Outlasting

You in business? What are you doing to last? Not to grow. Not to gain. Not to take. Not to win. But to last?

I wouldn’t advocate spending much time worrying about the competition — you really shouldn’t waste attention worrying about things you can’t control — but if it helps make the point relatable, the best way to beat the competition is to last longer than they do.

Duh? Yes, duh. Exactly. Business is duh simple as long as you don’t make it duhking complicated.

So how do you last?

Obviously you need to take in enough revenue to pay your bills. But we’ve always tried to reverse that statement: How many bills do you need to pay to limit your revenue requirements?

Rather than thinking about how much you need to make to cover your costs, think about how little you need to help you survive as long as you want.

Yes, we’re talking about costs. The rarely talked about side of the equation. I’m honestly shocked how little attention costs get in the realm of entrepreneurial literature.

Whenever a startup goes out of business, the first thing I get curious about are their costs, not their revenues. If their revenues are non-existent, or barely there, then they were fucked anyway. But beyond that, the first thing I look at is their employee count. Your startup with 38 people didn’t make it? No wonder. Your startup that was paying $52,000/month rent didn’t make it? No wonder. Your startup that spend 6 figures on your brand didn’t make it? No wonder.

Even today… Some of the biggest names in our industry are hemorrhaging money. How is that possible? Simple: Their costs are too high! You don’t lose money by making it, you lose it by spending too much of it! Duh! I know!

So keep your costs as low as possible. And it’s likely that true number is even lower than you think possible. That’s how you last through the leanest times. The leanest times are often the earliest times, when you don’t have customers yet, when you don’t have revenue yet. Why would you tank your odds of survival by spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Beats me, but people do it all the time. ALL THE TIME. Dreaming of all the amazing things you’ll do in year three doesn’t matter if you can’t get past year two.

2018 will be our 19th year in business. That means we’ve survived a couple of major downturns — 2001, and 2008, specifically. I’ve been asked how. It’s simple: It didn’t cost us much to stay in business. In 2001 we had 4 employees. We were competing against companies that had 40, 400, even 4000. We had 4. We made it through, many did not. In 2008 we had around 20. We had millions in revenue coming in, but we still didn’t spend money on marketing, and we still sublet a corner of someone else’s office. Business was amazing, but we continued to keep our costs low. Keeping a handle on your costs must be a habit, not an occasion. Diets don’t work, eating responsibly does.

Try it for a year. Think less about revenues and more about costs. In many cases they’re easier to control, easier to predict (seek out fixed costs that’ll stay the same as you grow, vs things that get more expensive as you grow), and easier to manage. But only if you keep them in mind as you make decisions about how you’re going to last — and outlast.


Fired up about a new idea, but can’t seem to get traction to make it happen? Chat rooms aren’t traction, they’re treadmills. Lots of talk without going anywhere. You need Basecamp 3 — discussions, to-do lists, schedules, the ability to hold people accountable. Don’t just talk about it, do it with Basecamp.

The myth of low-hanging fruit

Be careful when you use the word “easy” to describe other people’s jobs.

Illustration by Jason Zimdars

I bet you’ve muttered or heard at least one of these suggestions from someone else in your office:

  • “We’ve never had anyone in business development, so there must be a ton of low-hanging fruit she can go after with just a little bit of effort.”
  • “We’ve never done any social media outreach, so imagine how much new traffic” — low-hanging fruit — “we’ll get if we just start tweeting stuff out.”
  • “We’ve never followed up with customers who cancel to better understand why they left, so I’m certain there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to be had if we do those interviews.”

I’ll confess I’m definitely guilty of having thought in these terms. Why wouldn’t I? By definition, pursuing low-hanging fruit should be a no-brainer for any business. An easy opportunity simply waiting to be seized. Little sweat, all reward!

The problem, as I’ve learned over time, is that the notion of low-hanging fruit is often flawed. We assume that picking it will be easy only because we’ve never tried to do it before. You think you know, but actually you don’t.

In my mind, declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.

What’s worse is when you load up these expectations on employees or new hires and assume they’ll meet them all, quickly. You’re basically setting them up to fail.

We recently found ourselves in this very position. We hired someone for the first time to run business development at Basecamp. We figured we would make a few calls, quickly line up a few partnerships, and see the results pour in. Since we’d never had anyone focus on this area previously, we counted on there being a load of treasure just inches beneath the surface. How hard could it be, right? Turns out, we’ve had to do quite a lot more digging than we realized to unearth the gold. In fact, we’re still looking!

The same thing happened when we decided to begin an email drip campaign — to increase conversions of Basecamp trial customers to paying ones — which we’d surprisingly never attempted before. Previously, we had been sending users an email when they signed up, and nothing much after that. So we decided that sending a few more follow-up emails over the next several days might quickly move the conversion numbers north.

Low-hanging fruit, right? Wrong.

Certainly, we can move the numbers . And we’ve already learned a ton from these new drip campaigns. But the idea that you’ll instantly move needles because you’ve never tried to move them until now is, well, delusional. Sometimes you get lucky and things are as easy as you had imagined, but that’s rarely the case. Most conversion work, most business-development work, most sales work is a grind — a lot of effort for a little movement. You pile those little movements into a big one eventually, but that fruit is way up at the top of the tree.


So the next time you call someone’s job easy — or tell an employee to go pick some low-hanging fruit — stop yourself. Respect the work that you’ve never done before. Remind yourself that other people’s jobs aren’t so simple. Results rarely come without effort. If momentum and experience is on your side, what is hard can masquerade as easy, but never forget that not having done something before doesn’t make it easy. It usually makes it hard.


This article also appears in the September 2016 issue of Inc. Magazine.