What's in a Name
37signals has undergone some name changes since its inception over 20 years ago: starting as 37signals in 1999, then changing to Basecamp in 2014, before switching back to 37signals in 2022.
Today, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson sit down to uncover the story behind the name 37signals, the reasoning behind the name changes, and the impact a name has on a business as we discuss what’s in a name.
[00:46] - Jason connects extraterrestrial intelligence to the name 37signals.
[01:56] - The out-of-the-park success that prompted a reassessment of the company’s diversification.
[04:07] - Do we really need all this? The stress (and necessary decisions) that grew out of success.
[05:54] - How pride in their work led Jason and David to downsize their product line.
[07:56] - Jason shares the behind-the-scenes story of the 2014 meeting that led to sun-setting their other products to focus on Basecamp (which is still in operation after 19 years).
[10:04] - David shares the lightbulb moment he had during that meeting that prompted him to fully commit to changing the company’s name and business model.
[12:46] - Too many products, not enough progress. Getting everyone on the same page and figuring out the next steps.
[14:27] - Same people, same location, NEW NAME (and domain).
[17:16] - The difficult decision to stop running Highrise.
[19:19] - Back to our roots in 2022.
[21:37] - How having a unified brand name helps maintain a consistent tone and strengthens brand value.
[23:15] - No need for a lengthy cost-benefit analysis—go with your gut.
[24:18] - It’s what we want to do, and that’s enough.
[25:03] - Two products under one umbrella, why returning to a multi-product company name made sense from a company standpoint.
[25:37] - A brand by any other name—how much does your business name matter?
[27:34] - Do you have a question for Jason and David or anyone at 37signals? Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850, and we might answer it on an upcoming show.
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Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. Hey, I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. If you’ve followed 37signals business, you likely know that the company has undergone not one, but two name changes over the years. While the business started off as 37signals in 1999, co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson changed the name of their company in 2014 to Basecamp after their most popular product. Eight years later in 2022, they changed it back to 37signals. I’m joined by Jason and David to talk about these name changes, specifically, why they did it, how they did it, and really at the end of the day, what’s in a name. I think we have to start by talking about the name 37signals. For listeners who might not know, tell us where that name came from.
Kimberly (01:48): Okay. So that name worked well for, what was that, 15 years?
Jason (01:53): Yeah.
Kimberly (01:54): And then tell us what happened.
Jason (01:56): Well, so over those 15 years, we’d started as a web design firm, then launched Basecamp in 2004. Then in 2005 we launched Backpack. In 2006, we launched Campfire. 2007, we launched Highrise, and we launched a few other things, a job board, a sortfolio, which was this, um, directory of web designers. Uh, a few other things over the, over the years and this collection of products that we’d built. We were only, we were a small company, so I think we had like, I don’t know, David, do you remember? 20, 25 people, 30 something at that point. Maybe between 20 and 30 maybe. <Yeah, I think around 30 probably.> And the world had changed in that, n ow there were mobile apps required. So, so every product, Basecamp, you had to have a Basecamp with the web and, and iOS and, and Android and same thing for all the other products.
(02:40): And it turned out we just didn’t have enough people to really maintain these four other primary services – Basecamp, Backpack, Highrise, and Campfire. It’s a lot of work to do one product and to do four well on three different platforms each. It just didn’t work. So we ended up, basically, a few of them just sat around and that ended up not feeling very good over the years. People really came to know us for Basecamp. That was our primary win, our primary big product. Um, Highrise was our second biggest product, but Basecamp was bigger by a factor of 10 x basically. And we just decided that, I mean, I’m, I’m saying we just decided cuz it, it actually was a short meeting, but there was an idea that it was generated a little bit earlier than that. We can talk about the meeting if we want, but there’s this, this feeling that like, you know what, we should focus on one thing because we can’t do four things well anymore the way things are going, we can’t do four things well.
