Playful touch spotted on the Cloudpipes invite request page. They keep a list of companies they like and show a little thumbs-up whenever someone signs up from one of those domains!
Kristin wrote about our efforts to achieve 24/7 support, and it reminded me of a project I worked on last year. When we started talking about expanding the support team to improve our coverage outside of US business hours, David asked me to take a look at what we’d need to do to achieve a response time of under four hours for every case that came in, and related to that, what response time we could expect with each hire.
Framing the problem
When we talk about “response time”, we’re really talking about about one specific measure—the time from when we receive an email until we send an initial personalized response back (we stopped using autoresponders over a year ago, so every response we send is personalized). That encompasses exactly what we can control — how long we let a case sit in the queue and how long it takes us to answer. We exclude emails that don’t result in a reply (vacation messages sent to us in reply to invoices, spam, etc.), but otherwise include every single email in measuring our response time.
When we look at response time, we usually look at it one of two ways:
- Median, 95th percentile, and max response time: the point at which half, 95%, and all cases are answered by, respectively.
- Service level: the portion of cases that we reply to within a given time period.
So the goal that David was asking about can alternately be framed as a max response time of 4 hours or a 100% service level at 4 hours—they’re interchangeable.
There’s a really simple mathematical answer to “what do we need to do to ensure a max response time of no more than 4 hours”: at a minimum, you can’t have any gaps in scheduling that are greater than four hours. In reality you need a slightly smaller gap to actually achieve that service level, because after any gap in coverage you’ll come back to find a queue of cases, but at a minimum, there’s no way you can do a four hour max response time if you have a gap in coverage of more than four hours.
That’s a pretty easy and straightforward answer, and gives you a pretty clear idea of how you need to grow the team: hire such that you can make a reasonable schedule for everyone that doesn’t leave any gaps of more than four hours.
That didn’t answer the question of what we should expect in terms of response time as we grew the team over the course of many months, so for that, we moved to a simulation.
Simulating our support workloadContinued…
Almost ten years to the day, we launched a free service called Ta-da List: A simple way to manage and share to-do lists online. It’s funny to read the announcement now. You need a MINIMUM of Internet Explorer 6 to run it! Ha.
Well, we retired Ta-da List in May, 2012, as it had run its course, and we weren’t looking to update it to keep pace with progress. But what we didn’t do, was to kick off everyone who was happy to use what they had. Ta-da List is part of our legacy, and the courteous thing to do is to respect your legacy.
If you have a Leica M3 – a camera produced between 1954 and 1967 – they’ll still fix it for you in Germany. Half a century after they stopped selling it! That’s legacy, and an inspiration.
In 2014, there were just under 5,000 people still happily using Ta-da List to track their todos. That makes me smile. No, it’s not the best to-do tracker in the world. There’s no mobile app. It’s antique software. But it’s our legacy, and it feels good to be there and be dependable for the users who are happy with what they got.
When we Became Basecamp that was a theme we talked about a lot. The internal phrase is that we want to produce software that’s around #UntilTheEndOfTheInternet. So much software and so many services these days are unreasonably flaky and undependable. Not in the sense that they crash (well, that too), but that they simply disappear from one day to the next because of whimsy, acquisition, or worse.
I don’t want to be a digital landlord that evicts people who placed their trust and their data with us, just because “our priorities have changed”. At the same time, we also don’t want to continue selling or offering antiques to new customers. This is the compromise: No new users, but the ones we got we’ll take care of forever.
So cheers to Ta-da List and the 5,000 people still using it. We’re glad you’re still here, reminding us of who we are and where we came from.
It’s been a big year for our support team here at Basecamp, as Noah wrote last week. We’ve gone through lots of change and added several more people to the team.
Back in 2012, a few of us began working swing shifts to help clear the queue for the morning staff. Emily also started working Sundays to make Monday easier on the team and clear out some older cases from Friday night and Saturday. While the majority of our emails come in during traditional US business hours, we all know that work doesn’t necessarily happen between nine and five (for example, I’m writing this at 9pm PST). When we saw how well the Sunday and swing-shifts worked, we hired Jim to answer emails in Manchester, UK. That covered our butts from 2am-9pm CST, leaving only 5 hours of unanswered emails Monday through Friday. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but five hours can feel like an eternity if you’re locked out of your account or have a worrisome billing question. Shortly after we hired Jim, we decided to grow the team to include Natalie in Berlin and Chris, also in Manchester.
Fast forward six months to a few weeks after we launched our phone verification feature, when DHH was traveling and didn’t have cell reception on a Saturday. He was essentially locked out of his own app. Saturday, however, was the one day we didn’t have someone answering support emails. When DHH couldn’t log in to Basecamp on a Saturday in a timezone far from HQ, he felt the pain lots of our customers have felt. We decided to make a change to how support works.
