Lessons from the 37Signals’ Basecamp outage
37Signals is a company that I've admired for a long time. I first read their manifesto in early 2000 and it changed my ideas about web-design. I was both excited and disappointed when they decided scale back client design work and instead focus on building web applications. Fortunately, their application kicks ass.
As 37Signals morphed from a design shop with clients into a app developer with users, they clearly thought long and hard about what kind of company they wanted to be. They talked a lot about this during The Building of Basecamp, which I attended in San Francisco last fall. They also post quite a lot about this on their blog. (Unfortunately, their archives are offline today, so I can't find any individual posts to link.) Many of the ideas that I've incorporated into my thinking have come from watching 37Signals.
I wanted to point out another example of something 37Signals did right. Last week, they encountered some pretty henious problems during an upgrade of their main product, Basecamp. The problems were severe and user-affecting. That wasn't good. But the way in which 37Signals handled the outage was terrific.
First, they posted information about the problem to their Basecamp-specific blog. They didn’t hide the problem, hoping most people wouldn’t notice. They continued to post updates during the grueling night while they were trying to get things back to normal.
Second, they apologized. It’s amazing how few companies will actually say those words. And it’s equally amazing how far those few words go toward keeping your customers happy. 37Signals’ acknowledged their customers’ inconvenience rather than denying it.
Third, after the insanity was over, 37Signals’ lead developer, David Heinemeier Hansson, posted a post-mortem detailing what had gone wrong. David acknowledged problems they’d had and the mistakes they’d made. The curious users got to look behind the curtain and understand (and sympathize with) the gory details. And 37Signals got the help and support of the community — free, shared knowledge that can help improve their operations and avoid problems in the future.
David sums up the experiences with a post on the Benefits of Transparency. I have to agree with him — the benefits of openness are substantial. They far outweigh the fear of being taken to task for all-to-human mistakes. Actually, mistakes are necessary. They’re valueable. Every time we admit that honestly and openly, we have another opportunity to forge a more human relationship with customers. Every time we refuse to acknowledge problems with a human voice, we risk alienating our customers.