Nearly every boss has said it. And just about every employee has heard it. Yet it’s one of the most meaningless lines ever spoken in the office:
“My door is always open.”
The statement usually is followed up with some version of, “If you ever have an issue with anything, please come talk to me.”
What’s wrong with this? Isn’t it important for your employees to know that you are open to hearing their suggestions, concerns, and criticisms? Of course it is.
But let’s be real here: In most cases, “My door is always open” isn’t really an invitation to speak up. It’s a cop-out. It makes the boss feel good but puts the onus entirely on the employees. You might as well say, “You find the problems and then take all the risk of interrupting my day and confronting me about them.” How many people have taken you up on that offer?
Your employees have lots of opinions about everything—your strategy and vision; the state of the competition; the quality of your products; the vibe in the workplace. There are tons of things you can learn from them.
But how many of these ideas and opinions have you actually heard? A tiny fraction, I’d bet. The reality is that companies are full of things that are left unspoken. And even when they are out in the open, the CEO is almost always the last to know.
I like to think of myself as a leader whose door is always open. But I recently learned that an open door isn’t enough…
Before he made The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s famous comics and illustrations graced the covers of Apple brochures. The writing inside—from 1989, mind you—still does a great job selling the Mac.
Instead of blanket marketing a one-size-fits-all message, Apple took the time to speak to every situation a person is in. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the Mac is there to put order back in your life. If you’re unemployed, the Mac is there to help you chase a career. If you’re a habitual procrastinator, the Mac is there for your spark of productivity.
They’re listening to us, and our problems. Talk about empathy.
Plenty of marketing today, especially in software, is a package of feature sets, bells, whistles, and some boasting about how they’re better than the next guy. Perhaps there’s mention of “benefits,” sure, but we’re always left figuring out how a product is supposed to fit in our own lives.
Chances are, your product isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t have to be, either. Really listen to your audience—you’re lucky to have them. Instead of assuming what they need, ask where they’re coming from. How did they get to the point of finally asking your product for help? If you can figure that out, all of a sudden your marketing changes from “making sales” to “being there for friend.” That feels good.
A few of us at Basecamp became fans of the “job to be done” framework taught by Clay Christensen, Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek. The core idea is that what you are selling and what people are buying are two different things. Understanding what people are trying to do with your product helps you know whether you’re getting hotter or colder as you consider changes to your product.
For example, we think we’re selling a project management product. But some people really use our tool and pay us every month to manage their clients. The projects were always fine—it’s the clients that are a challenge! That’s just one example.
Clay has suggested (eg. here) that when you identify what people truly use your product to accomplish, you protect yourself from competition. He’s a smart man, so when he says something odd like that I try to dig in. I’m starting to see what he means.
It’s natural to identify with a product category. You think “we make product management software” or “we make candy bars” because you have to explain yourself over and over. It’s always easier to use available categories than to invent new ones. It’s just like language. We speak the lexicon instead of inventing words.
But for people who want to innovate, this is a problem. Identifying with a product category is outsourcing your strategy to the past. Is the world really carved up into allowable product categories? No. We are all figuring this stuff out every day. Experience shows that amazing breakouts and surprise successes competed on unorthodox dimensions (see Blue Ocean Strategy for examples).
Bob tells the story of a clock maker. They sell an alarm clock for small kids who started sleeping in their own room. It’s not a normal alarm clock. It has an arrow that points to whether the kid is supposed to be in bed or whether he is allowed to get up. That way he doesn’t go running into his parents’ room until after a reasonable hour.
If you think this product is a clock then it’s in the clock category in the clock aisle with a clock price. But parents who bought the clock said they would pay $100 or more for it because it keeps the kid out of their room. It’s a sleep protector.
So how does thinking outside the category protect us from competition? I’ve been conducting interviews with Basecamp customers, and I’m feeling first hand how tricky it is to think outside of a category. You don’t have a shorthand. You don’t have words and feature lists given to you. It’s like you’re floating out in space with nothing to grab onto.
That’s the key. The fact that it’s so hard to think outside of a category is the moat. Staying focused on why you made the features you did, what specific situations call for them, and how that combo creates progress for people requires diligence and confidence and unyielding attention to actual behavior. Sticking to the truth of the matter instead of the walls of a category keeps you on your own path and away from the pitfalls of conventional thinking. That’s hard to compete with.
