I’m often asked for advice. I’ve decided it’s time I give less of it. There are things I used to know that I just don’t know anymore. I should stop talking about those things — it’s unfair to anyone who’s listening.
If you want advice on product design, copywriting, reducing complexity, business strategy for a well-established small business, or building a team — happy to help. I know I can be valuable there because those are things I’m thinking about and working on every day. I’m current.
But if you want advice on how to start a new business, how to get your first customer, how to hire your first employee, or anything related to starting something brand new, I’m not your man. It’s been 16 years since I started my company. I just don’t remember what it’s like anymore. I’m out of touch.
Advice, like fruit, is best when it’s fresh. But advice quickly decays, and 16 year-old advice is bound to be radioactive. Sharing a life experience is one thing (grandparents are great at this — listen to them!), but advice is another thing. Don’t give advice about things you used to know. Just because you did something a long time ago doesn’t mean you’re qualified to talk about it today.
Think you’ll get a good answer from a 30 year old telling you what it’s like to be 15? Or a 20 year old remembering what it’s like to be 5? Shit, I’m 41 now, and all I remember about being 25 is that I wasn’t 26. How clearly do you really remember anything from 16 years ago? And how many of those memories are actually marred by time and current experiences? How many of those things really happened the way you recall them today?
If you want to know what it’s like to start a business, talk to someone who just successfully started one. If you want to know what it’s like to hire your first employee, talk to someone who just successfully hired theirs. If you want to know what it’s like to make an investment, talk to someone who just made a successful one.
While distance from the event itself can provide broader perspective, the closer you get to the event, the fresher the experience. If I want to know what something’s really like, I’d take a fresh recollection over a fuzzy memory. I think the same is true for advice.
I spent half of last week in New York, and the other half in Baltimore. But I only packed enough contact lenses for New York.
I wear daily wear lenses, so I have to replace my lenses every day. I usually over-pack lenses so I have at least twice as many as I’ll need, but this time, in a blurry rush to get out of the house on time, I forgot.
I realized this as I was nearing my last day’s supply. Shit!
So I called my optometrist back in Chicago to ask them if they could send my prescription to a local Lenscrafters in Baltimore so I could pick up a box when I arrived in town.
They looked up my prescription and discovered it had expired earlier this year. My prescription hadn’t changed in 5 years, but it had still technically expired so they couldn’t approve it, or send it. The answer was no. Definitively no. No sir. And that was the end of that. Policy ahead of flexibility for a customer in need. I get it, but I didn’t like it.
So what to do. Ultimately we decided to run over to a local Target. They have an eye clinic with walk-ins available. I could quickly get a new exam and then buy a box of lenses there. That would tide me over. Perfect!
So we hopped in the car, sped over to Target, and walked into the clinic.
It was empty, other than a fellow named Ron. He ran the clinic there that day. Ron had a very Wilford Brimley look about him. Friendly. Good sign! I could walk right in, put my face against the crazy contraption, read some letters, and get on with it.
I explained the situation to Ron, and he stopped me. He said “That’s ridiculous. There’s no reason to put you through the time and expense of a whole new exam just for a couple days worth of lenses. You’re stuck, let’s get you unstuck. Call your optometrist at home and put me on the phone with them.”
So I did.
Ron didn’t ask them to transfer the prescription. He just asked them to read it out loud. “What was Jason’s last prescription?” They told him. He said, “Got it, thanks!”.
Then he went into the back, pulled a few spare trial lenses, and handed them over with a smile. I asked if I owed him anything, he said no — but there’s a jar over here where you can pop a few bucks in for kids who can’t afford glasses. And that’s exactly what I did.
Ron is a very reasonable man. He considered the situation, considered the risk, and did the reasonable thing. He helped someone out who was stuck in a bind. He imagined what it would be like if he was in my shoes, and I was behind the desk instead. He’d want from me what I asked of him. That’s the best service you can ever give.
