Jason Fried (@jasonfried) doesn't intend to be controversial or to change people's minds, but he seems to end up doing both of these regardless. Since launching Basecamp in 2004, he's grown the business to tens of millions of dollars in annual profit, and gathered a collection of strong and often counterintuitive beliefs along the way. In this episode we discuss how to take advantage of building an independent company, when to focus on a product and when to let it go, how to learn from the past without fooling telling yourself a false narrative, and the importance of blazing your own path as a founder instead of blindly imitating others.
Jason Fried, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast.
Thank you for having me on.
You probably don’t need an introduction for most of the people who listen to this podcast. But regardless, you are the founder of Basecamp, formerly known as 37signals. You have over 100,000 paying customers. Is that right?
That is correct.
Tens of millions of dollars in profit every year. Basecamp was also the birthplace of Ruby on Rails, one of the most popular programming frameworks of all time. You’ve been working on the company for 20 years now and you’re part of what I would call the original class of self-funded software businesses on the web.
I would also wager that you’ve done more than pretty much anyone to inspire people to follow down the same path. At the very least, Indie Hackers would not exist if not for you guys and your writing and your speaking over the years. That’s probably true of many hundreds of thousands of other businesses too. I’m sure you hear this all the time, Jason, but thank you.
My pleasure. I’m just trying to do the best we can.
It’s pretty amazing that you can just get on the Internet and share your thoughts and thousands of people who you’ve never heard of and who you will never meet will literally make life-changing decisions based on something that you wrote last Wednesday while you were eating a sandwich or something.
That’s a little heavy. But yeah, hopefully.
It is! Most of the time you won’t even know they did that, unless they write you and tell you about it. But it’s been a role that you’ve played for the last 15 years, so I’m curious: what are some of the things that you’ve learned in that time about how to be effective, how to be persuasive when you’re sharing your ideas with so many people?
Not to worry about being persuasive, basically. I’ve never really tried to change anybody’s mind. I should say, maybe I used to try to do that. Maybe a better way to say it is, I used to try to do that and I don’t anymore. Back when we launched Basecamp in 2004, the concerns were things like, “How do I know you’re not looking at my data?” and “How do I know that I can trust software-as-a-service?” and that kind of stuff. Which, of course, people don’t think about quite as much today. Back then they thought about that. I remember trying to convince people, “It’s safe.” At some point, you just can’t convince anybody. I had to stop trying. Instead I just try to communicate clearly and try to tell the truth as I see it, and let the chips fall where they may. If you try too hard to change people’s minds, you’re just going to end up frustrated. That’s the best advice I have if you want to be persuasive, is just not to try.
You’ve got a lot of strong, controversial opinions as well. How important is it that the thoughts that you share online be unique or controversial?
I don’t aim to be controversial. I just call it as I see it. Sometimes that is controversial. I think what’s important, though, is that you have a point of view. When you have a point of view, you automatically become controversial to people who don’t share that point of view. When you don’t have a point of view at all, and you’re very muddled, then you can’t really move anybody one way or the other. I don’t mean change their mind, I just mean get them engaged.
For me, what’s important is to say something that has a clear point of view and that I believe. I don’t write things to get reactions. I write things to share something if I believe it. If some people disagree, that’s great. If people agree, that’s great. I don’t really write for any other effect other than to share an idea.
One of the ideas that you shared a lot back in the 2000s was that people should consider bootstrapping their businesses. They should consider charging customers money instead of raising money from investors. Back then, I was in college. I wanted to start something. The only information I could find said that what you needed to was go to Silicon Valley and raise money. Try to get into Y Combinator, try to pitch Sequoia, and hopefully investors will invest, and then you can start something online.
Then I found you guys. You and your co-founder, D. H. H. I got hooked on your message, which was very different than what everybody else was saying at the time. In fact, I went to Mountain View to the startup school event that Y Combinator put on. They brought up this whole parade of investors and founders to talk to us. Then you came on. I think you were the last speaker. You basically said, “Don’t listen to any of these people. You don’t need to raise money. You don’t need to move to California. You can just charge your customers for what you’re building.” For whatever reason, that was a pretty radical thing to say in 2007. Why do you think so few people were putting out that message and agreeing with what you said at that time?
Well, I was never invited back to speak at Y Combinator. [Laughter] I think it’s unfortunately still a radical message in the software industry. The thing is, it’s not a radical message anywhere else in the world. Pretty much every single business in the world, 99 point whatever percent, they just have to figure out how to go on their own. The dry cleaner on the corner, the pizza shop on the corner, the little coffee shop. Most businesses that exist just have to figure it out.
It’s funny how in our industry we’re seen as radical but really we’re extremely mainstream. What’s radical to me is the alternative, which is going and raising a bunch of money and aiming as high as you possibly can. The only thing that’s going to be a success is eternal rapid growth to become a billion dollar business. That seems exceptionally radical. The odds are hugely against you.
From our point of view, building a sustainable business is a lot more reasonable. The odds are more in your favor. Still against you, of course. Starting a business is always challenging. But you have a much better shot at staying within your means and growing slowly and reaching profitability than you do becoming a billion dollar business. Or knowing how to spend that 30 million dollars that you raised. I don’t understand that – I guess I understand it, but I don’t agree with that way of doing it.
I know back in 2007 it was, I guess you could say, more radical, since now there are certainly more people doing it. There’s other great examples of companies that have done this, like Mail Chimp and a number of others. Now there’s a new crop of investors that are not out to help you raise millions but maybe 100 thousand or 150 thousand, just to get going. They’ll take a small portion of your business and maybe you can buy them out. I feel like that’s a good pattern, a good path and good progress. I’m not against taking any money ever, although I think it should be something you do later, not too early on. I think that’s when people get into a lot of trouble.
One of the reasons not to raise money is that you get to keep your independence. If you don’t have a board, if you don’t have anybody to answer to, then it’s your company. You own it. You’re free to do whatever the hell you want. What are some of the ways that you’ve taken advantage of your freedom at Basecamp?
Independence is probably the most valuable thing that we have. Because with independence typically comes flexibility. Certainly with profitability comes flexibility. There’s all sort of things we’ve done that probably people would tell us not to do. It makes very little business sense for us to write books and share all the information that we do and spend all that time on writing and sharing. Technically it’s hard to justify. If you were really someone looking at the numbers, it would be very hard to justify. But we do it because we can and we want to.
Building seven or eight products over the course of our careers and then deciding to go all in on just one of them and change the name of the company five years ago to Basecamp and focus on Basecamp and build a brand-new version of Basecamp from scratch every few years – that on paper doesn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people. To us it makes plenty of sense.
Staying as small as we can, in terms of the number of people who work here, to most companies wouldn’t make a lot of sense. There’s all sorts of things we want to do. We have a million ideas. We can only do two of them, let’s say. That’s true no matter what size you’re at. But still, people think that more people means you can do more things. Maybe you can, but you tend to do them slower and all sorts of other problems creep up.
There’s a lot of things that we’ve done that wouldn’t make sense on paper. Had we had a board we’d have to really justify ourselves. I don’t have any interest in justifying myself. I just want to do the best work I can with the best people we can find, enjoy ourselves and make our own decisions and do things on behalf of our customers and ourselves. That’s it.
