Say Nowith Amy Trager, Jeremy Daer, Abigail Hopkins, and Christopher Hopkins
It’s easy to say yes, whether it’s to a customer request or a deadline from your boss. But saying yes too many times can result in an unmanageable workload or distract you from the stuff you really want to be doing. It’s good to practice saying no and setting boundaries. In this episode: A personal organizer helps her clients say no to physical clutter; a programmer at Basecamp peers into the abyss of burnout and steps back just in time; and a healthy meal-planning startup rejects complexity, even if it means letting some customers go.
- Amy Trager in Chicago magazine's Best of 2017 issue - 00:17
- Harvard Business Review investigates a famous Henry Ford quote - 2:34
- Basecamp announcement about hiring a dedicated on-call programmer - 4:30
- Ketogenic diet - 19:39
- Amy Trager's website and Twitter - 23:21
- Jeremy's Twitter - 23:32
- That Clean Life on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram - 23:35
The Full Transcript
Amy: [00:00:00] I was definitely an odd child in that when I got bored I would ask if I could clean out the junk drawer in the kitchen. I’ve been in the organizing industry for about 14 years and I’ve had my own business since 2006.
Wailin: [00:00:14] In July 2017, Chicago magazine named Amy Trager the best home organizing expert in the city. One of the most important pieces of advice she gives her clients is to say no. Say no to the clutter. No to unnecessary stuff. No to the bad habits that cause disorganization.
Amy: [00:00:33] It can be really helpful for people just to limit the space they’re allowed to take up for a certain category. Keep whatever you want that fits in this container. Keep whatever you want that fits on this shelf or in this bin. That sort of thing. That really helps people pick what their favorites are, what priority projects might be. I think the important thing to keep in mind is whatever sort of standards you’ve set for yourself in the getting rid of progress, to remind yourself of that continuously, at least for a little while, of why you made those decisions. Was it because you really wanted a bigger workspace and you wanted a clear desktop? Is it because having piles stacked up on bookshelves was really stressing you out, or you were embarrassed to have people come over? So, just reminding yourself of why you made those decisions in the first place is really important.
[00:01:26] And then, sort of creating a whole new set of habits. So, it usually takes about three weeks for a new habit to form, so I tell my clients that for the first three or four weeks it’s gonna probably feel awkward. You’re probably going to have to remind yourself on a daily basis, I have to put this away here, or I have to remember to find this there. That sort of thing. But, give it a month and if at a month it still feels awkward or cumbersome or something like that, then we can reassess and find a better system for you. But, give it at least a month because for a while you have to really just sort of retrain your brain and your habits and figure out if this does really work better for you.
[00:02:07] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:02:07] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:02:14] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Today we’re talking about saying no. Not just to clutter, but to your colleagues or your customers. There’s a great quote in Rework the book from Henry Ford. If I’d listened to customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.
Wailin: [00:02:26] Uh, not to besmirch the reputation of Rework, which is such a great book we’re building an entire podcast around it. But I’m pretty sure that quote is apocryphal.
Shaun: [00:02:35] Well, that’s more than likely. But you get what I mean. It’s easy to say yes to every feature request or deadline that comes your way because you want to please people. But you want to make sure what you’re doing stays right for you and that might start with saying no.
Wailin: [00:02:49] So, I talked to Jeremy, a principle programmer here at Basecamp about a recent situation where one of our teams had to say no to a workload that had gotten unmanageable.
Shaun: [00:02:58] And then we have an interview with a start-up in Toronto whose focus on simplicity leads them to say no to their customers even if it means letting some business go.
Jeremy: [00:03:14] I’m Jeremy. I’m a programmer at Basecamp. I head up the Security, Infrastructure, and Performance team. Part of what we work on is what we call on-call and that’s programmers who are on the front lines, fixing bugs, using lists of tricky technical issues and helping out support team.