It made me think about our business. We should be Ron. We all should be more like Ron. Snap out of corporate policy mode, and act under the good neighbor code.
Business lessons are everywhere (I’ve written about that before). You don’t have to seek out famous mentors, attend expensive conferences, or worship the best minds in the industry. Just pay attention and observe everyday dealings between everyday people in everyday situations. School’s in session at every moment. The best lessons are experienced first hand.
A couple years ago I purchased a new car. A few days later I got an email from Audi asking me to rate my experience. I clicked the link to the survey and ended up seeing this:
Ok, this should be easy.
“Ease of looking at dealer’s inventory” — great, no problems there. A 10, right? Well… was it OUTSTANDING? How about TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No, it wasn’t those… I can’t say someone’s inventory was truly exceptional. I can’t put my name on that sort of endorsement. So…?
Comfort in the office where we cut the deal? It was fine — I couldn’t imagine it to be better, but was it TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No. That doesn’t fit. So does that make it a 6 or 7? No, it was better than that… But… So…?
I see this sort of thing in surveys all the time. A simple 1–10 scale (or 1–5, it doesn’t matter), but the labeling of the numbers is so sensationalized that it turns me off. As far as the number goes, I’m happy to give something the highest rating, but the language overshoots the number and then I don’t know how to respond.
I find these sorts of things great reminders of how important it is to choose the right words. Don’t overshoot, don’t sensationalize. Be modest with language. Find the right fit and leave it alone.
Hey Guys, We run a monthly subscription that provides a certain service for other businesses. At the moment we have a few clients but are currently really struggling to get some more. We have only really been in business for a couple of weeks but was hoping for some more clients. At the moment we have a tried a fair bit, mainly trying to build a twitter following and keeping our blog up to date at the moment (daily high quality posts) in order to build some authority. We have also sent out a heap of emails (tried a few different subjects + content) but still not really getting any more customers. So my question to /r/Entrepreneur is, what are some tips you have for getting clients in a service based industry?
Years ago a guy decided he had some talent making cakes and wanted to start a business. But he had no clue how to start. So he went to his dad who is already a successful entrepreneur and PhD in Economics and asked him how to get started. His Dad’s reply? “If you want to have a cake business, you need to sell cake.”
So this wannabe business owner took his father’s advice to heart. He went out and hustled cake. He built the best fake cake he could. Then he figured he needed to be where people naturally were going to become cake customers. Not in the yellow pages. Not on the internet. Not making cold calls. He went and physically hung out where his customers were going to be: wedding venues! Brides-to-be are constantly at wedding venues. Checking them out. Getting ideas. Making reservations. So he went over to the wedding venue by his house and dressed in his Chef whites with this fake cake of his. And he just walked. Slowly. Up and down the sidewalk. He’d lap around and around for 5 hours. Eventually a bride-to-be would stop by the wedding venue to make a reservation for their own ceremony, and they’d see this baker and his beautiful fake cake, and they’d ask for a card. In a couple months of this, he was making cakes for every wedding at that venue.
Today? You might know him as Duff Goldman, or as Ace of Cakes, a very popular show on the Food Network that followed some of Duff’s successful career. There’s a lot to take from Duff’s story.
1. Have a product worth showing off
You have to make good things. You can’t skip this step. You need to look at your product and see if it’s actually any good. Lots of people put out things they aren’t even proud of. Duff knew his stuff was good. People would see this fake cake and want it. You have to get honest with yourself. Would you buy the service you’re selling? A lot of folks are too scared to face this reality. Their product stinks. But then they don’t put in the practice to get any better.
2. Take your time
You’ve been in business for a couple weeks? “Tried to build some authority” with a blog in that time? Duff on the time it took to get his business in gear:
Within two months, I was making the cakes for every wedding at the place (Two and a half years later, I had my own shop. We did things a little differently, because if I were just to make the same cupcakes everybody else does, nobody would care. So we made huge cakes and cakes in strange shapes. Then came my own TV show, and business exploded.
