The Evolution of Basecamp & the Origin, Launch and Craziness of

The evolution of Basecamp and the origin, launch and craziness of Hey.

We talked with Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp and Hey, in advance of his session at Business of Software USA Online to get some of the important but unnecessary stuff out of the way in advance.

Part 1 of 3 – here we cover the background on Jason Fried, the evolution of Basecamp from single- to multi- to single- to multi-product company, the origin, launch and craziness of

To see the whole discussion in one place… Or pick your topic…

Of course, there is plenty more to talk about and we’re looking forward to spending time with Jason and David Heinemeier Hansson, neither of whom are short of opinions, to delve deeper at Business of Software Conference Online 21-23 September.

You should be in the (Zoom) room where it happens.

Jason Fried Basecamp Hey

Who is Jason Fried?

Jason: “Who am I? I’m Jason Fried. I run a company called Basecamp and I’ve been doing so for almost 21 years now although it used to be called 37 Signals.”

Tell us about Basecamp

Jason: “We currently make two products: Basecamp and Hey, which is our new email thing.

“We’ve always run our business a little bit differently than many people in our industry. We’re bootstrapped – we’re a self-funded company. We’ve been in business for a long time. Twenty one years and we’re a relatively small company – 56 people – large by our standards but in the industries we’re in we’re quite small. We’ve done that intentionally.

“We’ve written a number of books about how we work and why we work and the ideas behind the choices that we make in our latest plans called Shape Up – a free book. You don’t even need to give us your email address – it’s free. Literally free. It’s all about our how we work in these six week cycles and why we do that, how we make decisions about that, and how we don’t plan long term.

“We just try to do the right thing. We don’t always get it right. But we’re really interested in building great products, taking really good care of our employees, taking really good care of our customers, and sort of leaving the hype and the trends behind just not interested in doing what everyone else is doing. We’re pretty intentional about that and just kind of doing what makes sense for us.”

Yawn Yawn – what do you get asked that is boring? 🥱🥱🥱

Jason: “I’m not interested in talking about features. We could. Who cares? I want to talk about the mindset you have to put yourself into and the battles you have to fight against yourself to allow yourself to do something that you know is going to bring a lot of heat in the market. That kind of stuff is, I think, really the essence of what’s fun about creating things.”

From multi-product company to a single product one. 🔍🔍

Mark: “So you mentioned you started as 37 Signals. 37 Signals made loads of products – it was almost as if every time you went back to the website there was another product. Then you stopped. You just focused on one and you even changed the name of the company. What was the thinking behind that?”

Jason: “I went off and got married and I took some time off. When I got back I looked at the company and realized – you have to get perspective – you’ve got to leave for a little bit and come back to see something, you can’t stare at it all day and see it. So I came back and realized we’ve got, depending on how you count, maybe six products. In those days, but the same applies now, you can’t just have a product. You have to have a web version, you have to have an IoS version, an Android version… So having six things is really like having 18 things to manage and we want to keep our company small. We had, I don’t know, 20-30 people at the time, something like that. We can’t do a great job on all of these things with our company size to our own standards. That’s just not possible anymore. The world changed from when we first built these things. We have web and mobile versions now.

“So to think about what to do about that – there’s three options.

  • We could hire a lot more people which is antithetical to the way we want to approach our business. We don’t want to be a big business in terms of people.
  • We could just keep doing what we’re doing which wasn’t really working.
  • We could divest ourself from certain things and focus on certain other things.

“We decided to focus all in on Basecamp which is our biggest product – the one most people knew us for anyway. When I would tell people where I work and I said “this place called 37 Signals”, people would ask what we  do. I’d say, “well we make this thing called Basecamp”. “Oh Basecamp! I know Basecamp!”. So we decided to sell off, spin off, or ingest all the other products. So example Campfire, our chat tool, got converted into Basecamp. We spun off a couple of things and converted a few things, kept a few things around that we don’t update anymore. It basically said we’re going to go all in on one thing. We’re going to rename the company Basecamp and do that. We did that about five-ish years ago. So it just made the most sense at the time.

“You look at it now and you go – that was kind of a really crazy decision. It was actually the only decision, it was not really crazy, it was the normal decision. We were admitting we simply can’t do everything we wanted to do the way we want to do it. So therefore we have to do fewer things. Or you could change but we weren’t comfortable with the change part so we want to do a few things and so that’s all that happened.”

Mark: “Right. So that you would say worked very well.”

Jason: “Yeah. Very comfortable with how that turned out. Although we just changed our mind.”

