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You can come up with great ideas until the cows come home, but until you actually start building something, your idea is just an idea.

Show Notes

This week Jason and David discuss the essay titled "Start Making Something." It's only when you start building something the real insights come. Until then, all you have is just an idea. We also talk about Stanley Kubrick films and Jason introduces groundbreaking concepts like perforated pizza and "The Mysterious Cat."

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] Let's roll we're on a tight, we're on a tight things. Let's hit it.

Jason: [00:00:05] This episode is called Meetings Fucking Suck. Let's do it.

[00:00:08] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:00:10] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I'm your host, Shaun Hildner.

[00:00:16] On this week's episode, we're talking about the essay in Rework the book entitled “Start Making Something.”

[00:00:21] You know, you can have brilliant ideas all day long. But how do you know whether your idea is any good unless you actually start building it? It's in this process of making something tangible where all the real insights come.

[00:00:33] Stanley Kubrick once said, “The best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.” So here to talk about making things and I guess the films of Stanley Kubrick, I'm joined by Basecamp's co founders and the authors of Rework, David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you?

David: [00:00:50] I am good.

Shaun: [00:00:51] And Jason Fried. How are you?

Jason: [00:00:52] Doing okay. It’s a little, I got up about eight minutes ago.

Shaun: [00:00:57] Perfect.

Jason: [00:00:57] So I'll be doing better as we go, here.

Shaun: [00:00:59] Perfect. Well, we'll try to keep this quick. When, I was fairly—

Jason: [00:01:04] When was that, Shaun, when was that?

Shaun: [00:01:07] It was yesterday.

Jason: [00:01:09] Okay.

Shaun: [00:01:11] I was fairly certain that I had invented the taco salad. I think it was taco night at Dad's house or something. And, you know, my hard shell taco broke up. And I was like, oh, well, this is fine if you just mix it all together. And I, you know, I didn't market it, obviously. But I'm fairly certain I had the idea for it. Have you guys ever had some idea that you never acted on and you never actually built?

Jason: [00:01:33] If we talked about this perforated pizza? Have we talked about—

Shaun: [00:01:35] No.

Jason: [00:01:38] So, I've had this terrible idea. It's a terrible idea. I'm just gonna let you know. So sometimes you get together with people and you'll have a pizza and they'll cut it, you know, it’ll be like cut in a certain way. And some people want a lot and some people want just a little. And I was thinking if you were to perforate the pizza every 10 degrees, you'd have 36 tiny slices, or you could like tear bigger slices for yourself. People could tear the pizza any way they wanted, it would still be slices. But it wouldn't be so predefined.

[00:02:08] Now, this is a terrible idea because cheese melts. And it would not, the perforations wouldn't work on the cheese but on the crust, or if you had a cheeseless pizza, I think it'd be brilliant. Of course, I've never done it.

Shaun: [00:02:18] What is a cheeseless pizza?

Jason: [00:02:20] I think they may call that a flatbread. Is I believe what it’s—

Shaun: [00:02:22] Sure.

Jason: [00:02:24] That’s ultimately called.

Shaun: [00:02:25] Do you have, how about in the world of software? Have you ever had an idea that you wish, looking back, you wish you had acted on earlier?

Jason: [00:02:33] I mean, there's ideas we've started that petered out. In fact, a number of them are actually precursors to HEY. David wanted to do something called Glengarry was that right?

David: [00:02:45] Yes.

Jason: [00:02:45] And then there was something else, right? Like you had an idea and I had an idea. We were working on them in parallel, and they kind of came together and then kind of petered out. This wasn't something we didn't try, though. But we just didn't really go, it didn't get anywhere. And that's often what happens. You start making something and the first 10 days of it, you get somewhere and then you run out of steam, not because you're bored, necessarily, sometimes that happens, but because the idea, there wasn't enough there. There was just like a shallow little bit of surface area or something and then you just kind of get past that and there's nothing else. There's no other depth. That's happened to us a few times.

David: [00:03:19] I think it's also one of those areas why this essay is so important. And it's actually one of my favorite essays in the whole book. Because it's just such a balloon popper, right? You have this inflated idea of an idea. And then you sit down to actually build it. And the good ideas, you can't let go. You just you just keep going. I think once we hit it with the angle for HEY, I was just like, so focused on building this thing. And I couldn't let it go. And I've had so many other ideas over the years where I'm like, I'm really excited about the idea. And then I sit down and start building on it and like I kind of lose patience after a week or two because it wasn't actually as interesting as I thought or hoped it would be.

[00:04:06] And that's how the balloon pops, which is what's so useful here. That it's a needle to pop all the balloons you shouldn't be wasting your time on. And that those balloons need to be popped such that they don't keep occupying a place in your mind. That's the problem with unexplored ideas, perhaps like that pizza idea, right? Like you have this idea. And I've had this with a bunch of different technologies where I'm like, oh, I really want to do something with that. And then years have just gone on where I haven't tried, I haven't tried to pop it.

[00:04:35] So these ideas continue to live in my brain and take up room, take up space, take up aspirations and ambitions that I could plow into something that actually mattered, that I was going to build. But if you don't put them to the test of that needle that you try to start building it and figure out whether this is something you just can't let go off. They're mirages and they just keep being there.

[00:04:59] So you really got to get that needle out and pop them by sitting down and working on them. And the funny thing is, I've talked to so many entrepreneurs about this. So many ideas can actually be tested, at least to yourself, in a week or two. It's not about I need to find six months of dedicated time to really test this idea, you quite quickly, in my experience, get the feedback as to whether this is something you just can't let go of. It’s sometimes in mere days, that's been one of the blessings, I think, of having this idea, oh, I have this grand idea. I want to build this thing. And I spent two days just doing it. I'm like, okay, now I’m bored. Or I'm not bored, but it just doesn't draw me in, in the same way. As, as I said. When we got started with HEY, was like, okay, I just couldn't let go of it. For months and months and months. And that's the stamina you need. Because if already, when you start out, you kind of have to push yourself through the first two weeks, how the hell are you going to make it for two years?

Shaun: [00:05:59] Right.

Jason: [00:05:59] And this is really, you know, actually what our first book is all about, called Getting Real, which predates Rework, which is like, you just gotta get real, you've got to make the thing. Like that whole book is about this one essay, kind of, you know. Because there's nothing that gives you a better answer than slamming directly into reality with something.

[00:06:20] Now, sometimes you have to wander around for a while until you really find it. But it's, that's, I think what David's getting at is like, if you feel like you've found it, and you're still not interested in it, then you got to stop. But sometimes you wander around, and it still holds your interest. Because you know there's something there, you just can't quite grab, but it's there, and you get there. And then you break through that. But yeah, if after a week, or two or three or whatever, you just like lose interest in it.
Getting Real was the reason why you needed to do that. And that tells you the truth, more than anything else.

David: [00:06:49] And I think it's just that the danger here is that you fall in love with a fantasy. And when you fall in love with that fantasy, it's almost like for some people I've talked to, they're afraid to test it. Because they've had this idea in their head for years sometimes. And the problem is, as soon as you test it, you might find out well, you'll probably find out, it wasn't a good idea. You thought it was this great idea and then you start testing it by actually building it out and making it real. And you realize that idea you thought was so damn brilliant, actually totally sucks.

[00:07:19] And that is, I think, quite difficult for a lot of people. Once they become married to this idea because they ruminate on it and they go around like, oh, this is the big thing that's gonna really… Probably not. And that sounds depressing. Like, oh, your grand big idea is probably shit. It probably is. But the great thing that happens when you try ideas is that you get more ideas.

Shaun: [00:07:40] Yeah.

David: [00:07:41] This is exactly what happened with HEY. We tried Glengarry, which was this precursor, we tried this other thing, and they weren't quite it and they weren't quite right. But like, it starts a process where you start generating more ideas and new things to try. And that's the thing that ultimately leads to something that hopefully is worthwhile and that you just can't put down. But you're never going to get down that path until you are willing to accept the idea that your idea probably sucks.

Shaun: [00:08:10] There's this weird thing that I want to get into, this weird time between an idea and building. Having the idea and building the thing. How was that, and what was that time period for HEY? Between having the idea for a new, I guess, Highrise, and starting to build it?

Jason: [00:08:30] Well, the thing that was different about HEY was that it didn't necessarily begin, as you alluded to. It didn't begin as HEY, began as Highrise, which is our CRM thing. We were gonna make a new version of that. So that idea began years prior, actually, as we were exploring these other kind of ideas that were primarily around… The exciting thing we'd stumbled into is this idea of displaying a conversation over time, in more of a timeline format versus a traditional, linear, one thing at a time format. I think that's what we were kind of exploring. We had this notion of a timeline and the nodes on the timeline that were conversations, it was this interesting thing that kind of caught our interest.

[00:09:11] But then like, as we burned that wick and there was nothing that exploded. Like, that just was gone. That was all we could get to.

[00:09:17] That's where the idea, that's where actually began. So literally, this one is an example of something that had happened over a number of years, but not sustained. You know, it was these starts and stops until we started getting into the Highrise exploration for real. And this actually happened after we took Highrise back over, because we had sort of spun it out for a while.

Shaun: [00:09:35] Right.

Jason: [00:09:36] We took it back over and we began to explore again. And you know, I don't I don't remember the gap in time between deciding to do it and running into something good. But there was a few weeks where we were getting somewhere good, I remember. And what was exciting about it was that, again, we went back to this timeline idea and sometimes you need to revisit an idea because the idea was good, but the execution was not or you didn't have any more depth at the time. But now you find something else.

Shaun: [00:10:03] Well, how far into the execution had you gotten before realizing, oh, this is a thing. This is something that can work.

Jason: [00:10:10] Yeah, I'll say this, too, before I get into that.

[00:10:13] I mean, the answer is, didn't really know. But, I don't know, these early explorations are fragile things, because it is easy to wipe them off the map quickly if you can't get anywhere immediately. You’ve got to still have a feeling that there's something there, you know that there's some mystery. And this is a totally weird analogy. But I remember when we're getting our cat, we got a cat like nine years ago. We went to go see this cat. And there were two cats to go see at this person's house. They're fostering these two cats. And one cat was really obvious.

Shaun: [00:10:42] Where is this going?

Jason: [00:10:43] It was like, I know this cat, I know what this cat is going to be like, there's nothing else there. And this other cat was like this mysterious cat. It's kind of distant, kind of aloof. But like, there's something deeper here. I liked this cat. But I'm going to really love this cat, eventually, I can tell there's something else going on here. And that was kind of like the one of the reasons we got this cat was because there was something more, that was deeper there that we couldn't quite figure out. But there was something going on.

[00:11:09] Versus like eh, this other one, I'm gonna be bored of this other cat in five minutes. Um, I know, that’s kind of a weird analogy. But that's how it feels sometimes with an idea, that there's something else here that we're gonna unveil if we keep pushing forward, but not begrudgingly but more excitedly.

[00:11:27] That's the exciting part of product development, that you know you're going to get somewhere eventually, with this idea that you can't shake. And sometimes it's not totally obvious, but the feeling begins to emerge, and then you kind of keep following the trail until it goes cold, or until it gets really hot.

[00:11:40] I would say it was a few weeks perhaps, before I showed this to David, I think, maybe. And I remember that discussion, because I'm like, “David, let me show you something. We're actually making something we weren't thinking about making. We're making an email thing.” And I remember having that discussion. That was kind of like a weird one, because neither of us really wanted to do that. We're making an email thing? Really? Then we kind of kept getting more excited about it. Now I'll stop there, because that's all I remember. But maybe David remembers a bit more because it was sort of a layered thing where I was working on it with someone else for a while. We showed David and then it kind of went somewhere else from there.

David: [00:12:15] Yeah, I think that moment, that handover, where we're saying like, are we working on Highrise 2? Is that what we're doing? And the thing about Highrise 2 was, it had so much going for it. A huge existing customer base, the most profitable second idea we've had in the history of the company, like all the signs were pointing towards, do you know what? You should make Highrise 2. T

[00:12:38] We did a competitive analysis. The problem was still unsolved. It wasn't being captured by someone, no one was doing it excellently. And the problem was, that Jason and I were just like, I know what this is going to be. It was the familiar cat.

Shaun: [00:12:51] Yeah, you have to choose the mysterious cat.

David: [00:12:54] I know exactly what Highrise 2 is going to be. I can envision all the tech and how we're gonna build it like a year plus in advance. And I'm like, I need some novelty, too, right? Like you need some of that mystique, you need some excitement. I don't know where this is going to go kind of thing to it. And Highrise 2 didn't have that.

[00:13:14] And in sort of a traditional business analysis, that's a terrible reason not to follow up a successful product. Which is of course, why the entire world now is sequels, right? There's nothing new. Everything is just like a sequel upon a sequel upon a sequel, because it, A, has so much less risk, like Highrise 2 would have zero risk. We absolutely could introduce that and it 100% would have been a success, because we had already validated the idea. And we knew that we hadn't been crushed competitively, and so and so forth.

[00:13:44] But like, ugh. I think both Jason and I had like, I can't really make myself do it, in part because we weren't that interested in CRM.

Shaun: [00:13:51] Right.

David: [00:13:51] We didn't have customer relations that needed management.

Shaun: [00:13:55] This is like our previous episode, building for yourself.

David: [00:13:59] It, yes. It really does trend to that. And I think if I remember, when Jason showed me the thing with the pivot, it was one of those words I loved, not, to an email client. And I was like, I had that initial instinct of, as I've had for 20 years. What are you talking about? Like, we’re not going to compete with Gmail, that sounds stupid.

[00:14:24] But instead of actually saying that, I'll give myself a little bit of credit here, because oftentimes, I do actually say that to Jason directly, right. Like, I'll launch directly into why this isn't gonna work. That’s sometimes a source of contention we have. Like Jason will come up with something and I’ll say, yeah, that's not gonna work, and here's why.

Shaun: [00:14:40] That cat’s too mysterious.

David: [00:14:43] I didn't have that. I didn't have that with that idea. And part of it was like, I think just enough of the pieces have moved into line, in such a way, like, you know what? Maybe we could. And that was all, instantly there was this seed of like, “Ooh, this is a little dangerous” in the sense of ideas, right? Like it's dangerous in the sense of the scope of the idea.

[00:15:00] This is far more ambitious than Highrise 2. Highrise 2 did not have an ounce of ambition in it. I mean, being a little hyperbolic, but you looked at the sheet for what it was going to be, as I said, we would know the whole thing. Building an email client, taking on Gmail, jeez. That's the most ambitious idea we've ever had like that. That's a little dangerous. And sometimes that would be too dangerous. And if Jason had presented that idea in 2010, I would have gone like you're nuts. That doesn't fit.

[00:15:27] That's the other thing with these ideas, and why you need to put them to the test is that sometimes you'll find at an idea like that, “Hey, should we compete with Gmail?” That sounded like the worst idea ever like five minutes ago, suddenly, the time is right. And you don't really find that until you try it?

Shaun: [00:15:42] Yeah. So you had started building a thing. So I guess a way to rephrase this would be if Jason came to you and said, “Hey, I have this idea to make an email service,” you would have said no. But you had gone so far into building a thing that it made sense.

David: [00:15:58] In an abstract, yes. What’s funny is that that initial design idea, the interesting chart, we didn't actually ship it. This is the other thing that's a great about ideas, right? Like that idea, push something forward, because it had visual interest. No, it didn't actually end up being the thing that moved it forward. But there was something real there.

[00:16:19] If Jason had just come with like, five paragraphs, “Hey, here's why I think we should take on Gmail, because I have ideas blah, blah, blah.” I'd been like, that sounds dumb. But that wasn't how. It came with, like, hey, we’ve built something, this is kind of interesting. Let me show you.

[00:16:31] And that sparks the imagination in a way where you disarm the normal, logical, stale approach of like how you evaluate it. Which is, I think, also why Getting Real, going back to that book, is so much about putting pen to paper. You don't just have to, like, make it real. It has to actually be a thing you can see. Right? Like writing it down is not enough. A two page pitch, that's all words? It's not going to do it. It can't illuminate your brain for these ideas and these aspirations. But Jason, you didn't just show me a sketch, you showed me HTML.

Jason: [00:17:05] Yeah, yeah, we showed, yeah.

David: [00:17:06] This was actually HTML with CSS. And it was this timeline thing that Jason was talking about, where immediately you see it, and you go, like, “Ooh, I can see something here.”

Jason: [00:17:17] This was actually what we presented was this idea that we have in HEY, today, called collections. So I'll give you a little bit of the origin story.

Shaun: [00:17:23] Yeah.

Jason: [00:17:23] Andrea, was looking into getting life insurance for the company. I think that whole process was something like I'm getting a number wrong, but 50 to 60 separate emails across six different threads with a bunch of different people. Because this is how it goes. You reach out to the health, or the life insurance company, you talk to a salesperson, they then it kind of hand you off to some other person that hands you off to some other person. And you've got this, this story of multiple email threads and conversations.

[00:17:53] And then she was going to go on maternity leave. And so she needed me to like, take over or be aware of what was happening. And the way you typically do this with email is you forward a bunch of threads. It's easy for anyone to forward threads, but the recipient is left holding the bag because they have this horribly indented quoted collection of gibberish that you have to read like from the bottom up from right to left, the whole thing's a mess. And it was not just one thread it was multiple threads with multiple people.
We go, there’s got to be a better way to present complicated, complex conversations, which is what email often is, when it's beyond just, you know, a couple back and forths. So that was originally what we presented. And in that idea were a bunch of other ideas about how to display emails differently, how to actually, we didn't run with this, but how to annotate threads.
We had this idea called a “Mark a Moment” where you could actually inject some notes. We actually do kind of have it in HEY, called comments, or called notes. But we had a more visual version of it. But anyway, this idea that like, why can't I just explain what the hell's happening here? Why do I have to let someone infer what's happening here? Like, why can I just tell them? If I was in front of them, I would tell them.

