I’ll be totally honest:  I wasn’t a huge fan of Basecamp before this week.  Sure, it’s a fine tool for sharing files and managing project-based communications, but it’s not really all that intuitive and it lacks anything more than simple, limited functionality.  We use it at my current company to manage all of our new customer projects, our internal product management and technical release milestones, and even as a repository for our marketing collateral and sales tools.  But other than a central location for messages and file revision management, I just don’t see any compelling value above and beyond existing tools.

I recently watched an interview with Jason Fried, CEO of 37signals and creator of Basecamp and other collaboration and team management tools.  Fried absolutely changed my mindset about what Basecamp is, where its value lies, and why it is an amazing tool perfectly designed to solve a single, simple problem.  Furthermore, he demonstrated the immense value of marketing via thought leadership and by framing the conversation around a much larger issue, in this case the transformation of the workplace.

I’ve embedded the video below, but you can view all of HP’s Input|Output interviews here.  It is well worth the 60-minute investment, and Fried has incredible insights on the evolution of the workplace and how today’s workplace norms are actually counter-productive.  But even more, he has fantastic insights on start-ups, marketing, and how to build a sustainable business.  Here are just a few interesting tidbits:

  • When asked about how his products stack up against the competition, he answers with, “Our products do less than the competition.” That sounds like a tough sell until you hear him explain that they purposefully design simple products that do a limited number of things really well.
  • On why a bootstrapped company has an advantage over a venture-backed one, his concept is that “a venture-backed company has to spend money from day one” while a bootstrapped company has to make money from day one.  An entrepreneur is better off focusing on making money, not spending it.
  • On modeling your company or team after Google or Apple or Amazon, he thinks that just because they exploded doesn’t make it a good model for you.  Those companies, and other super-successful companies, are anomalies.  Model yours after companies in your same space, realm, universe.
  • Working alone, or working remotely, is much more effective than today’s standard of cubes and team workspaces.  On one hand, your biggest interruptions are caused by others talking to or around you.  On the other hand, he thinks that, if you’re denied daily face-to-face interactions, your creativity and productivity skyrockets when you do finally get together.
  • If they need a new tool, they build it.  And, if they needed it, others probably do too, so they sell it.  Obvious, but this is almost a lost art in Silicon Valley – selling a software solution that people already need.

One area where I do disagree with Fried is around marketing in general, which he gets to at the end (around the 57-minute mark).  37signals doesn’t have a marketing person and they don’t believe in the concept of a “marketing department.” Their website reflects that as a run-on mishmash of text, images, videos, quotes, and colors. He estimated that they have spent less than $20k on marketing over the past 5+ years, which is appalling to me.  Yes, they are profitable, but they could be so much more so with a focused market strategy.

I do, however, totally agree with his point that everyone within an organization should have a marketing mindset.  That marketing should permeate every aspect of the business – in the error message, in support, in the product’s button text, etc. – and that marketing is everyone’s responsibility.

If you do watch the entire video, definitely stay to the very end to hear their “commercial.”  It’s very realistic, and effective!

Bottom line:  With marketing as a recognized part of everyone’s role, 37signals has done a great job of succeeding without a dedicated marketing role.  By focusing on the bigger issue (workplace effectiveness), they have elevated the conversation to an intellectual level, well beyond just selling software.  That’s really where Fried shine:  as a visionary.  Someone who I’d want to work with, and someone who can very effectively articulate the bigger picture that drives the success of their product.

Fried did absolutely zero promotion of 37signals during the interview, and that was the best selling tactic he could have used!

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