I wanted to hire four new people to cover the world around, but DHH wanted me to hire no one and finagle the schedule with our existing staff [insert trollface here]. We settled on a compromise: If we hired four newbies, then we had to also implement phone support, such that we wouldn’t just have a big surge in employees (from 8 to 12: a 50% increase) without also expanding the scope of work. We opened four new positions: US Saturday-Wednesday, EU Saturday-Wednesday, Asia/Pacific Monday-Friday, and Asia/Pacific Saturday-Wednesday. While we searched for these four candidates, the existing team took turns trading one full day of work for a 4-hour Saturday shift. After an exhaustive search, we found our newbies: JorDanée in Florida, James in Berlin, Tony in Sydney, and Sylvia in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Noah, our self-described (and self-deprecating) Data Monkey, built a simple call-back platform for our Support page. We started slowly and worked through a lot of in-house anxiety and assumptions around phone support: people get angry, people interrupt, people express frustration more easily, people yell. At first, Noah and I were the only people taking calls, and the call option was only available to account owners and administrators. Then, the rest of the team joined us. We started opening the call-back option to more and more users. Now, any logged-in user has the option to request a call from us Monday through Friday from 5am until 5pm CST, with the occasional wee hour and weekend option. (For the record, our users are as sweet as freshly grated palm sugar and super happy that we call them back within a couple of minutes, so that in-house anxiety has mostly subsided.)
You can check out Noah’s comprehensive summary of the support stats here, but I’d like to point out some stats to celebrate. We made a huge dent in email-response times this year, with the median time to response across the entire year falling to three minutes. For comparison, back in 2011 and 2012 our median response time for email cases was over two hours. Additionally, we’re now answering emails on weekends within six minutes on average, whereas customers would wait upwards of eight hours for a response before 24/7 email was implemented. In our first year of phone support, we averaged about 250 calls per month despite having millions of customers. The median call-back time is under three minutes.
Not a call center.
Many of us have been working together for nearly four years now, so we’re a close-knit group of diverse weirdos. The major anxieties that cropped up during these proposed changes were based in the fear of culture shifts; we did not want to lose the senses of freedom or autonomy that come along with remote work, and growing the team 50% meant introducing more (potentially not weirdo) people to our existing, comfortable culture. Every time you introduce a new person to a culture, the culture shifts a bit. While we’re happy to include more people on our team, we also know that we want to remain relatively small.
The biggest cultural shift was with phone support. We were a team used to writing emails to customers all day, not speaking with them on the phone. We all identify as writers and introverts, so the idea that we’d have to speak to people on the phone felt icky. There were lots of “I was hired to write, not to speak” and “I’m not comfortable on the phone” and “I refuse to work at a call center.” Once everyone started taking calls, those anxieties wore away for most of the team. (I now compare talking on the phone with my days teaching university English: it’s all a performance.) Yet, we still had to navigate working with people in a new, real-time format. People are complicated. They do get mad, interrupt, and yell. Those calls are hard. They make us feel helpless in a position where we’re meant to be helpful. After a rough call or email, our team is still here to support each other. We encourage each other to debrief those rough interactions and step away from work for a few minutes.
Phone support also inhibits some freedoms of remote work. While many of us work from our homes, there are times when we get stir crazy and want to venture off to a coffeeshop to work. We all know that it’s rude to take calls at a coffeeshop, so we cover for each other if someone wants to get out of the house just like we would if someone were sick or on vacation or having an off-day. A huge part of working a customer support job is supporting each other, and we’re getting better and better at that with each new challenge we introduce to our workflow.
We may still be a small team, but our culture has grown significantly this year. From a Jiu-jitsu’ing cat lover in Oregon, to a working Paleo mom who likes to #liveriveted, to a car-obsessed deadlifting vegemite-eating Aussie – we know that our small team still means everyone knows each other, gets each other’s jokes, understands each other’s work ethics, and most of all, trusts each other wholeheartedly.
When you look at most designers’ portfolios, you usually see beautiful, polished work — finished products with plenty of spit and shine.
Those examples are great for showing off your talents and the culmination of your hard work, but the final product is only a small percentage of your total effort. It just represents your last decisions that made the cut.
In reality, most projects are ugly and messy. There are piles of half-baked explorations and heated arguments left behind the scenes. That’s why the shipped version of a design can seem obvious in retrospect — you threw out all the confusing stuff along the way!
Most of this dirty work ends up in the trash or unseen, and that’s too bad. We should all show our dirty work more often, because it’s documentation of the real work. It explains your thought process and gives critical backstory to the final version. (By the way: having that backstory also makes it easier for employers to hire you. Sometimes it’s much more valuable than the end result.)
We’ve been doing this for years in our Design Decisions posts. In that spirit, here’s a bit of our recent Basecamp dirt. This is what it’s really like to make the doughnuts!
Example 1: Should we show a button or not?
Sometimes small things are unexpectedly controversial. When we worked on Archiving Discussions, we had a running debate about whether we should expose the [Archive] button on discussions all the time, or keep it hidden away in a “bulk archiving” mode.
Archiving is an occasional use feature, so we were concerned about making it too prominent. For a while, we even planned to hide the button behind a keyboard shortcut and make it a secret power user thing.
Finally, we all agreed that there was no harm in showing the button. It didn’t get in the way or make the Discussions page noisy — it made it useful.
