Do One Thing Really Well: An Interview With David Heinemeier Hansson
This is part of our Entrepreneur Interview series.
Sometimes we get so easily caught up in trying to be everything to everyone that our focus gets clouded. When we get a great idea, we make ourselves believe we need to create it – immediately. Feature overload will be the death of many startups. You wouldn’t build a hamburger with every condiment and topping on the table just because you can, would you? You’d risk losing the taste and, well, the ability to even eat the damn thing.
Onboardly had the chance to catch up with David Heinemeier Hansson, co-creator of Basecamp, to chat about the importance of simplification.
You Can’t Control Your Own Destiny
What is the hardest part about being an entrepreneur?
Accepting how much is out of your control. That the market will rarely bend just because you put in more hours. People often become entrepreneurs because they want to control their own destiny, and that’s a great reason. But it doesn’t mean you’re always able to.
Do One Thing Really Really Well
After years of offering a suite of business tools like Campfire, Highrise, etc. you recently removed or consolidated everything under the Basecamp brand in order to keep your company small and inline with your culture. At what point did you feel that the diversification in your suite of products was not a priority for you?
It’s not that diversification wasn’t a priority, it was that other things mattered more. Basecamp has been such an astounding success that it required everyone in the company’s full attention to do it justice. That’s always been the case, but it took until our current size to realize that. We didn’t want to follow the natural pattern of most companies, which is to grow, grow, grow, just because you can.
So we decided to stay true to our beliefs and work on our very best idea all the time. This sets us free to halt the growth of the company headcount without feeling guilty about not getting to everything on our plate. Now there’s just one thing: Basecamp.
It’s a simpler life and we’re all about that.
Perpetual Learning Trumps Specialization
In a recent blog post on your Signal Vs Noise blog, you explain that specialization is not necessarily a good thing. You believe that employees on smaller teams should not only be eager to learn ‘the ropes’, but that it should also be mandatory to learn about areas outside of their skillset. How has this mentality shifted the way your team works and what results have you seen?
We’ve actually always been in this camp since we had to be. Basecamp was created by a team of four people. We all had to wear many hats. What happened was as we got a little bigger and wanted to branch out, like into mobile apps, there was a temptation to just solve that problem by hiring specialists. A strong temptation. You can hit the ground faster, etc.
But ultimately we decided that we don’t really care about optimizing for the next six months. It’s far more important to optimize for the next ten years. Or thirty years. We can afford such a long term vision because we’ve been profitable since the beginning and we don’t have a venture-capital time bomb ticking.
So we invest in the people we have. Let them take longer to get up to speed, but have that be a rewarding part of working at Basecamp. You don’t just have to work with the same stuff forever, while new people come in to do the new stuff.
Try Before You Buy, Not Just for Drug Dealers
‘Emulate drug dealers’ is an interesting approach to doing business. In your book, Rework, you explain that drug dealers know their market really well, create demand for their product through sampling and assure repeat customers through excellent customer service. Is this true for every industry? What are the pitfalls?
Nothing beats letting your customers actually try your product before deciding to buy. Having to buy by looking at the back of the box sucks. It’s easy to make a turd sound appealing when all you have to do is use clever product shots and slick marketing copy.
So we give Basecamp away to anyone for 60 days. More than long enough that they can really learn whether the software will work for them. Yes, that’s not free, but it’s worth it.
Naturally, this doesn’t work for every business. The economics have to be there. You treat it as a marketing expense to expose people to your product. But if the cost of that is prohibitive, you have to come up with a different plan.
Out-Teach Your Competition
In understanding what Onboardly does (PR and content marketing for startups), how have you used either strategies (or both) to grow Basecamp?
We’re big believers in building an audience. We blog, write books, occasionally speak at conferences, and generally try to out-teach our competition. By sharing all our experiences and lessons, we allow someone to follow us, and get value from that, long before they might become a customer.
David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of Ruby on Rails, founder & CTO at Basecamp (formerly 37signals), best-selling author, public speaker, race-