Amanda Lannert from JellyVision interviewed Jason and I at their cool company office in Chicago a while back about Rails, business, design, and products.
Back in June of 2013 I was at a The Starter League demo day and watched this kid named Jack present what he built in three months. Impressive.
Jack was confident, he was raw, he was rebellious, and he was clearly smart as hell. And he was just 19.
After the presentation I turned to Neal Sales-Griffin, one of the founders of The Starter League, and said “Who the hell is this kid? I have to meet him.” Neal gave me his email address and I shot him a note. We traded a few emails and I agreed to be one of his mentors moving forward. Since then we’ve met up a handful of times. I’ve helped him think through a bunch of stuff, and he’s helped remind me what it’s like to be young and hungry. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous of where he’s at.
After Jack’s Starter League experience, he applied to go to Starter School, the level-up program from The Starter League. It’s a 9-month intensive — and supportive — program where people learn the whole stack – coding, designing, the art of product, and the basic business building blocks necessary to eventually turn what they build into a business.
A few months ago, Jack and the rest of his classmates graduated Starter School. Along the way I had the privilege of meeting these students. What a fine group of people they are.
I spent hours talking with them, getting to know them, listening to their stories, and hearing about their experiences. A few of them were just under 20 years old. Others were college dropouts. Some had just quit jobs they hated. Some were part of family businesses, others weren’t sure what to do with their lives. Some were sick of just having “ideas” — they actually wanted to make something real for themselves for the first time.
I came away feeling like I just met an all-star team. They weren’t all where they ultimately wanted to be yet, but they were all on their way. Full of confidence, full of new skills, and full of opportunity. Some will go get jobs, some will start their own business and create jobs. And some will go back to what they were doing before, except that now they’ll be an entirely different person.
I asked Jack to write up his experience at Starter School. I wanted everyone to get to know him, and to get to know what’s it like to go through this unique program.
So, here’s Jack’s Starter School story, in his own words:
Two years ago I was packing my bags and off to St. John’s University in Queens, New York to start college.
One year and nine months ago I was officially a college drop out.
Today I am a developer, designer and entrepreneur. I’ve built two products that people use (and one that’s in the process getting acquired). I have serious job offers. And I’ve built relationships with some of the most influential people in Chicago’s tech community. Including Jason Fried, who asked me to share my story here on SvN.
What’s up everybody?
My name is Jack Mallers (@jackmallers). I’m a 20 year old kid from a small city called Evanston, right outside Chicago. I wear sweats. I’m better than your average chess player. I stole the ball from Jabari Parker once. But the most valuable thing in my life by far is the education I received at Starter School.
Dropping out of college was not easy. To be honest, I was crushed. You grow up thinking there’s this path you have to walk to live what other people consider a good life. I felt judged by some of my friends. I felt like I was letting my dad down. I felt like I had let myself down.
I had no idea what path I was going to walk next. I didn’t want to sit in a bunch of boring classes. I didn’t want to struggle through every week just to have a beer at the tailgate on Saturday. I didn’t want to spend my days turning in homework that only effected my GPA, which then effected whether I got some internship. That life felt limited, and I knew I didn’t want to do that.
What I didn’t know was that I had a choice.
I will never forget walking into Starter School to meet Neal, the founder. He told me “people don’t come here to build resumes, they come here to build things that solve problems.” I looked over to my dad and we both smiled with that “hell yeah” look on our face. I was sold. This was exactly where I wanted to be.
Two months into Starter School I built my first app. I had a classmate named Mohammad. Mohammad is handicapped and uses a wheelchair to get around. He came to class one day with a ridiculous story.
One night Mohammad was heading home from Starter School and got stuck at a train station that wasn’t handicap accessible. At this point the other stations were now closed for the night, so Mohammad had to wait in his wheelchair on the street in Chicago at midnight for his mom to drive an hour to take him home.
When Mohammad told me his story, we realized we had the skills to solve this problem now. We built a tool that filters out non-accessible routes when you search for directions. Now, Mohammad no longer has trouble getting home in his wheelchair by train.
I then built an app for gyms to track their personal training clients with my classmate Harsha. We made it to the final round of interviews with TechStars Chicago with it. Now we’re in negotiations to have the product acquired.
Today, I’m building ChessExplained, an app I’ve wanted to exist since I was 8 years old. There have always been too many variables that factor into a good chess experience where someone can learn from a coach. You need to be in the same room, you need to be free when they are free, and they can’t be too expensive. That’s too long of a checklist. Chess is too beautiful of a game. That’s why ChessExplained exists. I can now learn and experience chess whenever I want with whoever I want over the internet.
I have no idea if you are a gym owner or want to learn chess. That’s not the point of this story. The point is a college dropout can become a developer, designer, and entrepreneur in one year.
