Highrise lives up to ‘Getting Real’ simplicity standards, but it’s not a CRM

My stupid assessment of Highrise as “not being a real CRM”, which was a ridiculous thing to say. But this is where my head was in 2007.

[Note: this article was originally published on my first blog, strategyden.com; a copy exists on archive.org. It also makes me cringe a bit. Jason Fried left a very generous comment but that’s now lost forever.]

“Highrise, I knew CRM, CRM was a friend of mine, and you’re no CRM.”

Actually, CRM and I are still friends, and I count 37Signals design and development strategies as a friend as well. In fact, this weekend I dusted off my copy of ‘Getting Real’, a kind of product development manifesto published by 37Signals. I was prompted to take another look at Getting Real perhaps because I just noticed that Highrise — released earlier this year — is calling itself a CRM. Highrise is a useful and innovative Contact Management tool, but it is not CRM, I’m sorry to report.

CRM stands for Contact Relationship Management (Wikipedia uses “Customer” as of 11/28/07; I think that’s limiting though), with “relationship” being the operative word. Leaving aside the world of enterprise mega-CRMs such as Microsoft Dynamics and Netsuite, I believe that a web based CRM, however simple, should have at least two ‘relationship’ features:

  • form publishing tools, to create contact relationships efficiently
  • email marketing tools, to maintain contact relationships efficiently

These basic features are offered by the Granddaddy of web based CRM, Salesforce.com, and numerous imitators, most which offer reams of other “integrated” features. I like the idea of pairing CRM down, simplifying it for the “Fortune 5,000,000″, but Highrise demonstrates that if you keep pairing CRM down, then eventually you are left with a Contact Management tool. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

For those of you living under a rock lately, simplicity is 37Signals signature. 37Signals garnered notoriety few years back with the Zen-like simplicity of its flagship product, BaseCamp, a project management tool that enables web-based communication. (The aforementioned Getting Real discusses the design and development strategy for BaseCamp — a great read for any internet professional, even if you’re not involved in developing product). I can personally attest to the soothing efficacy of Basecamp. It makes me hate MS Project even more than I used to.

Since Basecamp, 37Signals has been churning out other simple, effective web-apps that help you work and collaborate online:

  • Backpack — a flexible information organizer and calendar, that lets you define what’s what.
  • Campfire — real-time time group chat
  • Writeboard — a text editing tool, like Writely, that simplifies MS Word and makes it web based.

and lastly…

  • Highrise — a contact management tool and “Simple CRM” according to 37Signals official marketing copy.

In addition to marketing copy printed on the Highrise website, there is the marketing copy in the title tag, which refers to Highrise as a “Web based CRM”. This is rather pernicious.

I would love nothing more than for 37Signals to rise to the challenge of building a web based CRM. Meanwhile it rankles me that they are branding Highrise as such.

Perhaps 37Signals is trying to reform the stale CRM market by redefining what CRM means. And perhaps this is only a first step, that will later be integrable with small apps that together will comprise CRM.

Or to take a more cynical view, maybe it was just a smart marketing decision to use the phrase CRM when publishing an Address Book app. I am prone to cynicism, but I don’t think this is the case. I think 37Signals have proven themselves to be an honorable, straight-shooting software company.

Whatever the case, let this be a warning to all ye who seek an simple web CRM: Highrise isn’t quite it; and unfortunately, I don’t know of anything else that is.