To me that’s more valuable than anything. I really have come to appreciate that flexibility and independence. I wish it on more people, because it’s a special thing. The moment you take outside money from an investor who expects a return in a short period of time, you’ve given those things up. A lot of people don’t recognize that they’ve given those things up until much later on in the process. Then they regret it. I would encourage people to stick to their guns and try and do it themselves first before they would ever seek outside funding at a certain level. Of course to borrow some money from your friends or your family or yourself, or even the bank a little bit – of course you need to get going sometimes. But I’m talking about investment with strings attached. I think you want to be very careful about that.
In a lot of ways having a company is like running your own little country. It’s like your own little fiefdom and you’re the dictator as long as you aren’t accountable to other people. You don’t necessarily have to be a bad dictator. In fact, hopefully you’re a great benevolent dictator. You create this great world for yourself and your employees and your customers to sort of exist in.
It’s one of my favorite ideas that you guys export, this idea that your company is a product. You should iterate on it. You should work on it. You should make it into something that you actually enjoy, that’s a net good for yourself and for the world. Where did you get that idea from, and how did you first realize that a company doesn’t have to be the sort of cookie-cutter thing that does everything that everybody else is doing?
We looked back on our behavior and realized that at some point. That you know what, we’ve changed the way we’ve worked a bunch of times. We’ve changed our approach to work, our approach to hiring, all these things. At the end of the day, in order to make something you have to use your company. You use the company to make the other things that you make. Therefore the company is a product, and probably your most important product.
We’ve been in business for 20 years and we’d love to stay in business for another 20. If you want to be around for a long time, you have to build sustainable practices. As you grow – we have 54 people now, so we’re the biggest we’ve ever been. But we’re still relatively small, all things considered. We’re a lot different than we were when we were 30 and when we were 20 and when we were 8. You have to change your processes and your ideas as you go. But they don’t have to become more rigid. I think that’s what typically happens in a lot of organizations. As they grow they form a lot of organizational scar tissue and they tighten up.
We’ve tried to continue to iterate rather than scar. Scarring would be, you know, “This is the way we do it and that’s that. It’s a permanent fixture now.” Versus we’ve changed the way we’ve worked and approached a whole bunch of things over the years, and continue to do so. I think that’s the healthy way to do it. If you realize that your company is a product, you can improve the product like you improve your other products. It means that your company can get better. We want our company to get better as we age as well.
It’s a mindset. Once you start to explain it to people, people start to realize, “That does make sense.” I don’t think a lot of people have thought about it that way. They think of a company as static. It grows and it shifts size, but it doesn’t really change that much. But I think it should change pretty frequently, just like a product should change frequently enough if you have new ideas and want to improve it further.
Companies have bugs. There’s all sorts of things about companies that don’t work. The way they work, the way they communicate, the way they sanction time and the way they divide time. The tools they use and all these things. This is all important stuff and you need to be thinking about what it’s doing to the organization, what it’s doing to the company. Not just buy something and start using it, like what is it doing? What impact is it having? Is it hurting? Is it helping?
Just because it’s the latest and greatest doesn’t mean it’s any better for us. It could be worse. Lots of things are worse, like open floor plans were the latest and greatest thing a couple decades ago. They’ve made office life worse for a lot of people. So it’s important to re-visit these decisions that you’ve made and iterate and tweak them and adjust them and not go, “That’s just the way it is.” The way it is might have been the way it was, but it doesn’t have to be the way it has to be. That’s our approach to these sorts of things.
I don’t know what it is about being a human and just loving to copy other people, but it’s the natural thing to feel comfortable doing something that everybody else is doing.
To feel a little bit afraid.
Not only is it easier, but it’s safer in a way. You’re like, “Everyone else is doing it, so I’m not putting my neck out and doing something different. Why am I right and everyone else is wrong?” That sort of thing. The thing is that everything is contextual. Because XYZ works over here means nothing about whether or not it’s going to work for you. Very little. I shouldn’t say nothing. But it has very little impact on whether or not it’s going to work for you just because it works for them. Their organization is different.
You see this all the time when it comes to small companies following big companies. This is one of the big mistakes that startups make, that they look to companies like Apple and Tesla and Airbnb and these kind of companies, which are enormous companies and have nothing at all to do with the scale you’re at when you’re six people. Zero. Absolutely zero. The way they work, the way they function, the way they make decisions. Completely irrelevant to a six-person company. Yet those companies with six people tend to look at these bigger leaders and go, “We want to be like them.”
They weren’t like you when they were your size. You’re probably better off being more like them when they were your size than they are now. It’s important for people to look around, if they’re going to take some lessons from others, from people who are a lot closer to them.
For example, I’ll often say that I’m the worst person to talk to about starting a business. I’ve started a successful business but I started it 20 years ago. What the hell do I know about starting a business today? I know very little. You’re much better off talking to someone who started a business three weeks ago or three months ago than talking to me, or talking to anyone who’s been successful over the years. Things are different. Context is different. So talk to people who are doing the thing you want to do right now. They’re going to be the best source of information for you and the most realistic source of information for you.
Look for people your own size, look for people your own age. Look for companies your own age, that sort of thing. Learn from what’s going on around you. It’s not that you can’t pay attention to other people. I love Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, who are in their 80s and 90s. I pay attention to their fundamental wisdom and whatnot, but I think there’s more to be learned from people who are closer to your own context.
You’re spot on with early-stage founders spending way too much time trying to copy these companies that have nothing to do with them, that are way too big. The analogy I always give is, you wouldn’t go to the gym and try to bench press 500 pounds because that’s what the biggest person there is bench pressing. You would just get squashed. But for some reason as a founder there’s something missing that doesn’t make it that obvious that you can’t just copy what the bigger people are doing.
I talked to Natalie Nagele. She runs a company called Wildbit. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. They’ve been around for a similar amount of time as you guys, running a bootstrapped and profitable business with multiple products. The way that she describes her company is it’s almost like a playground. So I asked her a question and she gave me an interesting answer. I want to ask you the same question. Let’s say you could try something unconventional at Basecamp and you didn’t have to worry that it wasn’t going to work. It was definitely going to be an experiment that panned out. What would you change about how you run your company?
I’d probably take a year off. I think the way we run our company day to day is good. We iterate so we’re not in a place where we’re unhappy. But I’d be very curious just to see what would happen if I took a year off, for example, and what good things would happen specifically? What patterns would emerge? What changes would be made? That sort of thing would be really interesting to do. I’ve contemplated that before but never had the courage to do it. I think that could be interesting.
We’re also doing something we said we would never do. Right now we’re building a new product. It’s an entirely different product, not Basecamp. We’re still building Basecamp. But then we’re going to build another product, which is something we used to do a long time ago and then we stopped doing. We said we were going to go all in and focus on Basecamp. But now we’re going to do something else too. That was a decision we made late last year. So we’re doing that. That probably would have been something two years ago I would have said, “Maybe we should do another product.” And now we are.
