The Chicago-based company hired a journalist to produce one long-form illustrated story per month, profiling a company that has been in business 25 years or longer and has thrived the old-fashioned way: through hard work, and without outside funding or partners.
The site would not feature Basecamp customers or prospects.
Nor would it feature technology businesses.
And it would initially rely on in-depth, long-form storytelling (and, you know, ridiculously good writing!) rather than video and audio. It has editors polish and hone the pieces, so the story feels fine like feature writing — not rough-hewn like blogging often can.
Today, the site still doesn’t prominently feature any Basecamp lead-generation tactics or corporate messaging or calls to action or obvious Basecamp marketing within the monthly profiles—save for a whisper of a notice that reads like an oh yeah I meant to mention:
And, in either case, what kind of content marketing is that? Or is it even marketing?
So What’s Going on Here?
Three marketing lessons you can steal are:
1. Be in it for the long game. Basecamp (formerly 37signals) is taking the long view of developing and supporting an audience and community first, customer base second.
2. Tell a different story — not the one everyone else is telling. Basecamp is aligning itself with an ethos that supports the joy and pride of ownership, while also looking realistically at the trade-offs and difficulties that come with it.
Doing so also sublty underscores Basecamp’s bigger story, which is to take the long view: in business. In hiring. In customer relationships. And — I’d guess — in life.
That’s the opposite the “move fast and break things” story you’ll find celebrated in most publications.
And it’s especially timely given the news of GigaOm‘s unfortunate collapse, apparently because GigiOm gorged on VC money till it popped. (Danny Sullivan writes about that in an eloquent piece at Medium.)
3. Quality over quantity. The Distance publishes just once a month. But the depth of the story makes the result first-rate. As a result, it’s a great example of a non-media company funding a bit of quality journalism in a very specific niche, and as a result telling stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told.
(I kind of love how each piece ends with “—30—” a fun use of the mark traditionally used by journalists to indicate the end of a story.)
Going the Distance, Plowing Different Ground
I write and speak a lot about how companies newly anointed as “publishers” need to try a little harder creatively.
Too many of us sound like each other in both tone and substance; we write about the same things, with similar points of view.
I get why we do. New ground is harder to plow—especially with Marketing under pressure to deliver results.
So we settle for the same, old, worn, and less productive furrows. Let loose, an experienced plow horse will practically lead the plow on its own, turning at the end of the row because it knows the drill.
What if we directed the plow into less obvious, less certain… but potentially richer territory?
Would the thrill and the benefits outweigh the fear of the unknown?
“Never be afraid to try something new,” the adage goes. “Amateurs built the ark: professionals built the Titanic.”
The best content creators feel a kind of responsibility to create great content—maybe just because they can.
And they also have a drive to create, for the love of it, which is partly what’s behind The Distance.
Basecamp founder Jason Fried wants to unlock the secrets to business longevity and celebrate it, too: What’s it mean to take the long view? How do you thrive in a business climate geared more around quick hits? What lessons can all business learn from private companies, organically grown?
The only thing that’s harder than starting a business is staying in business, Jason wrote in Inc.
Most of the 11 businesses The Distance has profiled this far are kind of oddball: The World’s Largest Laundromat with its Wednesday pizza nights, immigration seminars and summer children’s reading program; or Thermal Bags by Ingrid (Ingrid invented the now-ubiquitous thermal pizza delivery bag).
The Distance is written and edited by Wailin Wong, a journalist who worked for 10 years at Dow Jones Newswires and as a tech reporter at the Chicago Tribune before joining Basecamp full time.
I asked her a bit about The Distance, what kind of resources it takes, and how it fits into the broader plans of Basecamp.
Me: Tell me about the inspiration behind the site. What’s its connection to Basecamp, philosophically speaking?
Wailin: Jason was tired of reading stories in the business/tech press about startups and new companies chasing venture capital investment. He was more interested in what’s old in business—in other words, companies that have been around for a long time and figured out how to build something sustainable.
Stories about these kinds of businesses, especially if they’re not publicly traded or making headlines, can be hard to find. So Jason hired me to find these stories and write them.
He’s interested in learning from these business owners—and sharing these lessons with others—because he also wants Basecamp to be around for the long term. That’s the broad philosophical alignment.
Why articles? Why not, say, a YouTube show?
Writing is hugely important at Basecamp. It’s considered the foundation of good thinking and good design, and everyone here is very good at it.
Basecamp has been blogging since the early days, and Jason and [CTO and founder] David Heinemeier Hansson have published two business books. Good prose is built into the identity of the company, so I think that was the logical medium for this project.
It’s also my area of expertise, although we did just start a podcast. We’re interested in exploring whether our audience might prefer these stories in audio format.
Can you tell me a bit about the editorial staff? What’s it take to produce a monthly article?
I’m the only person at Basecamp who’s dedicated full-time to The Distance. I select the businesses to profile and do all the reporting, which involves background research on the company and its industry, visits to the business and additional interviews.
I work with two freelance editors, one in New York who gives me high-level feedback on things like structure and clarity, and a copy editor in Boulder who looks at grammar, punctuation, usage and style.
The Distance’s photographer, Michael Berger, works on Basecamp’s quality assurance team and does software testing. He carves out a few hours a month to shoot and edit the photos.
Shaun Hildner is Basecamp’s video producer (the company’s help and marketing videos are his handiwork), and he’s shot videos for The Distance and is now producing the podcast with me.
Mig Reyes is one of Basecamp’s designers. He built thedistance.com and provides art direction for the publication, including the layout for each month.
And Nate Otto is a Chicago-based artist who has worked with Basecamp for a long time. He does all the illustrations for The Distance. So it takes seven people to produce a monthly story, although everyone but me either has other primary responsibilities at Basecamp or is working on a freelance/contract basis.
Now that we’ve added a podcast, I record audio during my interviews and write a separate podcast script in addition to the written story. Then I record my narration at Basecamp’s office with the help of Shaun, who also edits the episode and makes it sound great.
Where do you find companies to profile?
Sometimes I’ll get intrigued by a passing mention of a company somewhere and I’ll do some research and then cold-call the business.
In the case of Hala Kahiki, the tiki bar, it was a place I’d driven past so many times with curiosity that I just had to find out their story. The World’s Largest Laundromat is another business I heard about (I live in the adjacent town) and just called up to introduce myself.
I also follow up on suggestions from friends, co-workers, business owners, readers and anyone who writes me at email@example.com.
Why don’t you write about Basecamp customers?
It was important for The Distance to carve out its own identity as a publication (this is also why we have our own website).
Besides, the pool of potential profile subjects is much more vast and diverse when I can look outside the community of Basecamp users. It’s important for The Distance to profile a range of businesses in different industries and run by different kinds of people.
What’s the business value in this for Basecamp? Is it only psychic gratification, or does Basecamp get business from it as well?
The Distance does not (at this point, anyway) make money for Basecamp. It’s possible that some customers come to Basecamp via The Distance, but that’s not a metric I’ve ever looked at or discussed.
If you look at the history of Basecamp/37signals and the way the company’s founders have expressed their philosophy about business, you’ll see they’re all about the long game—about slow, deliberate growth and sustaining relationships with customers and employees over many years. The Distance fits into that ethos.
I think Jason and David are also very interested in shaping the conversation around entrepreneurship and building businesses, and they often provide a contrarian perspective—that’s why they’ve been blogging for so many years, written two books and speak at conferences. The Distance is a logical extension.
Is The Distance a kind of content marketing for Basecamp? How do you view it?
The term “content marketing” never came up when we were discussing what The Distance would be, nor did Jason talk about marketing for Basecamp when he explained the idea of the publication.
Jason wanted to read more of a certain kind of story, so he hired a journalist to produce those pieces. I view The Distance as an example of a non-media company funding a bit of journalism in a very specific niche.
What’s your perspective about content produced by brands? Is “good enough” simply “good enough”? Or do we need to aim for truly good?
I think the question you’re asking is: Is there a meaningful qualitative difference between “good enough” and “truly good” when it comes to metrics like pageviews, social shares or making money?
My answer is “I hope so,” although I don’t really know.
I think writers should care about quality for its own sake. They should care about their audience and produce content that respects their audience’s time and gives them something useful.