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37 Signals Passion Review



9 out of 10 hearts for the 37 Signals folks--as perfect a passionate user rating as I'll probably ever give.

From usability to pricing models to support to communication with users... everything they do at 37 Signals demonstrates that users matter most. And they're especially brilliant at knowing what not to include-- i.e. the happy user peak. [Note: this review is not about the products themselves; it's about what they're doing to create passionate users]

When we reverse-engineer passion, we find common attributes among things for which people are truly passionate, and 37 Signals has nearly all of those attributes (or is well on the way). This post includes a summary of some of those attributes, with a note about things that 37 Signals is doing in each area.

37 Signals, for the few who don't know already, makes three delightful, elegant, and "addictively useful" programs Basecamp, Backpack, and Ta-da List. If you don't know about them, stop right now and go to their page. We'll wait.

First, a clue from their main page about why they're products are so damn useful:

"Who are your investors?"

"Our customers. They pay us and we build products for them. We're a private company self-funded through revenues. We don't have any impressive names on our board of directors. We believe that if you build great products for great customers then the rest comes easy."

And here's just a few of the user/fan quotes on their main page, that we'd all kill to have:

"Perfectly conceived... the most elegantly executed web app I've seen"
"Backpack is perfectly conceived and the most elegantly executed web app I've seen. Period. I'm excited again about keeping things organized at work and at home. I plan to be Backpack-ing a lot every day." -Richard Bird

"Genuinely a pleasure to use and interact with"
"We've just started using it, and the reaction from our clients and team has been singularly amazing. For the first time, a project management and collaboration tool that people will actually use - not just because it does the job in a simpler and better way, but because it's also genuinely a pleasure to use and interact with." -Dom Rodwell

"A massive, positive impact on our working practices"
"Basecamp has already been key to winning a project, being the main thing that differentiated us from a very close competitor, and it's had a massive, positive impact on our working practices, even after just a couple of weeks." -Simon Rudkin

"Backpack has changed the way I live"
"37signals has done it again. First Basecamp changed the way I work and now Backpack has changed the way I live! It took about 10 minutes to decide to sign up for a paid plan and half that time was looking for my credit card!" -Hunter Hillegas

When the rest of us read through those quotes, we should ask ourselves, "What would we need to do to be able to have quotes like that for what we deliver?" From software users to church members to real estate clients to blog readers... how could we get people to talk... no feel this way?

People with a passion want to:

1) Connect

Passionate users want to hook up with others who share the same passion. Check out the discussion forums for their Basecamp product, and the high level of activity on the 37 Signals blog. They could do more to help passionate users connect with one another, but they're off to a good start.

2) Evangelize

Passionate users evangelize to others. Like I'm doing right now. Try a google search on Basecamp. Yes, you get references to mountaineering, but even on page one, half the results are about this one product. And the deeper you go in the returned links, the more user-evangelists you'll find. People in love... want to share it with others.

3) Learn and Improve (growth and continuous development)

Although I listed this as number three, it's the one we consider most important for long-term passion. If users can't grow and evolve and become "Basecamp-heads", the passion will be somewhat limited. I'm not sure how 37 Signals is going to handle this in the future, so I'll give them a 6 out of 10 on this one so far. But they do have a great start by making it easier for users to get better. I have some thoughts on how they could do more here, but I'll save those for another post.

But... there is one dimension on the learning and growth chart where they get a Spinaltap 11 out of 10--they have a road show workshop called Building of Basecamp, where user/developers can meet an learn how to do what 37 Signals has done. Here's a review of the workshop from someone who attended. This tour also gives people another way to connect.

4) Spend time

Passionate users will spend an irrational amount of time with the thing they're passionate about. The more 37 Signals does to give people new and more powerful ways to use their products, the more time those users will spend.

5) Spend money

People who are passionate about something want more ways to spend money on their passion (assuming it's worth it, and they always find a way to justify that it is). By using a tiered pricing model, the 37 Signals products offer a great way for users to get, well, sucked in. In a nice way, of course. There are options for going higher up the chain. But for non-developer users, that's where it ends right now. The Building of Basecamp workshops, though, is a fabulous way to offer passionate users (who happen to be software developers) a way to become more involved and spend more time and money.

6) Pride items / Showing Off

They fall down here on that most important step--T-shirt first development.

Yet even their users are asking for shirts. They need a way for passionate users of their products to express to others that they're part of the tribe. Of course, it doesn't need to be 37 Signals that does it... they could encourage others -- especially other passionate fans -- to do it for them. That means less direct revenue for them, but far more passionate street cred if they help support a Passionate Wake.

