Be a Curatorwith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Everyone has more ideas than they can realistically fit in a product. A good museum doesn’t just throw everything in its collection up on the walls. There’s a curation process. Someone says, “no.” It’s in making these edits that the real product comes out, so embrace it!
- 02:32 - Shape Up
- 02:37 - Six-week cycles (Shape Up)
- 07:36 - Stick it to an email (HEY)
- 10:41 - Big Design Up Front (Wikipedia)
- 11:27 - Ruby on Rails
- 14:48 - Gantt chart (Wikipedia)
- 17:17 - Highrise
- 17:52 - Know Your Team
- 20:03 - We Work Remotely
- 20:32 - Sortfolio
The Full Transcript
Shaun Hildner (00:01): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Shaun Hildner. This week, we are talking about the chapter, be a curator. I don’t remember who said this, but maybe it was John Hodgman, he said, “The difference between a collection and a hoard is curation.” As someone who has far too many comic books and action figures, this chapter really resonated with me. And here to make me feel better about those life choices, our Basecamp’s co-founders and the authors of Rework David Heinemeier Hansson. How are you?
David Heinemeier Hansson (00:31): Good, good.
Shaun Hildner (00:32): And Jason Fried. How are you?
Jason Fried (00:34): Doing all right. Thank you.
Shaun Hildner (00:35): What does, in a broad sense, this editing process look like for designing software, specifically for designing Basecamp?
Jason Fried (00:42): There’s a few phases. One is like building a new product, you take this big idea and you hone it and you shape it into version one, which is your own version is how we think of it. And there’s a bunch of things that we don’t do. We can’t fit in, that we know we might want to do later. So it’s really a challenge of figuring out what are the things, what are the essentials that make this thing work? So there’s that, which I’m collapsing a lot of work into that quick description, there’s that. There’s also as you go and build from there, so like we’re building a bunch of new Basecamp features right now, as we do every six to eight weeks. And you’ve got to figure out, what do those features look like? Because there’s always more that you want to do and more that you can do more ideas than you can actually handle. So how do you ring that stuff out so you’re just left with what matters? That’s the other part of editing.
Jason Fried (01:34): They’re the same process, but one’s a complete product and one’s a feature. But a feature is like a microcosm of a larger project or product. So a lot of has to do with who’s available to work on it, what your ambitions are at the moment, how important is this particular thing. Another thing we talk about is how much time are we willing to give something. Not how long is it going to take, but how much are we willing to give. So this feature we’re willing to spend four weeks on, for example, is also a form of editing. It’s nonspecific in that you’re not addressing individual things in it. Why it’s four weeks, but you’re saying four weeks is our appetite and now we’ve got to edit this down to make it fit within that timeframe.
David Heinemeier Hansson (02:12): I think it’s those constraints that force you to be a curator. Because I think actually most people without any form of constraints are not necessarily the best curators. It’s quite hard to be a good curator if you don’t have some boundaries forcing you to be that. So this is why with Shape Up, we’ve set it up in this way that, you know what, we’re just going to work in six week increments. Not because all versions of all features fit in six weeks, but because if we have that boundary, we’re forcing ourselves to be that curator about what goes in and what doesn’t go in. And you see this whenever we are done with the project because it’s always full of to-dos we didn’t check off. There’s always a bunch of lists and a bunch of things that we found that like, “Well, it could have also have done that.” But it didn’t because we were forced to choose.
David Heinemeier Hansson (03:05): And I think that’s really that powerful technique where sometimes it’s hard to pin out exactly like, well, what should go in or what shouldn’t go in? It’s into comparison, “Hey, you can fit three things, you got 10. What’s the most important three?” That’s actually not that difficult of a process most of the time, sometimes there’s a bit of back and forth over it. But a lot of the times you go like, “Do you know what, if I can only have three, it’s going to be these three.” And very often you realize that the other seven things not only weren’t they essential, in many cases, it’s actually worse, it’s worse to put it all in.