(03:32): So let’s focus on one thing. Most people know us for Basecamp the product anyway. So back then we would say, I work at 37signals. And they’d say, what, what do you do? And you’d say, we make this thing called Basecamp. And I’d go, oh, Basecamp, I know Basecamp. So we’re like, why don’t we just focus on one thing, either sell off, spin off, roll into, you know, other products would roll into Basecamp perhaps, um, and just be left with one thing that we do and rename the company to reinforce the fact that that’s what we do now. And so that’s the decision that was made in 2014. And uh, that was the case for about eight more years.
David (04:07): I think the funny thing with that decision is, was the, the first option we explored was not to turn into Base camp. It was coming up against the stress that we need a lot more people. We don’t need like three or four more people. We need 20 more people or 30 more people to do as Jason says, all these things on a bunch of different platforms and really do all the products justice. And at the time we really just have this sense that, do you know what, I don’t wanna run that company. It’s not that these products aren’t doing well, it’s not that they’re growing, it’s in fact that they are doing well and they are growing. That’s giving us these quote, unquote problems, which in any other business, for most other owners would not be a problem. That would be "Hallelujah. What, we have multiple growing products?
(04:57): Like that’s amazing, excellent, let’s invest, let’s staff up. Let’s become as big of a company as these products will allow us to become." But when we looked at that prospect of becoming a substantially bigger product or a company and introducing new layers of management and all the other processes and complications that will come with that, at the time we were like, why? First of all, Basecamp is being picked as the main thing because it’s doing phenomenally well. It is doing far better than what we even needed to do. Do we need more than that? I mean, do we need to have more quote, unquote success than what Basecamp can afford us? What if that was just it? Would that be so bad and it wouldn’t be not so bad? Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be great if we just had the one thing that a small company could work on and do an excellent job at?
(05:54): I think this was one of the thing that took me a little while to, to get around to, but now I’m fully behind with the sense that I just thought that couldn’t we just continue to sell Highrise? I mean, okay, so we haven’t touched it in a couple of years. It’s getting a little long in the tooth, the design, the styling, the lack of features, the lack of improvements, but whatever, people are still signing up for it. Can’t we just let the market choose so to speak? And I think Jason, you made the point like, no, I don’t wanna sell things I’m not proud of. And I thought like, oh yeah, okay. Damn, I don’t really have a good counter for that one because in an economic sense it did not make sense. What we should have done in a purely economic sense, even if we wanted to stay the same size company, was just to continue to sell these products that we were no longer developing as long as people were interested in buying them.
(06:42): But that was just not enough. It was not enough to simply go like, you know what? There’s more business we could squeeze out of this lemon. We’d be like, no, we just want to sell stuff that we’re proud of that we could say like, Hey, you should buy this thing. Not like, uh, we also have this other thing, but eh, don’t look at that. Right? So having pride in the work was a key component of it. A key component was in wanting to stay the size of company that we were and not grow it tremendously and then, um, settle into to sort of that whatever, call it the negative connotation would be stagnation, right? Like, oh, well you, you have all these things, uh, so things you could do and more products you could do. Continuation is what I like, right? The continuation that the fact that Basecamp now today has been around for 18 years or whatever it is that adds up to Yeah, no, 19 this year it’s gonna be 19 years. We launched on February 4th, 2004. So 19 years, like that is a remarkable, rare thing in software. That’s not something we’re settling for, but maybe now we’ll come to the second part of the story when after eight years we changed our mind.
Kimberly (07:56): Well, I actually wanna go back to 2014. Jason, you mentioned some meeting. I’m curious, was it just the two of you who were discussing this? That’s part A of my question. My second part is, was this a let’s have a meeting and decide, or is this something you guys had been thinking about for a long period of time?