Two and a half years to get his own bakery! For most people their own shop is something they expect to have… today. But the reality is: to be successful with your own shop you could use a big audience behind you. So he scoped down his dreams and worked out of his apartment until he had enough business.
You’ve been at it a couple weeks. That’s nothing. It took me years of writing to build any semblance of an audience who would consistently read my stuff on Twitter (@natekontny) or Medium. You’ve got to put in some serious time and work to make a blog pay off. It’s totally worth it. But it’s an investment. You can’t get discouraged after a couple weeks.
Success takes time. Give yourselves some goals, but get realistic about how long it’s going to take to become great. Basecamp the company (37signals at the time) was around for 4 years before they even had 4000 blog subscribers to Signal v. Noise. With that, they launched Basecamp the product, and it still took another year to support 4 meager salaries with their software products.
3. Go to where your customers are — physically if you have to
Duff didn’t just spray and pray on the emails. There’s lots of bakers. Lots of websites and yellow page ads. Brides planning weddings are inundated with noise. So he went out and actually pounded pavement where no one else was.
Inkling, was my first business of any success that I started with Y Combinator in 2005. Our first customers were the result of some emails we sent, but we were able to stand out. There wasn’t any other Prediction Markets tools out that were doing software as a service. We could email someone and had very unique things to say about who we were. Is your service unique enough you can email someone about? If they aren’t, you’ll need to figure out how to stand out.
Go pound some actual pavement. Go get some meetings with people close to you. Don’t sell them anything, but set up some time with them to get some feedback on what you’re selling. A common email I would send out starting Inkling and later another business I did (Cityposh with Y Combinator in 2011), was just “Can I buy you coffee?” as the subject line. And I would just layer on the compliments about how much I liked their business and see if they had a moment to give me feedback on my latest project.
If the meeting had to be virtual I’d send “Can I buy you a virtual cup of coffee” and would send them a gift card to Starbucks if they accepted. This worked really well.
I remember sitting across from the owner of a bar in my neighborhood. He didn’t have a need for the product I was selling, but in that conversation he outlined exactly what he had a need for that he would buy from me. That conversation was great feedback to help me mold who I was trying to help, and if I had given up on that idea, this guy had just given me the next thing to work on and he would have been my first customer.
Go get those feedback meetings. Often they turn into their own deals. If someone you talk to thinks you’ve got something great on your hands, just end the feedback meeting with “So is this something we can explore using at your company?”
4. Make a fake cake!
One of our first clients at Inkling was O’Reilly Media. We did for free. Why? Because their logo and name was enough to get us a lot of free attention amongst even more potential clients. We did another deal with ABC San Francisco. They paid us a fraction of what we normally charged. Now they were getting our name on radio and television. One of our biggest deals was with Cisco and that’s because the guy who brought us in there had seen someone on ABC San Francisco talking about us.
These deals were like the fake cake. They weren’t the real high paying deals we wanted, but go find one or two high profile customers that you can leverage for more attention. And figure out how you can help them for nothing. If you have a useful product, you should be able to get at least one person with some clout that would love to have your service for nothing. I wouldn’t do this more than once or twice, but if you find the right one, that freebie is worth a ton.
5. What other fake cakes can you make?
What else can you do to show off your value. Open source everything. Put out lesson after lesson you’ve learned in your life. Share all the ways you’ve gotten these first customers. Share the things that are working and the things that aren’t. Go answer questions on forums where your “brides and grooms” are asking questions. Just like a couple going to a wedding venue, your customers are going somewhere to ask questions and get help. Go answer them. Reddit? Forums? They’re searching for answers to something. Be there to help. The more you do this, the more chances you have to drop links back to your own blog, Twitter account, business, etc.
6. Make crazy cakes
We did things a little differently, because if I were just to make the same cupcakes everybody else does, nobody would care. So we made huge cakes and cakes in strange shapes.
