-own Christmas trees during the holidays and operates the world’s largest corn maze in the fall. They’ve become experts in seasonal entertainment, offering a nostalgic rural escape from suburban sprawl.
Also, starting with today’s episode, I’ll be posting transcripts for each show.
WAILIN: The Richardson family has a holiday tradition. Every year on Thanksgiving, after they’ve eaten, they pick out their Christmas tree. Here’s George Richardson.
GEORGE: Take the afternoon off after our bellies have sat for a little bit from Thanksgiving dinner and go out and get our tree.
WAILIN: Lots of families put up their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving. But there’s something unique about the Richardsons. When they pick out their tree, they just head to their backyard, where they grow Christmas trees on 130 acres of northern Illinois farmland that’s been in the family since 1840. The Richardsons are in the cut-your-own Christmas tree business, and they sell just over six thousand trees every season between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Here’s George’s son, Ryan, who’s the sixth generation of Richardsons to work on the farm.
RYAN: So we have Scotch pine and white pine, both wonderful trees. Scotch pine’s kind of the old stature of the Midwest Christmas tree and it’s kind of phased itself out culturally a little bit. Firs have overtaken the market, and so firs are in general shorter-needled tree and the most popular’s going to be a Fraser fir and it’s difficult to grow in this particular region of the country, in the Midwest. So a close cousin of them is a hybrid tree, it’s a cross between a balsam and a fraser, and it’s called a Canaan. That’s a beautiful tree. So Frasers, Canaans, blue spruce, Norway spruce, concolor firs are beautiful…
WAILIN: And that’s just Christmas tree season. In the fall, the family operates the Richardson Adventure Farm, which includes a pumpkin patch, a zip line, a carousel and the world’s largest corn maze. Over the last 175 years, the Richardsons have grown cash crops and raised dairy cows and pigs. But what has proved the most sustainable — and enjoyable — is the entertainment business. Learn how the Richardsons found their true calling on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
(CLIP OF ACTIVITY IN THE RICHARDSON BARN)
It’s the first Saturday of December and the Richardsons’ main barn is packed. The farm is in Spring Grove, Illinois, just a few miles from the Wisconsin border, and you can tell you’re close when you turn onto Richardson Road and see cars with trees on the roofs passing you in the other direction. Inside the barn, people are buying wreaths, homemade donuts, fudge, and holiday crafts, and drinking complimentary hot chocolate under a portrait of Robert Richardson, the first member of the family to settle here. He and his brother, Frank, were bricklayers who emigrated from England to Wisconsin in 1837. Robert was George’s great great grandfather. Here’s George again.
GEORGE: This is the original homestead from 1840, the ground that we’re standing on now. Milwaukee was the bustling port city in 1837, where Chicago was still kind of just getting organized, a little bit of a swampy mess, to tell you the truth, so Milwaukee was really the boom town at that time. When this county opened up in 1840 for homesteading, they moved down here and they each homesteaded 80 acres and then Robert subsequently bought out Frank some years later.
WAILN: While working in Wisconsin as a mason, Robert Richardson fell in love with Milwaukee cream brick — a light-colored brick made from local clay. In 1861, he built a house on his land with that cream brick, taking an oxcart up to Milwaukee to get the bricks and hauling them back to Illinois. George’s older brother, also named Robert, lives in that house today with his wife Carol. George and his wife, Wendy, live on a nearby farmstead. It’s these two families, plus George and Wendy’s son Ryan, who own and operate Richardson Farm. The business has two main parts: the Christmas trees and the fall adventure farm with the corn maze. But none of this existed until the early 1980s. That’s when George and Robert’s parents, who were pig farmers, started looking for a new business and landed on cut your own Christmas trees. Here’s Carol Richardson, Robert’s wife.
CAROL: We planted 300 trees that first year and we thought that’s all we had to do was just plant them, and we got them in the ground and then we let them go and the weeds grew up around them and the grass and we thought well, this isn’t as easy as we thought it was.
WAILIN: The Richardsons joined the Illinois Christmas Tree Association and picked up some tips on weed control, among other things. They found that they liked growing trees and interacting with customers.
