How some people walk into Basecamp

Different businesses, similar paths. From scattered to orderly, from cobbling it together, to seeking out a system designed to work.

Most companies start small. A person or two, maybe three.

They need to work together on something. That something may just be their company — putting it together, getting it set up, hashing out early ideas for what they want to do.

So they begin shooting a few emails back and forth. Maybe they use Dropbox or something to share some files. Maybe they use Google Docs to share some notes, or put together a simple spreadsheet.

Maybe they find a free to-do tool or maybe they don’t. Early on, basic communication may be enough to handle tasks. Maybe they use Google Calendar or Apple Calendar or another free shared calendar tool to start keeping track of deadlines ahead.

Then email starts to feel a bit inefficient, so they try out a free chat tool or two. Something as common as WhatsApp works just great for a small, unstructured group. Ok, things are more fluid now.

Their cobbled together set of tools works. But they’re doing a lot of work making it work. They know there’s got to be a better way, but with three people it’s not bad enough to motivate them to look around. So they continue working as they’ve been working.

Remember, they all “grew up” together on this system. It’s their system. They know how it works because they taped it together.

Their business starts to do well. And they hire a fourth person.

And this is where everything changes.

Number four is different. Now they have to bring a new person entirely up speed on how they work. What came natural to the original three is foreign to the fourth. Translation is required.

They have to onboard this new person in half a dozen places, get them set up, explain when to use this product vs. that product, help them figure out where things should go, which discussions should happen in Tool A vs. Tool B, and so on.

And sometimes they project… This is just number four. We have to do this again for five, and again for 6, and again and again and again for every person we hire? This isn’t sustainable.

That fourth person is like a mirror that reflects a jumbled together, inefficient, messy way to work. They hadn’t noticed it before because they didn’t have a mirror. Now they do. It probably didn’t matter with three, but with four, five, six, and the future 10, 15, and 20 people, how they work absolutely matters.

This reminds me of college… The guy who lived next door to us was a complete slob. But he was used to his own mess — and the odor of that mess. But whenever someone else walked in his room, they were hit with a wall of “wtf?!”. Visitors could immediately sense there something amiss, but he couldn’t because he was so used to the mess.

But I digress… Back to business…

And then there’s the matter of cost. If they’re using pay tools, they find themselves getting hit with the cost of adding just one more person to multiple products. Now they have variable costs rather than fixed costs, which means things are getting more expensive as they grow.

It’s not working, yet work is of paramount importance. They begin realize the penalty of building a business on a foundation of cracks.

So they instinctively say “we need a system”. It’s amazing how often this word comes up when we interview customers. So many say the same thing “we realized we needed a system”.

A system is solid. It’s designed to work together from the start — not to be pieced together later, seams showing, sheering, wearing, and tearing.

A cobbled together collection of tools isn’t a system — it’s a cobbled together collection of tools. This for chat, another product for to-dos, something else to store files, another thing to communicate “officially” when everyone absolutely needs to know something, something else to make sure deadlines are visible — and met. A scattered hive mind. Not good.

They need a system. A way to work. Something centralized. Something organized. Something that gives them visibility into what everyone’s working on, not just what people are talking about. And they realize that they want it all in one place — not all over the place.

Organized, not ugh-inized.

And that’s when they run into Basecamp. Most of the time through a referral from someone who went through exactly what they went through. A refugee of scatter who moved to Basecamp and became a citizen of order.

What triggers the move to Basecamp are growing pains. A look in the mirror, a desire to work better, the understanding that what they’re doing can’t be as good as it gets.

Basecamp becomes their system, and their business begins to change for the better.