We can’t just keep doing what everyone else is doing. Today I’m the CEO of Highrise, web-based CRM software. When Highrise first came out in 2006, it was unlike a lot of things. It was simple unlike Salesforce. And it was software as a service unlike all the local databases and address books people were using to manage their contacts.
But today, Highrise was recently spun-off from Basecamp to get the love it deserves, and the market is really different. There’s a ton of CRM competitors. Good ones too. We can’t just do whatever everyone else is doing. So I do everything in my power to be different. I send feature announcement newsletters to our customers with pictures of my family to stand out from the soulless news everyone else is sending. I write and teach what you can learn from the inventor of Instant Ramen noodles vs. the content marketing garbage everywhere. We built a way to send simple text based bulk email vs. the trendy, graphic laden, slick email campaigns other vendors are trying to steer everyone to make. And on and on, we realize no one would care unless we offered something others weren’t.
Is your service different enough from everyone else? If it isn’t then I’d spend a ton of time figuring out how you can get it there. Two really important books that have helped me make products that are different and innovative enough to stand out from the competition are Blue Ocean Strategy and Something Really New. Spend a ton of time thinking about how you’re going to be different.
I hope this helps some of the folks looking for ways to reach their first or even their thousandth customer. If I can be of any help to anyone please let me know on Twitter or shoot me a brief email (nate.kontny on Gmail).
And to see how we’re living our own advice, you should follow what we’re doing at Highrise.
It’s very pretty but nothing about this package says ‘tea’ to me
Exactly. Cool tea products usually have that “zen” vibe. Not “let’s go rock climbing”.
Definitely. This doesn’t say “tea” at all. Reminds me of a company that tried to take on the wine market.
There’s so much wine. And wine has always had a culture. There’s historically been a typical way to design a wine. How it tastes. How you talk about it. The history you share on the bottle. How many varieties you have. Even how white and red is supposed to come in different shaped bottles. And wine has become something that you need to educate yourself about to be able to pick something when you visit a store.
But a company comes in and decides, screw it, let’s not make wine for wine drinkers. Let’s make it for people who buy things like ready-made cocktails and beer. People who are in and out of a liquor store and know nothing about wine. So they made only two kinds of wine: a single red and a single white. They used the same bottle design for both. They made them a bit fruitier and less complex in taste which made them more easy to drink by people used to drinking cocktails and beer. It got rid of all the junk about the history of the vineyard and typical stuff on the bottle — going with a simple logo of a Kangaroo.
Critics hated it. “Too sweet.” “Won’t make wine drinkers happy.” But that was the point. This isn’t for wine drinkers. The result: [yellow tail] in just 2 years become the fastest growing wine, and then quickly reached the number one wine in the US.
I agree. This design doesn’t say “tea”, but that’s really the strength of this. Tea is a ridiculous commodity. There’s already a lot of what you think about when you think fancy, “cool”, “zen” tea products. Why not make the tea for rock climbers? Why not focus on the people who want energy and caffeine from tea, but don’t really care for all the flavors and culture that the rest of the tea market caters to.
This [yellow tail] story is just one of a bunch of awesome case studies in: Blue Ocean Strategy. Anyone making products and business should give that book a thorough read. Our goal should be to find market space that is uncontested. A blue ocean. If you try and compete with everyone else you end up in these bloody red oceans competing on things like price alone.
P.S. To see how we ourselves are taking on the bloody space of CRM and finding uncontested waters since we spun-off from Basecamp, you should follow what we’re doing at Highrise and the story on Twitter: here.
When evaluating a redesign, your first instinct is to compare the new design to the old design. But don’t do that.
The first step is to understand what you’re evaluating. If you just put the new design up against the old design, and compare the two, the old design will strongly influence your evaluation of the new design.
This is OK if nothing’s changed since the original design was launched. But it’s likely a lot has changed since then — especially if many months or years have passed.
