Basecamp 3 Will Change the Way You Think About Work—Again
Before there was Slack, there was Basecamp. It launched back in 2004, when “reply all” email chains were still cool. Its founding team sprung from the Chicago design outfit 37 Signals, helmed by maverick web designer Jason Fried. By every measure, 37 Signals and its signature product were ahead of their time. Eight years before Slack made instant messaging a viable substitute for most email, for example, Fried piloted Campfire, which did the same thing.
But a dozen years later, enterprise software has undergone a renaissance. Somewhere along the way we all collectively agreed that email sucks. Heavily influenced by the emergence of social networking and empowered by the rise of cloud computing, entrepreneurs launched applications like Yammer (work Twitter) and Asana (work Facebook), not to mention Evernote, Atlassian, Dropbox, Box, Quip, Trello, and, of course, Slack. They raised venture capital, promising growth on a grand scale. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Google doubled down on apps that let us collaborate more efficiently.
The new Basecamp incorporates several elements that were missing; but more importantly, it introduces several new, contrarian ideas.
Up against these new and popular competitors, Basecamp looked so, well, mainstream. Tired, even. But Fried doesn’t follow trends. He sets trends. Every few years, his team overhauls the software completely. “It’s difficult to make the big leaps [in design thinking] if you’re building on an old chassis,” he told me. On Tuesday, they launched Basecamp 3, the first major redesign since 2012.
If the recent history of enterprise software has focused on helping us communicate more, Fried wants to dial down the incessant work chatter at all hours (who wants to engaged in a Slack conversation at 9pm on a Monday?) and instead focus on a toolset that helps us get things done more efficiently. Can enterprise software really help us to do this? It’s an idea that is just beginning to gain traction. When I interviewed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in September, he once again declared Miscrosoft’s commitment to productivity, defining it as “getting more out of every moment of our lives.”
I’ve been playing with Basecamp for the last week, and I can see the seeds of Fried’s thinking throughout. The new Basecamp incorporates several elements that were missing—an improved mobile app, a newsfeed that aggregates all your notifications, the Campfire feature—but more important, it introduces several new, contrarian ideas:
You Shouldn’t Work All The Time
You know this. You know that your mind works better when you can put something down and revisit it later, and that you shouldn’t be checking notifications while watching The Good Wife with your family in the evening. But a key aspect to every form of social media is that it doesn’t turn off and there’s no “away” message. For consumer-facing, ad-based businesses, this makes sense; the more you feel compelled to look at your Facebook feed, the more money Facebook makes off the ads it shows you.
For enterprise software, however, it does not. Fried wants to help you set limits. Basecamp 3 offers a snooze option, which allows you to defer notifications for three hours. It also lets you define your work hours. Click on the “Work Can Wait” feature to choose the days and times you want to receive notifications. Right now, I receive notifications only on weekdays between 9am and 6pm. At some point in the evening, I may log on to check the notifications that have acrued. (They’re collected under a tab at the top of my screen fittingly called “Hey!”) But I check in on my terms; I’m not interrupted when I’d rather be home.
This is not a new idea. I remember reviewing the Nokia e71 smartphone when it launched in North America in 2008. It featured a button that let users toggle back and forth between a work screen, where all notifications came through, and a home screen, where they did not. No one cared.
Messaging is extremely manic. People feel like they have to pile on because they have a minute or two before the conversation is off the conveyor belt and they’ve missed it.
But good design is often one part idea and three parts timing. In recent years, Americans have felt so overwhelmed by technology that they’ve instituted social media fasts, attended smartphone-free retreats, and launched a National Day of Unplugging. It could be that Fried has hit upon this idea just when we are most ready to embrace it.
Some Conversations Need to Happen Fast—But Others Need to Happen More Slowly
From the start, Fried understood that the biggest hindrance to getting work done was communication—the right people needed to have the right conversations at the right times. Many communications products—like Slack,or Atlassian’s Hipchat—foster speed. There is one constant conversation to which you had better contribute, or you’ll be left in the dust. If you step away from it for too long, you are left scrolling through it at the end of the day, piecing together fragmented thoughts in hopes of discerning what’s important. Step away for more than a day or two, and it’s a lost cause; You’re more likely to reach the mythical Inbox Zero than review a week’s worth of WIRED’s Hipchat conversations.
“Messaging is extremely manic,” says Fried. “People feel like they have to pile on because they have a minute or two before the conversation is off the conveyor belt and they’ve missed it.” So Basecamp pairs its instant messaging tool, Campfire, with a message board. If you’ve got something more substantial to think through, you can put it there. Other people can comment on your messages, and you can send them to colleagues or clients via e-mail. It’s instant messaging’s version of the slow food movement.
You Shouldn’t Have to Sign Up for Basecamp to Be Able to Work in Basecamp
Another day, another invitation to try a new social software, for work or for pleasure. It always requires a minimum ten-minute commitment to plug in log-in credentials, create another password I’ll probably forget, and then review the rules for how it works. Even if it’s intuitive, it’s a time suck.
Case in point: I asked several business and design writers and editors to join me on Basecamp 3. Most didn’t respond to the invitation. That’s cool! I get it, not offended. I’m busy, too!
But as it turned out, that didn’t matter at all: The writers and editors who didn’t take the time to set up an account could respond to my messages in Basecamp directly from their email. The upshot is that Basecamp works well, even if only a couple of the people working on a project choose to work in Basecamp.
No Takebacks? No Problem.
You’ve done this before. You’ve worked out the details on a project, crossed some things out and gathered comments from colleagues, maybe called the client “obsessive” or something equally unflattering, and finally, finished a document to share with your client. In the moment you hit the send button to forward it to said client, you realize that trail of conversation has been forwarded, too. Deep breath, followed by deep regret. You wish the Internet had a take-back button.
Basecamp 3 removes this danger altogether by introducing a separate tab. Everything is private, by default, to your team. But on nearly every piece of content—a message post, say, or a calendared event—you can hit a button to share it with your client, either via email or via a public link. All of the internal correspondence will be stripped from your document. As a journalist, I didn’t understand what a big deal this was until I called up Ian Patrick Hines, who works in a consultancy that runs digital campaigns. His business, like that of many of Basecamp’s customers, spends a lot of time communicating with clients. “For a company like ours, it has allowed us to make Basecamp our office, to be totally open and brainstorm and not stress,” he says, “And then share things with the client.”
Big as It Wants to Be?
There’s much more to the new Basecamp 3, but those are the most influential ideas. They’re unlikely to propel the software into a full-blown competition with Slack. But that’s never what Fried and his team intended Basecamp to be. They designed it to manage their own workflow. When it caught on with their clients, they stopped consulting and started developing software full time. In 2014, they dropped the name “37 Signals,” retired a few ancillary products (like Campfire, which they just folded in Basecamp), and decided to double down on their core product.
Basecamp was bootstrapped, and Fried and his cofounders took only one round of funding—from Jeff Bezos in 2006. “Now we call him maybe once a year on something,” says Fried. He says Basecamps makes tens of millions of dollars in profits annually by charging $29 a month for teams that use Basecamp internally, or $79 a month for teams that also engage in client work. That suits him and his 47 employees just fine. “Growth for growths’ sake is not the goal,” he says. “There are two things in the world that do that: businesses and tumors.”
But if Basecamp doesn’t rival the big guys in size, it’s still worth watching closely. Fried’s approach to how we work has an uncanny way of trickling into the products that pepper our desktops and pop up on our phones.