[00:19:05] So you know, all these different things sprouted basically, and became other features in HEY, but that was the initial sort of use case, where when you see that, you go, yeah, this should be better. Why isn't it like this? And I think when you can hook someone, I guess, on that, which is like, yeah, why isn't it like this? Then you have, I think, a chance to go a bit deeper. I think if we were just recreating the inbox with like a different look, it'd be like, eh, why? Why do that?

David: [00:19:30] What was so powerful about that presentation, too, was it was real. It was not a made up example.

Jason: [00:19:36] Yeah.

David: [00:19:36] This was an actual thing that was happening at the company. I didn't need any leaps of imagination to figure out like, oh, actually, oh, one page that has these five threads in it that makes total sense. And we used real data. I remember we pulled in the actual emails that formed this life insurance policy thing, and I think it's still in the fixture data, the testing—

Shaun: [00:19:56] And it was HTML. You can click around, you could sort of use the thing?

David: [00:19:58] Yes, and you could see it and you could go like, okay, this is indisputably better than imagining the same thing in Gmail.

Shaun: [00:20:08] Right.

David: [00:20:08] And then you go like, okay, that is something real. We're not making up a case here with fantasy data to present in a way that's flattering to our own idea. No, no, we're testing the idea with something real, we're getting real. And that, the getting real part, the contrast is what really just goes like, okay, this is exciting.

Shaun: [00:20:31] Well, let's wrap this up pretty quick, because I think y'all have to leave. You quote, Stanley Kubrick in here. And the film nerd in me has to end by asking what your favorite Kubrick film is.

Jason: [00:20:45] Hmm. What do you think it is?

Shaun: [00:20:45] Well, you once told me you don't read fiction, Jason. So I have no idea how to judge your taste in movies.

Jason: [00:20:55] Well, I mean, for me, it'd be 2001.

Shaun: [00:20:58] Yeah.

Jason: [00:20:57] Yeah. I mean, that's probably my favorite film of all time, and for so many different reasons. But I could sit through those three hours eternally.

Shaun: [00:21:07] It's easy. You've seen the print at Music Box, right?

Jason: [00:21:09] I did, and it was extraordinary.

Shaun: [00:21:10] Isn't it something else?

Jason: [00:21:13] It is extraordinary. So for me, that's my answer.

David: [00:21:15] It's funny. I don't really care about Kubrick.

Shaun: [00:21:18] Wow. This is going to be the most controversial episode now.

David: [00:21:22] It's just like, that's not in my pantheon of movies that have made an impression on me. He doesn't feature and that's one of the things I love about some of these quotes, right? It just, that's a great quote. I don’t care if you just, oh, if all you made was B movies, or whatever, it would still be a great quote. You don't have to be Kubrick for that quote to resonate.

Shaun: [00:21:44] Well, fantastic. I think that is a fantastic place to end. Thank you both for joining me on Rework. I will see you next week where we're discussing, “No Time is No Excuse.” So you have to come back for the next one. I don't want to hear any more it's too early. It's too late. No time is no excuse.

[00:22:03] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

David: [00:22:03] Actually, sorry. I have to I have to make an amendment here. Somehow it slipped my mind that Kubrick made The Shining.

Shaun: [00:22:10] Ah, yes.

David: [00:22:10] So I take it all back, Kubrick is amazing because The Shining is actually one of my favorite movies of all time. And I really now I want to watch The Shining.

Shaun: [00:22:21 You know who hates The Shining? Is Stephen King, the man who wrote The Shining?

David: [00:22:25] Oh, really?

Shaun: [00:22:25] Yeah. Yeah.

David: [00:22:27] Well, that's also, as well, I've never read a Stephen King book, so.

Shaun: [00:22:29] Fair.

David: [00:22:29] We’ll just pass on the snubs here from Kubrick to King.

Shaun: [00:22:34] Well, thank you for joining me, Jason Fried.

Jason: [00:22:37] Great to see you, Shaun.

Shaun: [00:22:37] And David Heinemeier Hansson.

David: [00:22:40] All right, all good.

Shaun: [00:22:41] I'll see you next week.

[00:22:51] Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clipart. Why not head over to where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of Rework. We're also on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.

[00:23:04] 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