Jason Fried, DHH, and Basecamp’s HEY

Lots of people have already written about why their policy changes were problematic. I asked Jason if he was concerned these policies would impact the diversity of Basecamp and make HEY less inclusive

This week’s interview is with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the founders of Basecamp, and it’s a bit different. For starters, it’s my first interview that was conducted solely over email. More importantly, in April, a week after DHH sent me his answers to my original questions, Jason & DHH announced that they had banned employees from holding “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal tools and that they had disbanded the diversity, equity and inclusion employee committee. Their argument was that it distracted employees from their work. Many people criticized this announcement, rightfully so I believe, because these changes would lead to a less inclusive environment at work.

It was later reported that this policy change arose from an internal conflict over employees maintaining a list of “funny” customer names, some of which were of Asian or African origin. Other employees believed the list of names was inappropriate and racist. As it came to light that this is what prompted the policy change, it made it look like the founders were trying to stop any internal discussions that made them uncomfortable, which they were in a privileged position to be able to do. Over the following few weeks the founders were confronted with an employee backlash that played out semi-publicly.

Before all of this, in April, DHH responded to my product questions about HEY, a new email service that I wanted to feature in one of my newsletters. They launched HEY on Product Hunt in June of 2020, it was very well received and went on to win Product Hunt’s Product of the Year award. I had wanted to interview DHH and Jason because they’ve written prolifically about remote work and bootstrapping their project management software business over the years. I also thought it was pretty audacious for them to launch a product to rethink email, something that has changed very little over the past 20 years, and I was interested to hear how they were going to, as they put it, “reform the philosophy of inbox zero.” 

However, after everything that transpired at Basecamp since DHH responded to me back in April, it was important to me to hear more from DHH and Jason about how they ensure they’re building inclusive products. In June, I sent both Jason and DHH follow up questions about their policy changes and how they affected the way they build inclusive products. Jason answered them, DHH responded but declined to answer. I’ve included both interviews below, and reading DHH’s answers to my original questions through the lens of what came to light later, it’s pretty enlightening about how they think about (or don’t) building an inclusive product (“Build something for ourselves, then find people who think enough like us that they'd want to pay for it too.”

I’ve structured this interview into three parts: (I) my initial email interview with DHH about HEY; (II) my subsequent email interview with Jason about building inclusive products; and (III) additional detail about the company’s April policy changes and the subsequent employee backlash. 

Part I

An interview with DHH, April 19th, 2021. My questions are in bold.

You have a ton of experience from Basecamp and you’ve written a lot about building successful bootstrapped businesses. When it came to releasing HEY to the world, were you and Jason looking at a specific metric to validate that what you built was what people wanted or was the focus just getting it into people’s hands and taking it from there?

DHH: We built HEY to be the best possible email system for Jason and I. That was our guiding light. We've both been very heavy email users for 25 years, and had some very specific things we wanted to correct. And then we simply assumed that there'd likely be some people who thought just like us, and would want to pay for a better system designed to solve our needs (and by extension, theirs). 

That's basically always been our method at Basecamp. All the way back to when we built Basecamp in 2003. Build something for ourselves, then find people who think enough like us that they'd want to pay for it too.

And that's really the ultimate metric: Do you want to pay for this or not? So many startups today have to do these convoluted metrics that try to infer that basic question, because they're afraid to actually ask. What if someone didn't want to pay?! The VC approach often incentivizes putting off the answer to that ultimate question. Let's just build something free for now, show traction, then one day some pixie dust is going to fall, and we'll turn on the money spigot by charging.

We have no interest or patience for such convoluted games. Build something great, see if people want to pay. The end.

Was there anything you spent a lot of time on pre-launch that later turned out not to matter?

DHH: That's always a great question. You can so easily talk yourself into thinking that something is going to be a problem, and it's just not. I would say we didn't miss the mark on anything major, but we built a feature called Speakeasy that lets you generate a code for someone to sidestep the Screener. I never ended up using that once. I doubt it's seen very much use at all.

On the other hand, the presence of this Speakeasy feature gave us the courage to go all in on The Screener. That was a pretty controversial feature to mandate internally early on. But it turned out to have been perhaps the highest profile feature since launch. So it all worked out in the end.

HEY is built both for personal and for work with each having a slightly different feature set. How are you balancing those two customers when it comes to deciding what to build and has that changed over the past year?

DHH: Ultimately, it's all just email, and the product is almost the same on both sides because of it. The main level-up from the business version is that you get to collaborate on emails together, which really is a killer feature, and then of course we have to have user management etc.

But there hasn't been much conflict. Almost all the new work we've put into the product applies to both sides of the business.

In March you wrote about the importance of keeping HEY weird and different, but that “people don't ask for weird. They don't ask for different.” Can you tell me a bit more about how you put that into practice this past year and balanced the practical customer feedback with the fun and unique ideas?