GEORGE: Then in 1986, we sold like 180 trees or something like that, just put a sign out on the road and people came in and oh, they had a wonderful time going out in the field and choosing their tree and coming back in. We gave them hot chocolate and we had a wonderful time because we were making more money than with pigs and so after a few years of that, we kind of figured out that the Richardsons, we kind of liked talking to people a lot more than we liked talking with pigs.
WAILIN: Here’s the thing about Christmas trees, though. If you want to grow them, you have to think about the long term. The Richardsons buy four-year-old seedlings that are around 14 to 20 inches, and plant them in one-acre blocks of a thousand trees each. Then it’s a multi-year process of nurturing the seedlings until they get to six to eight feet in height. Here’s Ryan Richardson, George’s son.
RYAN: You have to put your money and love into them for seven or eight years before they’re even going to think about repaying you back, so you need to budget out. We’re planting around eight or nine thousand of new seedlings every single year and we take very good care of them because in the end, they’ll take care of us.
(CLIP OF WAGON RIDE)
WAILIN: Outside the barn, customers pick up their hand saws and climb onboard tractor-pulled wagons to ride out to the field. Families walk between the rows of pines and firs, looking for their perfect triangular, fragrant tree. Here’s Natalie, who’s with her husband, their three children and their dog. Until this year, they’ve always had artificial trees.
NATALIE: The last one died because (laughs) the lights that came along with it—the middle part didn’t light up, so we’d have the top part of the tree lit up and the bottom part lit up, and my husband had to get a set of lights to just cover the middle part. And we’re like, you know, I think it’s time to get a real one this year. So yeah, it’s been 20 years of us being married and we’re out here picking a nice-smelling tree.
(CLIP OF TREE BEING SAWED)
WAILIN: It takes just around a minute and a half to cut down the tree. The trunks are still pretty tender at this age, and the saws are sharp. When the tree’s down, it’s loaded on the wagon for the short ride back to the barn, where it’s put through a baling machine that secures the tree with cord.
(CLIP OF BALER)
GEORGE: Our customers, God bless ’em, they seem to be happy with what we have. They’re really loyal to us. If it’s 50 degrees and sunny the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they can spend hours with the kids and the dogs and Grandma and Grandpa choosing their perfect Christmas tree and it’s just so happy. But they will also come out if it’s 10 degrees with a 30-mile-an-hour wind and it’s just, they choose their tree a little more quickly (laughs), but they still are in a really good mood when they come back into the barn to get their hot chocolate and buy their donuts.
WAILIN: After Christmas tree selling season ends, the Richardsons spend the winter on bookkeeping and making plans for the next season. New trees get planted when the ground starts to thaw, followed by corn and soybeans, which the family still grows as cash crops. Then comes the corn for the corn maze and the pumpkins. On Labor Day, the Richardson Adventure Farm opens to the public. The farm’s signature attraction is the corn maze, which spans 10 miles of trails over 28 acres.
GEORGE: We started the corn maze out of necessity because my brother and I were raising pigs and they weren’t doing so well at that particular time, 1998. The market crashed and we lost a lot of money. We used all our Christmas tree income to pay for pig feed and we’re like, this is not what we planned on. This is not going to be very, not very much fun. So we needed something else and we kind of figured out that we liked dealing with the public, so we weren’t afraid of something like that that dealt with agritourism.
WAILIN: At that time, the late 90s, the idea of agritourism — turning agricultural activity into a consumer-facing entertainment business — was still fairly novel. But the Richardsons felt they had a knack for it, based on their success with the Christmas trees. They decided to expand their tourism business on the 540 acres they owned. They hired a corn maze designer from Idaho to help them get started.
GEORGE: He had manufactured up this huge aluminum backpack thing that must have weighed 50 pounds, with a GPS on it and a battery to operate the whole thing, and he would walk, so the GPS locator dot followed the lines of the trail on his computer screen. He would walk the pattern into the cornfield and we would take spray cans of paint and paint behind his left heel a dashed line (laughs) where he was walking. Oh man, that was fun to see the design to take shape; that was really something. Now, of course, he’s much more sophisticated. Same guy that we used our very first year, we still design the maze with him and he comes out and cuts the design into the cornfield. We plant the corn north-south and east-west, so we don’t have rows of corn, we have a nice dense stand, so it looks very good in the aerial photograph, and he still comes out when the corn is about 12 inches high, has GPS mounted on his tractor, hooked in with his computer that’s got the design.