Jason (08:11): David may have to fill in gaps if I get this wrong, but I, so there’s four of us at the meeting. It was David, me and David, Ryan and Noah, correct. Is that right? David? Four of us. <That’s right.> I didn’t tell anybody what the meeting was about, I think if that’s correct. Um, I think I said, Hey, I, I’ve got something that’s on my mind and I want to talk about it. Let’s like go meet up somewhere. Cuz, cuz uh, Noah was in Pittsburgh, Ryan, Chicago, David, I don’t know where you were at the time. I’m not sure if you were here or this somewhere else. Anyway, like, let’s go and, and, and we didn’t wanna talk about this at the office, so we actually got, got a hotel room in, in Chicago and like I kind of sprung it on everybody. Like, here’s what I’m thinking.
And I laid out the case and um, you know, I I think I said it up front like it’s a big deal, but not a big deal. Like I didn’t want anyone to freak out like, what, what is this thing we’re like being, you know, summoned somewhere
(09:31): It’s just something that happens. It’s almost impossible for it to happen any other way. And that’s when I had the thought and I thought about it a little bit, and then I presented this to this crew and surprisingly there wasn’t much pushback actually. I think that it just kind of ultimately made sense. Maybe it was on everyone’s mind in a way, but not fully. Um, but uh, that’s how it all came down. And I think we spent, we spent an afternoon talking about it and you know, what does it really mean? What are the implications and how would we do it? And all that stuff. But I think it all kind of made sense. That’s my recollection. David, maybe you have a different one. I’m not sure.
David (10:04): No, that’s, that’s right. I think what had led up to it were these discussions about like, we’re not doing these things justice. And I remember Jason and Ryan being like, no, we need a lot more people. And, and I’m going like, yeah, you know what? I’m not, I’m not sure. I’m not sure, right? Like, can’t we just continue to this? Can’t we just continue to tick tock, which was what we were calling, jumping from one product to, to the other. We were calling it, tick tock, that we’d go work on a Highrise for six months, for example, and then everything else would just sit and then we’d flow back perhaps and work on Basecamp. But for me, the thing that really just settled it very early, and I think it was like in first five minutes or 10 minutes of Jason giving his pitch, was this sense of like, do you know what, we should just only work on things we’re proud of.
(10:47): Why are we doing the other stuff? No one is holding us accountable, if you will, to certain financial metrics. We are not under any obligation to grow the revenue of the company faster than we already are or grow it at all. If, if that was how it was going to end up. So we had this unique freedom to make choices for the business on the basis of what kind of company do we want to run? Not just what is the biggest possible economic pie that we can make out of the ingredients that we have. We actually have the freedom to take some of the ingredients and kind of put them on the shelf and, and not take 'em down again. Now what’s interesting about that is all those products are still running today. All the products that we in '14 said, like, you know what?
(11:34): We’re not gonna do this anymore that we stopped selling – Backpack, Campfire, Highrise, they’re all still running for the customers who had signed up for them at that time. Which I think is also one of those things that’s weird, right? Like again, not in our economic best interest. Maybe I don’t, I could probably make a case that it was, but for a lot of companies they would not look at like, oh, we’re just gonna keep these applications around until, as we say, the end of the internet. They’d go like, that is not financially responsible. We should shut it down. But just as Jason made the argument that we should only sell things we’re proud of, we’ve also internally made the argument we should be proud of our legacy and being proud of our legacy and the things we have done, even if we wouldn’t sell 'em today is part of that. And in my optics are sort of two signs of the same coin. We want to be proud of the work that we’re doing. We wanna be proud of the obligations we’re making to customers that we’re serving them right. And that means sometimes leaving something on the table.
Kimberly (12:37): So the name change to Basecamp also corresponded with kind of sun setting these other software pieces.
Jason (12:46): Yeah, that was the whole, the whole thing was, okay, so let’s change the name, here’s some reasons why and here’s what we need to do. Um, we don’t wanna leave anyone out in the cold, we don’t wanna shut things down. That’s not typically, I think we’ve maybe closed down one product ever. And it was a tiny little thing called Basec amp Breeze, which was like little early mailing list thing. Um, other than that, we wanna make things, you know, things were running, customers were using these things, you know, they were happy with the products, we just weren’t happy with the progress on them, which is they were just sitting still. And, and there’s, there’s entropy basically, you know, things in a, in a market where, where things are changing and this is like, you know, 2008 things are change or '14 things are changing. Um, there’s a lot of new competitors coming on.