David Heinemeier Hansson (03:44): And it’s the same thing with feature requests that come from customers. We’ll receive tons of requests every week. And every single request someone will go like, “This is really important.” But you’re the one left with hundreds if not thousands of requests. And you might think in isolation each one of these things makes sense to some extent, some of them don’t make sense, but a lot of them do make sense. You also realize you can’t put 1,000 things in. If you put everyone’s stuff in there, it’s going to be a mess.
Shaun Hildner (04:19): That’s a hoard.
David Heinemeier Hansson (04:19): Jason has this idea of like, if the product was physical, it’d be quite apparent. If we were building a radio and you’re like, “How many knobs and dials and buttons can you fit on this thing before it’s obvious that it’s a mess? It’s not as obvious with software.” And some way software is more forgiving. If you were to count up every single screen that Basecamp has, Basecamp is not a minimalist product. It’s not a minimalist product in terms of the number of things that it does. But most of those features actually are in some degrees quite minimalist.
David Heinemeier Hansson (04:57): You compare something like Campfire to other chat tools. And it is what, hundredths of the same? So I think that’s the key part of the curation process, is to force yourself into it. It’s just that you don’t need this mythical Steve Jobs character where even if he had a trillion dollar company with… Well, I guess it was never trillion dollars with Steve at the helm, but billion dollar company who in essence has all the resources at his disposal, he was still able to be a curator. Those people are quite rare. For the rest of us, you need constraints.
Jason Fried (05:32): That said, I would also say that even Apple, I’ll just use the terrible example of Apple, Apple has more ideas than they can do. Everyone has more ideas than they can do, every single company promise you. Everyone has to go through this process. I think one of the real challenges here, for companies with a lot of ideas, is never shipping because you always keep piling more and more and more. And Apple’s quite good at shipping, they’re one of the best in the world at it. The amount of gains they can make in a relatively short period of time on an annual schedule or biannual schedule is pretty impressive. Certainly you know they’re leaving a bunch on the table though. Whatever they come out with, it’s not the exact idea they had, they’re cutting stuff back. So every company has more ideas than they can deal with. Ideas really aren’t the problem, it’s figuring out which ones to do and what version of those do you do.
Shaun Hildner (06:21): Hey, just jumping in to say, here is where we fix Jason’s microphone issues. So he’ll be sounding much better from here on out. All right. Enjoy the rest of the show. So how do you start? Do you start with the list of everything, the 1,000 things you could put in and edit that list down or do you start by thinking, “Okay, this product needs these four essentials and we can add on to that?”
Jason Fried (06:42): David might do it differently. I’ll just answer how [inaudible 00:06:45]. I don’t make the list, I have these floating ideas that are roughly orbiting this concept and we just start somewhere basically.
Shaun Hildner (06:54): Throw a dart at the wall.
Jason Fried (06:55): Well, you pick the epicenter, to get back to an earlier episode, you pick the epicenter and you build out from there. And when you build, you have new ideas that come up again. That’s why I don’t like the idea of writing all your ideas down up front, because you’re limiting yourself. You’re going to come up with new ideas as you go. And some of the ideas you had aren’t going to make sense and some of the things you thought were priorities don’t turn out to be. I remember there was a feature in HEY early on, part of the initial idea of HEY was this feature called handoffs, which we were all convinced, and still, by the way, it might be a good idea, but we were convinced that it was just one of the essential pieces of the product.
Jason Fried (07:29): We never built it and we don’t feel ourselves needing it. We actually built something else, we built this idea of notes into email threads, which is close enough it turns out. So sometimes you have these babies basically and you’re like, “Eh, we’re we’re not going to fall in love with them.” Because you don’t need them until you build them. So that’s how we do it, we just have the ideas, start somewhere, go, see where it takes us. And at some point you feel like you have enough, that this thing is formed up off for version one, recognizing there’s always time to do more and more and more down the road.
Shaun Hildner (08:03): David, how about you? When you’re approaching something, do you start with a big list of all the possibilities and winnow it down from there?
