published on in Product

Why the Basecamp way of product management hasn't worked for us

A few weeks ago, Jonas Downey from Basecamp posted an article about how they handle software changes while keeping their customers happy. The topics covered are eerily relevant to a recent initiative at Cratejoy. I want to share how I think about and deal with what we define as “product debt.”

If you haven’t read it, Downey’s central point is that to keep customers happy, you simply can’t remove features. If you have to completely change things, fork off a new version of the entire product and let the old one run, supporting it forever.

Basecamp has a loyal group of users and always has. Their strategy may work great for them (though I have my doubts about this too), but not all (or many?) startups are like Basecamp. The best are trying to reinvent their industries, create new ones, and build monopolies. From my view, spending resources on “support it forever” simply won’t get you there.

Legacy support costs grow quickly and to no one’s advantage

Downey claims that never removing features combined with support for legacy products “will help keep your support load lower and your customers happier.” I believe this is patently false, and not because, as he claims, my “laziness or time constraints take over.”

First, let’s talk customer happiness.

Over the long-term, keeping customers on the legacy product hurts the customer. You’re doing two bad things: decreasing the leverage and impact a better solution can have on your customers (this is what customers pay you to do) AND you’re spending their hard earned money to allow them to continue down a path you yourself no longer believe in. In a sense, you’re stealing and lying, not increasing customer happiness.

Second, there’s support load.

A new design of a feature (or removal) is typically, at least in part, a reaction to support load. A newer, well designed solution should have less long-term support load. This designed should be based on new information you didn’t have before about your customers’ needs. Sure, there may be a temporary blip in tickets while people figure out the new design. There will most certainly be some outcries when you remove something completely, but overall, a successful redesign is inherently more understandable.

If you’re optimizing for short-term support load, you’re gaming the system, not solving the problem.

Bite size changes are easier to stomach

Smaller changes are easier for users to stomach than sweeping product upgrades. This shouldn’t be any surprise. Facebook, YouTube, Gmail all change every day.

Basecamp appears to be in fear of angry pitchfork wielding users. Their strategy is to sidestep the uproar completely and release a new version of their product alongside legacy versions every five years or so. This makes switching versions an event that takes significant amount of consideration and time by each customer.

I do agree that we should be careful and thoughtful about what we add to a product, especially one that people depend on for their livelihood. I’ll even agree that at Cratejoy we have a bad habit of doing what is easiest for us rather than keeping the customers’ needs at heart. But there are better methods than the Basecamp way. Hold your customers’ hands, but don’t be afraid to make bold changes. Test the solution thoroughly and make the transition smooth. Eventually, customers’ will figure out the new workflow and be better off.

By doing upgrades on a feature-by-feature basis, you can make the evolution of your product much less daunting while delivering increasing value.

Users expect your product to improve

Yes, users sign up and start paying for your product for its current features. They have an expectation of what your product is today and — at a bare minimum — they assume it will continue to solve similar problems in the future.

Over the past decade, users have also come to expect that their tools continue to improve over time. The advent of SaaS flipped the idea of annual software upgrades on its head. To continue to deliver the same software for years, without significant improvements beyond bug fixes, is not only against users’ expectations, it leaves you vulnerable to competition.

By segmenting off versions of your product into “legacy” and “active development”, you’re putting your users in a situation where upgrading from version 2 to version 3 of your product is roughly the same effort as switching to a competitor. These efforts to keep customers loyal is actually making it easier for them to leave altogether.

Your job is to continue to find better solutions to users’ problems. Leaving them on antiquated software isn’t what they pay your to do.

Laser sharp focus on the vision is the proven path to success

As a company evolves, its course and vision change. Larger opportunities are spotted on the horizon and goals shift. A vision worth achieving is going to have hard decisions and a few casualties. Care must be taken to ensure financial security along the way, but the ultimate focus of the company must be clear.

Working with the right customers is important. As the course of the ship turns, acknowledging when a customer’s goals no longer align with your own is important. There is a tipping point where legacy support runs contrary to the focus of the new direction and a line in the sand must be drawn. Yes, some customers will be upset and some will leave.

You’ve worked hard to get where you’ve gotten today. You’ve assembled the rock star team. You’ve identified the gold mine and have a plan to get there. Find your line in the sand and don’t compromise your team’s time if doesn’t help you get there.

Clarity and focus is how the best have won.

The “support forever” mantra paints a rosy picture of a customer-centric culture. As a customer, it gives you the warm fuzzies inside. You feel safe. However it’s this is surface-level and ultimately, this practice won’t solve a customer’s problems more effectively. Especially not over the long-term.

Basecamp is a unique company. The challenges they face are very different than what I see at Cratejoy. However, I can’t help but think that maybe they’re not looking ahead far enough. What could they be doing with their resources if they were less scared to sunset features? How badly would their reputation actually be hurt? On a more lighthearted note (with the slightest hint of irony), maybe they‘re still trying to save face after killing 90% of their products?

Evaluating resource allocation is an important exercise for leaders of all types of organizations to go through. If you sharpened the focus of your resources, what would you be accomplishing?