This is why we have working managers at Basecamp (and why Microsoft and Apple stumbled when they…

He knew how to work up a sweat for developers, I’ll give him that. But…

Harvard Business Review studied what makes 35,000 employees from the US and Britain tick and found:

The benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction.

Not the pay. Not the perks. Not even coworkers. Managers competent in the work of the worker. Bam.

I hadn’t thought about it in such clear terms before, but the vague hunch is why we designed Basecamp to be managed by people who do the actual work, and are very good at it. We don’t have any managers at Basecamp who just manage. Everyone with managerial responsibilities also do the work, and then they manage on the side.

I explored this approach to management in moonlighting managers ain’t got no time for bullshit, but didn’t appreciate the motivational value of working for someone who truly, deeply understands the work of the people they’re managing.

Consider this at the grand scale as well. Not just our merry band of fifty at Basecamp. Now forgive me for wheeling out the specter of Steve Jobs, but I think this finding helps explain why Apple went awry under John Scully too. Even if it was Jobs himself who recruited him. Scully knew how to sell sugar water and run organizations. He was not a competent technologist. That shit seeps in until it rots out the core.

Microsoft might well have been an evil empire under Gates, but at least there was some serious and formidable technology to underpin that empire with Gates. Once the sales sidekick took over the shop, the earnings might have gone up, but the core of competence started to rot there too.

Perhaps this too is why VCs have retreated from the earlier idea of bringing in “an adult” to run the place once the technologist founders hit a few snags on their INCREDIBLE JOURNEY to 10x returns. Keeping someone in charge who actually knows what the work is about keeps the troops happy. And happy troops are productive troops.

We all strive to do great work. It’s much harder to do that while working under someone who aren’t intimately competent in that work and what makes it great.

Best Buy vs. The Apple Store

A recent shopping experience that really surprised me

I was captivated when Apple opened its first set of physical retail stores in 2001. I’ve never owned a retail business, but I worked a variety of retail jobs growing up. What Apple did with retail was different.

I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by retail. Watching people browse, seeing how people choose what to buy, seeing how moving stuff around in a store can have significant effects on purchasing patterns, etc. Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy is one of my favorite books of all time.

When Apple finally opened one in the Chicago area over a decade ago, I rushed over there. I was in awe. What a unique retail experience. Just wonderful.

And for years I enjoyed visiting the stores. Whenever I needed something Apple, I’d go there. I’d rearrange my schedule to shop at an Apple Store.

But in the last few years, the stores have really turned me off. I don’t like stepping into them. They don’t make me feel welcome — rather they make me feel like I need a good reason to be there. Of course I have a reason to be there, but I don’t like the fact that I have to declare it upon entry.

At the door you’re often met by a bouncer who asks you what you need and then directs you here or there. “Please wait by that table over there for a guy with glasses and a blue shirt.” And so you go, awkwardly waiting. Not sure if you can leave your station, lest you miss your opportunity to talk to who you were directed to talk to. Then what?

I find the stores packed with so much Apple staff that you often have to break up a conversation between two staff members in order to ask a question. Now I feel like I’m interrupting someone just to buy something.

Am I being a little dramatic? I’m really trying not to be. This is just how the stores make me feel these days. And it’s not just one store — it’s a handful of stores I’ve visited. Some have been better than others, but there’s a general vibe I get when I walk in that just doesn’t sit well with me. Whenever I go to the Apple Store I feel like I’m on the clock. Like some other customer appointment is pushing up behind me. Hurry up. I can’t explain it beyond that.

Here’s an exaggeration, but not by much: The stores feel more like a deli experience — take a number, wait over there, we’ll call you when it’s your turn.

I recognize Apple is a victim of their success here. Due to unprecedented retail demand, they’ve had to institute protocols to manage the number of people and different kinds of customers. I’m sympathetic to the challenges — it can’t be easy. And they’re probably doing it better than anyone else could. But regardless, I’m just sharing how it makes me feel as a customer.

So just a few days ago my wife asked me to pick up a new iPad for her. She needed it quickly — shipping wasn’t an option. A few years ago I would have hopped in the car and ran down to the local Apple store. This time, I checked Amazon Now first to see if we could get same day delivery. Then I realized Amazon doesn’t really sell Apple stuff so that was out. I could have tried Postmates since they deliver from local Apple Stores, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time.

So I decided to go somewhere I almost never go: Best Buy. There’s one right around the corner from our house. A 10 minute walk, a 3 minute drive.

I walked in. The place was empty. This doesn’t bode well for Best Buy, but as a customer I kinda loved it. I could enter the store without being asked why I was there today. I just walked in and headed towards the dedicated Apple area in the back. When I got there I asked a guy if they had a 128 gig smaller size iPad Pro. He asked what color, I said gold. And he grabbed me one. Done. 5 minutes.