Example 2: Writing a single link
There wasn’t much design work needed for multiple-file downloads, yet we fiddled with this link text profusely. We even changed it in production after we shipped the feature.
Example 3: Fixing an edge case
Working on a big product like Basecamp means there’s an edge case practically everywhere you look. When we added moving a single to-do, we had to accommodate what happens if there are no destinations to move to. Most people won’t ever encounter this state, but it has to exist for those who do.
Example 4: How should we show attachments?
One of the bigger challenges with attaching files to to-dos was deciding whether we should show each file’s thumbnail next to the to-do itself. To-dos already have a lot of UI chrome, so we wanted to tread lightly. We tried big thumbnails and tiny ones.
After several debates, we decided that big thumbnails were too intrusive, and small ones were too tiny to be useful. So we axed them and opted to show a paperclip icon instead.
Example 5: Basic grammar
There’s often a conflict between proper English and what wording can be programmed to fit a variety of conditions in software. This is why you see computers making silly mistakes like
1 to-dos added successfully. Carefully working around these situations is almost an art in itself. There’s always a push and pull between what you want to say, and what you can reasonably do without excessive conditional code.
During design for making templates from existing projects we included an option to remove to-do assignments in bulk. We had to try several times to find a version that was clear enough and didn’t violate basic English grammar in some way.
So there you have it — those are just a few of our recent examples! What stuff have you made recently that’s itching to see the light of day?
“Every boat is copied from another boat….It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied….One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.”
- Émile Chartier
I thought of this quote while writing the latest Distance story on Van Dam Custom Boats, a Michigan-based maker of wooden boats that’s been in business for 38 years. Van Dam Custom Boats builds just two to four boats a year, and a single boat can take up to two years to complete because each one is made by hand—eight to 10 pairs of hands, to be more precise. It’s a small shop committed to craftsmanship the old-fashioned way, including thousands of hours of sanding the boats by hand.
There are probably faster or cheaper ways to build boats. But the Van Dams have successfully put their boats up against unforgiving waters from Lake Michigan to the Mediterranean Sea for almost four decades. The sea, you could say, has validated the Van Dam way.
Last year we topped 40 people at Basecamp. And that’s when I began to notice that we didn’t know as much about each other as we used to when we were smaller.
When any group gets to a certain size, it naturally begins to splinter into smaller groups. Cliques form and conversations often stay inside those cliques. That’s natural and OK, but I thought it would be nice to force some cross-clique personal conversations so everyone could get to know everyone else a little bit better again.
So I had this idea to bring together five random people (plus me and David) once a month for a one-hour free-flowing anything goes conversation, and then share the conversation with the rest of the company after it was over. The topics weren’t forced or pre-determined – whatever emerged was fair game. I’d sort of moderate the discussion to get it going, but after that whatever happened happened. The plan wasn’t to talk about work – it was to get a glimpse of what was going on in everyone’s lives outside of work. Could be exciting stuff, boring day-to-day stuff, whatever stuff. Life stuff.
We called it the 5×12. 5 people, 12 times a year. Andrea, our office manager, would select the people for each call, and the participants on the call would be kept secret until the call started. No one would know who was on this particular 5×12 call until each person popped into the conversation. A little surprise would help break the ice and just generally make things a little more interesting.
Since we’re a majority-remote company, we’d hold these monthly 5×12 video sessions using Google Hangout. Only the people on the call would be in the Hangout, but Andrea would transcribe/interpret each call and then post that transcript to Basecamp a couple days later so everyone in the company could read it. This way the actual call would remain intimate, but the stories would be shared company-wide.
I wasn’t sure how it would go – it was just an experiment. We’ve done six of them so far and I think they’ve been a big success. We continue to do them today (in fact today is the seventh one). We all get to learn a bit more about each other every month, and everyone looks forward to reading Andrea’s often humorous take on the conversation.
If you’re finding that you’re not as in tune with the people you work with as you once were, I’d recommend giving the 5×12 idea a try. I think it’s especially important for remote teams. I definitely feel like we’re all a little closer than we were before.
I thought it would be nice to share one of the transcripts from the 5×12 calls so you can get a sense of how these go and the sorts of things that came up in conversation.
What follows is the transcript from the very first call back in July, 2014. Enjoy!
Partipants: Jason, DHH, Mig, Ann, John, Natalie, and Javan.
Ann asked about the metal chotchke in the team room. JF said Ben is researching BC stickers, and one idea was a metal emblem. He’s getting samples from people who do metal work, and that was one example, but it is too ornate. He’s also getting some other samples in wood and other materials.
John talked about moving to Indy. He lived there for 4 years during college, now back in the suburbs which is weird, little but of an adjustment living in a subdivision, and not where i saw himself living, but it’s okay. Jason asked how they decided to move. JW said the choice was between living close to Marie’s parents in Indy or JW’s parents in the middle of nowhere, so they chose Indy. They were in a motorhome for awhile, the idea was to keep traveling, “then Marie got pregnant, and living in a confined space with a pregnant wife is not the best option”. (<—quote) They still have the motorhome in storage and camp on a regular basis, just not going all the time. John bought the motorhome new, and there’s a warranty, but still tons of bugs to be worked out. The guy who sold it to them said “you’re putting a house on wheels with a big engine, things are going to break”.