We do do some of these things that are kind of big bets and strange decisions. Contradictory, basically, and conflicting with another thing we may have said a number of years ago. But I am a big fan of changing my mind, and I think you should be changing your mind all the time. This is one of those times. Anyway, I think to answer your initial question, taking a year off would be a cool experiment and I’d like to try that sometime.
Let’s go down this path that you’ve led us down. You’ve built a ton of products, not just Basecamp. You built Highrise, a CRM tool. You built a chat tool. I believe it was called Campfire. You built a to-do list app called Ta-da-List. You built Backpack, Writeboard and probably some others I’m forgetting. I just talked to another Indie Hacker on the podcast. He bootstrapped his product to about four or five thousand dollars a month in revenue and then got the itch and launched a totally new product a couple months ago. Now that’s at $300 in recurring revenue. It’s something that I see people at all stages doing. Building lots of products. What’s your mindset here? How did you make the decision to not just build one thing and branch out to do different things?
This kind of snuck up on us. First off, we had an idea that we wanted to explore. But more than that, we realized that – or we think. I shouldn’t say we realized. We think, because we don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. That it’s a good idea to – what we’re calling tick tock. Basically go back and forth between two things. Every time we’ve built a brand new version of Basecamp, we did it after we explored something else.
So for example, Basecamp 3, which is the current version, before that we built a product called Know Your Company, which is now called Know Your Team. We spun that off. Someone else runs that now. A lot of the ideas for Basecamp 3, visual ideas and some of the structural ideas, came from us exploring another product, making another product, and then returning back to Basecamp to make a new version of Basecamp.
Now that Basecamp 3 has been out – it’s been changing all the time, but been out collectively for almost four years and we’re gearing up to make the next version of Basecamp – we think it’s a good idea to explore something else first so we can get some new ideas. Also to have something to go back and forth on. Two different kinds of products with different approaches and different interfaces and different concepts. Bring new ideas to each one of them through other explorations that we found you can’t get to by exploring the same thing.
The fact that we had a new idea and that we wanted to begin working on a new version of Basecamp soon and the fact that we feel like there’s a point in a product’s life cycle where, for example, we have 54 people in the company. We’re pointing all of our efforts right now into making marginal improvements in an existing product that’s really, really good. Basecamp 3 is the best version we’ve ever made. It’s really damn good. It can replace five other products. You don’t need to use Slack. You don’t need to use Trello. You don’t need to use Asana. You don’t need to use Gira [ph]. You don’t use email. You don’t need to use Google Docs. It’s one thing you can use and replace all these things. It’s really damn good.
But like I said, it’s about four years in. While we’ve been making improvements along the way, there comes a point where the improvements you’re making are ultimately marginal at the end. To focus all of our company’s energy into making those kind of improvements, versus if you start something new, you can put all your energy into taking it from zero somewhere, versus taking something from 98 to 100. It seems like a better allocation of resources, plus all the benefits you get from exploring something new with fresh eyes and then being able to bring those lessons back into the other product.
Those are some of the reasons, aside from the fact that we just wanted to make something. Because we use this one thing every single day and we don’t like the way it works. We haven’t found anything else that we like. So typically when we get to that point we decide to make our own version of whatever that thing is, and do it our own way. Hopefully other people like it. That’s the plan. This other thing will be out – and I’m being extremely vague, but it will be out either later this year or early next year. It will be out later this year for some people and then early next year for everybody’s consumption.
Is there a point where it’s too early to start splitting your focus onto a second product? If you haven’t gotten to the point of diminishing returns in all the features you’re building, is it foolish to split your focus?
I do think so, yes. I think this is where a lot of founders go wrong early. They have this itch to make, to create, which is good. That’s why they are who they are. But making something is actually the easy part.
The hard part is maintaining something and improving something over time. Anyone can go start a business tomorrow. You just get a domain name. You don’t even need one of those, either. You just put up a website or whatever. You’re essentially in business. But are you going to be in business a year from now or two years from now or three years from now? A lot of people make products and they think that’s it. No, no. That’s not it. That’s the easy part.
Making something is easy. Then releasing it to the public and fielding requests and handling all that stuff and doing customer service and improving the product over time, dealing with down time, all that stuff is challenging. If you take your eye off that ball too early and start to jump on something else, I think it’s a pretty good chance that first thing is not going to survive. It’s kind of like a baby. You just need to take care of that baby for a while. Some people have babies in rapid succession, but for the most part the first nine months, first year, you’ve got to pay all your attention to that baby human, that living thing, in order for it to survive.
The thing is true for products, but products you need to pay more attention to. I’d give it a couple years before you really start to jump into something else. Especially if your team is very small, because them you’re very diluted and it’s very, very difficult to maintain a high level of quality on two things at once when you’re very small. Especially when the public’s going to be pulling you in different directions and all sorts of issues are going to pop up. You don’t have the space and the time to really dedicate to anything. Instead you’re siphoning off time from this to that. I think that’s probably not a great move.
That’s my general point of view on it. There’s, of course, exceptions and whatnot. Maybe that second thing is actually the first thing. Maybe the second thing should have been the first thing. So there’s certainly an opportunity for that second thing you make to be better than the first, and maybe the first thing you shouldn’t have spent any time on. Sometimes you have to get through the first mistake before you hit the second one.
It’s not that the second thing is going to be bad at all. It’s just a matter of focus. It’s important to nurture focus and self-discipline here, especially with making sure that whatever you put out in the world can get better over time and you can support it. You get used to supporting things versus just letting them flounder. It’s very easy for things to fall apart if you don’t pay attention to them. That’s not the case necessarily with mature products, but it’s the case with new products.
It’s hard just to focus. Because, for example, with Indie Hackers my list of things that I might want to someday work on is bigger every month. It’s never a list that gets smaller. It would be -
That will always be true.
Yeah. I don’t expect it to ever stop being true. It’s not like I’m going to run out of ideas. It’s not like people are going to stop suggesting, “Why don’t you do this or do that?” I’ll probably never do 99% of those things. I think I’m fine with it. But it’s really easy to be like a dog chasing a car.
You have to be fine with it. There’s no other option. If you’re someone who likes to make things, you’re always going to want to make new things. You’re always going to see problems in the world. You’re always going to want to fix them or whatever, or put your version of it out there. But you simply can’t do everything you want. That never ends.
It’s funny, because people think all you’ve got to do is hire more people and you can do more things. I mentioned this earlier in the show. You can do more things but you’ll never ever do everything you want to do. That’s good, because most of the things you want to do probably aren’t worth doing, or they’re worth doing for five minutes. Then you get into and you’re like, “I shouldn’t have started this. I thought I knew this problem but I really don’t.” Or, “I thought I had this idea but once it starts to take shape, this is not really what I thought it was going to be.”
That’s healthy, and a good thing. I wouldn’t hit yourself over the head with that. It’s a good thing to practice focus and it’s also a good thing to be selective about the things you choose to put your energy into. You have very limited energy and limited focus and limited attention. The things you choose to spend that time on and energy on should really earn it and be worthy of it. Not everything is.
It’s also more fun to focus on something that’s a little bit smaller and really be able to do a good job. I was thinking about this yesterday when I was prepping questions for this podcast. There have been times in the past where I’ve sat down to come up with some questions and I’ve got a ton of code that I really want to write. I’m like, “I don’t have time to do both of these.” I sort of rush through the questions and then it’s not fun to do the questions. I just feel the whole time like I should be coding instead.
