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The End at Highrise with Nate Kontny

Nate Kontny (former CEO at Highrise) joins me to talk Highrise, product design / JTBD, and the app he's working on next. (60 minutes.)

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For the curious…

On April 15th, 2018, Basecamp announced that Highrise was “moving back in with Basecamp.” This meant that Nate Kontny – and the team he had built during his time as CEO of Highrise – would no longer be working on the product. If you want to follow along Nate’s story, he’s been vlogging daily over on his youtube channel, that’s the best place to to subscribe.

Show Highlights

4:52 Nate talks about what he learned from Paul Graham and starting two YC companies. Clip of Paul Graham talking about cockroaches is from this interview.

10:08 Nate talks about what happened at Highrise and what’s next. Clip of Jason Fried explaining reason for Basecamp name change is from this interview.

16:48 Nate talks about how he thinks about “jobs to be done” theory and how he used it at Highrise. Clip of Clayton Christensen explaining JTBD used is from this video.

20:48 Nate talks about why Basecamp took back over Highrise. Clip of Amy Hoy talking about using every advantage is from this interview.

41:55 Nate talks about how he’s decided what to work on next, a new tool that he’s built, and why he chose to work on this next.

Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Nate Kontny:

Highrise is over. I’m struggling a bit with what’s next, what do I do now? My wife and I were both at Highrise. Now I’m back to square zero. Am I going to create a product? Am I going to find customers from scratch?

I didn’t start Highrise from scratch. I came in to try to rescue that company. It was Jason and David that started that product.

Robert Williams:

Is there a part of you that thinks that because you didn’t start Highrise from scratch, it didn’t feel like it was yours?

Nate Kontny:

I threw myself into Highrise like it was my baby. Maybe because I have so much founder experience and because I had no choice. There was no team that came with the Highrise deal. There was no passing the buck to anyone else it was just me.

I couldn’t blame Basecamp for not being there to support it.

Because you’re not the founder, you don’t have the experience of like “why was this built in the first place?” Who are the core customers? What pleases them? It’s tough to make decisions and we spent a lot of time trying to learn.

Early-on we made a change to the activity feed that upset a lot of people and I feel bad about that. We ended up reverting back when we started to really understand where people were coming from.

We had to go through these crazy JTBD interviews, which were useful but in many ways may have been unnecessary to do if we had understood the product like a true founder had we started the company.

So yes, not being the founder makes it a lot harder.

Robert Williams:

I feel like when you hear about Jobs to Be Done you think it’s going to be the key to unlocking everything – and then you realize doing these interviews is hard – and at a certain point it’s not as actionable as I was hoping – it’s not like it gives you a clear cut answer.

Nate Kontny:

Totally agree. It’s sold and marketed as a panacea that will cure anything in your business and for good reason but it’s harder than people give it credit.

Look at Basecamp, they’ve been doing Jobs to be Done interviews for years, and the insights keep changing. And they’re world’s better at doing these interviews today than they were years ago, so it is a lot harder than you think.

And so it still takes quite a bit of unpacking to get actions from it. And even then the actions are still experimental, and you have to try them out. Some of it feels risky.

Half of the people you talk to might think of your product this way and half might think of it this other way. Which one are you gonna choose? Good luck.

You still kinda have to take a leap. I still recommend it and I think it’s a good way of looking at it but it’s not going to be a super quick success.

Robert Williams:

You mentioned that ultimately the jobs interviews didn’t skyrocket your sales. Is that ultimately why Basecamp took over Highrise?

Nate Kontny:

That’s a complicated question. It’s tough to talk about. There’s a lot of things that shifted over the last year. From trying to find a new home for Highrise.

The bottom line is Highrise has had a really tough time growing ever since Basecamp decided to not focus on it.

When 37signals decided to rename themselves Basecamp, it put an enormous dent into the Highrise business. All the traffic disappeared for own. The 37signals brand was a huge brand halo around Highrise, and it just disappeared.

People thought we were shutting down. Dozens of websites cropped up saying “Highrise is shutting down, come on over to our CRM.” There was tons of Linkedin groups saying the same thing.

So there was this lack of traffic and sense that the company was shutting down and it was really hard problem to market yourself out of. You can do JTBD interviews but you still have to figure out how to refresh the traffic and convince people that it’s not shutting down.

That’s not even a jobs problem, that’s a momentum problem. You’re not going to fix it with some messaging on your website.

So that was tough and it was something we were fighting the entire time.

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