Today, February 5th, 2014, Basecamp turns 10. What an amazing ride it’s been. And since nearly all our business comes from word-of-mouth, we owe it all to our customers. We are so thankful for what you’ve helped us build.
And on this special day, we have a couple very big announcements that will define the future of our company. Click that link to find out what they are.
These are exciting times. Fifteen years into our business, we are so grateful for everyone’s support. It’s been such a blast. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can do together for the next fifteen.
Wish to cancel your account? You may do so conveniently with an Online Chat Representative during 6AM-6PM Pacific Time, Monday through Friday. Or, you may call
us after hours at (323) 817-3205.
Interesting use of the word “conveniently”. After days of missing the window, I finally hit it at the right time. Here’s how that convenient chat went:
Please wait for a site operator to respond. You are currently number 1 of 1 in the queue. Thank you for your patience.
You are now chatting with ‘Mike B.’
David Hansson: Hi there, please cancel my account.
Mike B.: Hello, David. Welcome to online Fax support. I am Mike Berry, your online Live Support Representative. How may I assist you?
Mike B.: I am glad to help you. Could you please provide me your fax number, registered email address and billing zip code for verification?
David Hansson: 555555555, firstname.lastname@example.org, 99999
Mike B.: I am sorry, the zip code provided is incorrect. Please confirm the 4-digit PIN or last 4 digits of the credit card on file.
David Hansson: pin: 1111
Mike B.: Thank you for providing your information. Please give me a moment while I pull up your account.
Mike B.: In the meantime, please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation:
Mike B.: 1) Moving to another provider
Mike B.: 2) Bought a fax machine
Mike B.: 3) Business or role changed
Mike B.: 4) Short term project completed
Mike B.: 5) Financial reasons
Mike B.: 6) Problems with faxing or billing
Mike B.: 7) Dissatisfied with quality of service
Mike B.: 8) Too costly
David Hansson: no need for fax
Mike B.: David, as we’d like to keep your business, I can offer you a discount and also waive your subscription fee for 1 month.
Mike B.: The discounted monthly fee would be $12.95 per month. This new plan includes 150 free inbound and 150 free outbound pages monthly.
Mike B.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime. Shall I switch you to this plan?
David Hansson: no thanks, just cancel
Mike B.: Alright.
Mike B.: I completely understand your wish to discontinue. Conversely, May I offer you a waiver of 2 months on subscription fee so that you can re-evaluate your needs?
Mike B.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime.
David Hansson: no thanks, just cancel
Mike B.: Okay.
Mike B.: If you wish to consider the offer, I can set your account to auto-close at the end of the 2-month waiver period, wherein you need not have to contact us again for cancelling the account.
Mike B.: However, if you choose to continue, you would need to get back to us so that we could remove the auto-closure of your account.
Mike B.: Would that be fine with you?
David Hansson: nope, canceling now is what I would like
Mike B.: Okay, I will go ahead and cancel your account.
Mike B.: An e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.
Mike B.: Is there anything else I may assist you with?
David Hansson: that’s it, thanks
Mike B.: Thank you for contacting online Fax support. I hope you found our session helpful. Goodbye and take care.
Chat session has been terminated by the site operator.
I hardly need to add commentary to illustrate just how ridiculous and unfair this process is, but I can’t help myself. If you allow a customer to signup 24/7/365, you should damn well allow that customer to cancel their service 24/7/365. If you allow them to signup self-service, you should damn well allow that customer to cancel by self-service. Anything less is just crummy.
(I wish credit card companies would help enforce consumer protection against this: Unless it’s as easy to cancel as it is to signup, chargeback is automatic).
Chip Pedersen has been in tech for more than 25 years, 18 in the game industry. He’s led teams at Microsoft and Activision; done R&D for Apple; managed projects for huge brands like DreamWorks, MTV, Discovery Channel, History Channel, the MLB and the NHL.
You should probably hire him.
The catch is that he lives in Minneapolis, and he’s not going anywhere. “I’m just a Minnesota kid who wants to stay here,” he says. “All my three sons were born in different states. We moved back to Minnesota where we’re from. We like it here. We don’t want to go anywhere.”
“I have had offers to return to the West coast, but I just don’t want to do that.” He says his old Silicon Valley pals keep cajoling him: “‘come back out West; we’ll hire you right now!’ and my wife’s like, ‘no!’ We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and she said, ‘I’ve moved for you all these years, now can you do it for me and stay home?’ and I said, ‘sure.’”