Whereas if I just give myself time to give something the time that it needs and do a good job, it’s actually a really fun thing to do. It’s the same with all the different features and opportunities you can chase with your product. If you just sort of pare down your focus and limit what you’re focused on, you might find yourself enjoying it a lot more, at least in my experience.
You can reach a different depth, which is in my opinion the exciting part. If you bounce between too many things, you’re just scratching the surface. That’s cool, that’s fine. Some problems are just surface deep, but some things are really interesting. If you give those things complete focus and you give yourself dedicated time, you can go really deep on a problem area and really do something new and interesting.
In Basecamp 3, there’s a feature called Hill Charts. Hill Charts is a brand-new innovation, a totally new invention that we came up with, which is that a lot of people look at projects and try to track them linearly. 42% complete or 68% complete, and all these tools have bar charts and pie graphs and stuff about how much is left. But that’s not right. Projects aren’t that way. There is no such thing as a project that’s 68% complete. It doesn’t exist in the world. That’s a lie. If there’s eight of ten to-do’s done, it doesn’t mean there’s 20% left. It could be 90% left! It just happens to be two things left, but are those things knowns? Are they unknowns? Are they hard? Are they easy?
Projects don’t work on a linear scale. So we invented this thing called Hill Charts, which is all about separating things visually between the knowns and the unknowns, and then moving things over a hill, actually like a physical hill. I mean, it’s not physical, but it’s a line. It’s a hill. The point is that there are certain parts of a project that feel uphill. There’s certain parts of a project that feel downhill.
Uphill things are things you don’t know. You don’t know where the top is. You’re still exploring. You’re trying to figure it out. But there’s a point where you get to the top and you’re like, “OK, we’ve finally got this figured out now.” The scope of work, this idea, whatever it is. Now it’s downhill from here. That’s what people say, “It’s downhill from here.” Which means it’s all now about the execution. We’ve figured out the problem.
When you plot things on a hill versus a line, all sorts of new ideas come into focus. All sorts of new questions are asked. Projects run way, way better. The only reason we were able to come up with this is because we spent a lot of time thinking about this and going deep on this problem. Finding ourselves consistently frustrated with percentages of projects being done. There’s no such thing.
The point is, we didn’t get to this idea until three versions in and 15 years later after starting Basecamp. 14 years. We introduced Hill Charts last year in Basecamp 3. That’s 14 years in on the Basecamp product that we finally figured this out. I think it’s one of the most important things we have done. It just took a long time to get there. We had to go through a bunch of other things to get there. We never would have gotten there had we just hit the surface. You hit the surface and you do what everyone else does. It’s like percentages and line colors. It’s like green and red and how much is done, it’s like a progress indicator line. It’s a fucking lie, yet it’s everywhere. We couldn’t deal with it anymore so we came up with the whole thing. Anyway. Point is, it took us a long time to get there because you have to keep going deeper and deeper and deeper and see the problem from different dimensions and different directions and different sides to finally come up with the idea. The idea actually came from us working on a project for Basecamp where we kept saying, “We couldn’t get this over the hill.” This was before we had the hill charts, before we had the name, before we had the idea. But we just kept feeling like we kept pushing this thing uphill and we couldn’t get over the hill. Our other things felt easy. It’s like a downhill. It’s like sledding downhill. It was like, there’s something here. There’s an idea here. We spent a year thinking about that idea and exploring it until we finally came up with the right implementation of it.
Those to me are some of the most satisfying parts of product development. Being stumped and finally working your way through a problem and then seeing something that’s very clear and straightforward once you get through all the murkiness. You need to really dive deep, I think, to get there.
It takes time. You guys have said that the biggest market is the simplest, and that there are a lot more people who just want the simple thing without the bells and whistles, even if a handful of your customers are constantly asking you to build this feature or that feature. I think that’s a pretty compelling idea, especially to an Indie Hacker who’s working a full time job or something, building their projects on the side. They don’t have a ton of time to put in all these bells and whistles.
On the flip side, the problem is that there are so many people building simple products, especially today. I think you guys have probably experienced this a little bit. For example, with Ta-da-List, which was a very simple to-do list app that you guys built back in 2005, there wasn’t a lot of competition. But now there are thousands and thousands of simple to-do list applications. If you’re a founder and you want to start something today and you want to keep it simple, how do you stand out? How do you give customers a reason to use your simple solution over all the other simple solutions?
One way to think about is that there’s a lot of customers out there. If you think you have to dominate the industry, then that’s going to be pretty hard. But if you feel like you can make something great for 10,000 people who want to pay you X amount of dollars per month, maybe you can have a nice little business there. Even 5,000 people. Can you find 5,000 people who like the thing that you’ve done? That’s the way I would start to think about this.
Also, there’s always novel and interesting variations on themes. I think one thing is to be careful not to just make something different and new because it’s different and new but not really useful. But at the end of the day, if you’re entering an extremely crowded and competitive area, you should be aware of that and recognize the situation and go, “Maybe this isn’t – “ It depends what you want. If you want to build this big, huge business, that’s probably not the place to be.
If you want to do something for a specific industry, for example a simple to-do list thing could be different for architects than it could be for accountants. I don’t know, I’m just making stuff up here off the cuff. These are probably bad ideas. But the point is, you can get attached to an industry and do something really well and really simply for that niche. I’m a big believer in little niche products. Things that are often overlooked.
So yeah, a general-purpose to-do app, look, there’s a billion of them. But if you are a repair person, for example, we had to get our clothes dryer repaired recently. They had this custom piece of software that was used to track what was wrong with it and write up notes in it. Kind of a CRM kind of thing, but totally tailored to that specific industry. I happened to see it because the guy had his phone out. It looked like shit and it was confusing. The guy couldn’t figure it out. It was slow.
There’s an opportunity there to be really good at that. You’re probably not going to have a lot of competition. It might be hard to get those customers, because you have to reach out to who’s repairing appliances at home. Maybe there’s not enough of those people. The point is, you can slice and dice this in a variety of different ways.
To be a general-purpose simple to-do list, probably not the right thing to get into these days. Just because you want to get into it doesn’t mean it’s the right time. You need to pay attention to the market as well. But also it does have to do with your appetite, too. Like I said at the beginning there, maybe you can make 5,000 people extremely happy in a very specific way by speaking a very specific language to them, promoting the product in a very different way.
It’s not even just about the functionality. It’s about how you tell the story. It’s about the words you use and the emotion you can connect with. If your examples are, like, shopping lists: milk, paper towels, oranges, you can do that a million different ways. But if you talk about it in a different way, perhaps you can connect with people in a way that your competitors are not connecting. That might be a way to do it. I don’t know. I’m talking off the cuff. Those are some things I would think about.
Those are good ideas. I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, focusing. If you are trying to build a thousand different things for your to-do list app, you’re probably not going to think about your example screen shot and what kind of tasks go in it. Because you have too many other things to do. So you’re just going to put a shopping list on there.
