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The joy (and a good dose of pain) of my first few months at Basecamp

Conor Muirhead
Conor Muirhead wrote this on 23 comments

A few months ago I started at Basecamp. It’s my dream job. I get to work with the people I’ve dreamed of working with, on the product I dreamed of working on. It didn’t come easy though, it took me a couple tries to get their attention—apparently that’s a thing for designers here :).

Getting the job

My first attempt ended pretty much before it even began, I submitted an application and simply never heard back. The second time (a few years later) I sent an email and heard back within about 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! 10 days later I was working on the most important (and thus stressful) project I’d ever encountered—the project that would determine whether or not I got hired.

For 18 days, from 5am till 11pm (and often in my dreams), I thought about very little beyond this project and the potential of getting the job. Somehow I pulled it off, and they hired me.

Holy cow, I got hired! I couldn’t really believe it at first though. In fact as I went to quit my old job, I had to triple check my emails to make sure this was really happening. I even remember receiving a company credit card in the mail one day, and breathing a sigh of relief—nobody sends a company card to someone they haven’t hired, right?

Then I started the job. Oh my goodness, I started the job! Again, it was surreal to actually be working with these people at this company. I was finally living my dream. That is, until I wasn’t.

My dream became a bit of a nightmare

Within a month or two I felt like things were going south. I was unhappy, extremely stressed out, and ridden with guilt. I had worked so hard for this job, but somehow I was feeling miserable in it.

I worried all the time that I wasn’t a good enough designer, that I wasn’t funny enough, that my teammates were regretting their decision to hire me. Each day I felt panicked to put out work that was good enough to stack up next to my new peers. I wouldn’t allow myself to be one of the team—I felt like I just wasn’t good enough for the team.

I was psycho-analyzing every email, every IM, and every word uttered over Skype. And the worst part was that I just bottled it all up, and tried to put on a happy face.

I felt like I should just be satisfied with what I had (it was my dream job after all), and that talking to anyone about it would just make me look ungrateful.

Outside of work, friends and family would ask about how my great new job was going, and I’d smile and lie. I told them it was great, that I was so happy, and that there was nowhere else I’d rather be. I hated those conversations.

Opening the door to be vulnerable

Eventually I considered talking to Jason about what was going on. I knew I should talk to him about it, but I was too worried about what he might think of me if I did. One day, over a Skype call, Jason could tell something was up. He waited a day and asked about it the next morning over IM.

Jason: Feeling good?
Jason: Seemed like yesterday was a tough day back for you.

As I read those words, I could see the door opening up for me to talk. I sent my response:

Me: yeah, I’d love to talk a bit more about it if you’ve got time

As soon as I hit [enter] I felt this huge sense of relief that the cat would finally be out of the bag.

We had a call and I talked a lot. Jason listened patiently, he was understanding, sympathetic, and encouraging. Somehow weeks of worry, obsession, and generally awful feelings were unravelled in a few minutes of candid conversation.

As I’ve thought about that conversation and tried to figure out what caused the change, two things seem to have made the biggest difference:

1. Leveling up a relationship with vulnerability

When I think about the people I’ve gotten close to, or the moments where I really connect with someone, there’s usually some vulnerability at play. One or both of us share something that isn’t easy to share—and that builds trust and respect in an incredible way.

That call with Jason really wasn’t easy for me—and he knew that. When I trusted him with that vulnerability, I leveled up our relationship. Now I trust him a lot more, and it’ll be that much easier to be honest with him the next time I need to talk.

Even cooler though, is that Jason leveled us up again by telling me about his own self-doubt, and how he’s often just figuring it out as he goes. Suddenly he was a little more human to me, and that allowed me to trust him even more.

With that new trust in hand, Jason told me that he’d be the first to let me know if there was any problems with me or my work. And I believe him.

2. Shining a bright light in a dark corner

One tricky thing about self-doubt is that I tend to want to hide it and keep it to myself. I want to stash those feelings far far away in a deep dark drawer in the basement corner where nobody will ever see them. But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You see, self-doubt thrives in dark, musty places, it feeds on seclusion.

Talking about my feelings of inadequacy, and sharing my fears with someone gave me hope. The fresh perspective I received from Jason was like shining a UV lamp on a vampire of self-doubt—it just couldn’t hold up.

With just a flash of light, that monster withered up, my confidence was restored, and I could be myself again.
———
So it turns out I wasn’t a horrible designer, my team didn’t regret hiring me, and there wasn’t a problem with my job. My pain was self-inflicted.

