For Basecamp, brand identity and product development are all about the customer

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Basecamp, maker of project management and team communications software, is a company that does things differently.

Co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson reject outside investment, make no long-term goals, ignore KPIs and forbid working on weekends. They focus on keeping the workday focused, enjoyable and short.

The company’s approach to work is an expression of its origin story, which revolves around frustration with poorly designed project management software. They created Basecamp in 1999 as a way to do things better.

A company’s brand identity can emanate from its origin story, which in Basecamp’s case might suggest simplicity and efficiency, perhaps a brand with a certain modern slickness. But Fried rejects that categorically. In fact, he comes close to rejecting the idea of brand identity altogether.

“For us, clarity is the most important thing,” he says. “We don’t have a visual guidelines saying ‘you can’t use this color next to that color.’ I feel like those exercises are mostly a waste of time.”

Spending time wisely is a defining value at Basecamp. Employees are encouraged to hold “office hours” to protect unbroken chunks of work time. The company doesn’t use digital meeting-scheduling software to prevent unnecessary meetings. And, of course, Basecamp software itself is all about making project management more streamlined.

This focus on helping people use their time well suggests a brand identity based on consideration of people’s experiences and needs at work: kind, attentive, supportive. When Fried finally comes around to describing Basecamp’s brand, he puts it like this: “We prefer to be cozy and approachable as opposed to sterile and museum-like. I feel like a lot of brands are overly slick; I think it’s intimidating and pushes people away.”

Basecamp, on the other hand, is all about bringing people in, about making them feel confident and well-cared-for. The company is designed to help people work smarter and happier, with the assurance that Basecamp has their back.  

The product itself and the product development cycle both reflect this perspective. The company focuses on making the simplest possible product with the fewest necessary features. It provides extremely straightforward pricing at $99/month for every customer. And it is known for a laser-like focus on improving its flagship product instead of developing other products, add-ons or features.

Every six weeks a management team decides on new projects to pursue based on ideas submitted by staff and customers. Such a short product development cycle means many people’s ideas can be implemented throughout the year and keeps the company nimble to pursue new things. The team emphasizes extreme care when developing and rolling out changes, concerned with the potential disruption to their customers’ work.

“We recognize that our customers who use Basecamp are managing projects with it, and those projects are ongoing and real,” says Fried. “And they have too much on their plate already to have the software they use change under them out of nowhere.”

It’s this focus on customer experience that is Basecamp’s special sauce — the core of its origin story; the center of its brand identity; the ethos behind its thoughtful product development procedures; and the force behind its workplace innovations that keep its 50 employees in 32 cities happy.

Placing high value on the perspectives of customers and employees is the most powerful way to align brand, product development and company culture. But it takes a dose of humility and a dollop of empathy.

“Real people use our stuff,” says Fried. “We are not the most important thing in their day. We are a tool they use to get their work done. Whatever we do, we should focus on doing the least disruptive thing for them.”