David Heinemeier Hansson: Basecamp, Remote and Next Big Thing

Do you know what Twitter, Groupon, and Shopify have in common – Ruby on Rails. It’s a game changer in the way web-base applications are made for developers. It’s also happens to be a by-product when David Heinemeier Hansson was building Basecamp (which is also a by-product). He is a founding partner at 37signals (now Basecamp), a NYT best-selling author, a race car driver (more here), coder, hacker, photographer (more here) and a big advocate on working lean, efficient, and remotely.

David is one of the most influential voices on the Internet. He is the author of the immensely popular Ruby on Rails programming framework, is a noted blogger and media figure and is elegantly opinionated when it comes to the best ways to make great software. People follow David’s lead in droves, and for good reason: as a partner in the multi-million dollar company 37signals, David is one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in today’s Web economy. Creators of Basecamp®, Campfire™, Highrise® and Backpack®, and authors of the widely read ‘Signal vs. Noise‘ blog, 37signals is an advocate for all things simple and beautiful.

In 2005 he was recognized by Google and O’Reilly with the Hacker of the Year award for his creation of Ruby on Rails. After graduating from the Copenhagen Business School and receiving his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Business Administration, he moved from Denmark to Chicago, Illinois, U. S. in November 2005. David appeared on the cover of the July 2006 issue of Linux Journal which included an interview with him in the feature story ‘Opinions on Opinionated Software’. The same month Business 2.0 ranked him 34th among ’50 people who matter now’.

The following is an interview with David Heinemeier Hansson about Basecamp, Remote and the Next Big Thing. The interview has been edited for brevity:

Niaz: Dear David, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you.

First of all, I congratulate you and whole 37Signals team on redefining, rebuilding and rebirthing 37Signals to Basecamp. It is really a fascinating move. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us the story of transforming 37Signals to Basecamp? How is Basecamp going to evolve in the coming years?

DHH: Basecamp just celebrated its 10th year. It was the application that turned 37signals-the-web-design-firm into 37signals-the-application-maker. But up until its 10th birthday, it shared its attention with a suite of other products at 37signals. What we came to realize was that Basecamp was our best idea. It always was, but it’s just become clearer and clearer over the past decade, until we couldn’t ignore the truth any more. So instead of spreading ourselves too thin, or growing into a much larger company, we decided to double down and go all Basecamp, all the time.  That means Basecamp now has our undivided attention. Everyone at the company is working on making Basecamp better all the time. It’s liberating and it’s exciting. We’ve been on a quest to conquer mobile, and we already have great apps out for the iPhone and Android, so that’s been part of it. Basecamp should be with you wherever you are and whatever device you’re using.  We’re also working on a lot of fundamental improvements. We don’t just want Basecamp to get more and more features, but we want it to execute on the fundamentals even more beautifully. So that’s the mission: Help people make progress on projects together.

Niaz: Now we are living in an exciting era of superb technologies. All these cutting edge technologies are accelerating the overall productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. Now it doesn’t matter where is someone working from. A great company can have total 15 employees from 15 different countries and can make great things happen working remote. Some companies like Aetna, 37Signals and so on allow their employees to work from home. But some companies like Yahoo! and Best Buy are forcing their employees to work at the office. What are ideas on working remote?

DHH: We’ve been a remote-working company since I started working with Jason some 13 years ago from Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s in our DNA. Today almost 3/4s of the company is based outside of Chicago, where we do have an office (which comes in handy when we twice a year all meet up). It’s been a wonderful experience.   It’s allowed us to attract the best talent wherever it lives, and usually that place isn’t in Chicago (why would it be, just 5M people in the metro area vs 300M in all of the US, and hundreds of millions more in time zones overlapping enough to make it work). And it’s allowed that talent to design the best lifestyle for them, so we have happier people who stay with the company for much longer than most tech companies can say is the average.  We’re so committed to remote work that we wrote a whole book about it. It’s called REMOTE: Office Not Required, and it gives you all the arguments to make it happen at your own company. After you’ve sold the idea, it then gives you all the tips to make it a success. Along with the launch of the book, we also launched weworkremotely.com as a job board exclusively focused on remote positions.

Niaz: In several interviews and articles, you have cited that a small team can do remarkable things. Even 37Signals has a very small team having being created Backpack, Basecamp, Campfire, Highrise, Ta-da List, Writeboard and published Getting Real, Remote and Rework. In general sense, if you have small team, you actually have limited skills, few ideas and limited human resource. But I agree with you in building small team and doing big things. Can you please tell us how do you guys work at 37Signals with a small team to do all great things?

DHH: Small teams are usually always the ones making big things happen. That’s true whether they’re operating within a small company or not. Even big companies will pick a small team when they really need to have a breakthrough. So we decided to focus the whole company around that idea, which means that there are tons of things we just do not do. We don’t have a dedicated marketing department. We don’t have a big sales force. We make simple software that’s easy to support, so we need a small support team, even though we’ve had millions of people use the software.  Simplicity is a choice, and it’s one we’re proud to make. Most people I talk to who work at a large company reminisce about the “good old days when we were just a few people”. We choose to make that the permanent arrangement, and it’s worked out really well.

Niaz: As you know the success rate of StartUps is pretty low.  We see very few StartUps eventually sustain in the long run where most of the StartUps fail so badly. There are so many problems behind the failure of StartUps. On the other hand, the problem with those successful StartUps is that they are not actually sustaining for long time. After several years of running the companies, they are getting sold or getting acquired. This is actually a complex cycle of VCs, Founders and whole StartUp ecosystem. But the end result is, we don’t see sustainable companies to form. What do you think about the core problems of this strong cycle? How can we overcome this for building next big sustainable companies like Apple, Google….?

DHH: The best way to build more sustainable businesses is to forget about Google, Apple, and others. If you only focus on creating billion-dollar businesses, you’re going to drown the many, many more good ideas that could be excellent million-dollar businesses. That’s where the real growth of the economy is going to come from, and is coming from. It’s not from a small handful of slam-dunk success stories, but from the vast ocean of small to medium size businesses.  That’s who we are and we’re happy in our own skin. Many SMBs have inferiority complexes, thinking that they’re a failure because they didn’t get to a billion dollars, because of this incessant focus on that as the only success criteria by many in the business and in journalism. It’s a disease.

Niaz: What does excite you most now?

DHH: I’m excited by the compound success of gradual change and improvement. Rails and Basecamp have both become so much better over the last decade by taking one step at the time. There are few revolutions in this world, and by definition you can’t predict those. But you can predict and extrapolate from consistent, persistent improvement. That’s what excites me.

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Further Reading:

1. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

4. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

5. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

6. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

7. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

8. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product