When 37signals was only three people they didn’t need any specialized collaboration tools. With a group that small you can do well with just email and IM. As their company they needed a tool that supported collaboration with the whole team instead of between just two people. They needed IRC, but with a twist.
Campfire is an easy-to-use browser-based community chat client. It works like IRC. The idea is very simple: a browser window where you can type a message and have it sent to everyone else. However, this simple idea causes a fundamental shift in the way teams work together.
The hallway conversation is the biggest loss with a distributed team. Communication needs to be easy and arranging a time for everyone to have a conference call just isn’t easy. Community chat programs like Campfire and IRC takes the place of hallway conversations. Very similarly to the way that Mozilla runs on IRC, 37signals runs on Campfire. It has become a critical part of how the team operates.
Campfire solved one fundamental problem of a 37signals team member: how can I ask the rest of my team simple questions without being disruptive? When the team grew a little larger the team members had another problem: how can I tell what other people on the team are doing?
There is a fallacy that working in the same office lets everyone know what everyone else is working on. The idea is that you can absorb information about someone else’s status through osmosis. Most engineers have a good understanding of what their close peers are working on, a vague understanding of what the rest of their team is doing, and no idea about anyone else in the company.
Being a distributed team doesn’t make it more difficult to know what the rest of your team is doing, but it does make that lack of knowledge more obvious. Many teams solve this problem with status meetings or weekly status report emails. When 37signals had this problem they created a new tool called Journal.
Journal is once again very simple. It has fields where you talk about what you are working on and what your current status is and the rest of your team can see them. Journal goes beyond setting a status message works more like a micro-blog for just your team. If Jason wants to know what David spent his day doing, Journal gives him a pretty good idea. If David wants to know if Jason is available to talk then Journal will tell him.
With Campfire and Journal the 37signals team had a tool to support team discussions and a place to see what the rest of the team was working on. Over time the team added more products and those products had more features. It became more difficult for each person to answer the question what should I be working on next?
What should I be working on next is the fundamental question that almost every software project methodology —from waterfall to scrum— tries to solve. Most of them solve it with long meetings and complicated tracking tools. 37signals solved this problem with Master Plate and a different business model.
Master Plate has a very simple UI (notice the pattern here)? It is a web-based tool where you can see what everyone should be working on. Every team member has three items on their Master Plate: what they are working on now, what they should be working on next, and what they should be working on after that. Those three items are about as far into the future as Jason and David like to plan, and that is where their business model makes a difference
37signals sells their software with subscription model. Their users pay a low monthly rate to access the tools of their choice. This business model keeps 37signals very close to their customers. Instead of making one big sale and leaving a company alone for a year, 37signals has the chance to interact with their customers constantly. This constant contact makes it very easy for them to prioritize their work. The three items on Master Plate are the three items their customers have been asking for most.