But if you’re keeping it simple and you’re really optimizing every part of it to be as good as it can be, then you have more bandwidth to do some of the things that you’re suggesting. Figuring out how to apply it to a particular niche and what kinds of tasks that might speak to them, etc. Just one more reason to focus and do a deep, good job at what you’re doing rather than sort of skipping along the surface and being shallow.
I think so.
I’m looking at your home page right now. At the very bottom of it, you’ve got a chart or little graph that shows the number of accounts that have signed up for Basecamp over the years. In 2004 it says 45. Just two years later, 2006, it says 100,974. That’s crazy. How did you get so many people to sign up for Basecamp in the first couple years?
Part of it’s timing. A big part of it’s luck. Another part of it is that Basecamp is a collaborative tool. Therefore you probably don’t use it by yourself. You probably invite other people. Those people probably work somewhere else. Or they work with you, of course, but then they leave and go get another job. They bring Basecamp with them.
Or you invite a client. Basecamp is the best way, still, to work with clients and keep everything in one place. You can decide what clients can see and what they can’t see. Your team can work there and your client can work there and everyone is together. But then the client is exposed to Basecamp and they’re like, “Shit, I can use this for my own projects internally.” So they sign up. It kind of spreads virally in that way.
I also think it was a matter of timing. Also we built up an audience prior to releasing Basecamp. We’d been blogging since ’99 and sharing and writing. So we had a large audience and kind of a fan base that we were able to release Basecamp to. Our audience was primarily like us, which were web designers at the time. Design firms and that sort of thing. Every single one of them could use Basecamp. It was built for them because it was built for us. They are us and we are them. Therefore it was a bullseye in terms of the audience. It spread that way.
And it was new and novel and interesting, and very simple and straightforward. I think we did a really nice job explaining it. All those things together. Again, like I said, a big dose of luck and timing that was fortuitous. All that stuff happened and it took off quickly. I think it was a product of its time, though, too, like I said. If we launched it today from scratch, came out of nowhere with a new thing called Basecamp that does what it does, I think if would do well but I don’t think it would do as well as it did in the early days, as quickly. Just because there’s more options on the market and there’s more things going on. People are a little bit different today than they were then.
There’s partly that. But we didn’t advertise and we still don’t. It just kind of took off. A lot of this stuff is - you just don’t know how things happen. Sometimes we all want to make sense of the world and go, “This happened because of this and the other thing. We invested heavily in marketing.” But it’s like, “I don’t know. I don’t know why all this stuff worked.” We just did our best to put it out there. People liked it. They shared it. We know that it led to referrals and all that stuff. We can tell. But we didn’t have a grand plan to grow fast or grow slow. We just put it out there to see what happened. It took off.
It’s continued to take off. Your graph continues to go up and to the right. You’re at over three million accounts signed up in 2019. Like we were talking about earlier, you’ve also released other products at 37signals. Not all of them did as well as Basecamp. In fact, I think Basecamp is by far the outlier. It’s kind of cool that you’ve been in this position where you’ve had – you’ve run almost a controlled experiment. You’ve had the same team but you’ve worked on a bunch of different products. Different ideas, different timing, different market. What are some of the things you learn when you look at the differences between why some of these products that you’ve launched have found more success than others?
I’ll continue from the last answer, which was part of it is I don’t know, truthfully. I have some theories. Backpack was the second thing we – actually, Writeboard was the second thing we did, I think. But Backpack - that was a free thing. Backpack was a paid product. That was a consumer-focused product. So it was five bucks a month or nine bucks a month. It was like a personal version of Basecamp, in a sense.
It’s funny. There’s a bunch of products coming out today that are just like Backpack was in 2005, which is like, keep to-dos on one page along with notes and files and photos and all these single page organizational things. Which is really good for personal use but terrible, actually, for teams. Things grow really quickly, really fast. Then it’s very difficult to manage everything on a single page. But Backpack was really good at that.
It took off and did well for a while, but in terms of revenue, since it was a five dollar a month or nine dollar a month product, it’s just hard to sustain a business on five dollars a month. People are very price sensitive at that end as well. So I remember we raised prices by a dollar once and there was outrage. It’s just what happens at the low end. I get it. Especially today. Today people expect things to be 99 cents or free or whatever. The idea was fantastic. As you’re seeing, now the idea is spreading again. As a business it wasn’t a good – didn’t have a good business model.
That happened. Then we released Campfire in 2006, which was the prototypical group chat product. That never did nearly as well as even Backpack, because I think it was way ahead of its time. Obviously Slack and these other products have clearly nailed that category. But in 2006, people didn’t really know what to do with that. They weren’t ready for that. People weren’t prepared for that. We didn’t do a good job marketing it, perhaps, as well. That never really took off but we eventually built that into Basecamp 3. So Campfire is built into Basecamp 3. There’s chat in Basecamp and instant messaging as well. So that product folded into Basecamp.
Highrise is basically our second biggest hit ever. It was a huge hit and still is, all things considered. That was a big hit because like Basecamp it was tailored towards businesses. So priced accordingly. Also had a very clear purpose. Campfire, this idea of real-time chat and companies chatting and stuff, there was no real direction there in terms of “What do I use this for?” Backpack was very personal, so that was an easier thing to think through. But people didn’t want to pay for personal stuff.
But Highrise was CRM, which is basically customer relationship management, which is not what we ever called it. The example was, it was built for us. So we were starting to talk to more people in the press and our lawyers and accountants and other people and partnerships and stuff. We were having all these conversations and we couldn’t keep track of who we were talking to and who said what when, who to follow up with next, all that stuff. Just couldn’t figure it all out. It’s stuck in emails or stuck in this sheet or that sheet or wherever you have all this stuff.
If I went out of town, David had no idea what was going on. If he needed to talk to the lawyer, he didn’t know what I said to the lawyer. Stuff was everywhere. This remains a big problem for a lot of people. Highrise was designed to make it really easy to keep track of who you talked to, what they said, what you said, and what to do next. It’s a very clear problem. It’s a problem a lot of sales people have. It’s a problem a lot of business owners have. It’s a problem a lot of bus-dev people have, and people who are doing partnership deals and that sort of thing. Sole proprietorships who are wearing a lot of hats and talking to a lot of people.
So it resonated. It was priced accordingly and it’s done very, very well. It’s a multi-million dollar profitable business and it’s been great. But nothing ever hit like Basecamp hit. Part of this, the reason we’ve done three major versions of Basecamp and we’re about to start our next soon, is that I’m perfectly comfortable calling ourselves a one-hit wonder at this moment. Now, I think this next thing we’re going to be doing, that we’re doing now, could be another big hit like Basecamp, but we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “We hit it big once and we’re doubling down or tripling down or quadrupling down on it.”
You’re lucky to have any hit in your life. If you get one, some people think, “I can keep getting more and more and more.” We’re like, “We’ve tried a bunch of things and nothing’s quite hit like Basecamp. So we’ll still try some stuff, but let’s keep focusing on Basecamp and making that better and better.” Because clearly we’ve built something that resonates and continues to resonate, and resonate stronger and stronger. That’s been the process for us. But again, these are all theories. I don’t know exactly why something worked or didn’t. Looking back on it now with the experience that we have, there’s some evidence that we have that those are the reasons why some of these things hit or didn’t.