So home they’ll stay. Pedersen is currently a gun for hire (with his company Golden Gear Consulting), and he likes it that way — he just wishes more businesses were open to the idea of remote work. “You can get great talent and let them be where they are,” he says, “and not have to put up with the cost of living in San Francisco.”
Most of the recruiters and hiring managers that reach out to Fleming want him to move, though he’s confident he does a better job working from home. “I can concentrate on my work and there’s no one here to distract me from that,” he says. “There’s no one coming over and tapping me on the shoulder and asking me about something. They may send me a message on Skype or Google Hangouts or something like that, but I can ignore that easier than I can someone coming into my personal space.”
Fleming recently tweeted about being in the market for a new position if anybody has a need for an experienced developer. Predictably, the first reply came from an IT recruiter: “Eric, would you consider moving to Austin or are you looking to remain in J-ville?”
That recruiter — Mark Cunningham, owner of The Bidding Network in Austin — says zero percent of his clients (primarily startups) are open to hiring remote workers. “If we’ve got some crackerjack Java developer who just has something amazing but he lives [20 miles away] in Cedar Park and the startup’s located downtown, we might work something out,” Cunningham says. But for the most part, his clients want to take advantage of the chemistry that results from everyone working in close concert.
“They worry about the loss of synergy, and the collaboration, and then the fires that are stoked from elite software engineers and elite professionals being together face-to-face and what comes from that,” Cunningham says. “That’s where they’re hesitating.”
Fair enough — there’s no denying there are advantages to having everyone in the same room. But when you stack the advantages that come with putting local heads together against the advantages of hiring the best heads from everywhere and collaborating remotely … well, it’s fairly clear where we stand on that.
“Give people the flexibility to work where they feel more comfortable working,” Fleming says. “They’re going to give you better results. It’s better for the company overall.”
Pedersen feels that for the more established companies he’s worked with, the hesitation comes from being stuck in a “face time = work time” paradigm. If you aren’t working onsite, “they think you’re goofing off,” he says.
“I’ve definitely worked at a number of companies where it was about the time you spent there. You may not have been doing much, but you were there. Microsoft was a little bit like that … I had a futon in my office and I would sleep there.”
What will it take for that cultural shift to happen, for companies to begin to allow people to work from wherever they like as long as the work is getting done? A leap of faith, Pedersen says.
“Do a small test,” he suggests. “Try it out. If you can’t find the person you’re trying to hire — if you’ve been looking forever to hire somebody and you can’t find them because they’re not in your region — look for a remote worker. You’re probably going to find an excellent person to meet your needs and get your stuff done. Probably within your budget and faster. Take those leaps when you see the opportunity.”
It comes down to results, Pedersen says. With the teams he manages, he does his best to treat everyone like adults and focus on the work itself. “If they’re getting their stuff done … I’m staying with that person. They got it done last time; they keep getting it done. I don’t care if they live in Venezuela; they’re getting it done.”
The natural tendency of growth is towards specialization. When you only have a few people, they must by necessity do everything. When you have more people, there’s enough room and slack to let people build specialization kingdoms that only they have the keys to. Don’t be so eager to let that happen.
Specialization might give you a temporary boost in productivity, but it comes at the expense of overall functional cohesion and shared ownership. If only Jeff can fiddle with the billing system, any change to the billing system is bottlenecked on Jeff, and who’s going to review his work on a big change?
But it goes even deeper than that. For example, we have all programmers work on-call as well. Everyone gets to feel the impact of customers having trouble with our code (this is on top of Everyone on support).
This really came to the test lately when we started working on a number of iOS and Android projects. Should we hire new specialists in from the outside or should everyone do everything, and thus have our existing team learn the ropes. Well, in that case we ended up doing both. Hiring a little because we needed that anyway, and getting someone with some experience, but also choosing to invest in the existing team by having them learn iOS and Android from scratch.
Good programmers are good programmers. Good designers are good designers. Don’t be so eager to pigeonhole people into just one technology, one aspect of your code base, or one part of your business. Most people are eager to learn and grow if you give them a supportive environment to do so.
