In the days before my company, Basecamp, started making project-management software, we were a web-design company called 37signals. We built Basecamp (the product) because we needed a better way to manage our work internally and to communicate with clients about that work in a professional way. Basically, we needed to show clients that we were organized and trustworthy. We cared as much about the perception of organization as we did about actual organization.
That was 11 years ago, and it's been almost as many years since we did any client work. Once the software took off, we did less design business, and eventually we stopped client work completely.
I like how that turned out--Basecamp has become one of the world's most popular project-management tools--but because many of our customers, and plenty of our potential customers, are in client-services businesses, we don't know their world as well as we used to.
Basecamp the product has evolved along with the company over the past decade. Because we don't do client work anymore, we now build the software for the way internal teams like ours work. Basecamp does a great job letting teams share and organize documents internally and track their progress toward goals, but that's not the form of communication you want to use with clients. Clients don't want to see the sausage being made. They want to see the sausage. It requires a slightly more polished type of communication.
We're working on the next version of Basecamp now, and we plan on returning to our roots and significantly improving the way clients and firms communicate. But how? Building for scenarios we no longer understand that well is making me nervous.
Basecamp is a critical tool for many client-services firms, but the only way we're able to judge the quality, fit, and finish of the solutions we provide those firms is by proxy. Rather than experience firsthand how Basecamp works for communicating with clients, we have to take other people's word for it.
It's not that we don't have any information available to us. We have spoken with thousands of client-services firms over the years, and we can draw on our past experience. But memories aren't that sharp, and the world has changed. We can certainly go out now and do more general market research. We can talk to more customers, hire consultants, buy reports, and read white papers. But those kinds of research can't replicate the direct input of having the experience yourself.
So here's what I intend to do. I want Basecamp to get back into the client-services business so we can really understand our customers again. If I want to know how our product works for clients, I better get myself a client and put the software through its paces. What are interactions with clients like, and how do they mess up? When you're presenting work to someone who just spent $50,000 for it, what anxieties arise that we could help alleviate? For that matter, what anxieties are we actually creating for these customers? Those are the kinds of subtleties we've lost touch with.
We don't have a perfectly clear plan yet on what kind of client work we're going to take on, or how we're going to do it. It's certainly not going to take up a big chunk of our time (a few small projects a year should be enough to get a feel for it again). But I suspect it's going to be a great investment. Call it participatory market research.
Opening a line of business just to experiment with it won't affect our bottom line in a big way, positively or negatively. But I'm betting that the insights we get from it will.