(13:27): There’s a lot of things happening. There is entropy. If you don’t update your stuff, it just trends pass it by, whatever. Now there’s ways to make things more universal perhaps. And, and in different markets there might be different kinds of things that can stand for longer on their own. But in, in software as a service in, in this realm, it just, it wouldn’t hold up. Things don’t hold up after time. And so yeah, sun setting or, or, or merging into, for example, Campfire, which still exists, got merged into Basecamp 3 separately. So Basecamp now has chat and a group chat and, and DM, which are direct messaging, which Campfire didn’t have, didn’t have direct messaging, but it got that. So Basecamp got that, even though Campfire still stays around. So for people who are using Campfire exclusively, they could keep using that. And uh, and that’s still true today. Um, so all, all those things exist, but you know, there, there was a lot of unknowns. It wasn’t like we, we hammered out every possibility of what to do. It was more like, can we get on the same page and have some sense of agreement and shared perspective here and then we’ll figure out what has to happen next.
Kimberly (14:27): Okay. Before we go to changing back to 37signals, I wanna hear about some of the things that you had to do to make that happen. I mean, I think about like the legal things and then even as small of details of company email addresses. Like what kind of changes did you guys have to make internally to go from 37s ignals to Basecamp and was it worth it?
I think the, the real lesson actually is it, it, it’s, none of the stuff’s very hard.
David (15:15): That was part of that.
Jason (15:16): We had basecamphq.com before which we run since 2004. And then we went out and bought basecamp.com. So that was another part of it. So then we had basecamp.com for the new Basecamp launch. But other than that, it was like, there’s not much, it’s the same people, same company, same office or lack of office. I forget if we, yeah, we had one back then. There wasn’t that much, frankly. I don’t know.
David (15:38): And we didn’t do it all as a big bang. We made the decision we’re gonna make the change. And then there was a process going for the DBA doing business as change, which by the way, the company continued to be 37signals. It was just 37signals DBA Basecamp. So we could say Basecamp in all these places. But even that, we took the quote, unquote cheap route of doing the DBA stuff instead of actually fully renaming the entity. And then all this other stuff, like the emails and updating all the references and so on was sort of like just a long trickle. And it’s funny because we we’re back in that trickle and we were in that trickle for quite a while when we then did the flip back that it doesn’t so much matter the what, what, as Jason said, what the big things that we did right away were bought the domain for more money than we’d ever spend on a domain, ever by orders magnitude. That was then surpassed when we bought hey.com. But at the time, basecamp.com was a large expenditure for the company. And that was kind of the commitment because
Kimberly (16:38): Somebody owned it already?
David (16:39): Some other company owned it already. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had to buy it from, and I think Jason, you serenaded the owners or something. Did you know him already? Or forget what it was. It was a long process, kind of like with hey.com. I think it was a long process of getting basecamp.com.
Jason (16:51): I forget how that happened.
David (16:51): Because someone was actually using it for real. <Yeah.> Like it wasn’t just someone squatting it, it it was a company.
Jason (16:56): No, it actually was a person. I don’t remember the story, but I, I mean we started out at a much higher price than we ended up at, as you usually would. But, um, it, it just sort of, there was a mutual agreement that this is a big number and they’d be a big deal for, for them. And it was affordable enough for us, essentially, and we just made it work. But it took a while.
David (17:16): Then the other consequence right away was, all right, you can no longer buy a Backpack. You can no longer buy Campfire. And then the last strangler we kind of went back and forth with for some time was Highrise, because Highrise was actually a really large business. Even if, if you took it today, you’d go like, that is a hugely successful SaaS business. But we were kind of committed that we were not gonna also run Highrise. So we went, should we try to sell it? Now it’s difficult when you don’t wanna sell part of your team along with it. You just wanna sell an application and, and to new users and what would even happen if we sold it? Would it just get sucked into something nasty? And then we ended up trying another experiment of having another team run it for a number of years before we ultimately decided to end that and, and put H ighrise on the same schedule as all the other things that we’ve pulled off the market, but continued to service for the customers who, who have it.
