Today our first five customers started using Know Your Company, our newest product. We’re hoping to roll out around five new customers every Monday for the foreseeable future.

I thought this was a great time to talk a bit about how we’re building Know Your Company. Not the tech, specifically, but the approach.

From the start, I wanted to approach the development of Know Your Company as if we were starting a separate company inside 37signals, not just building another product at 37signals.

So I went back to 2003. That’s when we originally built Basecamp. Basecamp was basically a new business inside 37signals. I looked back at how we did it.

We had a small team of four – two designers (me and Ryan), one programmer (David), and one person who could help with a variety of things (Matt). We were building something to scratch our own specific itch.

We didn’t have much tech to lean on. We didn’t have Rails, we didn’t have a centralized billing system, we didn’t have a centralized log-in system, we didn’t have much experience launching a product with a new business model (subscription pricing), we didn’t have a server farm (we just had a shared server slice on another company’s machine), etc.

Basically, a lot was very new to us, and the newness was invigorating. It allowed us to approach problems objectively rather than fitting our problems into solutions we’d already built before. Think of it more as a bespoke suit than something off the rack.

Basecamp was a bespoke suit, but just about everything we’ve done since then has been trying to fit into Basecamp’s clothes in one way or another.

I wanted to get away from that way of thinking with Know Your Company. It’s just too easy to continue to lean on the things you’ve done, the decisions you’ve made, and the infrastructure you’ve already built.

So here’s what we’re doing.

We’re starting with a small team of four. Me and Jonas on design. Trevor on programming. And Dan as the multipurpose jack-of-all-trades. I’m also doing sales/demos, which is something we’ve never really done before.

Further, just like when we launched Basecamp, I did all the customer support for the first year or so. That’s what I’ll be doing with Know Your Company too.

As for billing, we’re not using Queenbee, our centralized billing system that powers Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, Campfire, and a variety of other things we sell. Instead, we’re building a bespoke billing system from scratch. Just what we need, nothing we don’t.

This way we don’t have to compromise a business model approach because our billing system is only set up to do things one way. If we have a different idea for how we want to bill customers (or accept payments), I don’t want to be hamstrung by old decisions. I want to have the freedom to make new decisions.

Queenbee also has a bunch of admin tools built in so we could comp accounts, change ownership of an account, look up a customer and update their information, etc. We’ve left that all behind with Know Your Company. Know Your Company has its own custom admin built right into the product. This way we can build specific admin tools to onboard new customers, update accounts, generate invoices, and everything else that’s unique to Know Your Company.

Another thing we’re doing differently this time around is sales and setup. Our default position when building new products is to make them self-service, just like Basecamp’s been since day one. No interaction with us is required to sign up. Just click a button, pick a plan, sign up, and you’re off and running.

That model has obviously been very successful for us. No question about that. But let’s learn something new. Let’s get a feel for what the opposite approach is like. What if we were full-service instead of self-service? What if we were very hands-on, rather than completely hands-off?

So that’s what we’re doing with Know Your Company. There’s no self-service sign-up. If you want to use Know Your Company, we have to give you a personal demo first. Want to sign up? We’ll walk you through it step-by-step. We’ll even load up your employees for you so you don’t have to do any work. And we’ll also populate your account with a specific set of questions so you don’t have to think about what to ask your employees if you aren’t sure what to ask.

Isn’t full-service harder, more time consuming? Yes it is. And wow it’s been worth it. I’m getting to have a nice conversation with every customer we have. I’m getting to learn a lot about their companies, their struggles, and their goals. This is very healthy for us. The product is going to be way better for it – especially in the long-term.

The business model is all new, too. Instead of defaulting to our Basecamp-famous monthly subscription fee, we’re treating Know Your Company more as a one-time investment in each employee rather than an ongoing recurring expense. So instead of charging a monthly/annual fee, we’re just charging $100 per employee one-time. Once you’ve paid $100 for an employee, you never have to pay for them again. You can use Know Your Company with them for as long as they work for you.

Now, we’re not entirely free from the past. There are still a few things we’re leaning on because they aren’t hampering our flexibility.

For one, we’re using 37id – our centralized sign-in system. Know Your Company customers can sign in with the same username/password they use for their Basecamp accounts. That’s easier for them than having to sign up with another username/password.

We’re also using Rails, which we didn’t have the luxury to use when we built Basecamp. And we’re leaning on our sophisticated server infrastructure and the things we’ve learned about email, too. But the load we’re putting on the system is barely a pimple so I don’t feel so bad about that.

And of course we have the reputation and trust build up behind 37signals over the last 14 years.

But as far as our development approach goes, this feels the closest to the feeling we had when we were building Basecamp nearly 10 years ago. Lots of new things, lots of new approaches, a feeling that we can build whatever we need rather than fitting new ideas into old decisions.

If you’re interested in becoming a customer, please review the introduction letter I wrote. If it resonates with you, and you fit the profile, drop me an email and I’d love to show you around and maybe even get you started.