Fortunately the treatment was simple. I just had to push myself to be vulnerable, to trust in my teammates, and to open up and let a little light in. There’s no more need to worry about my standing with the team—I’ve got their honesty and mine to do that job now.

So from here on out, when I feel anxious, distraught, or discouraged, I’m gonna swallow my pride, take a risk, be vulnerable, and talk to someone about it. I’m going to remember that I’m not alone—we all feel things like this. We can trust each other to understand, to lend an ear, and to offer some kind encouragement.

Here’s to getting things out in the open, acknowledging feelings, and being willing to be vulnerable with another human being.
-Conor

Are you using your data to write a reference book or tell a story?

Noah
Noah wrote this on 1 comment

I’ve been working on some analysis about the usage of our various mobile applications for Basecamp in advance of our next company-wide get together. As I’ve been going through the process of gathering and analyzing various sources of data, I was reminded yet again of a fundamental question you have to ask yourself before you can really do anything with all that data. Are you writing a reference book or are you trying to answer a question?

Reference books like encyclopedias or statistical abstracts contain many facts about a topic with little or no higher level analysis. The point is to take raw data and summarize it in a form that’s easier and faster to refer to for future analysis, not to break new ground. They’re wonderful to have (I happen to have copies of The Statistical Abstract of the United States ranging from 1880 to 2013 on my bookshelf), particularly if someone else compiles them. That’s because making a reference book is thankless work; the goal is to create accurate summaries of data, and comprehensiveness is valued over creativity.

Analysis to answer a question is far more interesting. Instead of writing an encyclopedia of facts you get to tell a story. You start with a hypothesis that you seek to prove or disprove, and because of that you’ll end up looking at data in a different way than if your goal is just to catalog it. Sharing a story with others is far easier and more impactful than sharing a compendium—people like hearing stories more than they like reading a thesaurus, and they’re far more likely to remember the story. Most importantly, if you choose the question you’re trying to answer properly, you can deliver real and immediate value to a company instead of delivering a work product that may someday be used to answer a question.

It’s hard to go from making an abstract to telling a story, but it’s even harder to tell a story without knowing what question you’re trying to answer. Sometimes it takes a little bit of abstract making to figure out how to articulate the problem you’re really trying to solve. Eventually though, you need to find that key question to tell your story around if you want to be relevant. Think about where people keep their reference books: do you want your analysis to go on a high shelf next to the dictionary, or sit on the top of someone’s desk?

I’m forever thankful for people who produce reference books, but I’ll choose to spend my time and energy telling a story over compiling a fact book any day of the week. Hopefully I have an interesting story to share with the rest of Basecamp in a couple of weeks, but I’m certainly more likely to have an impact than if I just set out to give them a catalog of facts.

Apple has quite a few more rules than the Android Play Store when it comes to preview videos so we had a little fun with this one.

The other side of version-less software

David
David wrote this on 9 comments

The wonders of version-less software as a service are extolled from all corners of the internet: Nothing to install! Updates come to you automatically! Everything just gets better all the time. And that’s all true, but it’s not the whole truth.

The flip-side of this automatic wonder is that you’re forcing constant change on everyone. The only way to prevent that from being unbearably grating is to make it incremental, and exclusively additive.

There’s no room to change your mind about the fundamentals once a sizable customer base has been trained to expect the familiar. Anyone who’s ever tried to remove a feature from internet software will likely be so scarred from the experience that they never attempt it again.

This is where it’s so easy to cry boohoo as a developer: “Oh, those damn users just can’t see or accept the brilliance of newness! If only they would be patient, relearn everything for me and my creations, we’d all be better off!”

The fact is they probably wouldn’t. Most software just isn’t important enough to warrant a steady stream of newness friction. Makers eat and sleep their software all day long, so most changes seem small and inconsequential. But users have other worries and changes to face in their daily lives; learning your latest remix is often not a welcome one. They invested attention to learn the damn thing once, then went on with their merry life. And what’s so wrong with that?

Nothing, I say. We have a very large group of customers who still enjoy Basecamp Classic. It’s been 2.5 years since we released the new version, but the Classic version continues to do the job for them. It just hasn’t been a convenient time for those customers to disrupt their work to upgrade Basecamp, or maybe they just don’t like change. It really doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t mean they’re not happy customers. Just the other day one wrote to say how much they loved Basecamp, yet felt obliged to apologize for not yet upgrading to the latest version. There’s nothing to feel bad about! Except that the software business makes us feel like there is.

