Why Basecamp still runs three completely different versions of their software

Jason Fried and DHH are the true contrarians in the world of entrepreneurship.

The thoughts they share on Twitter, in their blog posts and their books make people think. Other founders think “I wish I could run a company like that” and their employees think “I want to work for Basecamp”.

I’ve been a follower of their work for years and the latest book, “It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work“, is another hit. Pretty much every chapter in this book goes against the best practices and the common way of running a business.

More ethical, more responsible and people friendly

These are not just contrarian thoughts for the sake of being different. They are actually well thought out and tested business practices they have put in place in their own company.

More ethical, more responsible and people friendly activities. Actions that are mindful of the employees that work for the brand and the customers that Basecamp is serving.

Some of the advice you may already be familiar with if you’ve read their prior work such as “Rework” or “Remote: Office Not Required”. But a lot of it is fresh, insightful and impactful.

These lessons deserve to be repeated as the business world and management has been too slow to consider the fresh perspective.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work: Change Control

One chapter I wanted to discuss in this post is titled “Change Control”. The insights in this chapter were particularly relevant to my recent startup experience. And the lesson is all about emphasis and care about the existing customers.

Consider my recent experience in a product-oriented marketing role. My startup story is quite common for what most other ventures experience.

We had a small, loyal customer base but the norm of a venture-funded startup is to grow fast or die (Basecamp founders have a lot to say about VC-money in their book). We had to act.

We started with the content marketing approach first. It was a solid success in terms of gaining social media mentions and links from authoritative sources in the industry.

The content that we published grew our traffic, increased the number of trial signups and we saw large revenue growth too.

That was not enough. The vast majority of visitors did not want to sign up for a trial. On top of that, the majority of trialists had no interest in converting to a paying customer.

Despite the improvements in organic marketing, we were still behind the leading players in the industry in metrics such as website traffic and the number of trials generated.

And if you cannot get to be the top (or perhaps the top two or three) player in your field, you may as well not even exist or matter to your investors.

Grow fast or die a slow death

So what do you do in a situation like this? You take a harder look at everything and innovate. The messaging, marketing activities, and the product itself.

The product often gets a revamp or a complete upgrade. New positioning, improved user interface and experience in addition to a boost in the marketing budget.

The normal goals in this situation are:

  • Getting more people interested in checking out the site and the product you’re offering
  • Getting more visitors attracted to sign up for a trial
  • Getting more trialists to convert into paying customers

The last thing most companies focus on in those cases are the existing, loyal customers. The customers are there, paying for the product and happy with the current service.

The number of paying customers is low though and the company needs to grow and get more customers fast. Or it may die a slow death.

So you end up taking the existing customers for granted in your chase for bigger numbers and force them onto the new platform too. Perhaps you give them notice well in advance. You may even give them a sneak peek into the new version.

But in most cases, they do need to switch over to the new platform on the day you have decided your big launch to be.

Sell new customers on the new thing and let old customers keep whatever they already have

This is where Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson revert the traditional script. They don’t force any innovation or big change onto their existing customers.

For your existing customers, the new, improved and better version of your app doesn’t matter. “Comfort, consistency, and familiarity are higher up on their value chain.”

People use your product to accomplish something and that is the most important thing for them. They have their deadlines and a job to do. They don’t also want to learn and get familiar with the new workflow you are forcing them through with your redesign.

“This doesn’t mean your new work sucks, just that people are usually in the middle of something that’s more important to them than a change to your product. They’re already invested in what they have to do and they’re already familiar with how they’re going to do it. And then you toss a change at them that immediately makes their life a little more complicated. Now they have a new thing to learn right in the middle of having an old thing to do.”

The founders of Basecamp then summarize a core truth about selling:

“Sell new customers on the new thing and let old customers keep whatever they already have. This is the way to keep the peace and maintain the calm.”

Three completely different versions of Basecamp software

And this is where we come to the fact that Basecamp still runs three completely different versions of their software. Every time they release a big redesign or upgrade, they never force their existing customers to go along the ride.

Existing customers get an invitation to try out the new version. It is not a demand though. They can go on forever using the version they are familiar and comfortable with. “A significant number” choose to do that.

Others at least get to choose a more appropriate timing to learn and make the transition to your latest innovation.

“Technology and design has changed. We’ve evolved. But our evolution is at our pace, and new customers today expect something different than new customers did a decade ago. But that doesn’t mean we should force our earliest customers to follow along at our pace.”

This is completely the opposite of what the big players do.

  • Google might force you into the new version of Gmail on a Monday morning as you have a long list of emails to respond to.
  • Instagram might suddenly start algorithmically shuffling the content you see in your news feed and make you miss out on updates from people you care about the most.

In the days where redesigns, repositioning and innovation is forced on millions of people, it is such a breath of fresh air to see a company that is mindful of its customers and goes out of its way (and reduces the profit potential) to make the customer experience satisfying. Go Basecamp!

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