Don’t settle. You don’t have to work for someone else’s dream, you can build your own. This past year has been unreal, and I am so thankful for everyone that has helped me through it. But my journey wasn’t magic. It wasn’t chance.
It was a decision.
I chose Starter School because I love solving problems and making a difference. I’ve paved my own path. I hope you realize you are only a decision away from doing the same.
Disclosure: Basecamp is a minority investor in The Starter League which runs Starter School.
Today we have a major announcement to make regarding Highrise, our popular CRM tool. It’s a good one!
The story starts back on February 5, 2014, the day we announced that we were becoming Basecamp. We announced we’d be renaming the company from 37signals to Basecamp, and we’d slimming our product line down to one product – Basecamp. This meant we’d be finding new homes for our other products. We said we’d either sell them or spin them off into stand-alone companies.
And wow! Right after making the announcement, floods of emails came in from companies, investors, and individuals who were interested in buying one or more of these products. I expected some interest, but I never expected so much so soon. We were off to a great start!
We decided to start the process with Highrise, since it was our second most-popular product behind Basecamp and it would command the highest price. On its own, Highrise generates multi-million dollar annual profits, so it’s very much the real deal and very attractive to a wide variety of potential suitors.
We fielded the interest, vetted the buyers, and narrowed down the field to about a dozen companies that we felt would provide a great home for our customers and fertile soil to grow Highrise to its full potential. The fit was critical – we outright rejected a few deep-pocket buyers because their plans included shuttering Highrise and rolling the customers into their existing product. That wasn’t an outcome we could live with.
The finalists were notified, we shared the prospectus, and they had a few weeks to submit their bid package and long-term plan for how they’d improve Highrise. I can’t say who was involved in the bidding, but it was some of the usual suspects (big software companies) and some unusual suspects (smaller software companies and PE firms with great track records). A healthy mix, for sure.
In the end, we couldn’t make a deal. Ultimately the sticking point wasn’t the valuation or price, it was the fact that Highrise didn’t come with a team. Everyone who worked on Highrise would be staying at Basecamp. All the serious buyers wanted the team too. No deal. We weren’t downsizing the company, we were just slimming back the product line. Everyone would be staying on board to work on Basecamp.
This meant selling Highrise was off the table. Next we turned to a spin-off. We successfully spun-off Know Your Company a few months prior, so we had some experience with this. Claire Lew was an awesome fit to take the reins and run Know Your Company, but who would be the right fit for Highrise?
A couple names came to mind, but I felt one was a perfect fit. I knew him, I knew his background, I knew people who worked with him, and I admired his energy and drive. He was a great programmer, a great product thinker, a great leader, a hell of a nice and decent guy, and he just happened to be in Chicago. We’d talked before about working together somehow, but there was never anything to do. Until now.
I dropped him an email. I heard back. And a few months later – today – we have a big deal to announce. We just signed the official papers last week. Argggg lawyers!!
Highrise is now its own company (legally it’s a subsidiary of Basecamp). Highrise will run as its own company with its own leadership, its own team, its own board, and its own budget (fully funded by customer revenues). During the transition period, Highrise will lease some infrastructure from Basecamp, but ultimately it’ll be completely self-sufficient. Plus, because Highrise is profitable, no outside money is required to get it off the ground. It’s on very stable ground right from the start.
And who’s running this new company? Nathan Kontny!
Nathan’s a Y Combinator alum (founder of Inkling & Cityposh). He was also an engineer on the second Obama for President campaign. And you may know him for his latest product, Draft. In fact, I’m using Draft to write this very announcement. It’s an outstanding product.
As CEO, Nathan will be tasked with building the team and executing his vision for Highrise. We couldn’t be happier with Nathan. Highrise is going to get a whole lot better.
What does this mean for the product and our customers? Like any transition, it’ll take some time to get up to speed, but he’s already been digging into the code, getting to know the customer base, and riffing on some ideas. There will be no interruption in service during the transition.
We couldn’t be more confident in Nathan and we’ll do everything we can to support him. If you’re a Highrise customer, we know you’ll be thrilled with his leadership, vision, and dedication to making Highrise the best it can be. If you’re not a Highrise customer, you may want to check it out once Nathan and his team hit full stride. 2015 should be a great year for Highrise.
So please wish Nathan and his team well on their new journey! Here’s to Highrise thriving again!
RELATED: Nathan wrote a story about taking over Highrise on Fast Company and a more personal story on his blog.
Businessmen like Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas have secured their places in the annals of the fast food industry. But what about Harry Holly? He invented the hamburger patty molding machine in the kitchen of the burger restaurant he opened after losing his job in the Depression. Holly’s patty press helped bring the modern fast food industry into existence by equipping McDonald’s and Burger King with machines that could efficiently produce standard-sized burgers.