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:11): No, I think I’m right alongside Jason there, even on the technical side of how you approach the implementation, is you simply start like, what is the thing you have to do for… What’s the epicenter? What’s the thing you have to do first for this thing to even start making any sense at all? Start pulling on that thread and have the confidence that you’re going to figure it out. I think that’s where the shape up idea of the budget like, “Eh, this is worth four weeks.” Gives you some real guidance quite early on. It’s like in racing, we have this term of look up. It’s a very natural instinct to look right in front of your car, you’re just paying attention right in front of where you are. But you need to look up, you need to look to the next corner to actually let your mind and body gel in such a way that you turn into just the right point and you go out.
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:59): When you have this idea that like, “You know what, we think this is worth four weeks.” You quite quickly realize the right paths to go down because you look at some of the tech stuff and you go like, “You know what, there is a path here, but that’s seems like a science project. I can’t fit that within a four week scope.” So you’re guiding this thing by looking up and going like, “Do you know what, it’s worth four weeks. We’re going to guide in that direction and we’re going to do it as we go. We’re going to pull in this thread and we’re constantly going to make these small decisions about what’s worth it and what’s not.” Which leads to this other thing that I don’t remember if we have the essay on this in Rework or that was in Getting Real, but trading concessions. That when you work with others as a team to solve a project, you are all pulling on slightly different threads.
David Heinemeier Hansson (09:49): You’re all trying to implement this feature or this product. But Jason, when he approaches something, he’ll approach it obviously from design first and then I’ll start pulling on the same thread and I’ll realize, you know what, there’s some things here that doesn’t quite square with the four week budget we have in mind. So I’ll suggest something to Jason like, “Could we just do this instead?” Very often, the answer’s like, “Yeah, fine. I just scribble that in, that was not important.” Sometimes the answer’s, “No, absolutely not. This is essential to the thing so we got to do that.”
David Heinemeier Hansson (10:20): And I think in that collaboration, you keep pulling on the thread at the same time, trading those concessions as you go. It’s easier, you get the information as you need it. We’re just not smart enough to imagine everything up front. In the tech or development community, it’s often called this idea of big upfront design, that you try to write down in minute detail what the whole thing is going to be. And it’s just been an utter failure for basically the history of computer science. And the vast majority of these mega projects they fail because of that. Someone sits down early on and tries to imagine the entire future because they don’t have the confidence that someone could figure it out as they go. When really that’s the only way.
Shaun Hildner (11:03): I’m wondering how Basecamp’s curation, and if Basecamp is jazz software and it’s about the features you don’t play, how does that curation come through in our marketing?
Jason Fried (11:14): This is a good question because you could describe the whole product on the homepage, for example, or something like that. You could also have another page that lists all the features. I think we did this for the rail site, David, the new rail site. Isn’t there a features page or something that’s actually the detailed…
David Heinemeier Hansson (11:32): It’s so funny, there was going to be and I thought in my head it made perfect sense. And by the time we had shaped the rest of the site, I’m like, “We don’t need it. And it seems like a lot of work, so let’s just not do it.”
Shaun Hildner (11:45): That’s perfect curation right there.
Jason Fried (11:49): This is fundamental though, which is, what is the message? I’m just going to look at the rail site. While we’re looking at this, because I remember we did this recently, the messaging at the top is all about compressed the complexity, that’s the message. Rails does more than that. And there’s no feature called compressed the complexity in rails. But that’s the messaging, that’s the idea that David wants to get across with rails. So it is pure curation, it’s the most curated statement, in fact, of all, which is, what’s the one thing you can say to set the tone? And that really is boiling it down to something.
Jason Fried (12:24): Now, in some cases it’s not about the product at all, it’s more of a transfer of emotion or some reaching statement where you’re selling aspiration or something like that. It’s disconnected from what the product… Well, it’s not disconnect from what it does, but it’s not tying back to a specific feature, but it’s more of an idea that you’re sharing. So I do think that copywriting, especially headline writing is really the art of editing and curation and really trying to get a bigger idea across in just a handful of words.
Shaun Hildner (12:53): I get what I’m asking is, how important is it to your marketing to market that this is a curated product? Do you know what I mean?