Employee benefits for technology companies are often focused around making people stay at office longer: Foosball tables, game rooms, on-site training rooms, gourmet chefs, hell, some even offer laundry services. We don’t do any of that (although we do have a ping-pong table in a back room that gets wheeled out for our bi-yearly meetups).
Instead we focus on benefits that get people out of the office as much as possible. 37signals is in it for the long term, and we designed our benefits system to reflect that. One of the absolute keys to going the distance, and not burning out in the process, is going at a sustainable pace.
Here are the list of benefits we offer to get people away from the computer:
Vacations: For the last three years in a row, we’ve worked with a professional travel agent to prepare a buffet of travel packages that employees could pick from as a holiday gift. Everything paid for and included. Having it be specific, pre-arranged trips — whether for a family to go to Disneyland or a couple to tour Spain — has helped make sure people actually take their vacations.
4-day Summer Weeks: From May through October, everyone who’s been with the company for more than a year gets to work just four days out of the week. This started out as “Friday’s off”, but roles like customer support and operations need to cover all hours, so now it’s just a 4-day Summer Week.
Sabbaticals: Every three years someone has been with the company, we offer the option of a 1-month sabbatical. This in particular has been very helpful at preventing or dealing with burnout. There’s nothing like a good, long, solid, continuous break away from work to refocus and rekindle.
To come up with the best ideas, you need a fresh mind. These travel and time-off benefits help everyone stay sharp. But it goes beyond that. Even the weeks when people are working full-on, we offer benefits focused around keeping everyone healthy in other ways too:
CSA stipend: We offer a stipend for people to get weekly fresh, local vegetables from community-supported agriculture. Eating well is good, cooking at home is good, doing both is great.
Exercise stipend: Whether people want to take yoga classes or spend money on their mountain bike, the company chips in. Eating healthy goes hand-in-hand with getting good exercise. And we sit down for too much of the day as it is, so helping people be active is important.
These benefits form the core of our long-term outlook: Frequent time to refresh, constant encouragement to eat and live healthy. Pair that with the flexibility that remote working offers, and I think we have a pretty good package.
It’s always a real pleasure and a proud moment when our internal Campfire lights up with an anniversary announcement. Like Jeff celebrating 6 years this month, Sam celebrating 8 years and Ann 3 years last month.
We ultimately want 37signals to have the potential of being the last job our people ever need. When you think about what it’ll take to keep someone happy and fulfilled for 10, 20, 30 years into the future, you adopt a very different vantage point from our industry norm.
Name:Chris Hoffman Title: Co-Founder, Director of Marketing Strategy Company:It Collective Based in: Colorado Springs, Colo. Established: 2012
What does your company do?
We offer film production and content marketing strategy services. On the marketing strategy side, we work with clients to identify key stories and messages that will resonate with and be shared amongst a target audience — then we help them tell those stories through the creation of that content and the execution of a marketing strategy.
On the film side, we produce everything from commercial spots to short films, and just recently finished our first feature-length production — a live concert film for Gungor, an incredibly talented band who have recently been nominated for a couple of Grammys.
How many people work for the company, and of those, how many work remotely?
We are 100% remote. Our business model is project-based, so our team changes in size depending on the number and types of projects we have in house. We went the contractor direction instead of hiring full-time employees for a number of reasons. Primarily, it allows the flexibility to resource the ideal skill sets for each project. Secondarily, hiring individuals who prefer working in a contract setting help us filter out the people who require micro-management — in other words, people who are not suited for a remote work system. The people we hire are used to managing their own time and workflow. We have around 10 team members that we work with on a regular basis.
Did you start out as a remote company?
We did, and I’d love to say that we had some great strategy behind that decision. In reality, it was made because we didn’t have the startup capital to pay for an office space. We strongly believe in the concept of bootstrapping, and have gotten off the ground without taking on any debt or external capital investment.
We’ve found that we have a great love for hosting face-to-face meetings in coffee shop or home office settings, and that our clients often love meeting in those settings as well. We recently conducted a major client review meeting on a film project in the living room of Andy Catarisano — our Co-Founder and Director of Film Production. We picked apart the final edits over homemade popcorn and cookies. I think our clients loved the experience as much as the final product. It was significantly more effective than presenting in a polished boardroom.
When we need a larger space we rent the tricked-out conference room of a local co-working establishment. Obviously there are occasions when the home office and local Starbucks won’t work, and we don’t pretend that our system will work for everyone. We’ve found a way that works for us to do business without a set physical space, and we aren’t in a hurry to change that.