Also, like I said, we’ve done other things. We built a job board which became something called We Work Remotely, which we then sold to another company. I think it was two years ago. That was a huge hit. That was one of the most profitable things we’ve ever done. It was a job board. We built it in three days. It ultimately did $40,000 a month in revenue.
The most profitable, successful thing we’ve ever done based on the amount of hours put into it. No question. At some point, we just decided we don’t want to run a job board anymore, so we ended up selling it. So we’ve done other things that have been big hits, but they didn’t hold our interest. That’s another big part of this.
This is coming back to one of the earlier questions you had. Someone saying, “You shouldn’t do this.” Which is ridiculous to sell off or essentially give up on something that is so profitable. But for us, we came down to, “What do we want to spend our time on? What kind of problems are we excited about?“ We weren’t that excited about job boards. So we felt like it would be better in someone else’s hands. Even though it was wildly successful in a sense, it wasn’t for us anymore so we passed it on. I think that’s totally cool to do.
A lot of what you’re talking about has to do with the uncertainty of business. The uncertainty of learning things in a complex world with a lot of moving parts and variables. You talk about this in your book, Rework, a little bit. How the conventional wisdom is that failure is good. You learn from failure. But I’m of the same opinion that you are, which is that there are millions of ways to fail at something. Who are you to say that the lessons you learn from a particular failure are even the right lessons? Or are going to lead you to the path of success? Whereas is you do something that works, even if you don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind why it works, you can still be pretty sure that it works. You can repeat it and you can build on top of it.
Which makes me think about what you were talking about, Basecamp being sort of a one-hit wonder. Now that you’re going into launching a totally new product, how do you think about what you’re going to do to basically follow strategies that might work, or avoid pitfalls that you might have fallen into in the past, etc.? Given all this uncertainty?
One of the things that worked really well for us when we launched Basecamp originally was that in the months leading up to it we teased it. Not in an abstract way, but a very concrete way. We took one major feature at a time and wrote at length why we built it the way we built it. You didn’t really know what the whole product was going to be as we were showing it off, but we got to see individual features. You could eventually piece it together. It caught a lot of people’s eyes because we were able to go deep. Again, getting back to the deep thing. Go deep on a problem and really explain it in a way where people go, “Yes! That’s my problem too. These guys clearly understand what it’s like to have this problem. Therefore I trust their solution.”
In the months leading up to the release of this thing, we will begin talking about the reasons why we’re building this thing. Maybe one feature or one problem at a time, or however you want to put it. And go really deep on it. That’s something we’ll repeat.
And we’ve talked a lot about pricing. We’re going to change the way we price this, compared to other things we’ve done in the past. That’s a new thing. We’re not really taking any lessons with this necessarily, from Basecamp’s success into this. We’re going to see how this other pricing model goes.
But ultimately, connecting with people on their level, being very clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing, how we’re doing what we’re doing. How we’ve approached it, and what our conclusions have been about these problems. And speaking to them that way versus speaking in a very marketing speak-y way or a very abstract, end solution kind of way where people don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. We’re going to be very specific.
I think these problems are going to be problems people can relate to. Problems that they don’t even necessarily realize they have, but once they see them put this way, they’ll go, “I absolutely have that problem. I just didn’t know it was a problem. But man, you’re right, it is a problem. Totally it’s a problem. I’ve just taken it for granted. I’ve just hacked my way through these problems and put up with them. But shit, if I don’t have to put up with this anymore, now that I know there’s another way, I’m interested in that.” That’s how we’re hopefully going to be explaining this thing that we’re making.
Another thing I think we learned early on is that it’s probably a good idea to slowly launch things to build some scarcity into the launch model a little bit. Also fix some things as you go. Maybe for the first month or two prior to releasing it to everybody. We did that with – a lot of people do that now. But we did that early on with Backpack. That was the first thing where we called this Golden Ticket thing where you could apply to – a lot of people are doing that now. But I think we’ll go back to that. That was really handy on a number of levels.
One other thing I would say is that we want to be very compatible with the outside world at large. One of the real secret successes of Basecamp is how well it’s integrated into email. It’s not even integrated in an integration sense. It just works with email. You invite someone to a Basecamp project, they’re like, “I don’t want to fucking use this thing.” You don’t have to. Just reply to the emails you get and it goes straight into Basecamp. You don’t even need to log in or set up an account ever. You can reply to things. You can write things. All that stuff can go through email and lands right in Basecamp where everyone else can see it.
Working with email is a very important thing to us. All in. It’s the widest common denominator. Pretty much everybody who has a job has email. People who don’t have jobs have email. It’s just a great universal way to get in touch with people. So making sure that whatever we’re building works with standard email protocols is really important to us. It’s been a huge part of Basecamp’s success. I’m still, frankly, shocked, that more products don’t work well with email. I think people are making a grave mistake by thinking email is dead. It is not dead. It’s alive and well and only getting stronger and stronger still.
It’s not going anywhere.
Yeah. It’s not going anywhere, nor should it. It’s fantastic. Email is amazing. It has a lot of advantages over real-time communication. Email is a lot more asynchronous and has loads of advantages. I think people are beginning to realize that again, now that people have gone overboard on real-time.
They’re realizing, “Shit, this is like an open office space. I thought this was a good idea, but I don’t know now. I’m constantly being bombarded by notifications. I’m being forced to focus on a dozen real-time conversations all day long. I have one eye on this chat thing all day long. It’s like what am I doing with my time? How have I become – why is work now a ticker tape? Why is work now a 24-hour news station? This is not healthy, nor is it good.” I think people are beginning to shift back, or will begin to shift back towards slowing things down a little bit. Email fits in very nicely there.
You mentioned earlier that you’re the worst person to ask for advice for starting new things, because you’ve been running Basecamp for 20 years. But here you are, Jason, starting a totally new thing. You’ve been working on it for some months now. So I don’t know if it’s true that you’re the worst person to ask for advice here.
I’m the worst person to ask about starting a new business from scratch, let’s say. But not launching a new product. I do that frequently enough to have some hopefully useful advice.
When I talk to a lot of founders who are early stage, they’re launching new businesses which are also new products. The two problems that come up the most are, number one is growth. They don’t know how to grow. They don’t know how to get their first users. They don’t know how to get their customers. It’s very hard for them to go from zero to one.
Number two is what I would describe as an overall feeling of, “I’m doing it wrong. How do I know that I’m making the best decisions as a founder?” I want to ask you about both of these things. Let’s start with number two. When you first launched Basecamp it was a very different world. Today there are many hundreds of books written about how to validate your product idea and how to build a successful business from scratch. There’s tons of blog posts. There’s so much information out there, so many case studies, so many people who have shared their stories and things that they’ve learned.
Back when you launched Basecamp, that didn’t exist. How much of this are you ingesting, as some who’s launching new products, versus how much are you learning from the things you listed earlier, your own experiences?
I don’t pay much attention to industry news at all, or read a whole lot of blogs about anything, actually. I find that there’s so much information out there that it’s all contradictory. You wouldn’t know what to do with it. I think you’re better off closing your eyes, shutting your ears, going to an island and doing your own thing, essentially. The best way to validate your product is to put a price on it and release it to the market and see if people are willing to pay for it. That’s the best way.