Jason Fried (13:01): Yeah.
Shaun Hildner (13:01): It’s saying we made these decisions and chose these very specific features for this reason. And here’s what it’s missing and here’s why it’s missing it.
Jason Fried (13:10): It’s a good question. I think we’ve changed our mind on this many times over the years. I remember at some point early on, there was some statement, like everything you need, nothing you don’t or something like that. Which is a statement like that, but it’s a little bit generic. On the new Basecamp site we’re working on right now, we are actually choosing to show far more pictures than text than we have in the past. But I’m also going to write this letter that’s going to dedicated page on the site, which is a little bit of the history of the product and why we started, why we built it, and what we’re trying to solve.
Jason Fried (13:41): In that letter, I’ll probably go into the fact that we wanted to build something that was straightforward and didn’t do everything and the competitive products at the time were all about charts and graphs, we chose a different direction. So there’ll be some of that because I feel like when you’re telling story, you can get into some of those details in a different way than broadly saying like, “Our product does less than the other ones.”
Jason Fried (14:03): It’s actually an interesting angle, and we talk about it verbally. But I also don’t know if it would land well as a headline without support. So I don’t know, this is what’s fun ultimately about AB testing and playing with something like this is. You could take ideas that you wouldn’t really bet the farm on, but you could bet 10% of the farm on and see how that 10% does and you go, “Oh, maybe this 10% is actually the farm. We should maybe bet the whole thing on this one statement that we didn’t know was any good. It’s too risky to try, but let’s try it a little bit and see what happens.” So that’s part of the fun too.
David Heinemeier Hansson (14:37): I do think that we’ve set up this oppositional positioning sometimes when it comes for example, to Gantt charts, which perhaps is one of the most requested features of all time that we’ve militantly decided not to do. That do you know what, that cuts against the grain of what we want to do, as Jason said. The founding statement of Basecamp was this was about project management, about communication, not charge and graphs. That meant that Gantt chart is almost something we proudly didn’t do. I don’t think we lean on that statement as much now as we perhaps used to do it. Some of it is also just a function of time. We used to talk more explicitly about less software, which is a position that’s easier to take when you have fewer resources, when you have one programmer and a couple of designers, “Hey, you should lean on that. You should lean more heavily on your constraints and the benefits of that.”
David Heinemeier Hansson (15:37): Then when you’re in a slightly different position, it’s not so much that you change your mind, it’s just that, where do you put your emphasis? We don’t need to put the emphasis as much on all the things that we don’t do in comparison to the fact that out of the five things that Basecamp does and the five other products that replaces it, it replaces them with highly curated versions of that. As I said, if you compare the chat version to other chat programs, it’s an incredibly distilled version. The same thing.If you go for file sharing, the same thing if you go for the whole thing. So there’s multiple layers you can do this at. On the one hand you could say, Basecamp does more than any of these things because it does the work of five products. But then when you look at the comparison to each of those products individually, they look highly curated and highly contained and feature tight.
Shaun Hildner (16:31): Well, perfect. I think that is a great place to wrap up that conversation. Looks like we have a few minutes here, do you want to take a question from a listener?
Jason Fried (16:38): Sure, let’s do that.
Shaun Hildner (16:39): We’ve got one here from Dylan.
Dylan (16:42): Hey, Jason and David. This is Dylan. When you have a new company idea and you take it zero to one, but then realize it’s not something you want to pursue, how do you go about finding and compensating an operator to run it?
Jason Fried (16:58): I will tell you that I don’t think we know how to do this. We’ve not really done a great job with it in the past, we tried to do it once with… Actually this is not true, let me step back on that. Because we’ve done it a couple times, I think once worked better than the other time. But still it’s hard. We spun off high-rise, we built high-rise as a product. You’re speaking about a company, but we’ll take a product here because essentially high-rises could be its own company. We built it for a while, we spun off, handed it over to a team which we basically hired a COO or CEO essentially to build their own team. And they ran that for three years and then we ended up taking it back after three years.