7) People, Legends, Myths, Stories

Where there is passion, there are stories and people and gossip. 37 Signals is on their way here--at least two of the 37 Signals team are quickly becoming the geek equivalent of rock stars -- David Heinemeier Hansson (Ruby on Rails creator), and Jason Fried (he has Tom Peters has a fan!). And it's not just "The Signals" that matter. They're doing a great job of capturing user stories as well:


Given how young the company is, I'm impressed with how much they've done in this area. Most WAY larger companies aren't doing half as much as these guys to promote what users are doing... to make the users the heroes. I haven't heard much gossip, although I'm sure there are some stories circulating that perhaps the Ruby folks know about.

8) Meaning

Where there is passion, there is a sense of something bigger and more meaningful. That "if you think it's just about hitting golfballs, you SO don't get it..." attitude. 37 Signals has a Basecamp Manifesto that says, among other things: "Basecamp is more than a product, it's a new way of thinking." And they back it up with specific examples (and a product that lives up to the manifesto). The fans of 37 Signals, or its individual products, or the related Ruby on Rails, seem to believe that there's more here than just software. It's a world view... and a world view that people are finding appealing and consistent with their own values. Being a Basecamp fan, for example, says something about the user. (And t-shirts would give the user a way to tell the world.)


Overall, I give them a 9 out of 10 Hearts on the passionate users scale -- a rating I believe will be extremely rare. That they're doing all of these things at such a young stage in their business is remarkable, and is both a cause and effect of passionate users.

To get a 10, they could do just a little more (although as they grow, they'll need to do more in order to grow with their users).

Here are few ideas, but they're just off-the-top-of-the-head and not necessarily well thought out:

1) Get cracking on the pride items like t-shirts and decals. And they'd get an 11 if they encourage someone outside the company to do it. (These aren't mutually exclusive--it would be great if both 37 signals and other third parties were all offering pride items, support, add-ons, etc.) Take a lesson from the yard gnome photo thing, and come up with a clever way for people to send in photographs of... what? Hmmmm... it can't be photos of the product in use, like you can do with a physical iPod or book. But if you had those cool t-shirts... you could have them send in photos people take of themselves in unusual places, wearing their 37 Signals/Basecamp t-shirts. A lot of your users are geeks. You SO know they'll do it.

2) They should continue to work on building long-term learning and growth opportunities for users -- something they've already got going on in a big way for their users who are also developers, but I'd love to see more learning experiences for non-developer users. Don't just teach me to use your product well, teach me to seriously kick ass at the things I do with your product. Make me a better project manager in areas that go beyond what the software is responsible for. Help me become better organized and spend more time in flow (the premise behind GTD, which they unofficially support. You could say that part of what 37 signals does is to support David Allen's Getting Things Done wake!)

Where there is passion, there is a Next Level, and the 37 Signals folks have one for developers with Building of Basecamp. But they could use more of a Next Level concept for "regular" users. Is there a way to tell when someone is a Backpack guru?

They're already doing a fantastic job with helping users learn and grow -- far better than probably any other software company of this size and scope (sure, it's easy for Adobe and Macromedia to have lots of tutorials, but this is a very small company). And in a way, one of their biggest strengths -- that their products are SO usable -- means they don't really need much support and learning. So my suggestion would be to keep pushing the learning into areas that go beyond the software, and into the realm of ways in which the software helps and changes people's lives. Clearly that's already starting, if we are to listen to the user quotes. And we should.

3) Maybe encourage actual user groups -- which could be both physical and online (an extension of the forums), as a way to encourage connection between users.

4) More stories, please. More about the founders, and more about the users. Maybe some inner knowledge worth knowing and worth talking about could be propogated. Just don't put it on your website... it's worth a lot more if it's discovered.

Way to go 37 Signals. Y'all are most inspiring! I can't wait to see what you do next. And please, please, make your first t-shirts come in extra-small : ) (and FYI my favorite colors are orange and blue).

Posted by Kathy on August 9, 2005 | Permalink


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Wow, Kathy, we're floored and flattered! Thanks so much for the kind words, the criticism, and the advice. We'll certainly take it to heart. And you'll be the first person with a new shirt when we have them ready -- I promise.

Posted by: Jason Fried | Aug 9, 2005 7:24:46 PM

Great review. 37signals made their first impression on me way before Basecamp when they were selling their web design philosophy. They floored me again when I downloaded their Ruby on Rails lecture.

They've got a very consistent message of (technical and non-technical) user focus and clarity right throughout their efforts and I think it's an awesome achievement.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 9, 2005 9:32:48 PM

Great review! Thanks for posting it. I love 37Signals and use both Basecamp and Backpack religiously. In fact, I don't think on of the Web sites I work on, MacZealots.com, could survive without Basecamp. We use it for everything!

