Jason Fried

June 19, 2023

Promise not to promise

Since the beginning of Basecamp, we’ve been loath to make promises about future product improvements. We’ve always wanted customers to judge the product they could buy and use today, not some imaginary version that might exist in the future.

It’s why we’ve never committed to a product road map. It’s not because we have a secret one in the back of some smoky room we don’t want to share, but because one doesn’t actually exist. We honestly don’t know what we’ll be working on in a year, so why act like we do?

But when we recently launched an all-new version of Basecamp, we ended up making a promise about the future anyway. D’oh.

See, a new version didn’t initially include a feature our customers were clamoring for: Project templates. The requests piled in, the emails piled up. We wanted to do it, but we weren’t sure when we’d be able to get to it. So we just told people “by the end of the year.” At the time that gave us eight months or so—which sounded easy—but it discounted all the work it would take to get it done as well as all the other stuff we also had to do at the same time.

March ticked by. Then April. Then May, June, July, and August. We still hadn’t started on the project templates feature. And then September and October arrived, and now, to come through on our promise, we had to drop a bunch of other things we wanted to do so that we could deliver project templates before the year ended. It was a great feature, and customers ultimately loved it, but we had to rush it. That’s what promises lead to—rushing, dropping, scrambling, and a tinge of regret at the earlier promise that was a bit too easy to make.

Promises pile up like debt, and they accrue interest, too. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off and the worse the regret. When it’s time to do the work, you realize just how expensive that yes really was.

Many companies are weighed down by all sorts of prior obligations to placate. Promises salespeople made to land a deal. Promises the project manager made to the client. Promises the owner made to the employees. Promises one department made to another.

Saying “Yes, later” is the easy way out of anything. You can only extend so many promises before you’ve spent all your future energy. Promises are easy and cheap to make; actual work is hard and expensive. If it wasn’t, you’d just have done it now rather than promised it later.


About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.