A Conversation with Jason Fried, Founder of 37signals

Earlier today I talked with Jason Fried, founder of 37signals. A Chicago-based company that started out as a web-design firm, 37signals switched to making products in 2004 when they found that clients loved their custom-developed project management tools and wanted to use the tools for their own work. 37signals first product was Basecamp, for collaboration, and they’ve since launched four other tools, including Campfire group chat, which Jason and I used for this conversation. Jason reveals that 37signals plans to release two new products later this year. We’ll bring you details as soon as we know more, but in the meantime, try Basecamp, Campfire, Backpack, Writeboard, and Ta-da List, We’re sure you’ll love the simplicity, elegant design, and sheer usefulness!

Jason F. Hey there
Stewart M. Hey
Stewart M. Thanks for taking time for a quick chat!
Jason F. surely
Jason F. ready to go when you are
Stewart M. And we’re even getting to test one of your products while we talk about the others – what great advertising!
Jason F. Amen to that!
Jason F. No complaints here 😉
Stewart M. Just to give you a little background, I spend most of the day as Instructional Technologist for the Sciences and Math at Brown University, and my specialty is social software & wiki. I primarily work with faculty here to integrate these tools into both their teaching and research, and the biggest issue, as I’m sure you know, is simplicity of tools.
Jason F. Simplicity is the secret weapon of software. It’s not that one missing feature, it’s the features that are missing.
Stewart M. I first got wind of 37 signals last fall, and am head over heels for your products – they really blow people away with their simplicity. So tell me a bit about how 37signals started, and your philosophy on software?
Jason F. Thanks so much.
Jason F. 37signals started as a web design firm in 1999.
Jason F. This was our site back then: http://www.37signals.com/manifesto
Jason F. Imagine launching a text-only site like that back in 1999. It was “fresh” — everyone else was fixated on big graphics and animated experiences.
Jason F. We were about the simple message and speed,
Jason F. Anyhow… Moving forward a bunch of years…
Jason F. Around 2003 we realized we needed a tool to manage our client projects. We tried a bunch of tools that were out there and we weren’t happy with them.
Jason F. So we built our own. That became Basecamp.
Stewart M. fascinating – yes people in 1999 were all about big graphics and – gulp – flash-based splash pages
Jason F. Basecamp was for us, but we turned it into a product once other people saw it and said “DAMN, we need that!”
Jason F. Basecamp launched as a product in Feb of 2004.
Jason F. Within a year we were able to stop doing client work and focus on building products full time.
Stewart M. wow
Jason F. We’ve released 5 products, 1 book (Getting Real), and one open source web application framework (Ruby on Rails) since 2004.
Stewart M. it’s very interesting to me that, in a world of over branding, you guys let the individual product brands stand out more than the 37signals brand. I’ve noticed this makes a big difference for people I’ve introduced your software to – it seems that this is really design with your users in mind?
Jason F. Yeah, we don’t want to shove our logos and brand down people’s throats. In fact, Basecamp doesn’t even have a logo in the app if you pay for it. And for the products we do have, the logo is always at the *bottom* of the screen inside the app, not at the top like everyone else.
Jason F. The PRODUCT is what’s important, not the logo.
Jason F. I think just realizing that really changes your entire outlook on software and the customer experience.
Stewart M. (which is interesting considering Microsft has made the Office logo very prominent – in the upper left corner – of Office 2007)
Jason F. yup. Just a different way of looking at it.
Jason F. Neither approach is right or wrong, they are just different approaches.
Stewart M. As you know from my initial email, my blog is focused primarily on wiki and ways to use it in education – and I’ve found that Writeboard is the best tool to introduce busy faculty to this idea. What was the story behind creating the tool?
Jason F. We take copy writing very seriously, but we couldn’t find a tool that took it as seriously. Word is overkill for about 90% of everything you write. And email is nice for an initial bit, but it sucks when you ask people to collaborate on that text
Jason F. We couldn’t find something that make simple text collaboration simple. So we built our own. It’s Writeboard.
Jason F. Writeboard makes collaborating on simple text as easy as possible. It couldn’t be much easier.
Jason F. It takes 5 seconds to start a Writeboard. You don’t need an account. The people you are collaborating with don’t need accounts either.
Jason F. You write and save. Writeboard saves every version and allows you to roll back to any previous version as well as highlight changes in any two versions.
Jason F. We wrote our entire Getting Real book in Writeboard
Jason F. But we mainly use it for a paragraph here and a paragraph there.
Jason F. Which is what most people write.
Stewart M. and email forces someone, at some point to resolve multiple peoples’ edits, which can get very dicey…
Stewart M. How do you manage to keep your tools so simple? And how do you respond when people ask for features to be added to products?
Jason F. Email quoting makes collaboration very messy. We’ve all been there.
Stewart M. oh yes
Jason F. We keep things simple because we think that’s all 80% of the people need.
Jason F. When you try to make 100% of the people happy you end up with bloated, messy tools.
