Ben Sinclair

Ben Sinclair

CTO @ Tithe.ly

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We started using Basecamp. Should you?

I’ve read Jason Fried’s books and really like them. I’ve known about his software Basecamp for years but always thought of it as some project management tool I’d never need. Boy was I wrong. Basecamp to me isn’t a project management tool anymore. Basecamp is a communication platform. And it comes with a philosophy around how we should communicate with our teams.

Disclaimer. Nope. Basecamp is not paying me for this post. This is all me! 🤠

Photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash Photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash

Let’s reflect on modern communication tools

Tools like group chat or video calls are becoming ever-increasing ways to communicate in our inter-connected world, especially for distributed teams.

Group chat platforms like Slack and Teams are great for a quick answer or discussing something in the moment.

Video call platforms like Zoom and GoToMeeting are amazing alternatives to in-person meetings and for talking through issues face-to-face.

The problem with these modern communication tools

Now before I go on, as you read this section, you’re going to think I’m hating on group chat and video calls and totally against them.

Yes, it’s true, I’m hating on them a little (it’s fun) but I’m not against them.

These platforms are seriously great and have revolutionized how we work! We just need to use them better.

Rant #1: Group chat

Group chat platforms are deep pits of information, sucking important details into the abyss.

Channels burst into life in seconds and just as quick, deviate to another topic leaving those out to lunch coming back to their desk scrolling through 100’s of messages and countless GIFs.

People regularly respond to chat messages without thinking through their answers properly. They fire back quick responses and before you know it, they’ve sent 10 messages when they could have sent one thoughtful message.

Group chat feeds our anxiety around keeping in the loop.

When we are undisciplined, group chat forces us into a “drop everything and read the new message” mentality and we are constantly losing focus.

Deep work becomes difficult and there goes a lot of productivity.

Food for thought… You might be super disciplined at using group chat platforms but most of your co-workers won’t be. Every time you send a message, there’s a good chance you’re making someone lose focus.

Rant #2: Video calls

Without agendas and time boxing, video calls blow out and participants start speaking in circles.

Trigger happy employees invite more people than really need to be in video call meetings. Half the participants in these calls could be spending their time doing something more productive.

Most people don’t take notes and what was discussed is quickly forgotten, lost and never communicated.

Food for thought… Having a 1-hour call with 5 people isn’t a 1-hour call, its a 5-hour call.

Special Rant #3: Email

Email isn’t really a “modern method of communication” but it still holds up. Most of our customers communicate with us via email - and that should be all we should be using it for.

Using emails internally is far from great.

Soon you have these massive daisy chains of information and before you know it, it’s as bad as a Slack channel (but thank God email doesn’t have a Giphy integration).

Real life example of using these modern communication tools

I’ve seen communication evolve in our teams as we have been growing rapidly here at Tithe.ly.

We use Slack, Zoom, and Confluence which, I’ll give them a lot of credit, have been amazing tools to grow us to nearly 100 staff and 12,000+ customers.

But as we have continued to grow and evolve as a company, communication has become harder and more important than ever.

For context, our engineering team hit almost 40 people. We had multiple teams, over 10 major ongoing initiatives and multiple projects inside of each of those initiatives.

We had a lot going on.

How did we keep on top of these using Slack, Zoom, and Confluence? It was tough.

Some issues we started to face:

  • People only communicated with some and not others.
  • People didn’t pass on what was communicated.
  • Those who were away or missed meetings simply weren’t communicated to.
  • Important communication in group video calls was quickly moved on from leaving those with questions still wanting answers.
  • People forgot what was communicated and had nothing to refer to.

People were becoming more and more out of the loop. Everyone was becoming way less efficient.

I just knew the tools we were using and the way we used them just wasn’t working.

“There has to be a better way”, I thought.

And there was one.

The future of communication: Basecamp

That’s when a colleague told me to try Basecamp.

I signed up that very day.

Within 30 minutes of signing up, it clicked. I got it. This was the answer I was looking for!

So I went to work… After signing up for Basecamp, within 30 days we had all of our engineering team online and using the software heavily.

Side note: One of my skills in life is driving the adoption of software or procedures. When I find something that I know will revolutionize what we are doing, I go hard. This was important to the success of this endeavor.