Their back-to-basics approach is what I love most. The customers want something so they create it. I have also never met anyone who had a bad word to say about the mind behind the 37Signals' projects.

Posted by: Emily Hambidge | Aug 9, 2005 9:51:00 PM

Scrivs posted a review of 37 Signals today as well. I haven't had a chance to read either yet... but I already know that you are not in total agreement.


Posted by: nick | Aug 10, 2005 8:55:34 AM

Check out the recent Salon.com profile of 37 Signals:


Posted by: Peter | Aug 10, 2005 11:07:23 AM

Well, I went off to see what all the fuss was about and:

I discovered that the Backpack system didn't work with Opera (one of the most standards compliant browsers), AND, the free version doesn't allow file storage OR image storage on the page!!! All this I only discovered after signing up and wasting ten minutes playing with the app of course, nothing so courteous as some info to that effect on the signup pages.

So a waste of time, and a poor product. What *was* Kathy thinking?


Posted by: Wally | Aug 10, 2005 11:33:18 AM

From this thread in the Backpack forum, the solution is upgrading Opera to 8.02:


Posted by: Todd Derscheid | Aug 10, 2005 12:40:17 PM

A small note, some might question the objectivity of the workshop review, as its author is (and was) a 37signals employee.

With Wally's post, can we consider that there is now a 37signals backlash? Hey ... that should be their next product ...

Personally, I'm not sure I'd expect a five-person company to support niche browsers (Opera, Safari) out of the box. That doesn't bode well for niche browser users being early adopters of web apps, but when you look at what they've done for people with the more common browsers, they're certainly turning many, many people into instant paying customers -- that doesn't translate into a "poor product" the way I see things. At the same time there are always going to be things that can be done better.

Again, I'm not sure I'd expect the free version of a web app to offer online file storage (well, maybe just a little tiny bit would be nice), but certainly it should clarify that before you sign up. On the other hand, it's free -- you haven't actually paid any money to find this deficiency, by definition. I'd be much more upset -- perhaps even charge-back level upset -- if I'd signed up with a credit card and found out that my membership level had an undisclosed limitation.

Certainly 37signals managed not to sign up Wally. But there are other Wallys out there, and maybe this is something to consider in the sign-up process.

Posted by: Dan Hartung | Aug 10, 2005 12:58:23 PM

Ever since I read this from way back I became a fan of 37 Signals:


Posted by: Diong | Aug 10, 2005 3:29:43 PM

Jamis Buck (the person who's review was linked in this article) was not a 37signals employee at the time. I actually met him for the first time at the workshop. We were considering hiring him and invited him to the workshop in Seattle for an interview. He was hired a few weeks after the workshop.

Anyhow... Here's a review from someone with absolutely 0, zip, no, nada relationship to 37signals ;)

You'll also find comments from people who attended here:

Regarding Backpack not working with Opera, we have to make decisions on what to support. Unfortunately "Standards Compliance" is only half the story. Backpack uses extensive Javascript to make the experience faster and more "app-like," but Opera doesn't support the same calls that Internet Explorer 6, Firefox, and Safari recognize so we don't officially support Opera.

Regarding not saying the difference between the free and pay plans, the second FAQ on the sign-up page says "What's the difference between the free and pay plans?" and reads "The paying plans allow you to create more pages and reminders and also allow you to upload images and files. There are no set-up fees, cancellation fees, or long term contracts." We'll try to work on that language to make it even clearer.

As far as not providing free storage space for files and images on the free plan, well, we're trying to escape the 90s mentality of giving everything away for free and then trying to figure out how to make money later. We want to build a business and provide fully functional tools for people who find our products valuable. You can still use Backpack for free to track to-dos, notes, reminders, etc, but if you want the added value of images and files then you need to pay for that.

Thanks again for everyone's feedback.

Posted by: Jason Fried | Aug 10, 2005 4:13:10 PM

I used to like 37signals, but they made a major mis-step from a passion perspective when they dropped support for older browsers (including IE 5, the only official Mac OS 9 browser). Not only did they announce it as a fait accompli, they did it with one of those awful "this will make things better for you" corporate shrug-offs.

As the comment above alludes to, and as they themselves noted in an earlier book, there's no point making web pages for enclaves. Particularly when those web pages are about centralising your data and accessing it from anywhere. By locking out older browsers, they take away the assurance that even if you find yourself in an ancient web cafe in Peru, you'll still get your stuff.