[00:03:34] On-call started as a way for programmers to rotate the responsibility of fixing bugs that came up. And, as we’ve grown, the number of bugs to investigate or the number of things to troubleshoot have grown. And so, we started doing it as a—really as a full-time responsibility. So, it grew from the basic idea of, let’s fix some bugs to what can we do for customers? We can do custom reporting. We can do things that are difficult to do in the user interface, and we can do them manually. Just, by writing a little bit of code to make it happen. As well as doing the old-school let’s fix bugs. And what we saw is we can say yes to a lot of things. And so, on-call grew into really a strong kind of technical support role.
Wailin: [00:04:23] And so, we now have two on-call programmers and recently you had noticed that they were coming under a bit of strain, as well. Can you talk about what you were noticing and what form those stresses took?
Jeremy: [00:04:39] This is a tricky thing. When—in a role like this, where so much of it’s saying yes, it’s an internal role. So, your customers, in a sense, are people in our customer support team, other programmers, people working on the marketing sites. And when do you ever want to tell them, like, nope! Sorry. The people working these roles and the programmers rotating through are chartered to say yes. This is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to be able to fix everything up. We find out that we’re working longer work days. We’re seeking time after hours to get real stuff done. That’s the real sign—if you see somebody who needs to take a couple of hours outside the work day to actually get work done. It’s a pretty good sign that the work day isn’t working.
Wailin: [00:05:30] Yeah, so you were noticing that the day—the work day itself was so devoted to putting out small fires and things like that, that there just wasn’t enough time to get everything else done, too.
Jeremy: [00:05:42] Yeah. The real moment was introducing a project to answer some customer questions a little bit better. One of our common themes and things that hit on call are security questionaires. People asking about, is Basecamp safe for my data, or I’ve got a list of questions I need you to answer to satisfy our own internal compliance and IT questions. And so many of those are completely custom. Everybody has their own specialized list. And it takes a lot of time to handle. So, one of the things that we’d like to be able to do is prepare a big questionnaire with, really, all the kinds of questions people would ask. And map them to everybody’s custom list, so they can just look at this long list and answer their own questions. So, easier for customers and a lot easier for us. But, who does this? When does it happen? It’s right in on-call’s wheelhouse, but it’s a special kind of project. You’ve got to sit down, work through it, figure out which questions and actually do all the work. Well, so we’d start working on it and recognizing that the work that’s happening on this is all outside work hours. And the only reason that’s happening is because there’s no extra time to actually try to do something like this. If our job here is to try to make answering these kinds of questions easier, we don’t even have the time to do that work. Something’s up. How can we dig in and find out where our time’s going? And, we’ve been overloaded all along.
Wailin: [00:07:11] And so, then you found yourself at a bit of a crossroads with a few options at your disposal. One would be hiring additional people to help on on-call. And hiring another programmer. And why did that not seem like the right way to go?
Jeremy: [00:07:30] Well, it’s kind of the natural way to go. We think, there’s obviously too much work, the thing to do is to hire, to spread the load and handle the work. The big thing we noticed here is that the kind of work we’re doing had grown in complexity and was just taking more time. We were doing specialized work in a lot of cases and is that more something we want to spread amongst more people? Or should we start looking at what that more is and start cutting it out. If you’re thinking from the work first, and then the work is always going to be paramount and there’s no negotiation with whether the work is worthwhile. Should we do this? Starting there, you’re always thinking like, what kind of team do I need to satisfy this workload? But, I really like the feeling of, this is the team we have. What kind of workload can we do? What are our capabilities? And how can we have a good week? If we look back over the last week or three weeks, were all those good weeks? Or were they kind of slipping, feeling like they’re on the edge of turning into bad week?
Wailin: [00:08:40] And so, then, another option was, okay, if we’re not going to hire more people, can we take the people we already have and build some tools or build some automation or something to ease the workflow, right? And that also had some drawbacks, right?