But 77 years after Holly founded his patty machine company, Hollymatic, neither inventor nor business has name recognition outside of the meat processing industry. That’s just the kind of story we like to tell at The Distance, which we launched in May to highlight businesses that have endured over decades.
In the case of Hollymatic, the company survived the loss of its major fast food customers as well as internal turmoil that booted Holly from leadership. The messiness in Hollymatic’s long history makes the company’s second wind under new ownership all the more satisfying. They are true business survivors and we hope you’ll check out their story. Thanks for reading!
Clutter is taking a toll on both morale and productivity. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School studied the daily routines of more than 230 people who work on projects that require creativity. As might have been expected, she found that their ability to think creatively fell markedly if their working days were punctuated with meetings. They did far better if left to focus on their projects without interruption for a large chunk of the day, and had to collaborate with no more than one colleague.
Decluttering the company [The Economist]
Just took an Uber Black Car to the office today and noticed that they round down the price and make it clear on the receipt. $21.00 is definitely more luxurious than $21.71. Nice touch.
Yesterday we announced the official Basecamp app for iPad. Just like our other apps for iPhone, Android, and Kindle it’s a hybrid—a native wrapper around a mobile web core. We’ve written about this setup before but today I wanted to really get into the details to show how it all works and how we’ve been able to launch four distinct apps with a handful of developers, just 5 people in all.
How it works
While developing Basecamp for iPad we introduced a third variant: tablet. Basecamp’s phone.css already includes responsive styles which allow it to adapt to portrait and landscape layouts as well as larger phones, tablets and everything in-between. The tablet variant uses these phone styles as a baseline and then layers on additional CSS for specific tablet designs (like those for the iPad app). Responsive design has plenty of drawbacks if you’re trying to take a complex app designed for the desktop all the way to phones but it’s fantastic when you need a nip and tuck from phones to tablets. Furthermore, the tablet variant can have its own templates when a nip and tuck isn’t enough. Making a new variant template means new cache fragments so we generally tried to go as far we could with responsive designs before making that trade-off.Continued…
Each week, Know Your Company asks everyone at Basecamp a few questions, including one that helps us learn more about each other. Last week’s prompt was “What’s one great read on the web you’ve come across in the past month?” We enjoyed reading one another’s recommendations so much we wanted to share the results here!
Javan Makhmali, Programmer:
Love People, Not Pleasure – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/opinion/sunday/arthur-c-brooks-love-people-not-pleasure.html
Dan Kim, All-purpose:
This Paul Graham article from way back in 2007, titled “Stuff”. It’s a great essay on how we have way too much stuff, and how it corrodes our lives.
In my constant efforts to be as minimalist as possible, this article really nailed it.
Chase Clemons, Support:
This story on houses built out of spite was really fascinating.
James Glazebrook, Support:
When picking fonts for a logo, I was blown away by the story told about this typeface:
Feel free to slam me for conflating the terms “font” and “typeface”, but that’s my level of knowledge. This page did a great job of explaining the background of FF Mark in particular, and the broader type trends that inspired it.
Wailin Wong, Reporter:
I liked “Twilight of the Pizza Barons,” a profile of the founders of Domino’s and Little Caesars that Bryan Gruley wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-07-03/dominos-little-caesars-pizza-founders-contrasting-legacies. Lots of interesting trivia about the two men plus a look at the legacies they’re trying to build now. It’s also a story about Detroit.
There was a line in the story that was so good I read it aloud to my husband (the mark of a really good piece in our household):
“The pizza barons were great at selling pies. Now one wants to save Detroit, and the other wants to save everything else.”
Jason Zimdars, Designer:
I’m fascinated with astronomy and anything that delves into the massive scale of the universe. This piece (from the same site as the popular Fermi Paradox piece the circulated recently) has elements of that with regard to time. It’s light hearted and funny but what I love is how it visualizes time. Starting with a single day the post zooms out again and again to gain perspective. First a week, then a year, then a century, through recorded (and unrecorded history) all the way to the theoretical time before the Big Bang.
I can’t get enough. http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/08/putting-time-in-perspective.html
Tom Ward, Programmer:
Here’s a long one and a short one, both from the New Yorker:
First, the best ‘guy walks into a bar’ joke ever: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/18/guy-walks-into-a-bar
Second, food for thought in this criticism of disruption and innovation. I’m still digesting it: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/the-disruption-machine
Zach Waugh, Programmer:
The Fermi Paradox – http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html.
I kept thinking about it for days afterwards, going down many Wikipedia rabbit holes along the way trying to read more about it.
Conor Muirhead, Designer:
I really enjoyed reading this post by Nate Kontny on the stories and character that allow us to connect the dots as we look back on great work:
A few weeks ago, a friend told me he was thinking about quitting his job.
He said it was because of communication breakdowns between him and his boss. Small moments of poor communication had snowballed into a deeper, gnawing frustration for my friend.