I don’t think there’s any other way. I don’t think asking people what they would pay for something, like “Would you buy this if it was 49 versus 29?” Whatever they tell you doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is when it’s available, what will they pay for it? Will they actually buy it or not? I don’t think you can ask people if things are good or not. I don’t think throwing something out there for free for a long time, then charging for it, is valuable.
Again, these are just my opinions. My points of view. Other people have had different experiences. But I think the best thing to do is just heads down, do what you think is the best thing. Something that you believe in, something that you can stand behind. Something that you’re doing because you understand why you’re doing it, versus doing it because you read it on a blog post. You don’t totally understand it but it sounded good so, like, that’s what we’re going to do. You have to make sure that all the way down to the bottom, there’s support. There’s foundation that you’ve poured, that you understand. Then go for it.
Because, look, I don’t think anyone knows what the hell they’re doing, frankly. Really, truly. Me included. All of us included. We don’t know what we’re doing. We just do something and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Certainly some people have maybe better judgment than others and some people have more experience than others, but everybody is making it up as they go. The rules are always changing. The context is always different. Who knows? Who really knows? And who is to say that that person who wrote that blog post knows anything more than you know? There’s very little evidence that they do, in most cases. “I’m the founder of this and we’ve done that,” yeah, whatever. Who really knows what that means? Just because you haven’t done that doesn’t mean you don’t know anything more than they do, or that you know more. You don’t really know. One of the most liberating things is to look out there at the world and go, “Nobody knows what they’re doing, really.”
The other thing is that most companies are held together with duct tape. Very, very few things are what they seem, in terms of how smooth and elegant and everything things are. “I wish we were like them.” Maybe you don’t wish you were like them, if you really knew what it was like, what being them was like. That sort of thing. That’s, to me, the most freeing thought. “Who knows, anyway? Nobody really knows. Everyone’s making it up as they go.” You should too.
Not to say that you should be ignorant, although I do think there’s a lot of value in it, to be honest. I think you should be aware, but I don’t think you should be so deeply steeped that everyone else’s advice goes all the way to your core.
This is a weird analogy, probably, but you look at good barbeque and there’s a smoke ring around just the outside of whatever you’re barbequing. The smoke doesn’t go all the way to the center of the meat. It’s just on the outside. That’s good. That’s enough. Versus the thought is, sometimes people steep themselves in so much information they want it permeate all the way through their body and then I finally understand, now that I’m filled up with information. [Laughter.]
No, I think it’s good to have a little bit of surface information, to have a little sense and be kissed by some of that. But ultimately you’ve got to figure out at the core of you, what you want to do and how you want to do it and be true to yourself. Otherwise you don’t know where to go after the first step or two, when someone else is going to say, “I only knew the first step or two. That’s all the advice I have.” Now you’re like, “What do I do next?” Well, “I don’t know.”
No one really knows anyway. That’s why you’ve got to lean on yourself. That’s my take, at least.
I feel that way when people ask me for advice about various things that I do at Indie Hackers. “How do you prepare for a podcast episode? How do you pitch a guest to come on? How do you do your interviews on the website?” I’m like, I probably did all the wrong things and I would love to know how you do it, so I can improve how I’m doing it. It’s so easy to take the veneer of success and over-apply that and assume that people know everything that’s going on.
Also, even your point – and we all do it. I’ve said it, too. “I don’t know, I’m probably doing it wrong.” Everyone always says that, “I’m doing it wrong.” Well, if it’s working for you it’s not wrong. What does working for you mean? Do you enjoy doing it? Do you feel satisfied doing it? Are you happy doing it? Do you feel rested? Do you feel like you could do this this way for ten years?
Those are the kinds of questions. Not “How do I measure up to – am I doing it wrong? Does that mean I’m leaving money on the table?” Well, certainly. Probably. So what? We leave lots of money on the table. That doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong. It means that we’re doing it right if we enjoy doing it. If it’s sustainable. If it’s the kind of stuff we want to do more of. That’s what doing it right means.
However you prepare for a podcast, you’re been doing this for a while. You enjoy doing this, clearly. I think you’re very good at this. Your questions are insightful and you’re really good on mic. You’re doing it right! Could you be doing it better? I don’t know. What does that even mean? If it’s better for the results but worse for you, then probably not better. I think we should all figure out our own way that works for us and that’s the right way for us. Right is relative. It’s not absolute.
You’re probably on to something with this not reading blogs thing. Maybe a side effect of reading so much information that’s coming out from so many people. A lot of it good. You sort of have this underlying feeling of “I’m doing it wrong,” when you see such a vast world of other ways to do it. Maybe the best way to get rid of that feeling is to shut some other things out and do what you’re saying. Be happy with your own results and look at yourself.
We have a thing in our latest book, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. We have an essay called JoMo. The joy of missing out. I think missing out is great. I have no interest in being on top of everything, especially news, especially industry news, especially industry trends. This is one of the reasons why almost everything looks the same. Everyone is following each other.
To me, what’s interesting is like, the Galapagos Islands are way more interesting than the Hawaiian Islands. The Galapagos Islands, everything evolved on its own there. That’s really interesting. The solutions are different and very interesting and very contextual to that particular environment. That’s cool. I think more companies would be better off if they worried about their own environment and their own customers and themselves, versus “How do they do it? How am I supposed to do it? Because I read they do it this way.” It’s not about not being influenced at all, but there’s something bad about being overly influenced.
Again, if you don’t know the reasons why you’re doing something, but you’ve just heard it over and over and you keep doing it, you have a really hard time falling back on any fundamentals if you don’t have them and they’re someone else’s. It’s important to build your own and do it your own way.
I think the same thing about Japan. It’s a weird place. So many weird things, bizarre stuff coming out of Japan that you don’t see anywhere else. It’s almost like an alien civilization. Every time I see it, it just reminds me of how much everybody else is just copying each other. How much more diversity and variation there could be in media and ideas and products and culture, but there isn’t, because we just copy.
I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve only been to Japan once but that was my take-away as well, aside from it being an amazing place for a number of reasons. It was the first place I’d ever been, in a first-world country, where it was distinctly different. I’ve been to many countries in Europe. And yeah, it’s different than the U.S. in a number of ways. But somehow it feels like still there’s a line between the two cultures.
But Japan just feels different. It feels totally different. It was refreshing, because you feel like, “The world is sort of one way.” And I know I’m going to be totally over-generalizing here. There’s a million things to see in the world that I haven’t seen, and whatever. But people who’ve been to Japan probably feel this way too. There’s something different about that place. They evolved at their own pace, at their own scale, their own way. They have different cultural values. They’re represented in all these different ways and you realize, “This is a very – “
I mean, they have plenty of downsides, too. They’ve got all sorts of issues around workaholism, and women typically don’t have the same opportunities as men. There’s a whole bunch of other issues there. Clearly big alcoholism issues and whatnot. But there’s a number of things that are so distinctly different that you’re almost like, “I couldn’t imagine a different way to do this, but wow. They’ve imagined a different way to do this.” And guess what, it works really, really well. It’s refreshing. So I think it’s important to see that there are different ways of doing things.