Maybe there are new insights, maybe there’s new data, maybe there’s a new goal, maybe there’s a new hunch, or maybe there’s a whole new strategy at play. Maybe “make it readable” was important 3 years ago, while “help people see things they couldn’t see before” is more important today. Or maybe it’s both now.
But if the old design sets the tone about what’s important, then you may be losing out on an opportunity to make a significant leap forward. A design should never set the tone — ideas should set the tone. Ideas are independent of the design.
So, when evaluating a redesign you have to know what you’re looking for, not just what you’re looking at. How the new design compares to the old may be the least important thing to consider.
It’s a subtle thing, but it can make all the difference.
Basecamp values the long game: Staying independent, growing deliberately and building a sustainable business over time. Yet so much of the current narrative around entrepreneurship emphasizes breakneck growth, colossal investment rounds and—as Michael Lewis might say—the new new thing. As a result, there’s an entire group of businesses being left out of the conversation. We want to bring their stories to the forefront. That’s why Basecamp makes The Distance, a podcast about the old old things in business.
The Distance features narrative audio stories about independent businesses that are at least 25 years old. You can subscribe to The Distance in iTunes or via your favorite podcast app. We’ve visited a laundromat, a lip balm factory and a family farm, among others, and our latest episode centers on a 47-year-old ballet school founded by two women whose disciplined, no-frills approach to classical dance education laid the foundation for a long-running small business.
We release new episodes every two weeks and each story is around 15 minutes long, amounting to a small but potent dose of business inspiration with a deeply personal story at its core. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode!
When Jason Fried a few months ago suggested that we should start posting articles on Medium, I was skeptical. What possible gain could we have from sharing our stories on someone else’s platform rather than our 15 year-old blog? Turns out, quite a lot!
First of all, the writing and formatting experience on Medium is just excellent. I’ve yet to find another web editor that makes it as easy to produce great looking articles. It’s just the right mix of flexibility and constraint. Writing on Medium is just beautiful.
Second, Medium has a wonderful community and readership that reaches far beyond our natural sphere of influence. Between just RECONSIDER and The day I became a millionaire, I’ve had more than 500,000 people see those articles. We just weren’t getting those numbers hosting Signal v Noise on our own island.
Third, running our own blog system is a classic case of the cobbler’s shoe syndrome. Yes, we’re well capable of technically making a great blog system, keeping it updated, and keeping the design fresh, but it falls to the bottom of the list of priorities against making Basecamp better. So we don’t, and it languishes. Why not just use something off-the-shelve that others have as their sole mission to make the best?
Fourth, Medium has listened to the concerns of publishers. By offering custom domains, we’re ensured that no permalink ever has to break, even if we leave the platform. By committing to never showing advertisement, unless the publisher consents, we can remain with Basecamp as the sole commercial sponsor of Signal v. Noise. Between these two facts, we feel confident about owning our content and our legacy, regardless of where Medium-The-$82M-VC-Funded-Company goes.
So here we are. Signal v. Noise has been around since 1999. That’s more than 15 years! We’re going for at least another 15. Please follow our publication if you care to be notified when new stories are posted (or subscribe via RSS). And if you want to follow along on Twitter, where we’ll move the shorter-form quotes, insights, and video pointers, then follow @37svn.
Are we truly introverts or just socially and emotionally undeveloped? Here’s how I came to learn that truth about myself, how it’s changed the way I think about making software, and why if you make software Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” is a must-read. If you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this is for you.
I’ve long considered myself an introvert. If you’re a designer or programmer, a self-proclaimed geek, a computer enthusiast — if you live on the web — you may think so, too. Perhaps this sounds familiar: I was content to play alone as a kid spending hours building with Lego, lost in my imagination. I made art, read books, and was fascinated by computers.
The computer would do amazing things if I could master its secret language of esoteric syntax. It was absorbing and stimulated the mind. Predictable and consistent, never doing any more or less than instructed.
