Don’t Promise

We’ve all been there.

A customer’s upset. They make a demand. Maybe it’s reasonable, quick, easy, and no big deal. Fine. But sometimes it’s unreasonable given the context and situation. And we give in.

Promises to placate rarely end up well. Sometimes you’ll do anything to avoid the immediate pain of saying no. And since in the near-term there’s little cost to saying “yes”, promises feel like a bargain. But while promises are cheap and easy to make, actual work is hard and expensive to do. If it wasn’t, you’d just have done it now rather than promised it later!

Promises are like debt — they accrue interest. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off.

One of the biggest costs is regret. Past promises are often met with current regret. Once it’s time to get to work, you realize just how expensive that “yes” really was.

You promised someone you’d release that new feature or product by the end of the year. Sounded totally reasonable in April — “sure, we’ll have plenty of time to get to that!” — but now that it’s November, you have to scramble.

Things that were slated get pushed off. People have to get reshuffled. Teams reassembled. Priorities put on hold. Other things delayed. New ideas take a backseat to old ones. All because of a simple “yes” to dodge the pain of saying “no” months ago.

Many companies are weighed down by prior obligations of placation. Promises salespeople made to land a deal. Promises the project manager made to the client. Promises the owner made to the employees. Promises one department made to another.

The further away the promise, the easier it is to make. And the more painful it is to ultimately deliver. That’s because when the time comes to fulfill the promise, Employees would rather be working on new ideas rather than old promises. You have to put aside progress to make up for the past. Tomorrow waits for yesterday.

Morale takes a hit when the past continually snaps you backwards. Energy and will is sapped. Undesirable past obligations are a constant source of stress and frustration. People leave when they feel like the work they’re doing today is last year’s work.

It might feel difficult in the moment, but you’re far better off saying no in the first place. Take the short term pain that goes away quick vs. the long term pain that sneaks up on you and intensifies as obligations come due.

Competing with U2

Salesforce just had their annual conference this week called Dreamforce where around 150,000 people show up to see new feature releases and listen to U2. Literally. U2 performed.

So how on earth can Highrise, a six person company, compete with U2?

I recently began exploring that question in a video about how Zara, a juggernaut in the fashion industry is killing department stores and retailers like The Gap. Where the Gap might take 15 months to design and develop a new product, Zara takes a couple weeks. Where Macy’s might take 9 months to replenish a hot item that sold out, Zara can get it back on racks in a week.

Zara is killing the competition with their speed and agility.

I also mentioned how well that strategy worked for me with Draft. I had little capital and me as the only employee, and my main competitor had over a million in funding, tons of connections, dozens of employees, and press mention upon press mention. They went out of business. Why? They would take weeks and months to launch a single new feature. I launched 3 important features every 3 weeks. I focused on agility not perfection. Things shipped fast. I deeply thought about things I needed as a writer, but I didn’t debate or spend much time second guessing my gut designs. If I didn’t get it quite right, I quickly shipped changes.

Khalid Saleh asked in the comments:

Excellent and insightful Nathan- so is that the way you compete with salesforce? How much do you think about them and how much of your business strategy is driven by competitors?

Great questions that I expounded on in a YouTube comment I’m reposting with edits:

1) Yes, that’s a big way in how we compete here at Highrise. We move very quickly to get stuff customers want. Of course some projects take a long time. We’re working on iOS and Android apps right now and it’s taking a big chunk of time. So we make sure we’re careful scheduling a lot of very quick projects. We make sure we “time diversify” so all our folks aren’t all on long term things. Have to keep the company shipping.

But that isn’t the only ingredient. We also focus on simplicity and clarity. We make a huge effort to edit ourselves and not throw the kitchen sink of possible features at all our users. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to Highrise after shifting over to Salesforce or more feature packed solutions. Every feature you can ask for glitters at first, but when you find yourself actually using those products you realize how all that extra stuff turns into friction to getting what you need done.

There’s a lot more to this question than this answer is going to cover, but yes, speed is at the top of my list of tools I use to compete.

2) I rarely think of competition. It’s just not that useful. I already hear from customers that might mention “so and so” is doing something and I want you to be doing it. But instead of looking at so and so, we’ll dig into where that request is coming from. What’s the true source of the pain. And we’ll explore solving it with our own minds. Sure, often, we’re coming up with similar solutions to competitors through that process, but that also means we have a clear understanding of why every bit exists in our application. And so we can make some very smart choices about improvements. If we watch our competitors and move when we see them move, we really won’t understand why they did those things. And then we’ll be just a half-assed step behind them.

If you’re listening often enough to people using your product, there really isn’t that much reason to spend time watching your competitors. It’s better spent talking to more users.

So very little is driven from competitors. All that being said, I do catch wind of things. I’ll see an article, or someone will pitch something novel a competitor is doing that makes me think if we’re serving our customers right in a certain area.

I get more insight from other applications too. How can we be inspired by companies like Cards against Humanity who sells games, or Etsy selling physical goods. There’s a lot more interesting things I think there if you want to spend much time watching other people to come up with business strategy. Borrow and get inspired from other industries.

Of course, this a deep question and I’ll have plenty more to say about it here and on YouTube. And, Bono, you better watch out. 😉

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business or handling customer support, check out how Highrise can help!

Poor design — “doesn’t say tea”

Reddit user earthtokeebs posted a design he had worked on for his client, Natural Warrior Tea.

Some of the reaction:

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.

I don’t want to be a winner

Is there anything our society exalts more than The Winner? That fiery someone who crushes all competition to stand alone and victorious at the end. A genetic predisposition, I’m sure.

The paradigm of competition is so ingrained as the basic business narrative that we usually don’t even recognize it, much less question it. Well, of course there are winners and losers! What are you, a fucking communist?!

Actually, no. I’m a capitalist who doesn’t like direct competition. Is that an oxymoron? It shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s the profitable, justified motivation I smiled to see affirmed by Blue Ocean Strategy, the business book that explains this non-combative style with case studies like Cirque du Soleil.

I think that’s why I never really liked individual sports or games either. I remember how hard my heart would race playing 1–1 Quake, and how infinitely more shitty it felt losing than winning, and that even the latter wasn’t all that interesting!

Competition is the direct cultivation of stress and paranoia. Tapping fight-or-flight for game and gold. No thank you. Not for me, no siree!

The only competition I’ve come to love is the one against myself, and that’s not really a competition, now is it? The progress of betterment. Playing your part to the best of your abilities in a beautiful whole.

That’s the joy I take away from racing cars for endurance. It’s not so much being faster than the other cars, but striving to perfect your own contribution as part of a team. Pushing against the limits of perfect execution over the long term. 24 hours of testing your capability to avoid mistake and fatigue. Winning is almost incidental to that.

The same goes for making Basecamp the best software and the best company it can be. It’s not about taking out or choking existing or upcoming competition. It’s not about dominating a space to the exclusion of all others. I’m not sipping sour grapes or feeling bad when a competitor hits its stride. In fact, it’s so much more interesting when Basecamp is just one of many, different choices for people to make progress together.

The world is better off when its not being held in the palm of a few dominating winners.

See what we’re up to at Basecamp after twelve years with the brand-new version 3 we just launched.