Jason Fried (17:38): We weren’t really thrilled with the direction let’s just say, and so we took it back. So now we have it again, so we weren’t really good at perhaps letting it go completely. But we did this also with Know Your Company, which is another product we built, handed that one off to someone. And she took it and ran with it in a different direction and has done a really wonderful job on it in a way that we couldn’t have done. In our case, in our world, we knew both of these people. So we knew Nathan, we knew Claire, and we already had established a degree of confidence in understanding about who they are and what they can do. I think it’d be extremely difficult for us to hand something off to a team we don’t know and don’t have a history with.
Jason Fried (18:22): But that’s just more probably our situation. It’s not that there aren’t incredible teams out there who do this all the time. I just don’t know if we know how to do that very well. I think we’re very particular and have a very specific way of thinking about things. And I think it becomes harder and your options become narrower as you are pickier and pickier about what happens with the thing that you built versus just not really caring as much and just handing it off and saying it’s out. So anyway, that’s my quick take. I do think though that one other thing is to say, if you’re not feeling, it’s probably a good idea not to keep running it. And one idea could just be to close it down. Businesses close down, things don’t have to survive forever. That might be a better outcome as well. But anyway, I don’t know what you think, David.
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:08): When I think a back, of all these experiences, where it’s difficult is when you still feel like it’s your reputation, your Goodwill that’s on the line. Which I think was more true in the Highrise case, it was more difficult for us to let go of it because we still felt like that reflected on the company. And then you end up being of a passenger driver, you want to second guess and you want to be like, if they take a wrong turn or whatever, you want to go, like, “Eh.”
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:37): Versus if you can get to terms with the fact that it’s no longer yours, and that was the problem with the Highrise thing, it was still 100% ours. The respondent offers a separate company, but the company was a wholly owned subsidiary of Basecamp. So that both created the responsibility to be on the hook for it but it also meant that it was fully ours. We’ve spun off actually a number of other things too. We had a job board called weworkremotely.com, which we just sold outright for a one time lump sum cash to someone to run it. I’m actually just looking at it now and it looks it fine, it’s a job board, not like there’s Highrise levels of complexities or different paths to take perhaps. But I haven’t thought about it until we just talked about it in a very long time.
Jason Fried (20:24): I think we sold it too cheap, I thought about it.
David Heinemeier Hansson (20:26): I wonder if it was a little closer with something called We Search Folio. So wesearchfolio.com was something we actually sold to two people who took this on. It’s still running, I’m looking at it right now, it still looks quite similar to the original version that we built at Basecamp. But it had that same character. Boom, we’ve sold it, it now is someone else’s, that’s it.
Shaun Hildner (20:49): No longer your darling.
David Heinemeier Hansson (20:50): Exactly. No longer our darling, no longer our reputation, no longer our influence on it. I think that works better. I will say there is actually a growing number of holding companies, if you will, that will buy small SaaS businesses from founders who no longer want to run them. So that’s also something you could look into, where you don’t have to find a whole team to do it. If you just want a clean transaction, there are now these holding companies that buy smaller SaaS companies. That looks like it actually has been working out quite well for several of them.
Shaun Hildner (21:25): Well, thank you for your question, Dylan. If any of you have questions for Jason or David, leave a voicemail at (708) 628-7850 or better yet record a voice memo on your phone and email it to me at email@example.com. And that should do it for this week, right on time. Next week, we’ll be talking about the chapter, throw less at the problem. But for now, I would like to say thank you to David Heinemeier Hansson.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:53): Thanks Sean.
Shaun Hildner (21:54): And thank you, Jason Fried.
Jason Fried (21:56): Thank you.
Shaun Hildner (21:57): All right. Fantastic. We’ll see you guys next week.
Jason Fried (21:59): Adios.
Shaun Hildner (22:10): Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clip Art. We’re on the web at rework.fm, where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of Rework. We’re also on Twitter @reworkpodcast. If you’re following along with the book, next week, we’ll be discussing the chapter, throw less at the problem. And if you like the show, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you’re listening to this.