DHH: Yeah, keeping HEY weird is our justification for doing HEY at all. There's no shortage of other email apps or systems that mainly just implement the IMAP protocol and then drizzle a little stuff around the corners. If we are going to dedicate this much time and effort, it has to be because we're doing something fundamentally different.

Also, weird is just fun. You gotta balance it somewhat, but not too much. I'd rather be too weird than too square.

The most recent weird thing we've introduced is Cover Art. The opposite of background images, foreground images! To cover up your previously seen emails. Such a weird approach to the problem that nobody ever asked for, but so many people instantly loved when they saw it.

A lot of entrepreneurs struggle in that first year as they try to find product market fit and the buzz from the launch has worn off. How did you manage to stay motivated and focused on HEY after the hype of the initial launch?

DHH: Because we were never motivated by the buzz in the first place! We were motivated by solving the email problem for ourselves. And we keep doing that. Keep improving the app that I spend the most time in every day, except for maybe Basecamp. So a ton of what we work on is simply pure self interest: This is what I want out of an email system!

Part II

An interview with Jason Fried, June 13th, 2021. My questions are in bold.

I do want to ask you some follow up questions related to the April ban on employees from holding “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal tools and the disbandment of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee. Specifically, how the changes affect how you build inclusive products.

Many people have criticized these changes because they will lead to a less inclusive environment in the office. Research shows that diversity can drive innovation(source) and in 2017 you said, “I believe a company is at its best when it reflects those it serves.” Are you concerned that these new policies will impact the diversity of your company and as a result, HEY will be a less inclusive product and appeal to a smaller user base?

JF: We don't think the policies impact diversity or the quality of the product over the long term. Most people don't want to talk politics at work, and groups aren't monoliths with singular beliefs. And as we're seeing from people applying for jobs, all sorts of different people want to work here from all over the world.

Relatedly, DHH said that at Basecamp your and his philosophy has been, “[b]uild something for ourselves, then find people who think enough like us that they'd want to pay for it too.” Are you looking at ways to bring underrepresented perspectives from inside (or outside) the company into the product design and development process? Do you have any examples of how you’ve done this in the past that could help other founders?

JF: We added Signatures (we call them Name Tags) to HEY after great cases were made that were originally underrepresented inside Basecamp/HEY. But we will continue to make products the way we've always made products. No changes planned here. We incorporate feedback from all sorts of people, always have, but we also have our own view on what the product should be, as any great company/product does.

How are you ensuring that your team feels accepted and included in the product development process so that they share their opinions and insights to drive product innovation? 

JF: Same as they always have. Same reason many people have been here for a long, long time - they like working here, they like the impact they can have, they like flexibility and freedom they have to solve the problems they are presented with, and they like their colleagues. They also like not being bogged down by all sorts of distractions, onerous processes, endless meetings, red tape, and long work hours present in most companies. Anyone objectively dropping into Basecamp from the outside would say "people have a lot of freedom here". Basecamp will continue to lead in this area, as we have for nearly 20 years.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the past few months and how it has (or has not) changed your approach to building great products?

JF: We're going to keep on keeping on.

Part III

Lots of people have already written about why Basecamp’s decision to ban employees from holding political discussions on the company’s internal tools and disband the diversity, equity and inclusion employee committee was problematic. 

Marco Rogers (@polotek) has a great Twitter thread on Basecamp’s changes and how it’s effectively the founders choosing money over equality. “This is a statement about privilege. It’s one if the key privileges that Whiteness has always afforded itself. The right to comfort. The right to take hard things and separate yourself from them. The right to not care about things that don’t directly impact you.”

Casey Newton has some excellent behind the scenes reporting of how the events played out in his newsletter, Platformer. Specifically this post and this one.

Emily Pothast has an insightful Medium post. She explains how their policy changes ignore the fact that their employees are people and “products are used by human beings. At best, a company that fails to consider larger social dynamics is doomed to create products that do not adequately engage with the world they are supposed to serve...”

And Marco Rogers has a great follow up Twitter thread when Basecamp announced they were offering employees who wanted to leave severance packages. “[DHH] talks about how they failed to facilitate and mediate contentious discussion at the company. I believe him when he says it felt disruptive. But I blame a lack of clear and decisive leadership. This is where white men like these show they lack the range. That they're not up to the task of navigating an environment where a diverse group of people all get to have a voice.”

Finally, I have two additional reading recommendations if you are interested in learning more about how to build an inclusive product culture and product at your company. First, my interview with Annie Ta, the Head of Inclusive Product at Pinterest. Second, the book “Building For Everyone” by Annie Jean-Baptiste, the Head of Product Inclusion at Google.

I hope you enjoyed my interview with Jason & DHH and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊   -Tyler