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In order to do great work, you need to feel that you're making a difference.

Show Notes

This week we discuss the importance of doing meaningful work. At least meaningful to you. What you do is your legacy, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to change the world. You just need to be doing something that changes YOUR world.

Show Notes

What is Rework?

A podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. In Season 2, we're going through Rework (the book) chapter by chapter and talking with authors, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, about what's changed in the world of business over the last eleven years since the book was published.

David: [00:00:00] Mine is too quiet, right?

Shaun: [00:00:02] Yeah, so quiet.

David: [00:00:02] Actually, I heard that on one of the episodes, we weren't the same. Do you equalize them?

Shaun: [00:00:06] Yeah.

David: [00:00:07] What do you use to do it? Does it do it its own thing or you get three files that you can monkey with.

Shaun: [00:00:11] I get three files, three ways.

David: [00:00:12] So you can monkey with it, right?

Shaun: [00:00:12] Yeah.

David: [00:00:15] It's just that like, when I heard it last time, or actually, maybe it was another podcast. Maybe it wasn't you. Maybe I'm blaming you—

Shaun: [00:00:19] Wow. Wow. That's really fucked up.

David: [00:00:23] I was on some fucking podcast where I was lower than the other people [crosstalk].

Shaun: [00:00:25] I was gonna say, I thought I've been doing a pretty good job of mixing these.

David: [00:00:30] But it probably wasn't you, you’re a professional. You’re a professional. Alright, anyway, let's just roll.

[00:00:35] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:00:39] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I'm your host, Shaun Hildner. This week, we're talking about making a dent in the universe. The idea is that in order to do great work, you have to feel like you're making a difference. We're going to talk about legacy, derivative products and the limits of tech egos. And as always, here with me to discuss all this are Basecamp co-founders and the authors of Rework. Jason Fried, how are you?

Jason: [00:01:04] I'm doing good, Shaun. How are you?

Shaun: [00:01:06] Wonderful and David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you?

David: [00:01:09] I'm amazing.

Shaun: [00:01:10] This week, we're discussing the, great. This week we're discussing the chapter titled, “Make a dent in the universe.” And this is all about doing work that's important or meaningful, or something you're proud of, I suppose. I don't know. How would you define making a dent in the universe?

David: [00:01:26] I think it's one of those wonderfully existential questions where you get to define your own meaning in life. That it is not handed to you. But that it should be there. Right? I think that's the main thing that this is about, for me, at least. Is that you show up, and it feels like you're doing something that matters. You get to choose what it is that matters, but it damn well better matter. And it damn well better leave an impact that you can feel proud of, particularly if you're going to do it for a long time.

[00:02:00] I mean, by the time we had written this book, Jason and I had worked together for 10 years. If I had looked back upon those 10 years, and thought, like, actually, what did we do here again? I would have looked back with regret. And now I'm looking back on 20 years. And thinking again, hey, we did stuff that left some dent somewhere in my perception of the universe.

[00:02:23] I think that's just as important right? That it's your perception of the universe. It's not someone else's perception of it. It's not that you have to leave whatever someone else would call a dent. Oh, you have to be a unicorn. That's the dent, right? There's a lot of bars in entrepreneurial circles that sort of, this qualifies as a dent. No, no, no. Just pick your own dents. They can be pretty damn small.

[00:02:47] Like I did great work for the customers we had. We did great by employees. We did great by the business metrics we had set out to do. Those are the kinds of dents that I think are important to have. And the contrast here is, to some extent, how many people go to work every day, and feel like their work just doesn't matter. It's either all bullshit, that they're doing work, they're running around. But like, what's the impact? Graeber had this wonderful article called “Bullshit Jobs” a few years back, and then he wrote a whole book about it. Where according to one study, more than a third of everyone who goes to work feels like their work is meaningless. That it’s bullshit.

Shaun: [00:03:31] Oof.

David: [00:03:32] And you go like, geez. That's harsh. Particularly, if you’re gonna do it for a long time. That's just got to eat away at the soul.

Jason: [00:03:42] I think what's hard about the statement is the word universe couldn’t be bigger. Right? It’s like, the universe. So in some ways, it sounds like what we're saying is make a dent in the biggest thing ever. You must be huge. It can kind of come off as a little bit confusing. It's the same thing with world. It's like, people are like change the world. The thing is, there's no such thing as the world. There's many little worlds. As long as you can have a little bit of an impact in the one that you're in, whatever that is. That's probably enough. But yeah, thinking about it again, universe is probably the wrong word, actually, because it's impossible to live up to that in a sense.

David: [00:04:24] It should be make a dent in your universe.

Jason: [00:04:26] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:04:26] Oh, I like that. I like that.

Jason: [00:04:28] Yeah.

David: [00:04:28] Although I'd say, too, that those things don't necessarily have to be in conflict. Right? Like some of the examples we use. The Drudge Report and Craigslist. For example, now Craigslist is not necessarily the thing most people will think about instantly, like, oh, what's cool stuff on the internet? Right? Clearly it left a dent.

Shaun: [00:04:49] Right.

David: [00:04:49] I think that's perhaps the other thing is I think we use this example somewhere else, which is really a dated example, which is the what was called, the flip camera?

Shaun: [00:04:58] Oh, love the flip.

David: [00:04:58] The flip, right? The flip camera lived in a short period of time. It burned very brightly for what three, four, years got sold for I think over a billion dollars and then became completely irrelevant as soon as smartphones got to have cameras. But they still totally left a dent while they were there. The same thing. I think, actually, if you take the smartphone example, the iPod. If I asked my kids like, what's an iPod? They're like, what's an iPod? What do you mean, what's an iPod? You have your phones, you have iPads. That's where you play your music? Did the iPod leave a dent? Oh, hell yeah, it did.

Shaun: [00:05:36] We're talking about something called a podcast. That means nothing without the iPod.

David: [00:05:41] Yeah, exactly. I think that's the other part here is that it's not that everything has to live forever. That's the other thing that really annoys me about a lot of entrepreneurial lore is this idea that, oh, we're building 100 year company. I think that was something that, was it Evernote, or someone else went out and said, like, oh, we're building a 100 year company. Hey, how about you just try to survive for five? Think, five years. Could you do five?

[00:06:05] Actually, most technology companies can’t do five years? How long was the reign of the iPod? I don't even think it was five years, was it? Like this is a major dent left in most people's universe who were around at that time. And it lasted for a moment. That's still great, because you got to do that while it was happening. I think some people look upon this idea of a legacy as, unless it's eternal, it didn't mean anything. What? If you judge that bar like what's left?

Shaun: [00:06:36] Yeah.

David: [00:06:36] What are the things that actually lasted for 100 years? It's a very short list.

Shaun: [00:06:41] You talk about legacy a lot in this essay. And personally, legacy is not something I put much stock in. But I'm curious about both of your takes on the importance of leaving something behind?

Jason: [00:06:52] I don't either. I don't put much, much into it over the long term. I think there's a short term legacy, which is like, how do people think about the thing that you've built now and relatively now. Like, over the next year or two. I just don’t think a lot of people are gonna look back on software companies 20 years from now and remember the thing that they did. I just, I don't think we're in that kind of industry.

[00:07:16] There are some companies that are going to probably be like that, but I don't know, I don't think about it, personally, that much. But I do think about how an experience is. So what does the customer think about what we do? And did they have a good experience? And that's part of your legacy. These are small, little details, but it's not about reflecting in the future, it's more about reputation, perhaps, now, than it is a big moment down the road.

[00:07:39] Now, David might have a different take because David's built some things that are that other companies have built on top of, like Rails, for example. They built things because of that. And Rails definitely made a dent in the universe. So there may be some legacy things there. But for me, it's never been a thing I thought much about, I don't really care so much about how people reflect down the road on the things that we've done.

David: [00:07:59] I think this setup is missing the same word. Actually, as leave a dent in the universe. Leave a dent in your universe, leave a dent in your legacy. When you look back upon your time spent here, I'd like to sit at whatever. 60? 70 years old? Let's hope we make it that far, and look back upon some of the things that I did that no one else would remember. It’s not part of some global legacy. It's not something that everyone knows about, because it left this huge dent that we're still talking about two decades later. That left the dent in my brain.

Shaun: [00:08:34] Yeah. I think that's a great way to frame that.

David: [00:08:35] And it left a mark in that brain to the extent where I can look back and think, hey, this was time well spent. I didn't waste my time, even if something didn't last forever. I mean, we've built a bunch of products over the years that aren't around anymore.

[00:08:51] One of the ones I'm particularly still proud of is Ta-Da List. I keep using this example. And we're keeping that around, actually, to some extent as a legacy artifact. We built this free service that took, I think Jason and I, we did the initial version in two days. Two days was how long it took to get v1 of Ta-Da List done because it was really simple.

Shaun: [00:09:13] Really quick, what is Ta-Da List?

David: [00:09:15] So Ta-Da List is a free service, we launched in 2005, to manage to do lists. Really simple to do list manager that at the time was using the novel technology of Ajax, which was this way of updating a page without having full page reloads, and it had sort of just come out and we had used some of it in Basecamp and we thought hey, let's take something out, spin it out, give it away for free. Let's have a be sort of a teaser for Basecamp. Hey, if you like managing to do list like this for free, maybe you'll use Basecamp.

[00:09:43] I don't think that ever happened, really. But I think back upon that all the time. A, that we were able to put something out in two days. I remember it vividly because the design was so simple. There was basically like a page and a half or something. And the implementation was really simple yet it was so useful. We discontinued that free service in, I think 2009. So it's been discontinued for 12 years. And last we checked, there were just about 1000 people still using it every week.

Shaun: [00:10:14] That's fantastic.

David: [00:10:15] Like, what? That's such an amazing legacy for me. Like, there are people who are still using this thing that was so useful that presumably they've been using it for 12 years. If they're still using it, they've been using for 12 years, because we haven't allowed someone to sign up for it since 2009. That's really neat. That’s the kind of micro legacies where it mattered and matters to a very small number of people. And it really matters to me. It stands out as one of those milestones. When I think upon my career, Ta-Da List is right there. Right there on the chart.

Jason: [00:10:51] I think one of the concerns I have with the term legacy is that it's very loaded with ego.

Shaun: [00:10:56] Yeah.

Jason: [00:10:56] That people feel like look at how important I am. And look at the important things I've done.

Shaun: [00:11:02] As all of our tech billionaires are flying to Mars.

Jason: [00:11:05] Yeah. It's just like, I don’t know, the ego side of it is the big bother for me with the word. It doesn't have to be that way. But I think that that's oftentimes what I hear when I hear about legacy. People concerned about how they will be remembered.

Shaun: [00:11:19] Leaving their mark on the earth.

Jason: [00:11:21] Yeah, and it's all about them, and how important they were and stuff. So I know that that's my hang up, at least, just my personal hang up with the word.

David: [00:11:29] I think that's spot on. The fact that legacy for most people is about how other people think of them. Not how about they think about themselves? Yeah. Which is really, that should be what it's all about. Like, that's the whole stoic approach to legacy, that you think back upon a life well spent. Like, that's your personal assessment here. Whatever other people remember your name, decades from now, it is such a weird quirk.

[00:11:58] And I've seen it described in a lot of stoic, modern stoic literature as in, we all seem to be so sensitive to how other people think of us. Like, oh, what do they think? Do they think we did good work? Think of how much you think of others in that regard? Like almost not at all.

Shaun: [00:12:11] None, of course.

David: [00:12:14] Almost not at all. Of all the things that I've used over the decades, how many individuals can I actually remember like, that was something made by that person, and it really stands out and I'm constantly just in awe of that. It's a very, very short list.

[00:12:29] So that's just a pursuit that doesn't make sense. It's sort of a legacy of whatever the ways we used to, maybe that's still true, but we overestimate just how important it is for other people, who we don't even know to think certain things about us. Like that's up to them. You don't get to control that either way, you're better off if you don't think about it at all. Leave the legacy thinking to yourself about yourself.

Shaun: [00:12:57] Yeah, you do get to control how much mental energy you put into that. Into caring about the outside influence.

David: [00:13:03] Yes. Yes.

Shaun: [00:13:05] So you're talking about it's important to build meaningful things, do meaningful work. What about the argument? So there's what a billion slot machine apps on the app store right now. Obviously, derivative work does make money, the marketplace can say that, oh, it's profitable to make derivative products or start derivative businesses. Just curious on your take on that argument. And it could just, I mean, this just could be the anti-capitalist sentiment that runs through this show.

Jason: [00:13:32] Well, I mean, I'll just think about how I started my career, I made something that already existed. I just tried to make a better version of it. I made this music organizing software, because the stuff that I'd found out there on AOL, by the way, way back in the day, wasn't very good. It was derivative in that it wasn't original, but I was proud of it. And it did something that I couldn't find elsewhere. And I was proud to put it out there for other people to use it. And there are very few original, thoroughly original ideas, everything's sort of built on something else. So I think it's, I don't know, that doesn't really bother me at all.

[00:14:05] It's just, I think it comes down a little bit to, for me, personally. I won't comment on other people's motivations because it's kind of unfair to do that, I suppose. But as long as you're putting something out there that you're proud of that you're happy with, that you think is good, and that you hope maybe some others might like, that's fine. But I think if you're doing it for other reasons, like trying to game a system, or whatever. I mean, again, maybe that's what you're into, and that's fine, because that's what you're into. But I think that's what you see when you see a lot of derivative stuff is just like this. I'm trying to steal or game and that's not as interesting to me personally, but I don't know. I don't really also want to comment on other people's, what drives someone else? It's really unfair for me to guess.

Shaun: [00:14:42] For sure.

David: [00:14:43] I think that that's part of the limitations of when we say, hey, make a dent in your universe. Leave your legacy for yourself. Is it just has limits because no one thinks they do bad work.

Shaun: [00:14:55] Right.

David: [00:14:55] Very few people think of themselves as the villain in the App Store or anywhere else? So they think of, no, actually, we're doing the right thing because reasons A, B, and C.

[00:15:06] Now, I don't actually subscribe to that sense of moral relativism, I think there are actually people doing bad work as in the dents that they leave are harmful dents, and they shouldn't leave those dents. And we should try to actually polish them out the best we can. But you're not going to be able to dive into that through this kind of reflection, because I think just starting at the base level of simply feeling like you're doing meaningful work that leaves the positive kinds of dents. Because as mentioned with the Graeber article, plenty of people will self-report that what they do is bullshit.

Shaun: [00:15:41] Yeah.

David: [00:15:43] I mean, this essay is about speaking to them. Like, hey, do you know what? If you keep thinking, or ending the week, week after week, ending it with, you know what? Jesus, what are we doing here? Why? Then, all right, maybe it's time to look yourself in the mirror and figure something else out. And then you might end up actually starting the kind of business that leaves those negative dents and you'll just have a positive story to tell yourself. So maybe that's one kind of progress-slash-not, but at least it'll be a new kind of problem.

Shaun: [00:16:17] Well, you mentioned earlier your examples of Craigslist and The Drudge Report making dents in the universe. I'm wondering if we could update those references? Are there any other businesses or products that have come along in the last decade plus that you've really felt, oh, this did make a dent in the universe. This changed my life for the better.

Jason: [00:16:35] I think a good example of that, actually, is a company like Stripe.

Shaun: [00:16:39] The payment processor.

Jason: [00:16:41] Yeah, they weren't the first to do this. But I just remember when we first got started, our business got started. We were looking for a merchant account.

[00:16:48] David, do you remember this? Like—

David: [00:16:49] Yes.

Jason: [00:16:49] I think we called Chase Bank who was our bank at the time and it was like this arduous, horrible process. It was so antiquated. Literally, I think you were like, faxing things in and filling out all these forms. And it was actually hard to accept credit cards. In fact, they wouldn't even allow us to accept credit cards, I remember, unless we did like monthly payments. That's actually why we ended up doing monthly payments. We wanted to do annual payments originally, but it was too much risk for them for chargebacks or whatever. So we had to have the smaller price point and it was just so complicated, and so old and clearly not built for the age we were entering.

[00:17:27] I mean Stripe wasn't the first. We used Braintree. We still use Braintree and Braintree made it a whole lot easier, also. But still it felt like you're still latched to this old process. And I feel like Stripe’s kind of the company that really made something so fundamental so much easier for so many companies that it probably gave rise to a lot of businesses that may not have existed or perhaps just made it much easier for them to survive and to charge and to generate revenue. So I think that's a kind of, like a fundamental infrastructure kind of company that really has made a dent.

Shaun: [00:17:58] And it's so behind the scenes. I think Stripe’s fascinating.

Jason: [00:18:01] Yeah.

David: [00:18:00] I'll give a shout out to my mate Toby here with Shopify, because it feels similar. Shopify is one of those really interesting platforms where before Shopify, you looked at the whole e-commerce thing and you'd like, alright, Amazon's gonna kill everything. Their user experience, their lock-in, their one-click buy, their… they just have so many advantages that like, how is anyone going to compete against them? And the answer was, don't. Don’t try to make another everything store, make a ton. What is it they have? 1.7 million stores or something where you sell direct. That’s the disruptive, and I rarely use that term in a positive way. But I'll use it positively in this. That is the disruptive. And another word here was just about to say play. But I'm not gonna say that.

[00:18:50] That was a disruptive move that Shopify did that actually do you know what? There's been these shop makers since the beginning of the internet. I think Paul Graham actually made his original fortune selling a shop maker to Yahoo back in 1995. And then, in comes Amazon. It seems like they're just gonna dominate.

[00:19:12] And then Toby goes back and says, actually, you could just make a better shop maker, like the ones that are out there are kind of shit. And it's not that the concept—the concept is derivative to go back to that example.

Shaun: [00:19:21] Sure.

David: [00:19:23] The idea of making a shop maker and having shopping carts and everything set up such that you don't have to program things from scratch was not a novel idea. Literally from the outset of the internet, Viaweb, I think was Paul Graham thing from ‘95 that he sold to Yahoo! Toby comes in, what? 11 years later and does a small version of that in 2006. I mean, for years and years and years it just very little anything right? And then all a sudden, boom, it explodes into this huge thing, or so it appears, right like it's like there's another essay we have than any overnight success that you look at took 10 years and quite accurate with both Stripe, I think, and with something like Shopify.

[00:20:03] And now you just have an alternative, where I'll go now and I actually don't like to shop on Amazon at all. I go to the site and I try to find something. I think search has gone to shit. I think the product pages are kind of crap. And then I'll try to find those products that I'm looking for directly from a merchant. And whenever I find them on a Shopify store, I go like, oh, yeah, nice.

[00:20:25] Which I mean, there's so many of those examples of removing that kind of friction for the broad internet. I think, is it Squarespace? Like these ideas of taking, again, Squarespace, like a million examples of build your own website kind of thing. And they’re just like, hey, it didn't really get that level of traction until it just got really good.

Shaun: [00:20:47] Yeah.

David: [00:20:47] So there's so many ideas out there that people will have written off and said, like, eh, you can't compete against Amazon because blah, blah, blah, blah. And then someone comes up. Oh, actually, you could if you just have better tools, how much does it take to set up a website today, right, Squarespace. Trivial.

[00:21:03] Some of the same thing had been happening with podcasting, right. It used to be kind of sort of complicated. And then a bunch of entrants came in and made it really easy. And I like that kind of decrease in friction. Although Ben Thompson, who writes this newsletter, called Stratechery, I think it is, has this whole thing of friction is really good for a lot of things. And it's also what's led to essentially the downfall of civilization. Which is the decrease in friction from platform, from social media. Facebook, Twitter, the decrease in friction between connecting people, has all sorts of negative side effects, too.

[00:21:43] So it's one of those very interesting double edged swords, like much of the internet, where like, oh, decreasing all this friction and making it super easy to set up a store and set up a payment and set up a website. It's also the kind of iterative reduction in friction that has made it so easy for someone to get on Twitter and Facebook and make the world not a better place.

Shaun: [00:22:06] I want to end with a short discussion on confidence. I think someone reading this essay or listening to this episode might think that if I'm doing something, and I don't feel that it is important, or making a dent, why am I continuing to do it, when it could just be a confidence issue of oh, if I just push through and finish this, especially with a creative project, and finish this, it will be something that that makes a dent. I think it's easy to convince yourself halfway through building something that what am I? What's the point? What am I doing here? I think everyone runs into that.

Jason: [00:22:41] Well, I think most things you do are not going to make any dent. Like, day to day, most work is actually kind of boring. You know, it's what you're collectively making, I think, is the thing. So you're gonna run into these moments where like, is this gonna work? Is this worth it? And the answer is, in most cases, it probably isn't actually going to work and it probably isn't actually worth it, if that's how you're measuring it, whether or not it's going to work. But you know, are you enjoying the process? Is it getting you somewhere? Are you learning? Are you getting better?

[00:23:11] Obviously, you know, it has to support you. If you know you're doing something on your own, it's got to make some money for you, all that stuff, of course. But I think this was a thing people get confused about with work, especially entrepreneurs is they think like every day is going to be exciting. And every day is going to be innovative. And every day is going to be full of new ideas. And it's not, it's like, occasionally you get a blip of something that's good. But most of the time, you're just doing the work that needs to get done. And that could be fixing bugs, it could be dealing with a customer issue, it could be designing something that doesn't work, it could be cleaning something up that you made a mistake on before. It could be something new. It could be a hassle. It could be all these things. And that's what work usually is, for the most part.

[00:23:53] It's just that as long as the trajectory is pointed in a certain direction, and you're sort of headed up in a way where you feel like it's all worth it, then it is. I don't think there's much to be confident about on a day to day basis is, I guess, the way to put it. Because it doesn’t require confidence just to kind of deal with your day to day.

Shaun: [00:24:10] Right.

Jason: [00:24:10] But it does require it when you're trying to build something new or push against what you're used to, or you have an idea that isn't shared by many. Then you do need that to make your case and push it through, if you can. But most days I think overconfidence is, or not even over. But confidence is actually going to get in your way of doing this stuff that actually just needs to get done.

David: [00:24:33] I think it's one of the reasons that starting with derivative work is actually a great path. You start with something that's already sort of validated. You're just building a slightly better version of X. You're not rethinking the entire world. Build up your chops. Build up that confidence doing some of that.

[00:24:50] I often talk about the confidence that we needed to create, HEY, took 20 years to grow.

Shaun: [00:24:55] Yeah.

David: [00:24:55] We were never ever going to start an email service as the first thing for us to do. Also, I think it would have been a bad idea. But it was not even something 10 years into our thing we thought that that was an appropriate goal for us to have. But after 20 years, we're like, do you know what? Now we have it. Now we have that confidence.

[00:25:20] One of the other terms I like is moving averages. This idea that if you just look at the day to day, there's gonna be so much noise. There's like, some days just suck. And some days feel amazing. And you can't just wildly bounce back and forth. Oh, everything is useless because I had a bad day or everything's amazing because I had one good day. No, no, got to trend that moving average and then look at it, like 200 days or 500 days or whatever. And if that moving average over 500 days, or two years or three years, is not going in the right direction. I think that is the time to say do you know what, confidence or not, this isn't going well. We should actually bail.

[00:25:59] Because that's the other thing. Sometimes it seems like the entrepreneurial conversation is just like, oh, you got to stick with it. Well, for how long? Like what if it totally just doesn't fucking work? There's lots of stuff that just totally does not fucking work. And sticking with that for 10, 20 years. Like that’s just a recipe for pain. And then at the same time, if you don't stick with it at all, you're going to give up after what, five weeks? Yeah, okay. You're never going to see whether that thing could have gone anywhere. So moving averages on the scale of many months, slash some years, is probably the more helpful timeline.

Shaun: [00:26:39] Well, I think we should wrap it up there.

[00:26:41] Next week, we are talking about the next essay is “Scratch Your Own Itch.” So I will see both of you next week.

[00:26:49] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:26:49] Thank you for joining me, David Heinemeier Hansson.

David: [00:26:52] Thanks for having me.

Shaun: [00:26:53] And Jason Fried.

Jason: [00:26:55] Thanks, Shaun. It's good to be here.

Shaun: [00:26:57] We'll see you next week.

Jason: [00:26:57] All right.

David: [00:26:57] All right. Late.

Shaun: [00:27:04] Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clipart. You can find us on the web at and on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.

[00:27:14] Next week we’re discussing the chapter “Scratch Your Own Itch.” Again, I'd love to hear from you, the listener, if you have any comments about the show or questions for Jason or David. Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850. Or better yet, record a voice memo on your phone and email it in to