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Signal v. Noise: Writing

Our Most Recent Posts on Writing

Why Basecamp?

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 11 comments

I’m working on some copy for the new Basecamp 3 marketing site, and I figured I’d share some work in progress here. This needs editing, and it should probably be half as long, but I wanted to share it in its current state. I’ve always enjoyed seeing work in progress, so here’s some of mine:

Why Basecamp? That’s a fantastic question! In fact, it’s the question, in’t it? We’ve got some great answers for you.

1. Basecamp understands what you’re up against

You’re in charge. You’re running something. It’s on you to get it done. You have to pull people together to make it happen. That’s a huge responsibility, and you can use a hand making it all happen. You need to communicate, you need to stay organized, you need to make sense of feedback, you need to share work, you need to set deadlines, and you need everyone to deliver.

And on top of all that, you have to manage people and personalities and different work styles and preferences. People are often the hardest part! Talk about pressure! We get you, and we’ve got your back.

The reason we built Basecamp was because we had the exact same requirements you do. We worked for clients (and bosses and stakeholders and organizations…). They demanded the best from us, and we were paid to deliver for them. Before Basecamp we dropped balls, stuff slipped through the cracks, deadlines were missed, and communication was scattered in too many places. This is why we built Basecamp – we had to calm the chaos. We had to get organized. We had to stay on top of things. We had to reduce the anxiety. We had to get our shit together.

So we made the tool we always wanted. We’ve honed it and – with the help of hundreds of thousands of bits of feedback from customers along the way – shaped it and perfected it over a decade. Today’s version of Basecamp is the best we’ve ever made. If you’re nodding your head at anything written above, then we think you’ll absolutely love Basecamp.

2. Basecamp bundles everything you need together in one place

Any work you’re doing with any group of people requires a few things… You need a place to outline and divvy up the work that needs to be done. You need a place to discuss the work – sometimes quickly (chat), sometimes more carefully (topic-based, organized message threads). You need a place to keep decisions and feedback on the record so it’s official and visible to everyone you’re working with. You need a place to lay out key dates and deadlines. And you need a place to organize key assets, files, and documents so everyone knows where everything is and nothing gets lost.


Comparing warning labels on gym equipment. From the 80s on the left, from the 2000s on the right. The one from the 2000s says a lot more, but the one from the 80s means a lot more.

Jason Fried on Jan 18 2015 10 comments

Sharing a first draft

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 15 comments

Been working on some copy for the Basecamp site. I don’t know where it’s going to go yet – maybe on a new page, maybe it’ll replace something else, maybe we’ll even test it as the new home page.

But I wasn’t thinking of where it was going to go when I wrote it. I was just thinking about what I wanted to communicate, what I wanted to say. It’s sort of an ode to project managers. So I wrote it.

It’s not done, but I thought I’d share it so far. Here it is:

You’re responsible for getting a project done.

You need to pull together a variety of people with different skills, communication styles, schedules, and attention spans to work on this project with you.

Some of these people work inside your company, while others, like clients, vendors, or contractors, might be outside your walls. All people are created equal, but when it comes to working on a project together, they couldn’t be more different.

Naturally, the more people there are, the more chaos there is. So your job is to be “the organized one” and make sure everything’s under control and things go as planned. You need a clear view.

This is a tall order and a tough job and you rarely get the credit you deserve for doing it well.

You crave a system that helps you “effortlessly be on top of everything.”

You need a tool to help you divvy up, assign, and review work, set deadlines, make announcements, gather feedback, make decisions, follow up with people, share important on-the-record updates with stakeholders, and keep project-related reference materials easily accessible for anyone who needs it.

It’s absolutely gotta make things easier for you, but it can’t be at the expense of making it hard on others.

You know you can’t use a tool that imposes on the people you’re working with. It can’t be complicated, it can’t force people to drastically change the way they work, and it can’t require them to pay close attention all day long so they don’t miss something important.

You’re already fighting an uphill battle against deadlines, expectations, and human nature – you don’t want to have to fight against software too.

You’ve worked with people long enough to know some people rally around a new system, others will push hard against it. There will be folks who are all-in, and folks who just want to get stuff sent to them via email. So whatever system you adopt, it needs to work well regardless of how much other people choose to engage with it.

This tool needs to be your trusted assistant, not your damned adversary.

In the end, what matters is the work, the process, and the end product. You need to deliver something great, and people need to get along throughout. That’s what you take pride in, and, conveniently, that’s what they pay you for. You’re the leader. You must use a tool that’ll amplify your skills and support you every step of the way.

You’re in luck. We’ve made something especially for you.

Meet Basecamp, your new best friend at work. Welcome aboard.

Hamburger Helper

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 5 comments

Businessmen like Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas have secured their places in the annals of the fast food industry. But what about Harry Holly? He invented the hamburger patty molding machine in the kitchen of the burger restaurant he opened after losing his job in the Depression. Holly’s patty press helped bring the modern fast food industry into existence by equipping McDonald’s and Burger King with machines that could efficiently produce standard-sized burgers.

But 77 years after Holly founded his patty machine company, Hollymatic, neither inventor nor business has name recognition outside of the meat processing industry. That’s just the kind of story we like to tell at The Distance, which we launched in May to highlight businesses that have endured over decades.

In the case of Hollymatic, the company survived the loss of its major fast food customers as well as internal turmoil that booted Holly from leadership. The messiness in Hollymatic’s long history makes the company’s second wind under new ownership all the more satisfying. They are true business survivors and we hope you’ll check out their story. Thanks for reading!

Our favorite recent reads on the web

Emily Triplett Lentz
Emily Triplett Lentz wrote this on 1 comment

Each week, Know Your Company asks everyone at Basecamp a few questions, including one that helps us learn more about each other. Last week’s prompt was “What’s one great read on the web you’ve come across in the past month?” We enjoyed reading one another’s recommendations so much we wanted to share the results here!

Javan Makhmali, Programmer:
Love People, Not Pleasure –
Dan Kim, All-purpose:
This Paul Graham article from way back in 2007, titled “Stuff”. It’s a great essay on how we have way too much stuff, and how it corrodes our lives.
In my constant efforts to be as minimalist as possible, this article really nailed it.
Chase Clemons, Support:
This story on houses built out of spite was really fascinating.
James Glazebrook, Support:
When picking fonts for a logo, I was blown away by the story told about this typeface:
Feel free to slam me for conflating the terms “font” and “typeface”, but that’s my level of knowledge. This page did a great job of explaining the background of FF Mark in particular, and the broader type trends that inspired it.
Wailin Wong, Reporter:
I liked “Twilight of the Pizza Barons,” a profile of the founders of Domino’s and Little Caesars that Bryan Gruley wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek: Lots of interesting trivia about the two men plus a look at the legacies they’re trying to build now. It’s also a story about Detroit.
There was a line in the story that was so good I read it aloud to my husband (the mark of a really good piece in our household):
“The pizza barons were great at selling pies. Now one wants to save Detroit, and the other wants to save everything else.”
Jason Zimdars, Designer:
I’m fascinated with astronomy and anything that delves into the massive scale of the universe. This piece (from the same site as the popular Fermi Paradox piece the circulated recently) has elements of that with regard to time. It’s light hearted and funny but what I love is how it visualizes time. Starting with a single day the post zooms out again and again to gain perspective. First a week, then a year, then a century, through recorded (and unrecorded history) all the way to the theoretical time before the Big Bang.
I can’t get enough.
Tom Ward, Programmer:
Here’s a long one and a short one, both from the New Yorker:
First, the best ‘guy walks into a bar’ joke ever:
Second, food for thought in this criticism of disruption and innovation. I’m still digesting it:
Zach Waugh, Programmer:
The Fermi Paradox –
I kept thinking about it for days afterwards, going down many Wikipedia rabbit holes along the way trying to read more about it.
Conor Muirhead, Designer:
I really enjoyed reading this post by Nate Kontny on the stories and character that allow us to connect the dots as we look back on great work:

Looking into The Distance

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 8 comments

Let’s take a break from the business news cycle. I love the news and I’ve covered it for a decade: what new startup is launching, why a stock price just moved, who’s being hired or fired. But there’s a whole universe of fascinating stories waiting to be covered about what’s old in business.

That’s why we’re launching The Distance, a new online magazine featuring original journalism about bootstrapped businesses that are at least 25 years old. If you’ve ever been curious about your favorite family-owned restaurant or that little shop on the corner, this is the publication for you. These businesses might not make headlines, but their owners have compelling stories about how they started, what they’ve learned, and why they keep doing it.

This is a heady time for people interested in great stories, whether it’s telling them or reading them. From newer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight and to legacy media outlets that keep producing indispensable work (I still subscribe to two print newspapers), today’s readers have a lot of choices competing for their limited time. The Distance offers its own kind of storytelling – enjoyable reads about long-lasting businesses and the people behind them.

We’ll be publishing one story a month starting in May. We hope you find the companies of The Distance as interesting as we do and come back each month for more. (And while Basecamp is sponsoring the magazine, The Distance is editorially independent and we will not write about Basecamp customers.)

We’d also love to hear from you. If you know of any companies that would make good profile subjects, please let me know!

REMOTE: Office Not Required is now available

David wrote this on 25 comments

Our new book REMOTE: Office Not Required is now available in stores. Like REWORK, this is a book that’s been more than a decade in the making.

I started working remotely with Jason from Copenhagen, Denmark way back in 2001, by responding to a post on this very blog about programming. Since then we’ve grown our company to 41 people with 30 of them living and working from outside of Chicago. (I’m writing this from Malibu, California). We’ve built Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, and many other products and projects together as a remote company. This book contains all that we’ve learned and the reasons why this new way of working is ready for prime time.

It’s not just about making work better, though. It’s as much about making life better. As our employees will tell you, the flexibility and the freedom that comes from remote work is liberating and a real boost to quality of life. The world has made such great leaps in terms of productivity, and it’s time we spent some of those spoils making our work-life balance better.

So please enjoy this book. It’s been an absolute pleasure to write it. We can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Thank you for reading.

Comments ≠ Engagement

Emily Triplett Lentz
Emily Triplett Lentz wrote this on 24 comments

When we redesigned Signal vs. Noise last year, we tried to make commenting a bit more of a conscious process by placing the link to the comment form at the top of the post rather than the bottom, hiding existing comments by default, and removing the URL field to cut back on spamming. We continued to require an email address, as well as warn commenters that “We’d rather not moderate, but off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, inappropriate or vapid comments may be removed. Repeat offenders will be banned. Let’s add value. Thank you.”

“We want readers to focus on the article, spend some time thinking about it, and reflect,” says 37signals designer Mig Reyes, who championed the redesign. “… the way books and magazines let you do that, because there’s no comments section that allows you to spit knee-jerk reactions publicly. If you really, really want to share something, you’ll put in the effort to dig for our comments form.”

Comments on SvN are generally more civil compared to those on other blogs in its peer group, and certainly elsewhere on the Internet. But the vitriol about the redesign itself was so extreme we very nearly pulled them — but most of it boiled down to good old-fashioned fear of change, so we waited. Eventually most of the haters moved on.

Still, it remains a problem. We’ve talked about the possibility of preemptively disabling comments for specific posts, but it’s tricky to anticipate which posts are going to incite trolling, and we don’t want to punish the readers who would otherwise add insight. Some of us have (only half-jokingly) proposed making would-be commenters click an “agree” button promising their intention to add value, or forcing them to wait five minutes before being allowed to post — you’d arrive on the page and a timer would start, and you earn the right to comment by waiting it out.

Other forums have begun addressing the breakdown in civil discourse by making it more cumbersome to join the conversation. The Huffington Post announced it would no longer allow anonymous comments, and requires commenters to have a Facebook account to add a comment on certain sections of the site. To combat the trolliest of the trolls, YouTube is rolling out a new system that forces commenters to use their Google+ profiles, and also moves more relevant comments (i.e., those from the original poster, people you know and “popular personalities”) to the top. And Popular Science has shut down the conversation altogether, arguing that trolls are “bad for science.”

We ultimately retained comments because there’s no denying the value of a true dialogue. There’s a lot to be said for a post serving as the starting point of a fruitful discussion, and for connecting authors and readers. Plus, you told us you want them: We polled SvN readers in 2012, and learned folks appreciate having comments in general (although some complained, understandably, about their quality).

Another possibility is moving the conversation elsewhere — tools like Branch exist for that very purpose. Mig purposefully built Twitter into SvN’s redesign to encourage offsite dialogue — if you read an article and have something to say to the author, tweet her. Mat Honan’s Wired piece highlights some of alternatives to hosting a conversation right under the post itself — a convention it’s past time we reevaluate.

When comment sections are deliberately downplayed, moved elsewhere or abolished, they’re no longer the most accurate measure of “engagement,” although that’s a popular misconception. One SvN reader recently commented:

“I find it interesting how few comments any of these blog posts get on the topic of company spotlight on remote working.

It must not interest anyone. Or at least, it doesn’t to me and frankly 37svn has jumped the shark long ago (as seen by the low engagement on all posts lately).”

(I tried to reach out to him to apologize for failing to meet his expectations and to ask what kind of posts he’d like to see more of, but he’d left a fake email address. I wrote to the next commenter, who’d agreed with him — no reply. So much for taking the conversation elsewhere.)

It’s true commenting is down since the makeover, but that’s by design — total comment volume has fallen by about 30 percent, while traffic has more or less held steady. Unique visitors to SvN have increased, as has the amount of time people spend on the site and the number of pages people visit. “Engagement” has less to do with the number of comments on a particular post, and more to do with page views, shares on Twitter and elsewhere, personal contact between authors and readers, and so on.

We’re not concerned about having jumped the shark, in other words — but we of course want to be conscious about the kinds of content readers want to see. That commenter was sort of right, in that we don’t get as many hits on profile posts like those in the “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series — people like those stories, but they’re not as popular as the posts that highlight how 37signals works as a company, for instance, or posts that share our ideas on design and business.

For my part, I’m resolving to take those preferences more into account, and to do a better job engaging within the comments section, if that’s where people prefer to have a dialogue. The more present writers are post-publication, the more respectful the conversation tends to be, and the more value everyone gets out of the exchange.

I will say that writing more frequently for SvN has toughened my skin, and that’s not a bad thing. Trolling is never personal, for one. Rudeness says far more about the commenter’s character than about the author’s skill as a writer. Two, it helps to recognize that people are rarely inspired to leave a comment just to agree or say thanks. My coworker Jonas likes to think of comments as “The opposite of the thing you just read.” Since people generally only comment to disagree, “articles read like ‘Here’s a point.’ Comments -> ‘The opposite point.’” If you’re braced for it and accept that counterpoint as part of the anatomy of a blog post, it doesn’t sting — it’s expected behavior.

A very patient Frank Zappa defending freedom of speech on CNN Crossfire in 1986. A surreal moment in time. Part I and II.

Jason Fried on Aug 24 2013 9 comments