WAILIN: The Richardsons pride themselves on their intricate maze. This year’s design was Chicago Blackhawks-themed in honor of the team winning the Stanley Cup. It’s not a true maze because there are multiple exit points, a nod to people who are short on patience or might just need to get out in a hurry to use the restroom. Others spend hours exploring it. More than half of the farm’s fall visitors come after 6 pm so they can walk the maze on a starry night, using the light from their cell phones for extra illumination. During full moon weekends, the farm stays open until midnight. And the Richardsons didn’t stop at the corn maze. You can reserve a campfire and have a picnic, feed goats and try something called zorbing, which involves getting strapped into a clear plastic ball and rolling down a hill.
GEORGE: I think we added a 50-foot long slide at first, and then we had some pedal carts. Then we added some kiddie tricycles and the 50-foot tall observation tower at the base of the world’s largest corn maze because you can get up and look at part of the design, it’s really fun. And then we’ve continued to add jumping pillows and a carousel and now we have a train ride and a 700-foot zip line, zorbing, lots of activities. We have to keep up, keep adding value to it so we fight for that consumer dollar and make it worth their while.
WAILIN: Eventually, the Christmas trees and the fall activities did well enough that Robert and George Richardson were able to get out of pig farming entirely. The only pigs you’ll find today are the ones competing in the pig races during the fall. Here’s Wendy Richardson, George’s wife.
WENDY: We do call the pig races and afterwards, people are amazed that really there are Richardsons, that the name didn’t come from the road or whatever, and they like to talk to us. They like to talk to Carol, she’s up front, one of the first people that they see. Robert’s always right around the front and they love to see there are actually Richardsons to talk to. And they like the history.
WAILIN: The ability to talk to a real-life Richardson is part of the farm’s overall appeal, which is about selling a certain kind of rural nostalgia or an idealized version of farm life, an escape from suburban sprawl. It’s romantic in all the ways that pig farming most definitely was not.
GEORGE: Sometimes my brother and I, we’ll just chuckle with each other, remembering some horrendous zero-degree day when we were trying to keep all the pigs warm or the water thawed and how different our life is now. There is nothing I miss about pigs. That was a fine business, raised my family, put the kids through college, it was just fine. But I really love entertaining people, having folks come to the farm and have a wonderful time, and it makes me feel very good.
WAILIN: Ryan, George’s son, joined the business in 2007. He had been living in Florida when the family asked him to help build the 50-foot observation tower overlooking the corn maze. At the same time, his grandfather was sick, and he had recently been a groomsman in a wedding where he hit it off with one of the bridesmaids, who lived in Illinois.
RYAN: I’m just happily living in Florida doing my thing, and then I had a tower to build, a grandpa to take care of and this girl Kristin I couldn’t get out of my mind. So that happened in like three days of each other, so I was like well okay, so I called my best buddy Marlon and said, “You better get a plane ticket, man. We’re gonna need a U-Haul. We’re gonna need to load all this stuff back up and go back to Illinois.”
WAILIN: Ryan’s the only one of his siblings who’s involved with the business, and it’s a natural fit for him.
RYAN: I’ve always been a little farm boy, always. Whenever Mom couldn’t find me in the house, you’d go look in the barn because I was totting my way out there after Dad, and that’s just kind of how I was.
WAILIN: Ryan is now married to Kristin now, and they have two children, but he’s still happily following a path that George, Robert and previous generations of Richardsons helped prepare.
GEORGE: We like to talk about our history because it is very unusual in the business world, to have a business go for this many generations. That does require sacrifices by the elder generations to make sure it gets into the hands of the younger ones and generally, the older generation has to forgo being a multimillionaire to make sure it continues. But we love seeing the business go forward, very happy to hand it over to Ryan lock, stock and barrel someday. And maybe when I’m 99, I’ll actually retire and enjoy life. (Laughs) No, I’m enjoying life now so that’s the wrong thing to say.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. This is our last episode of the year and we’re already hard at work on stories for 2016. If you know of a super interesting business that’s at least 25 years old, email us at email@example.com, or tweet at us. We’re @distancemag, that’s at distance M A G. 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 analyze data for a living. I occasionally do some other things for Basecamp — help with marketing, pitch in on support, do some “business” things — but at the end of the day, I analyze data. Some of the data is about feature usage, some about application performance or speed, some about our great support team, some about financial matters, and some of it defies categorization; regardless of the type of data, my job is to identify business problems, use data to understand them, and make actionable recommendations.