Installed software didn’t have this kind of tension because of versions. If you were using Photoshop 3, you weren’t forced to upgrade to Photoshop 4 until you were ready. (Though other network effects, like sharing files sometimes forced the issue, but that’s a separate story). Something important was lost when we moved away from those clear versions.

Users lost the ability to control the disruption of relearning and adjusting to changes; developers lost the will to commit to revolutionary change.

Yes, splitting versions, like we did with Basecamp Classic, isn’t without complication. But from someone who’s been through the experience, the complication is not only overstated, but the benefits have also been under explored.

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself: What could we do if we weren’t afraid of revisiting the fundamentals of our software? What if we just did a new version and kept supporting the old one too? 2.5 years after we committed to this strategy, we remain happy with this rarely chosen path.

Faith in eventually

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 20 comments

Making something new takes patience. But it also takes faith. Faith that everything will work out in the end.

During the development of most any product, there are always times when things aren’t quite right. Times when you feel like you may be going backwards a bit. Times where it’s almost there, but you can’t yet figure out why it isn’t. Times when you hate the thing today that you loved yesterday. Times when what you had in your head isn’t quite what you’re seeing in front of you. Yet. That’s when you need to have faith.

There are designs that are close, but not there yet. There are obvious conflicts that will need to be resolved. There are lingering things that confound you, confuse you, or upset you, but you know that eventually they’ll work themselves out. Eventually you’ll find the right way to do something you’ve been struggling with.

It’s hard to live with something that isn’t quite right yet – especially when it’s your job to get it right. It’s important to know when to say “it’s fine for now, but it won’t be fine for later.” Because moving forward is critical to getting somewhere. And, eventually, you’ll figure it all out. It’ll all work out in the end.

This is what I’ve always believed, and have always tried to practice. A dedicated faith in the eventual resolution of a problem, the eventual execution of a concept, and the eventual realization of the right design. Even when something’s poking out you don’t like, or something isn’t aligning quite right, or the words aren’t as elegant as you’d hoped, or something just isn’t easy enough yet, you need to have confidence it’ll all come together eventually.

Remember that what you’re making is in a perpetual state of almost right up until the end.

In the meantime, you just press on and keep making things, trying things, and getting closer and closer to the time when you can tie the loose ends into a perfect bow and present it to the world. What fun it is!

The Music Man

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 1 comment

Jim Jozwiak likes to be early. For our first interview for The Distance, he arrived 20 minutes early to the Starbucks in suburban Chicago where we had arranged to meet. Due to a slight miscommunication, I ended up at a different Starbucks at the same intersection, so he actually waited for 40 minutes before we figured out what was happening.

Jim was gracious, though, and later explained that his penchant for extreme punctuality stemmed from his days as a professional trumpet player. As a freelance musician, he needed to be dependable — competition for gigs was intense, and band leaders didn’t want to deal with players who showed up late or weren’t prepared. Jim arrived at all his gigs early, with enough time to warm up and even grab a cup of coffee before the performance started.

That same discipline steers Jim through his second career as a business owner running Band For Today, the subject of our latest Distance story. He manages a staff of 17 full-time band teachers that see an average of 200 kids at various schools every week, and he handles almost all the sales, marketing and billing for his 30-year-old company himself.

Running a business well takes practice, creativity, heart and the ability to improvise in unexpected situations. Sounds a lot like playing music!

Check out Band For Today’s story in The Distance and remember to catch up with previous Distance stories if you missed any. Thanks for reading!

Acquisitions is where good ideas go to die, part 457

David
David wrote this on 2 comments

Remember the really cool Farecast app that would tell you whether prices for airline tickets go up or down? We featured them back in 2011, after they had been bought in 2008 by Microsoft for $115M. Then, the story from CEO Etzioni was:

So I’m very pleased that Farecast was picked up by Microsoft, was enhanced to become Bing Travel, and is now widely available and broadly used.

I was just tipped to this story from April: Farewell, Farecast: Microsoft kills airfare price predictor, to the dismay of its creator. Not surprisingly, the attitude post-exit of what happened to Etzioni’s idea isn’t quite as bright:

So, we end up with Bing travel as a thin veneer that redirects users to Kayak, while Google innovates with Google.com/flights, which I now use all the time. Google 1, Bing 0.

Getting access to all that money, all those resources, is always the glitter story that surrounds acquisitions. The drab reality is often a lot like the hangover you had after celebrating the check clearing.

Amanda Lannert from JellyVision interviewed Jason and I at their cool company office in Chicago a while back about Rails, business, design, and products.

Jack Mallers: from dropout to Starter.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 1 comment

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.

Big news for Highrise

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 50 comments

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.