An Interview with Jason Fried on 37signals and Basecamp

Earlier today, well-known software firm 37signals announced their intention to become a one-product company, focusing exclusively on their popular project-management application Basecamp. Their other applications will take a backseat until their future is determined, and the company’s name will officially switch from 37signals to Basecamp to reflect the change.

We caught up with Jason Fried, who founded the company in 1999, to talk about the announcement, the future of Basecamp, and startups in general.

How has your past as a design firm influenced the development of Basecamp?

Originally, we were a web design company, and as we got especially busy in 2002 and 2003, we needed something to manage our projects. We’d been using email, and we looked at a few tools, but they were all about broadcasting — posting project schedules. They didn’t seem very collaborative or communicative, and they tended to create a place where one person — one project manager — was in control. It wasn’t for us, so we decided to make something for ourselves.

Design-wise, we built Basecamp around one feature at a time. We started with messages. As we noticed that we’d keep using messages to post bulleted lists, we added the to-do feature. We continued moving things around until we figured out that nothing else was needed to do our basic work. That’s how we approached our design.

On top of that, we wanted to make it accessible. That’s something we’d been doing for years for clients as a web design firm — simplifying what was already there, making it clearer and more approachable. We’d had a lot of practice.

What can we expect in the near future for Basecamp?

We’re working on a lot of really interesting things, some of them near-term. We’re about to launch some new features.

The thing that excites me most is the longer-term vision, though. We’ve already begun to work on what may become the next version of Basecamp. There are lots of interesting things we’re thinking about exploring. We’re still focusing on the basics — we’re not wildly adding new things, but we’re making things faster and more reliable.

These aren’t new features people often see. People sometimes say we haven’t added any new features in a while, but if we shave 80 milliseconds off of the response time, people may not see it but they feel it.

We’re also investing heavily in customer service. Not everyone would necessarily consider that a feature, but the best feature of a product should really be the customer service. Right now our response time by email is under two minutes, which is unheard of.

As we move forward, I want the product to get simpler every step of the way. The typical trajectory for software is for it to get more complicated. The thoughtful, careful way allows you to make it simpler.

“Simple” is a tricky word, it can mean a lot of things. To us, it just means clear. That doesn’t always mean total reduction, or minimalism — sometimes, to make things clearer, you have to add a step. We want to keep making things more obvious.

Most companies would shutter the old version of a product after a while and force everyone to upgrade, but you intend on keeping Basecamp Classic open forever. How did you make that decision?

Nobody likes to be forced to do anything. Change isn’t that hard if it’s your decision; what’s hard is being forced to change. We didn’t want to put any of our customers in a bad spot, so if they want to continue to use Classic, that’s not a problem. We aren’t actively developing it, but we are continuing to maintain it.

Basecamp is different than your phone’s operating system, for example. It’s just you using your phone, so if the OS changes and some icons look different, it’s fine. If a product like Basecamp changes, however, there could be forty or fifty people using it within a company. If it changes without warning, it would be incredibly disruptive for people trying to get projects done. To change everything on them because it benefits us doesn’t seem like a respectful thing to do.

Even if we make the reason clear, it doesn’t matter to a lot of people. They’re not in search of better, they already found something that works for them.

Today, the project management space is more crowded than ever. How do you feel about the recent influx of Basecamp competitors?

There’s a lot of stuff out there today — some very, very good products. My feeling is that if you think you’re competing with the other products that exist, you’re missing out on the biggest open market, which is people that aren’t using a product at all. I’m thinking about the people today who don’t use any of those things, they just need something a little better than they have today, and they’ve cobbled together a little system. How can we help them level up?

We don’t think about individual competitors, we think about problems that people have and jobs they need done. That’s what we’re competing against — people who don’t have things to do those jobs. If you spend time obsessing over individual tools, everyone starts trending towards the same outcome and winds up in the same place. You lose the things that made your product unique.

What’s the most exciting or unconventional use of Basecamp you’ve heard of?

We just launched a page for that at basecamp.com/made.

One group used Basecamp to pick a new bishop for a diocese in their church. They used Basecamp to pick a spiritual leader. What’s cool about that is everything is a project, it doesn’t matter what it is. Building furniture, building a company, branding something, writing a book — these are all projects, and they all require the same fundamental way to organize things.

There are a lot of crazy uses for Basecamp, but they’re really not crazy at all. They’re all different versions of the same thing.

Finally, do you have any wisdom you’d like to pass on to design-focused startups and creative businesses?

I’m a designer, I love design and designing things, and while I think that it’s very easy to categorize a startup as a “design-focused startup,” that doesn’t really map to what a customer wants.

Customers don’t want design. People need to be careful when they’re too obsessed with the design of something. You see this a lot — products with really beautiful, fluid, smooth demos. People don’t have a void due to a lack of beautiful, fluid, smooth things. They have a void because they have a problem. Good design can help them get there, but design is not what they want.

Don’t obsess over design without purpose. Designing for the sake of making things cool — you won’t turn that into a sustainable business. Be careful with that.

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