If you ask almost any data analyst, they’ll tell you that the biggest chunk of their time is spent cleaning and preparing data — getting it into a form that’s usable for reporting or analysis. Ironically, I don’t have any actual data about how much time that process consumes, either personally or for the profession as a whole, but I’d guess that the time spent on acquisition and transformation of data outweighs actual math, statistics, or coming up with recommendations by a factor of five to one or more.
Over time, both personally and as an organization, you get better at capturing and preparing data, and it eats up less and less of your time. I’d characterize the time I’ve spent at Basecamp as being four fairly distinct phases of increasingly greater sophistication in terms of how I prepare data for analysis:
The CSV phase: In my early days at Basecamp, I was just happy to have data at all, and everything was basically a comma separated value (CSV) file. I used `SELECT … INTO OUTFILE` to get data from MySQL databases, `awk` to get things from log files, and the ‘export’ button from third party services to get data that I could then analyze.
The R script phase: After a month or two, I graduated to a set of R scripts to get data directly into my analysis environment of choice. A wrapper function got data from our MySQL databases and I wrote API wrappers to get data from externalservices. Our first substantial automated reports showed up in this phase, and they were literally R scripts piped to `sendmail` on my laptop.
The embryonic data warehouse: Eventually, a fledgling “data warehouse” started to take form — a MySQL instance held some data explicitly for analysis, a Hadoop cluster came into the picture to process and store logs, and we added a dashboard application that standardized reporting.
The 90% data warehouse (today): today a centralized data warehouse holds almost of all our data, every type of data belongs to a documented schema, and Tableau has dramatically changed the way we do reporting. It’s not perfect — there are some pieces of data that remain scattered and analyzed only after cleaning and manual processing, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Over the course of this transformation, the time that I spend preparing data for analysis has fallen dramatically — it used to be that I started any “substantial” analysis with two or three days of getting and cleaning data followed by a day of actually analyzing it; now, I might spend twenty minutes getting vastly greater quantities of already clean data and then a couple of days analyzing it far more deeply.
That evolution didn’t come for free — it took substantial investments of both time and money into our data infrastructure. We’ve built out two physical Hadoop clusters, bought software licenses, and poured hundreds of hours over the last five years into developing the systems that enable reporting and analysis.
I used to struggle with feeling guilty every time I spent time on our data infrastructure. After all, wasn’t my job to analyze data and help the business, not build data infrastructure?
Over time, I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing to feel guilty about. The investment in our infrastructure have paid dividends many times over: in direct time savings (mine and others), in greater insights for the company, and in empowering others to work with data. In the example analysis case I described above, the transformation infrastructure saved a day or two of my time and delivered a better result to the business; I do perhaps thirty or forty such analyses per year. That makes a few weeks or even months of total time spent on those investments look like a bargain.
I often hear people argue that “investing in infrastructure” is just code for giving in to “Not Invented Here” syndrome. The single biggest impact infrastructure investment we’ve made was actually abandoning a custom developed reporting solution for a piece of commercially developed software. Just like any sort of investment, you can of course spend your resources poorly, but done properly, investing in infrastructure can be one of the highest returns you can possibly achieve.
Here’s something that’s unavoidably true: Investing in infrastructure always pays off. Always. Not just most of the time, but every single time. Sometimes the payoff takes longer than we’d like, sometimes there may be more efficient ways to get the same result, but every time we spend time and money on the four things, we’re surprised at how much of a difference it makes.
I recently wrapped up a fairly large infrastructure project at Basecamp, and my focus is naturally swinging back towards focusing more exclusively on the core of what I do: analyzing data. For the first time, however, I’m moving on from an infrastructure project without much guilt about whether it was an investment worth making. Instead, I’m looking forward to reaping the dividends from these investments for years to come.