Jeremy: [00:08:56] Yes. Yeah, yeah. Our classic approach in starting out on-call as a bunch of programmers is, when you’ve got a hammer, everything’s a nail. Well, we’re programmers and we can code, so maybe the way we can address any kind of increase in on-call responsibilities is by writing some code. Write some software that can automate common requests. That kind of thing’s fantastic if that job’s automatable. But it isn’t always. Every time we stepped outside our product’s boundaries to do this kind of thing, we’re moving mountains and that’s not something that’s the same in every case. You’re recognizing the limits of automation. Of what we can make easier. So many things are high-touch. You’re doing it custom for each customer and so we hit diminishing returns. There are certain things that we can automate away and most things we just cannot. This is something that’s fantastic about working on call, this sense of responsibility for our customer’s experience is inexaustable. And that’s the dark side of this. When we have the time and inclination, that responsibility will just reach out and start taking on other things that are far outside our bounds. It turns out that Basecamp support is so responsive that we end up serving as office IT in some cases like this. Doing things like troubleshooting the way anti-virus software works on people’s laptops.
Wailin: [00:10:28] Yeah, so then the third option was to do less. To say no to the concierge requests and to do less. Did it take you a little while to arrive at saying no?
Jeremy: [00:10:42] Your gut is telling you that it’s probably the right thing to do. Like, we’re doing too much. We’ve taken on too much. And the hard thing, often is saying no. You know it’s the right thing but making that step is difficult because saying no isn’t just to an idea, it’s to people. And this is to our customer support team. It’s to our QA team. It’s to other programmers. It’s putting boundaries on your work without that feeling of being a jerk. It’s like, no, I’m gatekeeping the things that you need to pass off of your own plate. If we get a customer request for something, it’s so much more gratifying, and really easier to say yes. Saying no means telling the person who’s passing over, no. And it’s hard not to make it personal. We need to be able to manage our time and boundaries and say no in a way that gives guidance about those boundaries instead of seeming like an IT help desk that says sorry.
[00:11:42] So much of saying no comes from our experience doing product design, product development, that it’s saying no to features. If you say yes, you’re adopting something. It sticks with you. And so much of this is in common with product design and seeing how organizational structures within our company are just like a product. The same choices apply. We take something on, we say yes, and it’s for all time. And we did the same thing with on-call where we were fixing bugs, cool, and now that we’ve kind of got our bugs under control and we’ve got dedicated time and attention to pay to things we can do in on-call, we start saying yes to things and we’ve adopted them for all time. And they get out of the realm of direct consideration or negotiation that maybe we should stop doing them. And that’s something that we need to keep reminding ourselves. We need to keep teaching ourselves these basic lessons over and over and over again. Because our human impulse is to support each other. To be responsible and that’s a ratchet that just keeps building up, building up, building up.
Wailin: [00:12:43] What does saying no and drawing those boundaries look like in practice for the on-call team now?
Jeremy: [00:12:49] One of the big things we saw is questions are coming in the form of can we do something? Can we do X? And invariably that answer is going to be yes in both the technical sense and we don’t want to say no. We can find time, we can put it in the queue. We can change that by coming to on-call with should we make this happen? What do you think about this? It starts a conversation about the appropriateness of where we are in the product’s boundary. So, it gives us the opportunity to redirect something out of on-call while still resolving our customer request. Without directly having to say nope. And that being the end of it. It removes the period from the end and we give some other route. Ultimately it is on-call saying no, but it’s a very soft no.
Wailin: [00:13:33] Do you feel like there need to be certain structures in place in order for a programmer or someone like you who’s in a leadership position to be able to say no?
Jeremy: [00:13:46] Yes. Saying no is really hard and it’s intimidating if you’re the person who’s feeling squashed for time and the only perspective you have on it is of the work that’s being passed along. And it doesn’t necessarily seem like there’s any room for negotiation with it. I think something in Basecamp that we can always lead with is our own personal experience. What work is like. The feeling that we’re having good weeks and bad weeks is not something that we need to keep to ourselves. Taking out the right people to escalate the way you feel or give feedback even if it’s going to the CEO directly. And often it’s easier than going the technical route of trying to build a case about a situation. But it just doesn’t have the gravity of what it’s like to do my job. My job feels ragged right now, here’s why. And then we have rapport, we can start building a case and get the company involved to help out.
[00:14:46] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:14:48] What I like about Jeremy’s story is that it’s like a metaphorical version of the advice we got from Amy, the personal organizer. She recommends you keep whatever can fit inside a certain container and say no to everything else. In the case of the Basecamp on-call team, it was about saying no to work that didn’t fit within the bounds of a workday, or what those programmers felt like was the best use of their time.