Then I happened to ask the guy if they had the iPhone 7 and if I could switch our service from T-Mobile to Verizon. I figured I’d have to go to an Apple Store to do this (which is why we hadn’t done it yet). Or an Verizon store (which is another reason why we hadn’t done it yet). He said, sure, no problem at all, and he was really helpful throughout the process. So we did that too.

They weren’t happy or unhappy to see me. They weren’t overeager or disinterested. They didn’t stop me before I started shopping. I was there, they were there. It was just a transaction. Smooth, fast, and fair. At Best Buy. In and out in a few minutes.

Again — if you break it down, it’s clear that Apple Stores are doing quite well and Best Buy stores aren’t. So this isn’t commentary on successful business models. It’s just a simple share of a shopping experience I had recently that surprised me. Best Buy feels simple, Apple Stores feels over engineered, too sophisticated. I get why, but why doesn’t matter to the customer experience. It’s either great or it’s not — the why behind the scenes doesn’t matter. Who’s been teaching me that for decades? Apple.

It’s OK to be impressed

I remember when it was cool to root for Apple. Back when they were the underdog crawling back from the brink of bankruptcy and fighting to give the world an alternative to Wintel. Those days are long, long gone. It is categorically uncool to root for Apple these days.

And that’s fair. They’re not an underdog any more. They don’t need anyone to cheer their lead. In fact, the opposite is true. Now that they’re the 600 billion gorilla, they need scrutiny and competition, not blind admiration.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be impressed. Or even in awe. And I am most certainly in awe of Apple. It’s like watching Serena Williams over the years. Her domination in the sport hasn’t always made for cliffhanging action, but it’s been a marvel none the less.

There’s just something deeply inspiring about seeing what companies, teams, and people can accomplish at the peak of their ability. Especially when it’s happening not just for a single season, but as a reign of excellence.

That’s what we’re still watching: A reign of excellence. That doesn’t make the company, its products, or its people infallible. And various moments throughout this reign might have had more sparkles of innovation and disruption than what we’re seeing now, but there’s no denying what a juggernaut of impact it still is.

Also doesn’t guarantee it will continue tomorrow and certainly that it won’t forever. Nobody gets to reign forever (thank god!). But we shouldn’t be so proud not to recognize and applaud when it’s happening.

So Apple, I applaud you. We’re on the cusp of a decade since the first release of the iPhone. It’s astounding just how well you’ve been able to improve, iterate, and stay the champ for so long.

Perhaps no company has provided more direct inspiration for Basecamp than Apple. For a while it was so overwhelming that we banned all comparisons, just out of how common and trite they had become. But I’m getting more at ease with just surrendering to that towering shadow and be fine with it.

The Underappreciated Value of Incremental Design

There’s no such thing as a boring product update.

The Convair Model 118 Flying Car.

Apple announced iPhone 7 this week, and without missing a beat, the tech press decried it as dull. Tech pundits seem to have this same argument cued up every time Apple launches something that’s not game-changing innovation. I think they’re totally missing the point.

There are two ways to update an existing product:

  1. Make a brand new version that’s unlike everything before it.
  2. Improve it by simplifying it, making it more powerful, or adding new capabilities.

You can’t do #1 all the time. It’s just not possible. It’s a testament to Apple’s design prowess that they’ve pulled off #1 so many times, the public now expects it as a matter of routine.

Furthermore, making brand new versions all the time isn’t even necessarily good for customers. The iPhone is a stable, mature product that’s wildly popular and used by a massive number of people. Changing it dramatically every year is going to piss people off. Do you always want to relearn how your phone works every time you upgrade it? Do you always want to suffer the inevitable flaws and unforeseen bugs that arise when new moonshot stuff is launched at scale for the first time?

Sure you do, if you’re a tech reporter! But not if you’re a non-tech-obsessed human person who just wants to text their friends and check Facebook. If you’re that person, stability is a virtue, not a downside.

More importantly, there’s a critical aspect to these seemingly “mundane” product updates that people in the peanut gallery are missing:

Incremental updates help stack the deck for a big-splash release in the future.

When you have an existing product and you do want to make a big change to it, you can do that two ways:

  1. Bite the bullet, and launch it all at once in a massive blowout release that shocks everybody.
  2. Spread the changes out over a couple of releases that get you to the same end goal, but that aren’t as individually shocking to your customers.

In the case of iPhone 7, I believe the removal of the headphone jack is a tell that they’re doing the latter. I think whatever is coming after iPhone 7 depended on reclaiming that headphone jack space for something else. Every tiny bit of space matters!

