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Article  |  Leadership

Before Dawn: Don’t fear the Sunrise

Reading time: ~ 4 minutes

Sunrise in Portland, Oregon

One year ago, 37signals rebranded themselves as Basecamp. While reflecting back on their history, a few memories came to mind. One, of which, I would like to share.

This is a short story about how a seemingly harmless blog post may have impacted the future of Planet Argon…or maybe it didn’t.

First, some background.

In the autumn of 2005, we were in hire anyone we can find that wants to work with Ruby mode. We had just landed a few big client projects and began staffing up. We didn’t even have a proper office yet—we were all working out of an attic of the house that Allison and I lived in.

Eight people, working in an attic[1] or at one of our client’s offices. My living room was a makeshift conference room.

We were a bootstrapped agency and those were were fun, energetic, and scary times. We were constantly asking ourselves:

  • What the hell are we doing?
  • What kind of company are we going to be?
  • How can we diversify our revenue stream?
  • How big do we need to be?
  • Do we want to do client work forever?

There are a few clear memories of me carrying Guy Kawasaki’s "The Art of the Start" on plane rides down to and from San Francisco. (that was what we were supposed to be reading back then, right?)

One of our developers at the time, Jason, showed a tremendous amount of motivation in developing a product for us[2]. We even gave him the title of Lead Product Developer and committed to carving out some non-client time to build an idea—a simple-to-use and lightweight Customer Relationship Management (CRM) web application for teams with a small sales department. Anything to give folks an modern-feeling alternative to the likes of Salesforce or SugarCRM.

We even brought in an old colleague, Al, who I had previously worked with at another company. Al’s expertise was in sales and marketing and he had similar product ideas. We gave the project a name, bought domain names, and Jason spent time working on some early proof-of-concepts.

The ball was starting to get rolling.

Until December 21st, 2005.

Our friends over at 37signals published, "Sunrise: 37signals’ CRM tool for small business is coming soon" on their famous Signal vs. Noise blog.

Fuuuuuuck!

While I don’t remember the exact expressions that were used amongst ourselves[3], it was pretty clear that we would have some stiff competition in this smaller CRM market. On one hand, it was validating that we were seeing a similar gap in the market and on the other, their post translated to, "37signals is going to beat us to market!"

If we continued, we worried that we would deliver an inferior product, look like copycats, and given how much we looked up to them (who didn’t at the time?)…we didn’t really want to consider them competitors. There were a lot of mixed feelings.

Having said that, we really didn’t know exactly what they were building. What problems were they aiming to solve? I must have re-read their blog post fifty times looking for some hints that would unlock the mystery.

We weighed up our risks of continuing and decided to temporarily put the project on hold. In 37signals’ post, they alluded to showing stuff the next month. We agreed that we could wait a month, see what they’re up to, and then make official decision.

Wait, we did. Nothing came next month. We waited some more. Another month passed. No announcements. Additional months passed. We continued to wait.

During this extended waiting period, Jason left to go work for a product company. The CRM product plans were still lingering around but we continued to kick the can down the road.

But, here’s the real kicker.

It would be over a full year after the teaser post before 37signals released Highrise to the public.

That’s right. Over a year!

I don’t blame them. This shit takes a lot of time. I can only assume that they went through several iterations and redesigns on the product before they launched an initial public version. They also rebranded it from Sunrise to Highrise.

When Highrise was finally released, I was one of the first individuals to write a few blog reviews about it[4]. While it wasn’t quite what we were looking to build, Highrise was useful enough for our own sales process for the next few years. At this point, we opted to continue waiting as we knew that they would just continue to improve upon their product through user feedback. Rather than continue building our own, I started sending feature requests to them.

There are probably several other reasons why our product wouldn’t have worked in the market—but we will never know.

For years, we wondered…

  • Did we quit to soon?
  • Did we lack confidence?
  • How long would it have taken us to build our vision?
  • Would our product have been successful?
  • Were we paralyzed by our own fear?
  • Could we have beat 37signals to market?

Despite this, I’m not convinced that there was a right path in this sort of scenario. I don’t regret our decision—it was the best that we could come to given the information available. I’ll own that decision.

Nine and a half years have since passed by. A few days each week, you can find me opening up SalesForce[5] to see who I need to follow up with.

Occasionally, I’ll find myself wondering, “what if they never published that damn blog post?”

That will always be one of those pivotal points in Planet Argon’s journey—even if we stopped mid-pivot.

Some might say that there is a lesson to be learned here.

[1] We moved downtown less than two months later

[2] To be fair to the rest of the team, pretty much the entire Planet Argon team wanted to get into the product market. Jason was just one of the most motivated and loudest at the time.

[3] Vaguely recall us joking that 37signals must be reading our Basecamp conversations.

[4] That was no accident. I was all over Highrise the moment it came out. How did they approach X and Y? It wasn’t quite what we had envisioned but it took just enough pain out of the CRM tools we had been dealing with to continue keeping our own product idea on ice.

[5] We outgrew Highrise a few years ago as the product wasn’t really geared for the sales process that we’ve since implemented.

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