Shaun: [00:15:11] Yeah. Saying no is often about removing complexity and keeping things simple. Which brings us nicely to our next story.
Abigail: [00:15:22] I’m Abigail Hopkins and I am the co-founder of That Clean Life.
Wailin: [00:15:27] That Clean Life is an online meal-planning service focused on healthy eating and whole foods. Abigail runs it with her husband Christopher.
Chistopher: [00:15:35] I am all about all things technical at That Clean Life.
Wailin: [00:15:39] Abigail and Christopher really like simplicity, which is why they stay away from strategies like counting calories and this focus on simplicity carries over to the way they’re building their software.
Abigail: [00:15:49] Without business platform, a lot of people use That Clean Life for business to build meal plans for their clients. They’re using a lot of different products and they want us to be more because we do such a good job with meal planning, and they’re like, oh, well, it would be great if I could book my client appointments through That Clean Life, too. And keep track of client information and take a health history and stuff but we’ve kind of realized that to do meal planning well, we have to focus on just that and if we were to shift our focus to being something else other than a meal planning platform, it would take away from that.
Wailin: [00:16:27] How do you let your customers down gently when they ask for those things?
Abigail: [00:16:30] That’s a great question. I do all the customer support for That Clean Life. So, we always say we’ll add it to our list of requests and kind of just go from there. Yeah. Chris, do you have anything to add to that?
Chistopher: [00:16:47] With anything, no matter what the channels you have available to listen to your customers, they always find a way to get ahold of you, to tell [you] what they think you should build next. And that’s always great, that’s awesome because that means they, in some respect, know you’re listening to them. Which is awesome, you always want that. But something we typically do, kind of like, on a six-to-eight month cadence is proactively do surveys to those specific membership tiers. A lot of the time what we’re hearing is symptoms and it’s our job to kind of take those back and boil them down to what are the real core problems people are having.
Wailin: [00:17:33] And then, in terms of your business customers, and you had mentioned earlier that they’ve made some requests about bolting on other kinds of functionality beyond meal planning, scheduling, things like that. Is it hard to say no to some of those customers, especially given that your company is relatively new and having these business customers seems like a pretty important revenue stream?
Abigail: [00:18:00] Yeah, it is definitely an important revenue stream and we want to please them. But personally I don’t find it hard to say no because I’m really confident in the value we’re already providing them. So, when something doesn’t align with our mission to make eating healthy simple and fun, like appointment scheduling doesn’t align with that, it makes it really easy to say no and it makes it easy to explain why we’re saying no. Because, it doesn’t align with our mission and usually they understand that because we’re so close with them. We’re talking to our customers all the time. That, they’re like, oh, okay. And they see where we’re coming from.
Wailin: [00:18:36] You’ve also had to let some of your customers outgrow you. Can you talk about that, what that looks like?
Abigail: [00:18:41] Yeah, so, we actually call that… I always say, oh, we have somebody graduating. And, I don’t mind when that happens. I don’t mind when we get an email and we get a cancelation saying that they’ve learned everything they need to learn and they can go out into the world and execute because that’s great. It means we’ve taught them how to change their lifestyle and they have the tools they need. And, it doesn’t bother us at all because they’re on to the next thing. They’re on to the next leg of their journey. And similarly with our business members. A lot of them start getting into creating really complex meal plans that rely on really specific micronutrients or calorie counts with ratios. And when it comes to that, you know, we just say that’s not what we offer and we encourage them to go seek out a platform that does allow for that complexity so that we don’t have to add it into ours.
Wailin: [00:19:34] You cater to a lot of different diets right now that people are doing. Whether it’s keto, or people with irritable bowel syndrome and some other very specific dietary needs. Does it get challenging to figure out which of those diets you want to devote resources to in terms of planning and offering something specific? Because it seems like, you know, there’s some very real health concerns there but there’s also that might fall into more of a gray area, like more faddish diets that people are just asking for now but they might not be asking for in a year… How do you balance some of those things?
