Hey and launching your product at the end of the world

Posted by Nick Jones July 6, 2020

I thought for a long time that my personal interest was in design and software. To an extent that's true, but what really what fascinates me are the challenges of making things. There are so many paths from idea to finished product, and so many reasons to stop, that it would be impossible to catalog them all in a flat list. Some people undertake the act of creation without giving it any real thought; they want something that doesn't exist, and so they make it. It's simple. Others see what exists and think I could do that, and flame out fantastically as they are crushed by their own hubris.

I write all this to indicate that I understand the time and effort that goes into making a thing, and even this is dramatically simplified; it says nothing about making things with a team, which is several orders of magnitude more challenging than doing it alone. Let's just agree it's tough. And then you throw a global pandemic into this mix. Now all your timelines and your labor are thrown into question, not to mention the optics of using social channels for self-promotion instead of glib, supportive messages. Even with all of this in my head, this preparedness to forgive and equivocate, the Hey launch seems particularly grotesque.

Once there was a company called 37signals. Their big product was an opinionated project management platform called Basecamp which I liked very much. In fact as a consultant I used to offer classes in how to use it. It was simple and good. I liked its parent company, too. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (usually styled as DHH) were idiosyncratic startup founders, for sure. They cut their own trail and rejected venture capital. Every product they released was viewed as a way to advance Ruby on Rails, a programming framework 37signals was responsible for and that I also liked very much—which runs this website, in fact. Since those days 37signals has, in recognition of its most successful product, renamed itself to Basecamp.

Fried and Hansson have also become self-styled business gurus. Both write extensively about the deleterious effects that modern work has on people. Work, they assert, is too fast; there's too much of it, and it steals our humanity and basic curiosity away; there isn't enough accountability, and most companies are run by accountants and VC groups seeking get rich quick schemes. I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of what they've written. But there was also a feeling that Basecamp, the company, was now a clearing house for the sort of thought leadership that was being peddled by a lot of consultancies at the time. 37signals had itself been a custom software consultancy, but began to sell its own products and thoughts when that former model stopped making financial sense. There was a blog, followed by two books, a podcast, and more. There were a lot of places to go to hear or read Fried and Hansson's thoughts on just about anything. Hey was announced in a sort of whisper campaign about a year ago. It was billed as reinvention of email, something Basecamp also claims to be. Although I had moved away from Basecamp years before I was interested to see what would come out.

In the intervening time, the Trump administration parked us all in the middle of a pandemic and then left us in the car without the keys. Things have been weird for businesses ever since. It's hard to promote your work for fear of seeming callous, and hard to plan labor objectives for the same reason. People are terrified, and even the most basic response to a viral pandemic—like mask wearing—have been rendered political. Somehow Basecamp was moving ahead with Hey, and it would launch on time.

Fried and Hansson began setting the stage for the Hey launch by ratcheting up their weekly snipes at Apple for it's unfair business practices. Basecamp are the vanguard of a small but loud contingent of developers who feel that Apple uses its market position to bully and manipulate companies, forcing them to do business on its App Stores and either providing no alternative or squashing any that exist. There is a lot to unpack in this argument, probably enough for its own essay. People are right to wonder and to get answers, and developers are also entitled to better arrangements.

Launching a product at the end of world is an unimaginable challenge.

But then Hey launched, and it was invitation only—like a product beamed here from 2007. You needed to be in a special club to even see it. It was $100 a year and just looked sort of like one feature from Basecamp, plucked out and given its own domain name. And then there was the back-and-forth with Apple, who approved the Hey client app for the App Store, then didn't, then did again. All the while Basecamp is posing as ersatz liberators, working to free us all from the Apple gulag.

Again, making a product is hard. The backdrop of the pandemic made it even harder. Hey could have been a great product. Using it, I have instead been massively underwhelmed. I was already aware it would not, as its advertising suggested, change my life; after using it I couldn't be bothered to even change my email address. The final nail has likely been watching Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, two millionaires, pick a fight with Apple Inc., a group of billionaires. They've ridden this fresh wave of anti-Apple sentiment into a product launch that by their metrics, has been very successful—despite what, just two weeks ago, were Apple's crippling and draconian terms.

Basecamp, the company, can't pretend to speak for millions of developers who sell their software in Apple's stores. Doing so, and doing so for the advertising benefit it provides—is akin to forcing companies to buy ads on its own Google search result pages, something Basecamp has also decried, rightly. Launching a product at the end of world is an unimaginable challenge. Personally I would not do it by pretending to be a martyr, inventing a revolution, and picking a fight that—to spectators walking by—looks like two rich guys fighting over a parking space. The right way to do a launch in 2020 is probably lots of things, none of which is this gross display.