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Twenty dollars in an envelope

Written by Justin on March 4, 2013


People are happy to pay for things that are good. Don’t be afraid to charge for your services.
– Jason Fried, 37signals

Kyle and I recently interviewed Jason Fried, of 37signals, for our podcast Product People. He had a great story about how he built his first product (when he was around 13!). Here’s the transcript:

Justin Jackson: Have you always been making products? Is this something you have been doing, you know, since you started 37signals or was there stuff you built and sold before that?

Jason Fried: When I first got started in computers I was in junior high school, I’m 38 now, so I guess that was, I don’t know, 25 years ago or something that I got a computer. I started messing around with it and one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to keep track of all the different tapes and CDs that I had.

So I eventually got on AOL, before the formal Internet was around, went to the file section, searched in the Mac section for like music organizing tools and I found some stuff and downloaded those things. They were mostly based in FileMaker Pro, which is a data base. I had FileMaker Pro so I could run them and I just didn’t like them. I don’t know what it was, they weren’t attractive, they weren’t easy to use, they were complicated, they were doing far more things than I needed.

I just needed this really simple thing. I wanted to look good, and be fast. I ended up just figuring that I could figure out how to make this sort of thing myself. I had File Maker, I started screwing around, started learning how to do it, and I eventually made a product called Audio File, which I started using to catalog my music collection.

I basically wrote a little text file, a read me file basically, and in there I said, “Hey, if you like this it’s $20.00. Send me a check, or send me $20.00? and I put my address down. Then I uploaded it to AOL, and see what would happen. I had no idea.

Then one day I got a check in the mail, well I got an envelope in the mail from a guy in Germany, and I didn’t know anybody in Germany. I hadn’t heard of anyone from Germany, I had never been there. And so my parents gave me this envelope, this air mail envelope, and I open it, and there was a print out of that read me file and $20.00.

That was the start for me of selling software. After that I started taking off, and it didn’t put me through college or anything, but I had a nice amount of spending money, extra spending money in college just from this $20.00 shareware tool that I made. I probably made 10s of thousands of dollars or more selling it over the next few years.

Justin: You’re kidding me, actually 10s of thousands of dollars selling this little shareware app?

Jason: Yes, 10s of thousands of dollars, $20.00 a pop.

Justin: Did that seem significant to you? I would love to make $10,000.00 now! 

Jason: Oh yeah. I’ve always had jobs too, so I’ve been working since I was 13 at grocery stores and shoe stores and gas stations and all this stuff. I had part time jobs anyway. I would have had spending money, but it was great to have extra money coming in, to have a significant amount, and for it to be sort of this passive money in that I didn’t feel like I was working for it. I had already done the work, making software.

The money just kept coming in, unlike my part time jobs where I had to go after school and work for four hours or something every day. That was a real nice thing. It was great. It was killer. I bought a bunch of stuff I wanted like a stereo or whatever, just a bunch of garbage probably.


The thing I realized early on is people are happy to pay for things that are good. Don’t be afraid to charge for your services. Don’t be afraid to charge for what you produce. If those people who don’t want to pay for it want to complain about it, that’s fine. They don’t have to buy it.

There are plenty of people out there who appreciate something good and are happy to cough up some cash for it, because they think it’s worth their time and it makes their life better.

Want to hear more?

You can listen to the full interview with Jason Fried here. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes. Follow @productpeopletv on Twitter.

Jason blogs at Signal vs Noise, and co-authored a book on business with DHH. They’re writing their 2nd book now.

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