Abigail: [00:20:09] Because we’re so close with our customers, it makes it really easy to feel their pain. So, when we hear about a particular diet enough then we talk to Ashley, who’s our holistic nutritionist about building. We’ve never had a time where what we—like the meal plan we should build next doesn’t feel obvious to us. And if it didn’t feel obvious then wouldn’t build anything. Just this last week, I’ve gotten about three emails about a meal plan for our business members for ulcerative colitis. And, you know, when I start hearing it over and over again, it makes it obvious that this is the type of clients they’re dealing with and that’s the type of resource they need. So, being close with your customers, and the fact that they feel they can come to us and make this request just makes our lives a lot easier and ensures that we’re building the right thing.
Wailin: [00:20:56] How do you think about growth in your customer base? Because I’m hearing a lot about how you’re super in tune with your customers and you handle the customer support so you see the feature requests. You see how they’re tracking along with the meal plans you’re providing. Is there a point where you look ahead to the future where you worry if we get X many more customers, it’ll be harder to have your finger on the collective pulse?
Abigail: [00:21:22] Yeah. I say that to Chris all the time, that, you know, I would love to be able to hand off customer support because it takes off so much of my time. But, the fact that when he comes home at the end of the day, I can say to him, like, this is what I’ve heard about. And he sees all the customer support tickets, too. It’s been fundamental in running it. And I know, to be a smart business owner, I am going to have to hire customer support eventually. And that will be hard. And hopefully we can find the right person, but right now I’d say it’s been very fundamental to our success. But, in order to scale we’re going to have to start looking at different options.
Chistopher: [00:22:02] One thing that—around that topic that has always kind of been something in my mind is because we are right now so small, we’re heavily constrained. We have very limited resources. Right from the beginning, instead of that being a negative we’ve kind of always thought of it as something that’s quite positive. Being constrained with limited resources allows us to focus on those high-value things, because we have no other option. And it usually results in a very simplified product and we’re just lucky enough that people these days are kind of more attracted to those simplistic type platforms rather than those more complicated ones. And that kind of connects back to why we’re okay with letting people graduate or kind of migrate to a platform which is more advanced and more complicated just because we feel like providing that simplicity… It’s just something we’re really interested in and it’s just something a lot more fun to work on.
[00:23:08] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:23:10] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. Thanks to Amy, Jeremy, Abigail, and Christopher for coming on the show. You can find Amy at AmyTrager.com, that’s A-M-Y-T-R-A-G-E-R.com. And on Twitter at @amytrager. You can find Jeremy on Twitter at @bitsweat, and you can find That Clean Life on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and at thatcleanlife.com.
[00:23:38] I’ll post these links in the show notes for this episode on our website rework.fm.
Shaun: [00:23:44] If you want to get in touch with us you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at us. We’re @reworkpodcast. You can also leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850. Thank you for listening, and see you back here in two weeks.
Amy: [00:24:10] I will say there’s one thing I have a really hard time getting rid of. And that is stuff for costumes and dressing up. I really love getting dressed up for Halloween and costume parties and stuff like that, and so, I have a hard time getting rid of anything that I think could get used for a costume down the road, so. That’s, I guess that’s my dirty secret.
Wailin: [00:24:28] I get it, though, because earlier when you were saying that the mental exercise you’re supposed to go through is “Can I find this somewhere later” either to rent it or buy it or borrow it. And maybe for some really interesting piece that goes with a costume that really makes a costume, you’re like, I literally can’t get this anywhere. I have to keep this thing.
Amy: [00:24:45] Yeah, yeah. That’s true. And some of them are things I’ve made so I don’t want to make it again sort of thing, and I will say, at least, it’s not—and I don’t have a whole room of costumes or anything like that. It’s a couple containers, so, it’s not too much. But, that’s the one thing I have a hard time getting rid of.
Wailin: [00:25:01] What are some of your favorite costumes in there?
Amy: [00:25:04] Let’s see… I have a costume to be the Childlike Empress from the Neverending Story. Which was a pretty fun one. I have just like, really silly props that could get used for costumes, like one of the old original cell phones with the antenna and the giant battery pack and some things like that that are just sort of silly things that could be hard to find again if I wanted to.