Unlike people. They were messy and inefficient and cared about the most trivial things! I wasn’t without friends but my tribe mostly cared about the same things I did. When we did get together it was often to share techniques and experiences from our time in solitary activities. Instead of being intertwined by friendship we journeyed through life in parallel. The things we were passionate about made no sense to adults. They didn’t advance our social standing or impress the girls. So we retreated further.
It wasn’t until the internet arrived that it all suddenly made sense. I remember distinctly in college and in my first job after college the elation to learn that I could be paid to indulge in all the things I was already doing. I was able to work with computers all day long, figuring things out, reading, making, building, tinkering. The internet was wide open and seemingly crafted especially for us geeks. You didn’t even have to take a class — everything you needed to know to make things on the internet was on the internet.
Building the case for introversion
Not only did the web allow me to get paid for work I’d have done for fun but it helped me to connect with other people just like me. We worked and communicated through the web. Email and IM meant no one had to comb their hair, put on pants, make small talk, or stand in the corner while the extroverts had all the fun. Asynchronous communication was efficient and transactional. I didn’t have to ask you about your haircut or pets before requesting the information I needed from you. My “friends” were right there, neatly contained in that narrow little window on my screen. There when I need them, minimized when I didn’t.
As we geeks became more essential to the companies we worked for we were coddled. They bent the old rules to make us feel comfortable because we were shy and temperamental. Casual dress codes, unlimited Cokes and foosball tables were standard issue. We were special snowflakes who passed around articles to explain why were were so different and how we should be treated*.
It all came to a head for me a few years ago when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Here was the definitive apologetic I’d been waiting for. I didn’t need to feel bad for being awkward, for preferring emails to phone calls, for wanting to stay in rather than go out — it was just how I was. Here introversion was presented as an advantage, not something to be ashamed of. Damn the extrovert agenda!
Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.
Years ago when I first joined 37signals I was overjoyed at having found an introvert’s dream job. Here I could work from my home hiding behind a computer nearly 100% of the time. Not working in an office meant nobody to drop by for small talk or force me to speak in front of a crowd. Customer support? Email. Meetings? Toxic. We only got together in-person a few times a year.
I remember those in-person meetings reinforced my self-diagnosis. Sitting around the conference table, the ideas and options came fast and furious. I could hardly get in a word. My coworkers wanted to work out the design now, iterating on a whiteboard in REAL TIME! What I wanted to do was take in all the information, go home and work it out in solitude, at the computer. I knew I could think as creatively as anyone else but I needed to do it on my terms.
Why take the risk of sharing a possibly stupid idea off-the-cuff when I could retreat to my cave and craft a perfectly edited proposal or iterate on a polished design in solitude?
Cain’s book validated all of this. I didn’t need to feel bad, this is just how I was and I needed to assert myself such that I could work on my terms. The book even stresses, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured”. So I didn’t look to change, I just kept justifying. Is there anything we’re better at than justifying our faults and failures? And the internet makes it all too easy to follow only the people who agree with us and read only what represents our worldview. I may be a weirdo, but there are thousands of people who are just as weird.
Now my point is not to deride Cain’s book (which is very good) or somehow deny introversion. There is no question that introversion is real and many, many people are wired this way. If you think you might be, “Quiet” is a great read. The problem for me is as great as the book made me feel about my behavior, I don’t think I was actually an introvert.
Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement, introversion having even been defined by some in terms of a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating external environment.
Extraverts are energized and thrive off of being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. They also tend to work well in groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone. They tend to be energized when around other people, and they are more prone to boredom when they are by themselves.
I didn’t dislike social gatherings and didn’t need to balance social time with solitude in order to recharge as is commonly said of introverts. Some of the best times of my life were in social settings. I couldn’t think of any time with my computer that would crack the top ten. I wasn’t sure what to do. Introversion justified my behavior but the more clinical definitions left me with questions.