DHH tries to get American motorhomes in Europe, because the European versions are shitty: “Americans know how to put a house on wheels”. At Le Mans, one of the racers asked about a hotel room, and his team got him a motorhome instead. It was a European “shed on wheels”.
Mig drew a mustache on DHH, and DHH danced like a mariachi and then stroked his chin, like an old timey train robber.
NK has been camping a lot this summer and went to Norway a few weeks ago, near the Arctic Circle to camp on an island for 9 days. She just signed a lease on a new apartment which has an office. Some questions from the group about the Arctic Circle — NK says she went to the highest area in Norway and camped, it was cold but not unbearable — 8 Celsius, and midnight sun. Sun didn’t set the whole time they were there.
Mig put a Cat In The Hat hat on DHH. Unclear if he noticed.
JF wants to see the Northern Lights one day (and space shuttle launch). AG saw the Lights in Door County when she was a kid and it terrified her.
Someone drew a monocle on John.
John and family are planning on going to Cape Canaveral to see a SpaceX launch. He doesn’t know which viewing areas are open to the public, but they’re just going to go and figure it out.
Mig & Javan had a weekend in Michigan “Basecamp boys weekend” for 4th of July with Michael and Trevor. JM showed them around, really fun, hung out in nature. Then they checked out Detroit and 1/2 were scared shitless. AG asked which half, and Mig admitted it was actually all of them. Every building was dilapidated, but then they ran into pockets of cool places and shops, followed by other scary pockets where you shouldn’t walk. DHH wondered how dangerous Detroit is. He said it’s funny how you get perception of an area – before the World Cup, you’d hear how Brazil is dangerous, and then you see the stats for Chicago (37 shootings in one weekend), and it’s interesting how relative “danger” is.
MR also saw Javan’s new car – MR knows a lot about cars, and described it as blue, shiny, vintage, well kept, “dreamy”, very nice. He shared the Instagram pics, and the guys looked like they’re in a boy band. DHH commented that there was not enough duck face.
Javan actually knows something about cars (not really) and described his new car: 1970 BMW 2002, 44 years old. He bought it on eBay, which was a weird experience. He never saw the car, he bought it from someone in Delaware. He took a blind leap and clicked “bid” and won. Two days later it showed up on a truck at his house, very bizarre, impulse buy on something that could be totally fucked up when it shows up. He’s been driving it more than he’s supposed to. It’s registered as a collectors car, legally supposed to drive it to only car shows and club trade events, but he’s been driving it on errands. It’s been raining a ton, and he can’t get the car wet because it leaks and will rust, so it’s been in the garage lately.
JF asked Javan: why did you buy it? JM used to have a 1979 Saab he bought for $1000, not a fancy car but he loved it. Every single thing was mechanical, everything was solid, nothing broke because it was just metal. He got rid of it 5 years ago and was missing it. This winter was cold and boring, so he looked at fun cars and fell in love with this one. Old cars are romantic, they’re pleasing in a way that new cars aren’t, and they have character that new cars don’t have. Maybe some new small batch nice cars, but the factory mass produced cars today won’t age with the same character as old cars.
JF said old cars make people feel good. People smile and ask about them. He asked if Javan finds that true? Javan said that in Michigan, the car stands out a little more, there aren’t many cars like it on the road. “Lots of cheers & fist pumping when I drive by.” Lots of old timers want to know a lot about it, and young kids just want him to rev the engine and drive fast. The factory stats say the car does 0-60mph in 12.9 seconds, so it’s probably even slower now. JF’s dad has an early 1980s model car, and there are alway people telling him about it when he drives around.
Mig moved into a new apartment. He’s not been home much, but loves the place. He can see the sunset with west-facing windows. It’s his first time living alone and first time in a loft style place, and it’s great. It’s close to nice places in the neighborhood & transit, close to the office, but still in a separate neighborhood away from work. He’s having a fun summer, going on weird weekend camping trips. He is glad to go out and do things, but also thinking more about being home and enjoying alone time. He lived with roommates since leaving high school, so it took him a few weeks to realize no one was going to come home, which was weird at first. Mig wears pants “most of the time”. The building has a cool roof deck and MR meets new people every time he goes up there – likes talking to different people of all different walks of life. He gets the feeling of living mates, but no one bothers him.
JF asked if anyone wanted to talk about work stuff.
