When 37signals first started out, we didn’t make products. We did client work.
From the beginning, we allotted plenty of time for side projects. Things that would get us attention (eNormicom), experiments with new ways of selling our services (37express), ways to show off our design thinking (37Better Project), etc.
Here are a few of the key non-client projects that enabled us to build up an audience before we launched Basecamp:
The 37signals manifesto
We started with a philosophy. The 37signals manifesto, which explained our approach to design, was our original site from 1999-2001. This collection of 37 nuggets of online philosophy and design wisdom was our initial “declaration of intent.”
We’ve changed a lot over the years. But the manifesto set the table for what followed. Usability, valuing people over org-charts, simplicity, speed, anti-jargon, small teams, emphasis on copywriting, eliminating bells and whistles, etc. It was all there, in the manifesto, back in 1999.
The 37Better Project
In “The 37Better Project,” we’d take frustrating online experiences and show how we thought they could be better.
Complaining is easy. Offering solutions is the tough part. When we have an idea about how to improve a specific web site or concept, we post our pro bono “better” design comp here.
The 37Better Project included: 37BetterBank, 37BetterFedEx, 37BetterPayPal, 37BetterMotors, 37BetterGoogle. Some examples (click image for full size version):
eNormicom was a parody site we made mocking the new media branding foolishness that was all the rage during the web bubble.
It takes a lot to differentiate your brand in today’s “me too” world of electronic business solutions. At eNormicom, we create and develop campaigns that break through the chatter clearly and consistently.
“Homing In on ‘Intelligent’ Web Design” is an article in the NY Times about the site.
Design Not Found
We also started collecting good and bad error messages at our site “Design Not Found.” The site’s no longer around but it eventually evolved into our book on the same topic: “Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points.”
With 37express, we offered quick, effective, subtle revisions done for a fixed price in one week. It was our way of getting work done quickly without having to deal with all the back and forth headaches that typically accompany client work.
We also published this E-Commerce Search Report (1.2 MB PDF) which analyzed, reviewed, and rated the search engines and search results at 25 popular e-commerce sites. (Originally sold for $79.) There was also the Holiday E-Commerce Ideas and another report titled “Sites that Don’t Click” (now out of print).
Signal vs. Noise
And of course there was Signal vs. Noise too. We would trade lots of interesting emails or have conversations over lunch that seemed like they would be interesting to others too. So we converted these emails and topics into blog posts.
I remember thinking we were a little late to the blog party but, in retrospect, we were fortunate to get a blog up and running still relatively early. (Lesson: Technology that’s a year or two old may seem like old hat to us web freaks, but there’s still a while to go before saturation.)
Building an audience
Since we didn’t advertise and relied on word of mouth, projects like these were essential. They kept us in people’s heads.
They also freed us from the restrictions inherent in client work. We were able to play and experiment which, in turn, kept us happy/sane.
We built up an audience that turned out to be an invaluable headstart when we eventually launched Basecamp. It’s a lot easier to market a product when you already have thousands of fans — ones who are the perfect target market for what you’re trying to sell.
It’s also worth reemphasizing one thing that’s been there from the beginning: Our philosophy. By knowing what we stood for, we always had an internal compass to guide us. We knew which clients were right/wrong for us. We knew which projects we wanted to spend time on. And we knew what we stood for.