(18:10): And today, even today, Highrise is still a major business compared to a lot of actively sold, um, SaaS companies. Highrise does more business than a surprising number of them and I think it has not been updated since, what was it gonna be? '17, maybe ’ 18, something like that. So four or five years. But that also goes to that flip side of respect. Uh, Highrise is, is one example of that, but the initial version of Basecamp, Basecamp One we stopped working on in 2010 and is still a huge business and has tons of happy customers who love Basecamp, just they’re not in the market for an upgrade. So that kind of goes, part of it is that it didn’t, for us to make this strategic shift, we’re gonna become Basecamp did not mean screwing over all our customers. It didn’t mean screwing over all the employees either. It wasn’t like we were gonna go out and then fire a bunch of people. We were able to, to make such a big strategic shift without actually harming anyone. In fact, if anything we were, we were saving new customers from picking products that we weren’t gonna really improve and, and they should probably just buy something else.
Kimberly (19:19): Okay, so now we’re to 2022. You’re thinking about changing it back. Jason, did you hold another secret meeting to make that name change? How did that come about?
Jason (19:30): I think I’d sort of quietly subtly pitched David on this for maybe, I don’t know, a year or something kind of on and off. Is that about right? I don’t know. Just like, Hey, you know what, why don’t we think about doing this and it part why, like why was this bubbling up in my head? Part of it was because I felt like we didn’t have anywhere to share a point of view anymore. Um, basecamp.com was the company, it was also the product and it had to sell the product. That’s our business is selling the product. So we couldn’t like make basecamp.com this big opinion piece place because people wouldn’t know there’s a product to sell and there’s kind of wasn’t this place to have an attitude basically and have a point of view anymore. And that was sort of starting to bug me.
(20:14): Cause I felt like we were getting soft to some degree and there was nowhere to really sort of have an edge. We had a blog, but that what really wasn’t, it’s too far away from the point of view for the company. So, and I’ve always liked the name and I always like the brand, the look, sort of the edge to it. And so I think I just started dripping this thought. I didn’t really, it wasn’t a pitch so much, but like, what do you think? And maybe we should and what, what do you think about this? Perhaps we could, that kind of thing. And then I forget actually how this, I think David eventually is like, we should do this or something. I think that’s maybe how it happened. Can you, do you remember exactly David, how it actually happened?
David (20:49): I think you brought it up again because I had originally been like, eh, I don’t know man. Let, I mean going back again. But then part of a, a key part of this too was that Hey, just took off the way it did. Now suddenly we were a two product company and it was really odd in my head or it became odd certainly that you had this major successful product with tens of thousands of paying customers who was owned by this other product that like, why is H v ey not as strong in its identity as space canvas. Why is it this subservient relationship? Right? Like they should actually appear as peers in the marketplace. And I think that really helped push it over. And then I think also just coming out of the pandemic and everything, like, do you know what we should just do things we want to do.
(21:37): We should just change the name. It doesn’t need more validation than that. And I think that that was the part when when Jason brought it up again, it was like, yeah, yeah, that’s what we should do. We should just change the name again. It, it sounds good. And all the arguments that Jason give for having an attitude really rung true to me too because we’d had these discussions internally about what’s a company allowed to say, what’s a product allowed to say? What kind of voice can a product have? What kind of voice can a company have? And it was very clear to me coming out of all the turmoil that the 2020s had already wrecked upon the world, that there were certain things that, you know what I shouldn’t say as, as the company on the company blog. So that’s why in part, Jason or I started running our own blogs on, on Hey World and felt more free to write anything.