It was only recently, years later, in divorce and another book that I found an answer. Divorce viciously unmasked my self-deception. Covering my social and emotional deficiencies in the echo-chamber of the internet and the apologetics of introversion made me feel better but it let the problems fester. In losing everything I was forced to turn to real people for healing. First in the few relationships I had left, later in seeking and forming new ones. I could have stayed home continuing to wrap myself in the comfort of the misunderstood introvert. Instead I sought change. Forming new relationships and asking for help required a humility and vulnerability I’d never thought possible but offered rewards beyond imagination.
Being comfortable with our vulnerabilities is central to our happiness, our creativity, and even our productivity.
Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age was the final piece of the puzzle. It’s a rather damning look at how the way we communicate in the smart phone era is killing real, face-to-face conversations in our friendships, families, schools and workplaces and what we’re losing when that happens.
We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
The book is particularly focused on a population who have never developed the skills to truly have a conversation in “real time” and how that’s destroying empathy (sound familiar?). How social media offers the unrealistic promise of connecting without giving anything of ourselves. How the ways we’ve become wired to avoid boredom at all costs — stimulation is just a tap away — has assaulted our ability to be secure in solitude, rest our minds, and open them to the serendipity and creativity that comes from unstructured reflection. How even the presence of a phone on the table changes the depth and nature of a conversation.
In seeking productivity and efficiency we’re turning conversations into, as Turkle’s puts it, merely “transactional” exchanges of information. We’re treating people like apps that we tap when we need stimulation, close when we’re bored, switch away from when something more interesting comes around and delete when they no longer offer anything in the transaction.
What does this have to do with software?
At Basecamp we make software that helps people communicate, get work done and stay connected. Millions of people use it to increase their productivity enabling them to work when, where and how they want. It works on Macs, PCs, iOS and Android, phones and tablets. It notifies you when a task is due, a meeting is starting or someone needs your attention — anywhere in the world, any time of day. I’m proud to help make a tool that helps so many people get things done but I often worry about the other side. Should I be proud when a mom is using Basecamp instead of watching her kid’s soccer game? Who’s fault is it when dad comes home from work on-time but isn’t really present because Basecamp keeping pinging his phone all evening? Every time Basecamp sends a notification should I wonder if it’s helping someone be a better worker or impeding them from being a better person?
The age of the smartphone is here to stay. Well beyond the days of Web 2.0 our industry is making the best software ever seen. Everywhere you look there are beautiful, fast, intelligent apps that allow us all to do more both simultaneously and cumulatively. We’ve had tremendous success in making people more productive but what have we gained? Do we have more free time? More leisure? No! As Turkle aptly puts it, “We are living moments of more and lives of less.”
Reclaiming Conversation ends with a call to make software that has moved beyond mere productivity and thinks about the human on the other side. Can we make apps that are less-sticky, less addictive, that reward users for completing a focused task then quitting rather than enticing them with something else? Can apps encourage uni-tasking? Can they help users take back their time?
I’m proud to work for a company that’s starting to ask these hard questions and seeking real answers. Basecamp’s Work Can Wait feature let’s users create a clear separation between when they’re working and when they don’t want to be bothered with work—even on mobile devices. This is a great step forward. Granted, many apps and operating systems have recently incorporated similar features the help us manage the noise but the future is here when computers are proactively helping us be more human, not less.
Reclaiming Conversation has completely changed the way I think about people, computers, social media, and designing software. If you’re a parent, a co-worker, or a friend; if you’re dating or married; if you’re a boss; if you make apps; if you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this book is a must-read. It’ll make you think about the way you use software, the ways software can use you, and what you’re losing every time you glance at your phone. Our industry may truly be full of introverts, but I suspect that at least some of you are like me, not realizing how you’ve let these tools change you. I hope I’ve made you curious enough to find out. If you make software, I hope you’re inspired to help your users find balance, too.