So a single product company was great, then it wasn’t. What happened?

Jason: “So for five years we’ve been doing this. And then a couple of years ago we start exploring something new which was going to originally be a new version of High Rise (Our CRM tool which still exists – we just don’t sell it anymore but it’s available to existing customers). As we start building and exploring that, we started focusing on a lot of email stuff around it. I’m like, “I want this for my email”. I don’t want this just for CRM contacts – vendors and accountants and lawyers – I want this for every email every interaction. So for the past couple of years – I’m skipping over a bunch of decisions – we’ve been focused on building this new product called Hey.

“It’s an entirely new email service. It brings an entirely new philosophy to email and is unlike any other email thing that exists on a variety of different levels.”

And it’s an email service?

Jason: “And it’s an email service.”

Why a service not a client?

Jason: “So it’s not just a client that sits on top of Gmail or outlook because you can’t really innovate that much if you’re sitting in some else’s platform. You can kind of tweak around the edges but you don’t have any control – they can pull the rug out from under you any time, you can’t really really change it. You’ve got to kind of vertically integrate. So Hey is an email service meaning if you sign up you get an email address. We’re your email provider – you can jettison Gmail or outlook or whatever you use and just run on Hey.”

The craziness of launching Hey

Jason: “The launch was quite dramatic. We didn’t expect. We didn’t expect it to be like that. We knew we had a good product. We’re very pleased with it. We knew it was going to be well received, we didn’t know that Apple was gonna tell us to… f*** off.

“So that was a thing that happened. That was a very difficult two weeks – but exhilarating and exciting. Now it’s finally calmed down and we’re kind of seeing what baseline looks like again which is nice.”

Product Development and saying, ‘No’ 🙅‍♂️⛔️

Jason: “We said no to so many things that people are used to – and there’s philosophical underpinnings behind every feature that we’ve built in our products. Building from that perspective versus looking around and trying to achieve feature parity first and then building on and adding new things – we don’t approach things that way. We look at like what do we want this thing to be. I don’t care what everything else is. And we want to differentiate as much as we possibly can. I think the most important thing you can do for new products is to differentiate as possible.

“We’re fighting back against our own urges – ‘Well this is how they do it so we should do it that way. That’s what people can expect so we should do it that way’ – before you know it, you can convince yourself you’re just building the same thing everyone already has. So why do it at all? It’s kind of keeping your own pressures at bay to give yourself a wide enough berth to do something new. It’s hard. And we didn’t get it right perfectly but we put a lot of effort into it.

“I think it’d be fun to dig into the product development at BoS.”


Jason: “One of the most controversial things with Hey is that you can’t archive email. This is not really a controversial thing but Google has drilled it into people’s heads that every time you look at an email you need to decide what you want to do with it afterwards. Do you delete it? Do you archive it? Do you leave it there? Hey doesn’t have any archive. We don’t want to give you that choice because we don’t believe that every email should come with an obligation.

“Some stuff you just read and just let it go. And this idea of, we’re calling it, ‘let it flow’. It’s been super controversial. I knew it would be somewhat controversial, we wanted it to be, but I didn’t realize it would be so controversial. We wanted to have a different point of view and that’s part of the product. It’s naturally poking people’s behaviors and habits and asking people to try something different. Try something new and that freshness is a virtue here. And we’re trying to push that in a bunch of different angles too.”

On Superhuman 🦹🏼‍♂️

Jason: “I think what they’ve done is fantastic – with the exception of their tracking stuff. So aside from that I think what they’ve done is great. I have some fundamental vision differences. To me the problem with email is not that it’s too slow. The problem with email is that you’re getting too many emails you don’t want, and we’re trying to solve that problem. Superhuman has clearly made a big impact in a lot of people and that’s hard, they’re expensive and people still want it. That is an amazing thing that they’ve built.”

Hey and Apple 👩🏻‍💻🍏

On launching, Apple banned the app from the app store as it didn’t allow in-app purchases. This created an almighty headache and an almighty row. For some background – startup fights with Apple rarely reach the pages of national newspapers. We’ll be digging into this some more at Business of Software Conference USA Online this September with Jason and David…


To see the rest of this discussion in one place… Or pick your topic…

Of course, there is plenty more to talk about and we’re looking forward to spending time with Jason and David Heinemeier Hansson, neither of whom are short of opinions, to delve deeper at Business of Software Conference Online 21-23 September.


Join Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson to delve deeper at Business of Software Conference Online 21-23 September. Be in the (Zoom) room where it happens…

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