A Case For and Against Basecamp

I should preface this by saying I am a huge Basecamp fan. Furthermore, I am a proponent of 37signals products. Their tools are among the most valuable applications of the last five years, easily.

I have found myself in numerous situations where Basecamp has saved me untold amounts of time. It’s an incredibly well conceived piece of webware that accomplishes its goals very concisely.

Recently the people at 37Signals have come under fire from some who feel that they as customers have been ignored or treated rudely. Reading through a lot of the vitriol I can see their point.

On the one side 37signals has maintained that they make software for themselves and let the world use it. I think that’s an admirable approach to software development that has greatly contributed to their ability to make software that isn’t hopelessly bloated. However I can empathize with the project manager who complains about lack of dependencies and other omissions.

All of that aside, as soon as this became a product that was sold for monetary gain, a little control was automatically lost – whether intended or not. If you are in the business of making money your customers will always have a say and they will voice opinions solicited or otherwise. Even worse a lot of people will thrash you for something that you offer for free – go look on any open-source product support forum.

It’s an admirable thing to open the feedback loop directly to your customers. But if you do that and you are charging them money, at least make them feel like they are being considered. I only wish there was a place to vent my frustrations at Microsoft Office without throwing my flaming computer to the street below. Basecamp is a product that has gained a huge following, it’s impossible to expect that everyone’s needs would be addressed, it’s just not that type of application.

The criticism could have been handled better. As a business owner you need to have infinite patience. Instead of outright saying “no” to each and every pushy request that came in, it would have been better to craft a response something along the lines of….

“We really appreciate your feedback. As you know from our constant rollout of enhancements, we’re always making improvements to Basecamp. That said it would be impossible for each and every request to be honored, it’s just impossible. We have put a lot of effort into making it as lean as possible which means features have to be very carefully considered and justified before they are added. A lot of our latest features have come at the hands of user suggestions such as X, Y and Z.”

Instead some people were left to feel derided, stonewalled or just plain ignored. That’s never smart business. Whether that was perception vs. reality is immaterial – a customer’s perception is your reality. It is one thing to listen patiently and ignore advice, but it’s another to say it’s not welcome, especially when there’s any amount of money exchanging hands. Your customers may have no idea what’s going on behind the curtain, and to an extent that’s the whole point. If things are melting down internally, don’t take it out on the folks paying your rent. Dealing with suggestions and requests is part of success, it’s a luxurious position to be in.