Javan has been working with Sam for 3-4 months on Trix. It’s been super fun, and it’s the first time he’s worked with another programmer closely. Usually, everyone works in a team with others, but it’s rare for 2 programmers to work together, and it’s been fun. “Sam is obviously the smartest person in the world”, and Javan has learned a lot working with him. Javan says it would be cool to do more projects like that. He does not know if designers or other people feel the same way, but JM things programmers don’t get enough opportunity to work together. A lot of that is the nature of the projects, but it would be nice to do more often. JF: we’ve been pretty optimized for efficiency, which doesn’t lend itself to the same groups of people working together. As a company, we’re trying to do too many things at once — last cycle, we had 8 projects running concurrently. When you have that many projects and a product team and only 15-16 people, it’s not possible for a lot of people to work together. Moving forward, we want to have fewer projects and more people on those projects. Not 8—8 means most people are working independently. DHH: And it’s not even efficient. It has a veneer of efficiency, but there are all these other coordinations costs. This cycle we did some things that weren’t of the highest priority because we had the people. We want to have slightly larger teams doing fewer things in serial, rather than small teams working in parallel. It’s also hard for JF & DHH to be involved with 8 concurrent things. And fewer projects means everyone is pulling in the same direction. JF has been working closely with Scott and Conor, and that pairing is going well.
Someone asked DHH if the math formulas on the blackboard in the storage room is real? When we first moved into the office, JF tweeted, asking someone to come put “a bunch of math” on the chalkboard for the hell of it. A mathematician from U of C agreed, and he “put a bunch of shit on the board”. He said it was real, but we’ve never checked. There are a few eraser marks from the guy who did it, so we think they’re actually real bc he screwed up as he was writing it.
Mig talked about being paired with Julia this summer. It’s cool to have an intern and fun to see someone wide-eyed about things that he thinks are basic. She gives a different perspective when working on The Distance, and she’s so curious. It’s fun to slow yourself down to teach someone else. A challenge, but fun. Hopefully she’ll be able to hang out with everyone and work on some other stuff. She wants to work on everything. She’s working on some postcards. Mig gave her general creative direction, but told her to “make it something you’re proud of, it’s going in the real world and that doesn’t happen at a lot of internships, so run with it”. MR is very impressed with her work and ambition. George is killing it, too. MR is happy we’re taking on “green talent”.
JF was in a room with Julia & Mig, and they talked about art school. In school, they never make anything for real clients, make budgets, they never send things to press/do press checks – all that real life stuff doesn’t happen in school, and it should.
Mig does portfolio reviews a lot, and it’s disheartening to see so much fake work that never goes into production. MR wants to help educate students by using real projects because “that’s weird that school doesn’t do that for designers”. School opens the doors to design work, but he did’t really learn anything in school. Half the people at Basecamp learned on their own, no formal school, so going to school a gamble. Students think “an adulthood switch flips” and you have a job, but design school doesn’t really prep you for real work. They sell you on a dream job, but then the industry is saturated with unprepared people.
DHH: Denmark pays you to go to school for 6 years, and you’d think that would change the culture. You’d think everyone would take a graduate degree, but the rates of graduation aren’t very different than the US. It does change the makeup of students and degrees—which in the US seems to be changing too. Students in the US go into tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the end degree is not something you would buy for that amount of money. MR: art school costs over $100k, and there’s no education about education.
JW: also, whenever people talk about student loan debt, they call it “good debt”, that’s the sales bit. DHH said, but it’s actually the worst – there’s high interest rates, and you can’t clear it in bankruptcy. JW agrees, but mentions that they say it’s worth the interest, but what they don’t tell you is that you’ll be writing checks for the next 15 years. DHH the market makes no sense – people tend have a native instinct of small items being too expensive (e.g. a hot dog should not be $5, it should be $2), but people don’t have the same sense about large-scale items like education. JF says people who pay for their own education seem to have a better sense of the cost. If you’re paying out of pocket with no loans, you are more realistic. The loan makes you feel like it’s not your money. People who pay out of pocket get the same level of education, but when you get a loan at 18 years old, you don’t know the consequences of debt like that.
AG got rid of her car, rides her bike everywhere now, and she gets rained on all the time. She doesn’t even think about the rain anymore – about 5 years ago, she just accepted it. DHH said, in the US, being a “bicycle person” is part of your identity, and in Denmark, it’s just what everyone does. Two months ago, he was home and noticed that literally everyone bikes, people in suits, in long dresses. In California, the only people on bikes have a full spandex suit. In Denmark, people bike to go places. JF: do people who own cars in Denmark have car culture? Since it’s a smaller segment of the population, in the way that there’s a bike culture here? DHH said no, you’d think the minority would have an allegiance to each other, but they don’t. Javan: how do people bike in suits and then go to work? Don’t people sweat? DHH said they just don’t bike that fast, and it’s cooler there. People are more leisurely. Another funny difference – in Chicago, everything has air conditioning. Nowhere in Copenhagen has AC. If it’s really hot one day, that’s just the temperature. Natalie says it’s the same in Berlin, no AC, “and I sweat when I ride my bike”. AG also sweats. Mig is Filipino, which means he does not sweat but glows. DHH said there’s always a difference in cultural comfort zones. It’s hard to even imagine something outside of that comfort zone, like not having AC when it’s hot. But people are so adaptable. Few people in Denmark care about biking/sweating, or thinking about AC when it’s hot. The drawback of amenities is that we’re continuously shrinking our comfort zones. JF said DHH should start the trend in Chicago and get rid of his AC and car. DHH agreed (no he didn’t).
John bikes in Indy. There are no hills, cornfields, flat as a pancake, so he rides around in big squares. He rides on the outside of town, low traffic. DHH saw study on the safety of helmets. Motorists who see bikers with helmets tend to drive closer to the bike than they would if the biker did not have a helmet. Same principle as another study about mountain roads. On mountain road turns with guard rails, the accidents/fatalites shot way up – people drive as fast as they want because of the illusion of safety. Where there are no guard rails, people were more careful. In some ways, it’s “unsafer to be safe.” It’s perverse that the behavior that protects you in an accident potentially gets you into the accident in the first place. Illinois state law says there should be 3 feet distance between driver and cycle. Indiana has weird laws – bikers have to have a bell on your bicycle. JW has no bell. He stares down cops when he rides by, like a young James Dean.
Natalie said that she and James are starting European-based classes for Support, next Friday. They aren’t changing the class, but the time zone will cover a lot more people. AG asked if she is using the metric system (no). DHH hears all the time from people about Support classes – they love it, and he feels like the classes have a positive affect on retention. NK is learning German using Rosetta Stone and it’s going well. She’s hoping to be more fluent in 6 months because she has her visa renewal in 6 months and needs to be “more German” by then. NK is already German in that she uses walking sticks, has tall socks, and “a version of lederhosen”. She also likes pretzels. She is not German in that she has not had cheeseburger in a can.
NK loves Rosetta Stone. If you’re speaking incorrectly, it’ll tell you right away. Some other programs, as long as you talk at all, it’s tell you you’re right. She also took group classes in person, and Rosetta Stone is better. DHH said, admiringly: “robots, man.” DHH’s wife is using Rosetta Stone for Spanish, and she prefers it even above a tutor. Her tutor’s pace was too slow, and Rosetta allows you to go at your own pace, review things. NK said you can also “make a fool of yourself to yourself” and it doesn’t matter, and there are no distractions from other students. This goes back to the value of education – a lot of people can probably learn better from cheaper classes online, robots, software. Robots, man, indeed.
DHH brought up the book on introversion (Susan Cain’s “Quiet”). Three-quarters of the population are extroverts, and the education system is built around them. The rest of the population probably learn better on their own, they find focus in isolation, so the move towards online distance learning is better for introverts.
I ordered something from overseas and checked the tracking number to see when I might receive the shipment. The results looked like this:
Since the page wasn’t in English, and Google knew I was an English speaker, Google offered to translate it for me:
So I did. Then it looked like this:
The special part… Check out the time column. They “translated” 24-hour time into 12-hour time. They knew I was in the US and that’s our preference for displaying time. So they didn’t only translate the words into English, they went the extra step and translated the time format to match expectations. They certainly didn’t have to do that, but I definitely noticed that they did.
Delightful attention to detail, and thorough definition of translation. Well done.
2014 was a big year for Basecamp’s support team—we expanded our coverage hours dramatically and added phone support for the first time. Below is the summary of the year from a quantitative perspective that I shared with the team this week, reproduced here in its entirety.
Email case volume grew in 2014
We closed the book on 2014 with 123,350 cases, a 24% increase over last year (and just shy of the record setting 127k cases post-BCX* launch in 2012). Monthly case volume was pretty steady over the course of the year, with less of a summer/fall dropoff than we’ve seen the last few years:
Wednesday remains our biggest day for cases by a tiny bit, but we also saw a relative increase in Sunday cases this year.
U.S. mornings (up to about 2 p.m. UTC) continue to be our busiest time by far, and we actually saw a relative increase in mornings this year, with comparatively fewer cases coming in the afternoon.
Response time improved dramatically
In 2012 we had coverage during US business hours, roughly 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. CST five days a week; in 2013 we were doing a little better, with coverage 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. CST five days a week. This year we reached 24/7 coverage (with the occasional vacation).
Thanks largely to that investment in getting to 24/7 coverage, we continued to make a dent in response times this year, with the median time to response across the entire year falling slightly to 3 minutes. For comparison, back in 2011 and 2012 our median response time for email cases was over 2 hours. Even more significant is what happened to the tail—95th percentile response time fell from 16 to 2 hours.
Response time took an especially noticeable drop downwards in April when we started to add 24/7 support in earnest:
Not surprisingly, the biggest impact on response time was seen on the weekends, where we cut median response time from about 8 hours to 6 minutes. We made a dent on weekdays too, with median response time falling from ~10 minutes to ~3 minutes.
Those overall weekday response time improvements came largely from the addition of full overnight coverage, which has brought the wee hours response time to about the same as daytime:
Case types: more BCX, constant on-call load
The absolute number of on call cases (including both level 2 and on-call programmer cases) rose slightly this year to 5,805 (or about 22 per day, from 19/day in 2013), but relative to our overall increase in case volume on-call load fell by about 5% this year, thanks largely to improved tooling & root cause fixes.
BCX unsurprisingly makes up the biggest chunk of our cases, and that increased this year as Classic, Campfire, and Backpack cases each fell by about half in absolute terms. Absolute Highrise case volume remained almost exactly constant over the last year.
Accounting / billing issues are the single biggest category of cases that we receive, and increased the most dramatically vs. last year. We also saw a modest increase in the number of access trouble cases, while recording decreases in broken things/bugs and sales related inquiries.
This was the year we added phone support, and we closed out the year at just under 3,000 phone support requests from customers. The median call waited just 39 seconds (and 5.5 minutes at the 95th percentile) for us to call them back, a wait time that many inbound call centers would envy, not to mention the fact that we’re doing callbacks! Calls clocked in with a median duration of 2.5 minutes, and a 95th percentile duration of about 10.5 minutes.
We saw pretty steady phone support volume over the course of the year, with changes as we changed the various places you could get access to the callback option.
Phone call requests almost exclusively come on weekdays from US & European customers, despite the fact that we offer it for parts of the weekend and overnights. Calls skew a little later in the day than cases do.
Other support projects this year
This was our third year of offering Twitter support, and we saw a modest decline in the number of tweets we sent out (to about 30/day, from 34/day). Tweeting is also a mostly weekday activity, and also skewed a little later in the day than do email cases:
This was also our third year offering webinar classes, and we clocked in at 102 classes offered in 2014, continuing our steady increases year over year:
Finally, we continued our steady march of making customers happier. 93.32% of Smiley responses in 2014 were of the “great” variety, a slight increase from last year:
All in all, a great year! We handled more cases while improving response time dramatically and holding the line on customer happiness and on call volume—a job well done!
* I refer to the new Basecamp launched in March 2012 as “BCX” throughout this post.
By 1933, at 22, a Taiwanese-born entrepreneur had built a successful clothing business importing socks from Japan. Six years later, he moved to Japan, and his company was booming. During World War 2, he expanded his business empire to include selling slide projectors to the Japanese government for all the training they were doing during the war. And he kept expanding into other products – like charcoal mining and air-raid shelters.
The war was good to him, financially, for a time. Eventually, he found an accounting problem with one of his companies. The government was giving him raw material to manufacture engine parts, but inventory was missing – probably being sold by an employee on the black market.
He went to the Japanese military police to get help investigating. But they arrested him, and put him in a military prison where he was starved and tortured. Released 45 days later, the torture and starvation had taken its toll. When he finally recuperated, Japan had lost the war. The economy was in shambles. His factories and businesses were destroyed. He had little left.
But he started again. This time buying real estate people were now selling off at huge discounts. In just a few years, he was sitting on a million dollar real estate empire. His experience with starvation and inadequate food in prison inspired him to start a food business. He began paying young kids to collect sea water, which he’d evaporate, then sell the remaining salt.
But then, the occupying American force arrested him for tax evasion on the $50 a month he was paying the young kids – an amount he claimed was meant for their college scholarship (a non-taxable expense). He countersued, but the lawsuit dragged out, leaving him stuck in prison again, this time for years.
He was eventually released with a clean record, all charges dropped. But the government had already confiscated and sold off everything he owned – all the real estate, the salt company, the charcoal mine, his home. He was flat broke.
So he started again. He helped start a new bank, which got off to a good start. Except the company executed a number of bad loans. And the bank was forced to file bankruptcy. Depositors went after what little he had begun to accumulate.
So he started again. He still had a strong urge to create a food company. He turned his tool shed into a makeshift laboratory, and worked for a year trying to invent a new food product. Experiment after experiment failed.
But in 1958, at the age of 48, this entrepreneur finally hit on an idea that eventually became a company worth 700 billion dollars on the Tokyo stock exchange.
Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen noodles. Ando’s story is an inspiring tale of perseverance. And yet, I know most people reading this discount the tale: Ando possesses a willpower most of us will never have. We might be a little inspired by Ando, but we can’t possibly imitate his perseverance.
But, I don’t think that’s true. Ando’s story goes much deeper than that.
Why do kids drop out of college? A lot of reasons. Academic, monetary, even legal. It turns out though, there’s something much more fundamental.
Vincent Tinto is a professor at Syracuse University. He’s well known for his theories on students’ persistence through higher education. His research produced what’s known as the “Model of Institutional Departure”. He’s figured out why kids don’t succeed in college and dropout.
Tinto’s model informs us that, above all else, college is a transition from one community to another. Our success at college depends on how well we integrate ourselves into that new community.
What happens if we go home every weekend, to visit high school friends and sweethearts, instead of making friends in our new community? We don’t integrate. We don’t get help from new friends going through the same thing or academic advice from new mentors. Instead, we tend to drop out.
Tinto’s model has proven incredibly useful in improving how we educate, not just undergraduates, but even remote learning programs, and classes for adults continuing their education. And it extends far past education in describing how people persist.
The model wasn’t even unique. It was in large part derived from a model about suicide created by Emil Durkheim in 1897, who found that suicide rates were dependent on the group and society people found themselves in: if people fully integrated into their groups and communities, suicide rates decreased.
If people weren’t alone, they persevered.
While Momofuku Ando was in military prison camp the first time, a fellow prisoner, who Ando befriended, was released. Ando asked him to contact another friend – a lieutenant in the Japanese Army – who eventually arranged for Ando’s release. If it wasn’t for those two friends, Ando would have likely died in prison.