That's why it doesn't matter if the browser share is 1% (and IE 5's is higher than that), your site should work on it, even if in crippled form. Even AJAX kings Google offer a plain HTML version of GMail.

37 Signals broke this rule, and lost a lot of passion because of it.

Posted by: ad | Aug 10, 2005 4:15:46 PM

Valid points, ad, but at the end of the day decisions need to be made. How do we want to spend our limited resources? Do we want to have to maintain two versions of the site? Should half our time be spent on less than 5% of our audience? Should the remaining 95% of our audience only get half our attention? Those are the types of questions you have to ask when you decide what to support.

At the end of the day we made a decision to make the experience for 95%+ of our customers the best it can possibly be. Does that mean we may have lost a few customers? It might in the short term, but in this case we think it's the right long term decision.

Posted by: Jason Fried | Aug 10, 2005 4:48:00 PM

My company has tried Basecamp, they signed up for it before I knew they were even looking into that kind of software. While I like the attitude and much of the approach of 37signals, I am not that big of a fan of their software. The blog can be interesting, but Basecamp left a lot to be desired and really was not a clear application, at least for the main users, or myself.

But they have a cult-like following and are very passionate about what they do. I'm sure they will continue to do well because of those 2 things alone.

Posted by: sloan | Aug 10, 2005 5:47:43 PM

Thanks for the follow up information, yes I found the thread on the 37signals forum earlier, and it explains the Opera issue well.

I may be a cheapskate but these $5/per month charges add up! It's over a week's wages in China!

I still think (37signals) is a daft name anyway.


Posted by: Wally | Aug 11, 2005 10:41:18 AM

This is a bit off-topic...but not completely...

I think the #1 passion example of the week has to be the Madden '06 video game (released a couple days ago). They release this game every year and millions of people shell out $50 for the latest set of tweaks. Check out the online message board traffic here:


...and this site indicates that there are almost 10,000 people playing ONLINE right now (11 AM on a Thursday)...not to mention all the people playing stand-alone. Scary.


Posted by: Dave Wood | Aug 11, 2005 10:58:06 AM

I've been a fan on 37Signals for years. I'm not really sure what the attraction was, but I found myself going to their site every couple of months to see what they were up to.

When Basecamp was originally launched I was very surprised that they would release such a simple, non-functioning system and call it project management software. Since then, they have quickly evolved the system to a unbelievable necessity in my life.

Can someone explain why I tried it again and again until it was a mature product. I was the one doing this and I cannot understand the psychology behind this. Anyway, 37Signals rocks!

As for $5/month being too much money - give me a break. I think many IT folks do not ever turn the mirror. It costs $5 to get a burger and fries. That's why we are getting paid thousands a month for repeating the phase "Did you try rebooting?"

Posted by: Matt Bidwell | Aug 11, 2005 9:17:42 PM

I think #3 is addressed by their product fragmentation strategy - start with a broad/complex app/service, then spin out little niche versions with a simpler subset of functionality.

Different users pick different points of entry, get hooked, then want to move onward/outward, so they move from one app to another....


Posted by: Bill Seitz | Aug 12, 2005 7:37:37 AM

Jason Fried does all the customer support. As a consequence it is curt and rude.

He seems to think that he is paying us rather than we paying him. Arbitrary price increases when he feels like it.

As a former 37signals customer, I can tell you about passion for the company. Negative passion.

Jason Fried is living the fantasy of most web designers. Some big clients. Big paychecks. Being rude and dismissive to clients.

Which is why these users are so passionate about the products. By using them they aspire to be able to be discourteous to their clients as well.

If you expect a supplier to provide tech support or customer service, you would do well to stay away from 37signals.

If you expect some kind of appreciation for adopting early, paying every month and evangelising (rewards program anyone?), rather than arbitrary 25-100% price increases, better to find another supplier.

Posted by: Alec | Aug 17, 2005 5:41:58 PM

I got excellent customer service from Justin at Basecamp. I think the site is just peachy.

I've been struggling with information overload, too many files, clients who can't remember where they put the disk I sent them or where they stored the file I emailed. It has also improved my image to my clients who think I'm a genius (!) for having this online site where we can share everything to do with a project. Next--Backpack.

Posted by: Kathy | Aug 30, 2005 6:35:48 PM

So... how long till there's a "Head First Ruby On Rails"? :-)

Posted by: Matt Moran | Sep 29, 2005 8:13:38 AM

"...but these $5/per month charges add up! It's over a week's wages in China!" Wally.

- That was certainly before we finished building The Great Wall, Mr.Wally. Today, we have a more 'reliable' source of news... and it only cost $6 bucks.

Posted by: George | Mar 10, 2007 2:26:45 AM

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