(22:25): But then it was also clear that there were a bunch of things that 37signals could say, could stand for, that was totally in keeping and in tone with the identity of that company that Basecamp couldn’t say, that Basecamp didn’t have sort of brand permission to take these kind of sharp edged stances on. And this was one of the things I remember too, I think in, I think the current version of Rework you can buy was updated to say that it was from the makers of Basecamp instead of 37signals. And there was something about this that always bugged me because it felt like Rework actually wasn’t a book that Basecamp, the product could put out. 37signals? Absolutely. It’s had that persona, it stood for those things, long history, but basically, ah, there’s something in that that just rings not quite right.
(23:15): So I think this alignment of tone, who’s allowed to say what when, um, was really important, and then being able to just make it really sharp. Like 37signals can take a really strong stance on X, Y, and Z and we should, and if we’re not doing it, we’re giving up this opportunity. And to some extent the specialness that is this company that does things no one would otherwise, that other companies in our industry would not feel like they had permission to do. We’re squandering that opportunity and that voice and that brand equity, if you will, by, by not using it. So it just felt like, yeah, we should do it. But really the ultimate thing, the deciding thing for me was like, Hey Jason, you really wanna do it? Yeah, fuck it, let’s do it. And then we should do more, we should have more decisions like that. We’re doing it just because we want to do it. It does not need a three month cost benefit analysis of whoa, what’s the impact? Should we do a study? Should we do a brand group? No, we shouldn’t, we should just go with the gut. And the gut says we should be called 37signals again. Okay, let’s go.
Jason (24:18): I think part of that is, again, leaning into this idea that um, we, we have an obligation to exercise our independence and just do things because we all wanna do 'em. That’s it. That’s why we’re here to do that. I mean, we serve customers and all the things, but like we’ve made all these decisions along the way not to take money, not to build a big business, not to have a board of directors, not to have to answer to anybody. So if we don’t have to answer anybody, let’s do what we want to do. Otherwise, what’s the point? So it, it is that really fundamentally that’s at the core of these decisions. I can make 10 reason or 10, you know, justifications for why it’s a good idea and 10 for why it’s a bad idea. I mean there’s all the branding reasons like whiplash people back and forth and it’s hard enough to get to establish brand identity and do people even know 37signals anymore?
(25:03): And all those things are true and it doesn’t really matter because it’s what we want to do and it’s fine. And if the business swings 10% one way or the other way because of it, it’s fine because we want to do it. That’s, that’s enough. But again, to David’s point, I’d forgotten this really key point, which was that the second product, again, Hey made us no longer one product company anymore, which is the primary reason for switching to Basecamp. So now we’re not that anymore and we might do more products. Um, and so therefore it just made sense to go back to a multi-product company name with like an umbrella brand. Uh, so that’s, that’s what we did.
Kimberly (25:37): I think I know what the answer to my question’s gonna be, but I’m gonna ask it anyway. For small businesses who are listening, who are thinking I might wanna change names, do you have any advice? I feel like you’re gonna say like, if you wanna do it, just do it.
Yeah, I mean it’s probably not a good idea most of the time
(26:39): You think about all the really popular things that exist today. If they were called something el, this is an exercise I go through. If they were called something else and then the brand was pitching to be renamed, would they ever accept the name that they actually have? Like if, if Instagram was called like photo stream or something, you know, and then there was like this big brand meeting to change the name, would they ever pick Instagram? Almost certainly not. Or, or, uh, you know, you know, all used to think about Yahoo in the back in the day. Like there’s no way they would’ve picked Yahoo again or Amazon today. They would probably never rebrand as Amazon. And if you go down the list, they’re all kind of, all these names are kind of ridiculous, but they’re just what we’re used to. And so it’s fine. But the point is, is that these names probably just don’t matter that much to begin with. So yeah, do what you want, but I don’t think whiplash and changing every year or every three years is probably a good idea. It’s just, it’s too hard to establish yourself again.
Kimberly (27:34): That makes a lot of sense. Well thank you for this and for joining us. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. And as always, if you have a specific question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we just might answer your question on an upcoming show. You can also email us at email@example.com.