Basecamp: A Two Year Retrospective

About two years ago I joined a small internet company as a project manager for product development. The company had begun using Basecamp as a tool to get a handle on numerous client and internal projects. During those two years I’ve been able to guide our use of the tool as we added some rigor to our project and development processes and, due to the acquisition of our company, I have observed some of the difficulties of using Basecamp in a rapidly scaled organization.

Simplicity Is Good

Because my development team (and in fact the entire company) was totally virtual, Basecamp filled an important need to compartmentalize project information in an online location. However, because we were also collaborating with sales, client services, and product managers it was important to have a tool that they could understand and adopt quickly. For this reason I have always appreciated the simplicity of the Basecamp product. While some may complain about the lack of features in Basecamp, I believe that our success in achieving complete adoption by the company (50+ people including employees and contract, with dozens of projects already in-process) in a matter of weeks is due mainly to the ease with which we could define processes and guidelines and communicate them to our colleagues.

Tool Simplicity Proposition: When implementing a new tool in an organization, more features lead to unnecessary processes, confusion, and wasteful debates on non-core issues. It is usually better to introduce the fewest features possible (and in fact hide unused features if possible) and slowly introduce new features and processes as the organization demands it and only after careful thought about the implications. (I may post something more on this idea later)

Scalability Will Be an Issue

So for a year or so we continued refining our use of Basecamp and exploiting more and more features as we gained experience. However, when the company was acquired last winter some of the shortcomings of Basecamp began coming to light. One of which is scalability. I’m not talking about scalability in the technical sense but in the usability sense. When you get past having a few dozen projects, a few dozen active client projects, and a few dozen employees managing the whole system becomes more and more tedious and wasteful.

One frequently requested feature that becomes more essential as the organization scales up is project templates. Because our company maintained a keen focus on efficiency of implementations and operations we quickly recognized some strain on resources to set up new projects. Being a resourceful shop from an operations standpoint we put some effort into scripting the Basecamp API to load up standard project setups based on a text configuration file. If you find your organization spending lots of time doing repetitive setup of projects in Basecamp, you may consider a similar approach because there is no template feature in the tool and no indication that 37signals plans to expand the limited To-Do template features.

Another issue you will likely run across when your organization scales is project access authorization and basic user management. While Basecamp is easy to use when you have a few dozen users it becomes more difficult to manage when you have a couple hundred internal users and a couple hundred client users in the system. As with any company we’ve seen the departure of a number of people over the past year and their accounts have remained in the system because no one thought to remove them. It can create a particularly large security hole if the person has been flagged to receive access to all future projects. Unfortunately, at this writing, I am not certain that the basecamp API allows any method to link up the user list with internal LDAP even if you did a lot of programming. It’s a major drawback to adoption in a large company.

Another issue is group authorization management. I believe some people use the Company concept to organize and authorize internal groups to access particular projects but that is not as elegant a solution as the Groups feature that 37signals has included in their Highrise product.

Conclusion

Overall I would say that Basecamp served us well as a small virtual company. It was easy to adopt for the non-technical folks on the team. It wasn’t distracting. Clients loved having one place to go to see everything related to their implementation. I would use it again if starting a new company myself. However, it will not serve your needs forever if your organization and client list scales significantly.

I don’t think 37signals has ever claimed that it would scale like that and would probably argue that they aren’t interested in serving that market anyway. That’s fair I suppose. As a result, it is worth paying attention and identifying a point at which your organization has outgrown the tool.

Does anyone out there have recommendations for identifying when you’ve reached that point? And if you have, what tools might be a good option to use for the next phase of growth while still adhering to the principles of simplicity and ease of use?

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