Why is Basecamp so great?

So let’s talk about why I think Basecamp is great…

Great Thing #1: Separation of all the stuff

Basecamp allows you to create dedicated areas for specific teams and projects. Being able to put every one of our teams, initiatives and projects into their own “space” (this term is what I’ll use to refer to these areas) instantly helped with keeping everything separate and manageable.

Each space inside of Basecamp has the same features. These include a message board, to-dos, docs/files, group chat, shared calendar, and automatic check-ins.

Each space allows you to invite team members so only those involved in a team or project can see it.

Great Thing #2: Message Board

I love this feature - and the concept is ridiculously simple.

The message board allows someone to post a question, announce something or simply start any sort of discussion inside a space.

Basecamp then notifies those in the space and then boom, people can start responding to the post from its own dedicated page.

Communication becomes organized and easily referenced.

Great Thing #3: Docs and Files

Anyone who uses Slack or email knows the horror of having to try to find that file someone sent you a month ago. I’ve wasted much time myself.

Docs and Files is a single place you can share documents. It’s as simple as that. But because documents are stored within a certain space, finding them takes no time at all.

Great Thing #4: To-dos

You can create to-do lists.

You can then schedule to-dos within those lists for yourself or others.

You can then discuss those to-do items with others.

Check the to-dos off when they’re done.

Because it’s all within a space, it keeps it organized and useful!

Simple yet so effective.

Great Thing #5: Automatic check-ins

I’m tired of messaging on Slack or waiting for our next video call to ask someone about the status of something.

Automatic check-ins allow you to set up questions that are sent to individuals or groups of people in a space.

“What did you work on today?”

“What did your team work on this week?”

These are the type of check-ins you could ask.

You add your question, set a schedule and those connected are automatically asked to answer.

Those interested can then go and read the answers and then discuss further if needed.

Great Thing #6: Company space

As well as teams and projects you have a Company space.

It functions the same as teams and projects but can be used from a company level - allowing everyone in the company to be in the loop about all the things.

Great thing #7: Open communication

Apart from limiting who is in what team or project, all communication is public.

I love this because anyone can read something and instantly get in the loop.

Basecamp does have a feature called “Ping” if you want to privately discuss anything with an individual or group of people - it’s basically their internal chat platform.

What we’ve tried to promote to our team switching to Basecamp

As part of starting to use Basecamp, we’ve tried to promote the following:

  • Turn off Slack for part of the day so you can really focus
  • The little green light next to your name in Slack being greyed out doesn’t mean we think you’re not working
  • Try to minimize the use of Slack for communication, especially if that communication needs to be shared with others or referred to later and to help reduce the distraction of others
  • Turn off email notifications in Basecamp
  • Sift through the “Hey” notification menu from time to time to stay up-to-date

Challenges we’ve faced in Basecamp so far

Too many notifications sent to people who don’t need them

When you post on a message board, by default it notifies everyone who is included in a space! Bleh!

I’ve been making a practice of removing those who don’t need to be alerted about a specific post.

They can always go in and find it if they want but I try to reduce the number of people notified.

Unclear communication and lack of shared language

We’ve needed to make sure what we write is clear and to the point. You waste a lot of time with bad communication.

We’ve also had to get better at creating a shared language so others understand what you mean when you say a certain word or phrase. Asking for clarification = waste more time.

Too many email notifications

OMG. When I first installed Basecamp, my email inbox got spammed big time. It was insane.

I turned off all email notifications.

Now, I sift through the “Hey” notification drop down when I have a moment to keep updated on new activity.

It can still be distracting

To be fair, you can be just as distracted in Basecamp as you could be in Slack if you have zero discipline.

If you leave the tab open in your browser or install the desktop app, you can still see a little icon alerting you of new activity. It’s oh so tempting to click.

This comes back to discipline and helping your team in this.

It’s better than Slack either way.

The rest of the company still rely on Slack

Communication is still very heavy inside of Slack within other departments.

Our engineers are still at the mercy of group chat if they aren’t disciplined.

To finish…

I love what Basecamp has done to our engineering team in a very short time.

It has changed the way we think about communication and at the same time, providing simple but effective solutions for us to outwork it.

This article gives it no justice.

They have a free trial. Look into it and see if it is going to help revolutionize your team or company.