I asked if he’d mentioned these moments to his boss. Maybe his boss had no idea these were problems in the first place.
My friend acknowledged that this was most-likely true. But then he said this:
“Even if I did speak up, I don’t think anything would change.”
His words struck me. I had almost forgotten – I had felt the exact same way a few years ago.
Before I was CEO of Know Your Company, I was an employee at another company. Just like my friend, I was unhappy at work. But just like my friend, I didn’t tell my boss about it.
Why? Part of it was due to personality. I’m an introvert. I didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” to my boss. Another part of it was fear. I was worried that my boss would interpret my feedback as a personal attack.
But those weren’t the biggest reasons holding me back.
The biggest reason I didn’t give my boss feedback is I believed that even if I did speak up, nothing would change. I believed my boss wouldn’t do anything with my feedback. No action would be taken. And if nothing was going to change, what was the point of me saying anything?
My friend had felt the exact same way. This sense of futility is why we both didn’t speak up. We’re not the only ones to have felt like this.
Futility has been found to be 1.8 times more common than fear as a reason for employees not speaking up to their managers. According to a 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, more employees reported withholding their ideas due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%).
In other words, it’s not that we’re merely scared of giving feedback. It’s that we don’t think anything will come of the feedback when we voice it. Futility, more than fear, is why employees choose not to speak up to their bosses.
So how do you help your employees overcome this sense of futility?
If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place – they simply want action to be taken.
Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent work environment, you can’t just talk about being open and transparent. You have to act in an open and transparent way.
Here are three small ways you can encourage your employees to speak up…
(1) Recognize the messenger. How do treat the people in your company who do choose to speak up? Amanda Lannert, the CEO of Jellyvision and a Know Your Company customer, told me that during an all-hands meeting, she publicly thanked an employee who spoke up and gave feedback. Even though she didn’t agree with the employee’s feedback, she wanted him to know his voice was heard and his feedback was not in vain.
(2) Explain why you’re not doing something. If you receive a piece of feedback that isn’t practical or doesn’t align with the company’s direction, tell your employees that. Expose your decision-making process. If you don’t, employees will wonder, “What ever happened to that idea I suggested?” They’ll assume that you’re not open to receiving new ideas, and they’ll hesitate to bring up feedback the next time around.
(3) Act on something small. Acting on feedback – no matter how small – is the most powerful way to encourage employees to speak up and to create a more positive company culture. For example, Dave Bellous, the co-CEO of Yellow Pencil, learned through Know Your Company that his company needed a new phone service. So he promptly changed their phone service, and saw an immediate shift in his team’s morale. This one unassuming change yielded huge results. All because he acted on something small quickly.
At the end of the day, acting on feedback is how we encourage our employees to give feedback more openly. If we focus on what we do more than what we say, more employees will see that speaking up is not futile.
When I think back to a few years ago when I was an unhappy employee, this action was all I needed to feel comfortable speaking up. And for my friend thinking about quitting his job, that’s all he needs too.
I first noticed the Hala Kahiki about a year ago driving north on River Road through the Chicago suburb of River Grove. I glanced at its colorful exterior and quirky signage and wondered, “What’s the story there?” The wonderful thing about journalism is that it’s a professional excuse to be nosy. I contacted the bar owner, Jim Oppedisano, et voilà! Our newest story for The Distance takes you inside the Hala Kahiki, a tiki bar established nearly 50 years ago by a family that’s never traveled west of California.
One of the many fascinating things about the Hala Kahiki is that its founders, Stanley and Rose Sacharski, weren’t trying to take advantage of the mid-century tiki fad. They just wanted to run a bar, and the tropical theme came about largely by chance. I love the role that serendipity plays in the history of the Hala Kahiki, which like many businesses has benefitted from a combination of happy accidents and pragmatic management.
The bar is well-known among tiki enthusiasts and certain locals; earlier this year, Time Out Chicago listed “a pilgrimage to Hala Kahiki in River Grove” as No. 9 on its list of Chicago Rites of Passage. The Hala Kahiki is one of the last old-fashioned tiki bars in the region, and it’s delightfully nostalgic and free of irony. This is not a place for craft cocktails and winking nods to a bygone era of American kitsch. This is a place where you drink something called a Sweet Leilani on a leopard print stool while the bartender tells you ghost stories. There’s even a gift shop in the back where I almost bought a vintage Hawaiian muumuu at least three sizes too big for me.
We’re always on the hunt for unique businesses like the Hala Kahiki to write about for The Distance, so keep sending your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter at @distancemag. If you’re new to The Distance, please check out our first two stories on Horween Leather Co., Chicago’s last tannery, and Tina’s Closet, a lingerie store in the Chicago suburbs whose owner is determined to get every woman into a well-fitting bra.