What challenges did you face in setting up as a remote company?
One major challenge (for those of us that came from a traditional corporate environment) was overcoming the mentality of a 9-5 workday that had been engrained more deeply than we realized. For me personally, it has taken a very intentional effort to ask myself the right questions about my daily activities. I’ve had to learn to look at the day through the lens of, “What is the most high-impact use of my time?” As opposed to, “It’s 3 p.m. — I should be at my desk.”
U.S. work culture has conditioned employees to feel like they are fulfilling their duty to the company they work for by being in their seats for 8 hours in a day. In reality, those employees may or may not be producing anything of value. The amount of time spent at a desk is completely irrelevant to the value and quality of work, and that has been a tough lesson to learn.
What do you see as the major benefits of being a remote company?
The first major benefit is the effect it has on morale, and in turn, the increase in quality of work and dedication to the company.
Here is one very practical example of this benefit: Commute time.
I’d love for someone to give me a reason that justifies not giving one of your staff 200 hours of their lives back each year in exchange for zero productivity loss.
Think about how ridiculous it is to demand that an employee sit in rush hour for an hour or more each morning and evening, just to be in by 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. How simple of a switch would it be to allow that team member to work from home until 10 a.m., then arrive at the office in 30 minutes or less with no traffic? That switch translates to well over 200 hours of time given back to that person every year to do as he or she pleases — to spend extra time with family, invest in a personal project, or just take some additional space for decompression.
I’d love for someone to give me a reason that justifies not giving one of your staff 200 hours of their lives back each year in exchange for zero productivity loss. An unwillingness to discuss these types of changes to a work schedule that provide such tangible benefits is just plain arrogance on the part of a management team.
A second huge benefit is the expansion of the talent pool that it provides for us. Instead of being limited to the labor pool within 100 miles of our location, we literally have worldwide talent at our fingertips. We regularly work with a film colorist that lives in Sydney, Australia. The quality of work that we received was vastly superior than anything within our immediate geographic area.
One really interesting thing about working with international teams is that you have almost 24 straight hours of productivity at your disposal. We’d do work in the U.S. on the project, meet briefly at the end of the day with our team member in Sydney before signing off, and then turn it over to him to continue the work. It’s an amazing experience to go to bed, get a great night’s sleep and wake up to a project that is further along than when you left it.
The other really major benefit for us is providing the freedom to tailor the work environment to the type of work being performed. An example of this that really stands out to me is on one of our recent projects, which was a feature-length film. Editing a 90-minute film together is one of the most incredibly detailed processes I’ve ever seen, and it requires a huge amount of focus and precision. We worked an amazing team of editors for this project — the kicker was that they preferred to do their editing nocturnally, from about 10 p.m. to 8 or 9 a.m. The world is quiet then — there are zero interruptions and that was their period of ultimate creativity and effectiveness. A remote work environment allowed us to say yes to that request, and the results were outstanding.
Any advice for other companies who are considering going remote?
The thing about remote work is that it magnifies existing dysfunction in the workplace. An organization with a highly functional team and a deep understanding of role clarity and how to work together in an effective manner is going to have a much easier time transitioning to a remote work structure. A dysfunctional team is going to have a much more difficult time making that leap, because the freedom of working remotely magnifies those inefficiencies.
A physical office space has long been used as a safety net for managers to push the the messes of their team dynamics under the rug as opposed to addressing them. Being able to walk down the hallway every 15 minutes to micromanage employees can (sometimes) cover up poor hiring decisions. It can compensate for a failure to plan. It can also provide a false sense of security for a manager who needs to micromanage to feel effective in their position. Working remotely immediately removes those safety nets and exposes the true functionality of a team. If you’re thinking about making the leap to a remote work environment, it’s important to ask these questions about your team and be very honest in your answers.
Visit It Collective.
Picked up a great lesson from the book Turn The Ship Around. David Marquet, the author and nuclear sub captain, says you can’t empower people by decree. While you might be able to ask someone to make a decision for themselves, that’s not true empowerment (or true leadership). Why? Because you’re still making the decision to ask them to make the decision. That means they can’t move, or think, or act without you. The way to empower people is by creating an environment where they naturally start making decisions for themselves. That’s true empowerment. Leaving space, creating trust, and having the full faith that someone else will rise to the challenge themselves.