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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What lies on the horizon

Most software is bloated, hard to use and ill-equipped for the task it’s designed to tackle. That’s the view of one Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s taking a strikingly different approach to development by deliberately keeping his products simple and his team small – despite multimillion dollar growth.

Jason Fried, founder and CEO of 37Signals, is already something of a legend in Internet circles. Basecamp, the popular project management software developed by 37Signals, was the first ever package to be written using the Ruby programming language on the web-based Rails framework. In fact, it was Fried’s company that took the work it had done with the framework in Basecamp and released it to the open source community as Rails.

According to IT industry analyst group Gartner, Ruby will reach 4 million programmers in the next five years, positioning it as a mainstream programming language to rival the likes of Java. Unlike Microsoft’s C++, Ruby is a dynamic language making the code more “expressive” and potentially easier to read – it’s like the difference between reading lines of code and reading English. Ruby also gives developers the ability to more easily modify and extend it while it’s running –and it’s this power that the Rails framework exploits in a big way.

Basecamp was originally built in February 2004 to manage projects internally for 37Signals, which at the time was a web design company. But as the company started using it with clients and showing it to colleagues, it became clear that people needed something to manage their own projects. Fried says: “The lightbulb went off and we started thinking that we could make a product out of it. So we polished it up, named it Basecamp, slapped some prices on it and put it out on the market.”

Fried says the company’s early ambitions were modest, telling himself that if he made $5,000 a month in recurring revenue after 12 months he would be happy. “We hit that number in six weeks, so we knew we were on to something. The rest is history.”

'We love small teams... no keeping people busy just because they are on the payroll'

The company has made a lot of improvements to Basecamp since it launched, adding file sharing, the wiki-like writeboards, time tracking and images, but Fried says the “spirit” of Basecamp is all about keeping it simple. “We’ve received thousand of feature requests but we only add the ones we feel are in the best spirit of the product. It’s easy to mess up a good thing by doing too much. Most software is slow, complicated and bloated because the developers aren’t disciplined to know when enough is enough.”

Microsoft, of course, has always taken a different tack, forever adding new features and interfaces to its products and tackling new business challenges. So how can companies in the user-oriented Web 2.0 world hope to compete with the mighty development resources coming out of Redmond? The answer is that some of them don’t actually want to. “Basecamp is intentionally simple,” says Fried. “We don’t compete against other software products but against habit. Most people still manage projects via e-mail, phone, paper and fax. That’s why keeping Basecamp simple is so important – when the alternative is habit, simple is the only possible victor.”

This does of course mean that at some point you’re going to outgrow Basecamp, but that’s a fact that Fried and other web 2.0 start-ups are more than comfortable with. “We love small teams, we love simple software, we love stuff that just works. Most software sucks because it’s too hard to use, too packed with stuff you don’t need and too tailored for huge teams and people with technical backgrounds. Our stuff is simple, clear, intuitive, hosted and so easy to use you can get started in 30 seconds. No manuals to read, no IT staff required. It just works.”

It’s a philosophy that’s been extended to the company itself, which still has a headcount of 10, even though it’s poised to double its multimillion dollar revenue this year. “No management required, no muddled communication, no keeping people busy just because they’re on the payroll. Just focused happy people working on exactly what needs to get done.” Fried says the company could have 50 people by now, but he believes small is beautiful and intends to stay as small as possible “forever”. How long he can keep that up is an interesting question – it’s a wonder he even has time to answer my questions – but if small, focused teams are the future, then he’s certainly pointing the way.

By David Longworth, Webster Buchanan Research