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The Business of Video at Basecamp


This is the first in our new series interviewing cool companies and the awesome things they’re doing with video. We’ll sit down with some resident video experts and pick their brain about their projects, process, and point of view.

Shaun Hildner made the transition from the creative world to being the video guy at Basecamp (formerly 37signals) three years ago and works on a variety of projects every week. Whether it’s animation, testimonials, Lego stop motion, or scenes around the office, the projects are all quite different – a surprising notion given they’re all for the same company.

Basecamp’s leaders are known for wanting people to rethink the way they work, and in that same vein, Shaun approaches his projects very differently than a lot of us may be used to. He has a unique process, methods of collaboration (that utilize Basecamp…duh), and an interesting lack of deadlines.

We recently sat down with Shaun to learn more about how Basecamp is using video, how he works, and who has (or doesn’t have) final approval on the finished projects.

DD: Tell us a little about Shaun Hildner and Basecamp.

SHAUN HILDNER: I’m the video producer at Basecamp. Basecamp used to be 37signals and we mainly make a product called Basecamp – which is product management software. The software is geared mostly towards small web-design firms, development firms, and other companies like that.

DD: Why did Basecamp decide to hire a full-time video guy and what was your background?

SH: I don’t even think they knew why [laughs]. I was following Jason [Founder and CEO of Basecamp] and he posted something on Twitter like “We want a video guy.” I thought to myself, “Hey, I do video stuff!” [laughs]

I had worked previously at Tribeca Flashpoint Academy – the relatively new digital media school downtown – kind of doing the same thing I do here except part of my job was also to take the film students out and show them what it was like to work with clients and be on a real job. However, I was still creating a lot of marketing videos for the school and a lot of videos covering what happens around the school.

I think that is what they were looking for here as well. They were hiring out someone as a freelancer and probably thought to themselves “Hey, we’re making enough videos and we want to make more – we should just have someone in the office to do them.”

DD: Are you doing everything yourself?

SH: I am and I love it. It’s very fun and very challenging, obviously. On the support videos it was nice to get some of our support teams voices in the video because they have their faces on the help site so when customers write in they get personalized emails from these people. I do most of the voiceover but it’s nice to work with other teams when I can.

DD: How is Basecamp using video lately?

SH: I just finished the iPad and iPhone App Preview videos. They were really fun and I’m surprised they haven’t been taken done yet [laughs]. I don’t know if you’ve watched them but they’re bizarre. We picked four features and highlighted them as quickly as possible and set it to some hip hop music.

DD: How are you planning and prioritizing the video content you produce?

SH: About 50% of [the video project ideas] are me finding what I want to work on, what I think would be most beneficial to the company at any given time, or what I think our customers would want to see.

The other 50% of my work comes from different departments. In the case of the help videos, the support team came to me with a list of their top 10 most frequently asked questions and we decided to make a video to answer each of those questions so it would reduce their email load. So, I worked with a few people in that particular department on a script and I’d record a quick scratch voiceover with a storyboard. Then I’d have someone in the department record the VO and then shoot the video and edit it all together. A video like that takes about a week to make.

DD: How would you describe the “voice” of Basecamp’s videos?

SH: Wow, I don’t know. It’s different with each project. There are some, like the help videos, that are really fun. While the in app videos are more to the point. The Distancevideos have a different voice from the marketing site. The marketing site perspective has even changed too. It used to be a little more straightforward but once we hired Nate to do the character artwork, that changed my voice as well.  As the companies voice changes, I try to change my voice as well.

DD: You use a mix of screencast, live action, animation, and Legos – why do you use so many different types of video?

SH: Because screencasts are boring [laughs]. They have their place and I just finished testing thirteen straight screencast videos that work inside the app. So, if you are in the to-do section there will be a little link that says “Watch A Video About What this Section Is” and it’s going to be really quick screencast and voiceover.

Those work really well but when people go to the help site, I think they don’t know why they want to use that feature. If you’re in the app, you are already there so you want to know what you can do there but when you’re outside of the app, on a Help or Marketing site, you don’t necessarily know what you want to do. You may have a problem in the back of your mind and you want to know what the solution to the problem is, but you’re not going to know exactly what the solution is. So for those initial help site videos we wanted to go through and give examples of a situation that a customer could put themselves in to understand how this feature might be used.

We used Legos for lump sum payments because different customers need to pay in different ways and it wasn’t something that could be shown in a screencast, so we wanted to show it in a fun and interesting way that isn’t a talking head telling you what to do.

DD: How do you incorporate Basecamp (the tool) into the video production process?

SH: One of the features let’s anyone edit a doc so it helps when I’m writing a script with someone on another team, we’ll both be on there making changes. I have personal to do lists on there. I have video to do lists on there. I post all of my rough cuts on there. All of my fine cuts I put into a special project called The Screening Room, that let’s anyone in the company watch any video I’m working on.

DD: What kind of equipment and software are you using?

SH: I shoot everything on a 5D Mark II. I edit everything in Final Cut 7 because I’m too afraid to change [laughs]. I do a lot of work in After Effects for motion graphics and coloring. I host our videos mostly on Youtube. The help videos are all on Vimeo because we like the way it embeds. But everything that is emailed out is on YouTube because I like the way you can pop it up in your Gmail. I’ve also been looking into Wistia recently.

DD: What excites you most about video at BC in the future?

SH: There are some things on my plate but I think for the most part, having a video producer at Basecamp is new to them and new to me, so everyone day I get to come in and think “what CAN I do today” as opposed to “what to do I NEED to do today.” Jason and David [the partners] give everyone a ton of autonomy, it’s not just me. Their feedback is important and taken into consideration but no one has final cut. I love to hear everyone’s voice when I’m creating a video.

DD: What tips do you have for other companies looking to start making web video content?

Do it. Pay someone to do it. There are a lot of people out there like me.

SH: I never wanted to go to hollywood or do anything like that. I’ve even started to tell people “Oh yeah, I do corporate video”, which used to have such a terrible connotation and people would think “Did you create that video that taught fry cooks how to flip a burger?” I wish [laughs]!

It’d be hard to have more video content mess something up, how are you going to go that wrong with it. Just decide whether you want to hire someone on full time or contract a company, like Demo Duck, to do it. Depends on where your priorities are.

DD: What’s the best part about working for BC?

SH: The autonomy. I can come in and work on what I decide is the most important thing to work on. Definitely the autonomy.

A big thanks to Shaun and Basecamp for letting us peek behind the curtain. We’re always looking for interesting companies using video. If you know someone we should profile, do let us know!

Written by Colin Hogan
Colin is the Managing Director at Demo Duck, a Chicago-based video production company, who has a deep obsession with making videos as often as possible. Follow Demo Duck on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.