Jason F. When you make 80% of the people happy, you can make simple focused tools that do a few things really well and leave the rest out.
Jason F. Too much software tries to solve 100% of the problem.
Jason F. And that software sucks.
Stewart M. an new way to look at the 80/20 rule…
Jason F. That is software you are forced to use, not software you want to use.
Stewart M. Speaking of “software you want to use”, what has the rate of adoption been like since you launched? Can you give me an idea of how many people are using your tools?
Jason F. There are over 500,000 people signed up to use our products in total.
Jason F. In over 75 countries around the world.
Stewart M. What’s next for 37 signals? Are you specifically looking at markets for these tools, or letting word of mouth (and good press!) bring them to you?
Jason F. We’re all about word of mouth. We don’t like to “sell” things — we want people to tell other people about our products because they want to spread the good news.
Jason F. We’ve done a little advertising here and there, and we may do more in the future, but we believe in organic growth based on people’s desire to tell friends and co-workers about something they think they’d like.
Jason F. We’re working on some new features for our current apps, and some better integration between them. We also plan on releasing two new products later this year.
Jason F. We always build things we need and we need two more tools.
Jason F. So we’ll turn those into products.
Stewart M. Good to hear – I think people respond well to things they find, or hear about from sources they trust, rather than getting the hard “sell”…
Stewart M. Any chance I could get an early look before the tools go public? I’d love to give you some publicity and start the word of mouth. Using Wiki in Education reaches a good number of people in higher ed.
Jason F. Sure, but we’re not close enough to launch yet to show anything, sorry.
Jason F. BTW: A lot of people in education use Backpack
Jason F. It’s our most popular product among educators
Jason F. Students use it to organize research, work on papers in groups, etc. Teachers and professors use it to publish homework assignments, post lecture notes, etc.
Jason F. The flexibility and simplicity has really caught on with the education market.
Stewart M. Interesting to hear that Backpack is bigger in education –
Stewart M. Before we wrap up, I’d like to turn briefly to your book – I’m reading it now and the book itself demonstrates your manifesto incredibly well. Content aside, the presentation itself, and the digital delivery are exercises in simplicity that scales well.
Jason F. Yeah, we decided to publish Getting Real in PDF-only format both as an experiment and because of profit motive.
Jason F. There’s no reason why writing a book shouldn’t be profitable.
Jason F. The traditional publishing world doesn’t agree unfortunately, so we did it on our own.
Jason F. Over 6000 books sold and $130K in revenue in about 5 weeks.
Jason F. We’d never ever be able to make anywhere near that level of revenue with a traditional publisher. Or, if we did, it would take years to get there.
Stewart M. well, I could get into it about traditional publishing – just look at the Britannica vs. Wikipedia brouhaha after the Nature study published last December
Jason F. Right you are.
Jason F. Traditional publishing definitely has its purpose, and self publishing isn’t for everyone, but things are changing.
Stewart M. “design the interface first”, “meetings are toxic”, “scale later” – you went for the heavy hitting titles here, that’s for sure. But the advice is right on, and stuff I’ve been thinking for years – and I’m not the only one. I think this has hit a nerve with a lot of people who think the same way, and want to see organizations run more efficiently.
Jason F. Thanks. We feel it’s about time someone shatters the notion that everything needs to be structured, formal, and planned.
Jason F. We think “Winging It” is very valuable as long as you make a lot of small decisions instead of a few big ones.
Jason F. Small decisions can’t get you into too much trouble if you make the wrong one.
Stewart M. Ever notice how often people come up with a great idea, and plan it right into the ground?
Jason F. OH YES I DO!
Stewart M. Especially because they spend too long making big decisions that are completely speculative, instead of making a quick, small decision, going with it, and re-adjusting course if necessary!
Jason F. BTW: Campfire is great for education too — especially with the free version that lets up to five people chat at once.
Jason F. It’s great for collaborating on assignments, ideas, concepts, research, etc.
Jason F. But yes…
Jason F. People spend too much time on big decisions.
Stewart M. I will definitely be talking up a storm about Campfire to people I’m working with!
Stewart M. In fact, I’ve been running this interview series for several weeks now, and using AIM , but I’m so sold on Campfire I’ll be using it for all future interviews.
Stewart M. This is a joy to use!
Jason F. Thanks! Yeah, Campfire is great — especially for group chats. IM is fine for 1 on 1, but it sucks for groups.
Jason F. And then there’s: http://campfirenow.com/better/
Stewart M. Well that’s what I like most – some of these interviews are with 2-3 people, and IM is horrible. Campfire will make this a breeze in the future!
Stewart M. I’m sure you have about a 1000 other things to do (including lots of those small decisions to make :), so thanks very much for your time!
Jason F. My pleasure and thanks for asking me to have the chat.
Jason F. Ha! Great. Ping when it’s live and thanks again. And please do help us spread the word. We rely on it.
Stewart M. You’re welcome – and please do let me know when you have new products to announce, or any other news you’d like to spread. You have a very happy user and advocate here.
Jason F. Will do. Take care.
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