By killing the jack in this release, they’re freeing themselves up to make a bigger move next. They knew everyone would whine and vent about that detail now. That means the next BIG launch won’t be marred by discussion about headphone jacks, because we’ll all have gotten over it by then. (People have a surprisingly short-term memory for the very strong opinions they held even a year earlier.)

The bottom line is, people get excited about changes and shiny new things, but they also hate changes — especially when they’re disruptive or different in ways that don’t seem to be a clear improvement over the old ways.

So, launching an update to an existing product is a difficult balancing act between these two extremes. Sometimes the big splash is fully warranted, but the rest of the time it’s best to be conservative and incremental. Apple’s carefully orchestrated release cadence is the perfect example of this, much to the chagrin of the overeager tech press.

Product releases are part of a larger long-term strategy, and they only make sense when you know the full picture. Only Apple knows theirs, but I’d bet on something big next time around. I suspect we won’t be “bored” for much longer!

Over at Basecamp, we dabble in big splashes and incremental changes. See both in action in the all-new (and constantly improved) Basecamp 3.

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Give me less, I’ll pay more

The Leica M-D 262 — A digital camera with no settings, no screen

I’m a sucker for controversial trade-offs. Companies that dare say “this one thing is more important than this entire set of other things people usually consider must-haves” take a shortcut to my wallet.

Apple is the oft-heralded example. When the first MacBook Air came out, it garnered a hilarious amount of scorn and disbelief from the technorati. How could anyone live without an optical drive?! With just one USB port?! A processor slower than the fastest one on the market?! All toward the mere pursuit of slimness? PSH!

Turns out lots of people could. Most people even. I certainly could. Jason Fried as well. We both adopted the MacBook Air right from its release and used it as our primary machines. (The same disbelief/acceptance cycle is now playing out with the latest USB-C MacBook).

But this isn’t really the interesting example of extreme trade-offs, just one of the more publicized. A far more interesting example is the recently released Leica M-D 262 camera. It’s a digital camera without any settings and without a screen on the back! You can’t even format an SD card in-camera. Oh the humanity!

Most of the camera world is up in arms about the sheer arrogance of Leica to release something with so much less that even costs more. Yes, that’s right. The version of the 262 without the screen on the back is about 10% more expensive than the one with the screen. I love it.

I love it for the same reason that I love driving manual transmission cars. It’s inefficient, it’s more work, it’s less accessible, and it’s completely wonderful in the right setting. Leica is trading off technological progress to allow a small niche of purists to have more fun and a stronger connection to their camera, just like Porsche is bringing back the manual transmission to their top-tier 911, the R.

It reminds me of the Ruby programming language. Do things that are worse for the machine, that make programs run slower, but widen the smile on a programmer’s face. Make things objectively worse to make them subjectively better.

Of course, it’s this conflict that’s at the source of all the controversy. It’s easy for everyone to cheer when the computer is upgraded from 2GHz to 3GHz. That’s progress everyone can easily get behind. But the progress that says “to make something 10mm slimmer and 300grams lighter, we’re going to cut out these things that some people really like” — now that’s courage.

Deciding to cut out useful, table-stake features from a camera, like the back screen, to tickle the emotions of a small niche of photographers? That’s German balls of steel.

Vorsprung Durch Emotionen!

What’s more important: An extra gig of RAM or 3D Touch?

The hardware engineering and software coordination behind 3D Touch in the iPhone 6S is impressive. It’s such an Apple feature. Executed with exquisite diligence because they control the whole stack. Marvelous.

But you know what, it’s not my favorite feature of the 6S. That honor belongs to the low-tech, behind-the-curve addition of an extra gigabyte of RAM. Something that probably cost Apple just a few extra dollars per phone and almost no engineering prowess. (Compare that to the probably hundreds of millions in revised tooling, advanced development, and more needed for 3D Touch.)

Doubling the RAM means apps aren’t constantly being swapped in and out. Which means switching between them is super fast more of the time. Which in turn makes the whole phone feel much better over the course of a day.

It’s been repeated ad nauseam, but it’s still so hard to internalize for most product people: Speed is a feature.

Usually, it’s one of the most important features. Yet it’s also one of the hardest to get right. Chiefly because every other feature is generally at war with speed. Any excess CPU cycles are quickly captured by new, advanced, and ultimately slowing features. Extra cycles are like a surplus government budget: The constituency is going to have a thousand ideas for how to spend it.

It’s not easy to get this balance just so. You have to be fast at what people want and expect. Being the fastest phone running iOS5 or Window OS isn’t going to get you any business.

Comparing this RAM apple and that 3D Touch orange, though, is also a worthwhile reminder that good product design doesn’t deal in distinct categories. It’s all a fruit salad! Customers just want it to be delicious and nutritious.

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