David Heinemeier Hansson

February 7, 2024

Campfire is SaaS without the aaS

It hasn’t even been a week since we started selling Campfire under the new ONCE model, but we’ve already sold more than quarter of a million dollars worth of this beautifully simple installable chat system. People are using it to replace existing systems costing tens of thousands of dollars per year, as well as all sorts of backup- or second-system setups. It’s a great start!

While the Shopify store has been ringing up customers, we’ve been busy improving the software. Now the website promises at least 3 years of security updates, but we haven’t made any big promises about general improvements or new features (beyond adding a Bot API). But in the past week, we’ve been doing just that. Improving, tinkering, extending. Over-delivering on an under-promise.

And I have to say, that process has worked out much better than I anticipated. I feared that going to an installable software model would give us some degree of a headache in terms of rolling out updates or people having a difficult time installing the system in the first place. But it’s been, knock on wood, almost entirely smooth sailing. A few minor issues here or there when people try to integrate the software into existing proxies or uncommon Linux distributions, but otherwise barely a hitch.

This has essentially allowed us to have our cake and eat it too. For Campfire to deliver a very SaaS-like experience, but without the aaS, as Jason quipped yesterday. But herein lies a marketing challenge. A lot of prospective customers look at this setup and say “it’s too good to be true, where’s the catch?”.

Rory Sutherland captures this problem beautifully in this clip on TikTok. He gives the example of how low-cost airlines had to emphasize all the things you didn’t get when ordering a fifty euro flight from Paris to London to become credible alternatives to full-cost carriers. Baggage fees, no assigned seating, no meal, all that stuff. They had to do this to convince travelers of why the flight was so much cheaper than traditional carriers, lest everyone thought it was because they skimped on maintenance or hired terrible pilots.

I think we have a similar problem with ONCE. And I still haven’t quite cracked the marketing angle on how to remedy it, even with Sutherland's advice. When you say stuff like “it’s 99.9% cheaper than Slack on a 500-seat account”, they rightfully suspect that it’s a gimmick, even though, it really isn't. So what we need is a credible story about how Campfire is worse to make it credible to people that we didn’t skimp on the core experience.

I’ll be noodling on that one.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.