Then he started his real-estate empire. But that wasn’t even his idea. Another friend, Fusanosuke Kuhara, an entrepreneur who helped create what would become the company Hitachi, mentored Ando. His advice when Japan’s economy was ruined after the war? “Buy all the cheap real-estate.”
And when all of that fell apart, and Ando found himself completely broke but still able to start a bank, it was because he still knew enough people who gave him deposits to begin that bank.
And with instant ramen, he is indebted to the understanding of his wife who let him continue to work and chase his dream. It was her idea to create a laboratory out of their tool shed. And it was studying her cooking that actually gave him the idea how to create instant ramen.
Ando’s persistence didn’t come from suffering all by himself. It came from the people he surrounded himself with.
As I look back on the things I’ve accomplished in my life, I can point to obstacles and paths where I might have given up or not started at all. Then, I see the people who gave me a little nudge or lift to get to a better place.
When I wanted to start my first company Inkling in 2005, I applied to Y Combinator, an early stage investment program. Trouble was: the person I was originally going to apply with backed out at the last minute. And Y Combinator often requires its companies to have more than one co-founder.
This would have been an easy place to have just given up. But I had a lot of loose ties to other people who I started reaching out to. I thought of a friend, Adam Siegel, who I hadn’t spoken with in awhile, but who had mentioned a year previously over lunch that he was looking to create a new business. He might be game. And one lunch later, he was on board with my new business idea. We applied to Y Combinator together, got in, and away we went.
Years later I was trying to figure out my next project. I remember a lunch with another friend, Andrew Wicklander. We get lunch every 12 months or so. After a chat about how much we missed Basecamp’s Writeboard, I had the motivation to commit to something that became a pretty successful software project called Draft. And only successful because a lot of other loose connections and friends helped me spread the word.
With Draft, I had emailed a friend I’d stay in touch with every so often: Would he help mentor me a bit with Draft? And he did. And all that turned into him, Jason Fried, asking me to take over a software project he had started – Highrise.
I’ve gotten a lot of help from friends and loose connections I’ve cultivated over the years. And what I’ve found is that it doesn’t take becoming some schmoozing, glad handing, awkward-networking-event-attending extraordinaire. I’m one of the most introverted people I know. If there’s a conference, I’m in the back row so I can be the first to leave. If there’s a party, I’m probably not at it, or was there early and left before you even showed up.
But it isn’t hard to track the people you meet in something like Highrise or a notebook or even index cards. And keep those loose connections alive with an occasional email, coffee or lunch. Just think of all the people you haven’t heard from in a month. What’s stopping you from a just sending a quick: “How’s it going?”
And finally, don’t be afraid to be honest with all those connections and actually ask for help. Too many of us, especially those running businesses, suffer in isolation. While we create and run businesses, we tend to hide the pre-success from friends and people who could help. Why? Because pre-success can feel a lot like failure. It’s often not fun finding and keeping those first customers.
We’re told to fake it till we make it. Nonsense. I can’t believe how many people tell me how well their company is doing, and three months later it’s out of business. If only they had shared their challenges, maybe I or someone in their network could have helped.
On January 5, 2007, Momofuku Ando died from heart failure at the age of 96. Again, we have a chance to see how good Ando was with surrounding himself with people.
6500 people attended his funeral. It was held at a baseball stadium. It was invite only.
I asked a friend if she makes New Year’s resolutions. She doesn’t, but she sets a theme for the year. Hers for 2015 is “New”: new places, new activities, new patterns.
The idea of a theme resonates with me. Having never excelled at the “This year, I will ABC” (or, more commonly, if I’m being honest: “This year I will not XYZ”) style of resolution-making — an efficient way to set oneself up for disappointment and guilt — a theme seems gentler, more like a guideline, less like a test to pass or fail.
To that end, my theme for 2015: Questions. And not just asking more of them — asking them instead of talking about myself.
I have the regrettable habit of hijacking conversations. A friend will tell me she’s going to Costa Rica; my instinct is not to reply “How exciting! When? What are you planning to see?” but to announce that I’m going to Belize. A coworker will IM that her cat is an asshole; I’ll volley with a story about my asshole dogs.
It’s shameful. Not to mention a real conversation killer. I might never have noticed, were it not for the way this communication style can shut down otherwise potentially fruitful discussions. What else is there to say when a programmer assists with a challenging case, and rather than ask how he arrived at the solution, I mention this reminds me of another challenging case I once had? Nothing. I learn nothing. And possibly come off as a narcissist.
The “questions” theme requires actual repression of a real instinct. I’m OK with that; it’s a lousy instinct. The idea is that by catching myself often enough, asking questions first will become the new habit.
I’ve already started experimenting with it: biting my tongue when I start to prattle on, asking a meaningful question instead. When a teammate brought up her issues with dairy, I fought the impulse to talk about me and wheat. And whaddaya know — I learned something new about lactose intolerance, and gained insight into the life of a person I care about.
Beats being an ignorant narcissist.