Of course their context is different too. They have a society that’s pretty homogenous. They don’t really allow outsiders in, which is another issue perhaps. Maybe it’s not an issue for them. From our point of view it would seem perhaps to be not as appealing. But these are different cultures and they do things different ways. It’s very interesting to see. That is a valuable experience.
I’m kind of glad they have this isolation thing going on, because like you said, there’s lots of different things that we couldn’t even imagine going a certain way. Maybe you need someone to be isolated and someone to follow their own path, without taking inspiration from the outside, for them to imagine these things that we can’t imagine. Hopefully more companies will operate that way in the future.
I agree. For one example, I was in Kyoto and there was a tree branch. The tree branch was going over the street. It was an old tree. They put a crutch underneath the branch to hold it up. The crutch went down into the middle of the street. In the U.S. they’d cut that branch right off. They would be like, “You can’t put something in the middle of the street.” But in Japanese culture, nature was more important. That tree has been here longer than this street has been. There’s a value in this tree and this should be here. We’ll just go around it with our cars or our bikes. It will be fine. Everything will be fine. It’s more important that we respect this amazing living thing.
In the U.S. you would never see that. Never. It would be an outrage to take a little bit of space up in the street with something. There’s already outrage in many cities around bike lanes. “Bike lanes are taking up too much room. There’s less parking.” It’s like, whoa. To care about a tree’s welfare over us, the people, the chosen ones – it’s that kind of thing that was like, “Wow. That comes from an entirely different place.”
We have trees here. We have streets here. But there’s no way we would treat them the same way. I thought that was so emblematic of a culture that develops differently and has different values. I hope more companies – unfortunately, I think that the U.S.’ worst export is the Silicon Valley style company. That’s making its way around the world right now. I think it’s a terrible export. Not just externally, but internally there’s a lot of companies trying to run that way. Everyone’s trying to be the same way. They have the same tool sets and they work the same way. It’s unfortunate.
We talk a lot about diversity and there should be diversity in companies, not just the people in the companies, but the companies themselves should work differently. Should act differently. Should try to be themselves. We’ll have a much healthier overall business ecosystem when companies are diverse too.
It’s this weird intersection where, as a founder, like I was saying, the number two problem that people tell me they have is this soul-crushing uncertainty. “Am I doing the right things?” That leads them to copying what others are doing because there’s some comfort in that. “Peter Lovels [ph] did it this way. Jason Fried did it that way. Maybe I should do the same. Then at least I’m no worse than those guys.” But it also creates a huge opportunity for people who are willing to branch out and thing their own thoughts.
We were talking about differentiating when you make a simple product. If you’re creative, if you go into a hole, you live on an island and you build what you think is right, there’s a really good chance it’s not going to look like what other people have done. That gives you an edge in the market. So I hope that people take that message to heart. Honestly, just having this conversation makes me want to build something new, just to see how different and unique I can make it and question some of the conventions that have been around for such a long time.
And don’t show anybody. This is the other thing. People are showing things to people too frequently during the building process. I know you want to see if you’re on the right track and all that stuff, but there’s advantages being quiet. Going away and doing your thing and then dropping it on the world and going, “Here’s the thing.” I don’t know. I think there’s something to that. I’d love to see more people do that.
There’s another thing that I’ve been noticing. Far too many people are looking for mentors. They’re looking for that one person who’s going to tell them what to do, teach them how to do it. That one person doesn’t have any idea what to do, okay? They have an opinion just like you do. Maybe their opinion is a little bit more experienced. But it’s only experience in the context in which it was developed. It’s not experience in your situation, at your time right now.
I would put less weight and value on other people’s point of view, to be honest. Figure out your own way and go. Don’t spend any energy worrying if you’ve got it figured out or if you’re doing the wrong thing. Chances are equal on both sides, whether or not you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Who knows? Who really knows? To hear that that’s the second thing that people bring up to you, the second most crushing thing, it’s unfortunate to me. That’s a self-induced concern. It’s not a real thing, actually.
A real thing would be, and I get this, “I don’t know how to get the product to market.” That’s a real thing. That’s a hard thing that almost every company goes through. That’s a legitimate thing we can talk about. But this idea that “I don’t know if I’m doing it right or wrong or whatever,” there is no right or wrong. The only thing that tells you if it’s right or wrong is the market itself. Which comes back to that first point, how do you get the thing out in the market so people can even see it and have a chance to play with it, have a chance to evaluate it and pay for it. That’s the only thing that really tells you whether it’s good or not.
Listen, I would love to keep talking for hours. I’ve kept you for an hour, fifteen minutes –
Let’s do another time. Let’s do another one.
Let’s do another one. I’d love to have you on. Let me leave you with one more question. Most people listening to this are early stage founders or people who soon will be early stage founders. What are some habits that you think they should develop from the start to help them build a more successful and more enjoyable company later on?
Get at least eight hours of sleep every night. Work about eight hour days. Figure out how to reduce the distractions in your day. These are habits that are important to form now, because you don’t intentionally form habits. You form habits by doing something over and over. If you’re starting out now and you’re working 15 hour days and you’re getting six hours or five hours of sleep at night, you’re going to keep doing it that way.
At some point it’s not going to work for you anymore. It’s going to exhaust you and burn you out. It’s unfortunate because that means you’re going to have to stop doing what you’re doing. You’re no longer in control of the things that you wanted to do. I would say, form good work hygiene, essentially. Good sleep, good rest, plenty of time away from work. Don’t work on the weekends. Eight hours is plenty of time to do great work.
Begin to develop those habits, because those are the things that are going to pay off over time. They also force constraints on you, which are really valuable things also to get used to. They force you to be more creative. They force you to have a sharper knife in terms of the cuts you make and the edits you make. That’s an important quality and skill to focus on. Those are the things.
Again, like everything else I was saying, pay more attention to your own gut than anyone else’s. Not that your gut’s better. It’s just that it’s yours. You’re going to have to rely on it your whole life anyway, no matter what you read and who’s available and whatever. You have to rely on yourself as a founder, to make decisions. Get used to relying on yourself. Practice that as much as you can as well.
If you’re listening to this and you’re a founder and it’s 2 AM, go to sleep. Turn it off. [Laughter.]
Please. I would also recommend reading really quick Why We Sleep, which is an incredibly important book. I would say one of the most important books you’ll ever read in your life. Why We Sleep, it’s called, from Matthew – I forgot his last name right not, but you’ll find it online. Just look up Why We Sleep. I’m embarrassed that I totally forgot his last name.
Sleep is so important, especially for creative minds and for creators, and for anybody that has to make decisions. It’s the best – everyone’s looking for hacks and whatever. There’s no hack. Just sleep well. Just sleep well and you’ll perform better, flat out, period. Anyway. Read it and you’ll probably live longer. Read it. It’s a great book to check out.
I just one-click ordered it on Amazon, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD.
Walker. That’s it, yes. Exceptional book.
Jason, thanks so much for the recommendation. Thanks so much for coming on the show. Have to have you on again. Have a great day.
I’d love to. Thanks again for having me on.
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