Working Smaller, Slower, and Smarter

Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, collects mechanical watches. He appreciates their simplicity. He once wrote in a blog post, “When I look at my watch, it gives me the time. It asks nothing in return. It’s a loyal companion without demands. In contrast, if I look at my phone for the time, it takes my time. It tempts me.” 

Distributed Podcast: Jason Fried on Treating Workers Like Adults. Read the transcript.

But it’s not just the streamlined nature of the mechanical watch that fascinates Jason, it’s also the process of its construction, and how the latter stands in contrast to the way software development operates. Some of the world’s leading manufacturers of mechanical watches go back centuries, and many are family-owned, passing on their art and craft from generation to generation. The industry prizes tradition, and innovations come slowly and with intention. 

What would it look like for a tech startup to approach its craft with a multi-generational timeline? What would it mean for a startup to think about slow, sustainable growth not for its own sake, but based on the needs of a product and its users? What if startups asked “should we scale?” instead of “could we scale?” 

Basecamp has been around for 20 years. At 56 employees, they have grown since their founding, but not by much. Jason believes that growth should happen for a reason, and 20 years in, he hasn’t found a good one to justify expanding the company headcount far beyond where it is right now. 

I feel like we’re doing everything we could do and having more wouldn’t help us. In fact, I think in some ways it would probably hurt us. We’d be a little bit slower, we’d be probably doing too much work at the same time, which I think can often dilute what you’re really trying to do. We might take on more stuff than we really want to. We might just find work, invent work, to keep people busy. There’s always of course more work to do, but we believe in doing it at a certain pace, and I think having more people, or fewer people, at this point would kind of mess up that pace.

Instead of pursuing scale, Jason is more interested in optimizing the output of each individual employee, ensuring that the company turns a profit every year, and cultivating an environment where people want to work for a long time. 

Setting Up Camp

Basecamp began as 37signals in 1999, the same year that the term “web application” was coined. Initially, 37signals was a web design firm. Many companies were going online and revamping their websites, so the firm had plenty of work. So much work, in fact, that important things were lost in the shuffle. Projects dragged, deliverables fell through the cracks, and miscommunications multiplied. Email wasn’t cutting it, so the team began to build the tools they needed. In 2003, they started work on a suite of web-based project management tools they called Basecamp. These were the very early days of browser-based productivity software — before Google Drive and even before Gmail. Basecamp offered to-do lists, milestone management, forum-like messaging, file sharing, and time tracking. When it launched in 2004, it was an immediate hit. 

In 2013, 37signals changed the name of the company to Basecamp to reflect their commitment to this core product. Today, Basecamp boasts over 3 million accounts and tens of millions in annual revenue.

Basecamp has an HQ in Chicago, but all employees are free to work from wherever they live. Jason says that he finds this the “most respectful” way to work:

I have always found it borderline offensive that someone would have to lose their job because their partner that they live with had to go somewhere else to get a job. So you’re living with someone and they have to go move to Madison, Wisconsin, because that’s where the work is. And you’re working for a company in Chicago but you’ve got to move because your partner has to move, and all of a sudden you have to lose your job. Why? That seems so horrible for everybody. 

As Jason sees it, the employer loses out too. They’ve lost a worker and their accumulated institutional knowledge. At Basecamp, distributed work is more than just a type of collaboration, it’s an employee-retention strategy, and part of their overall mission to do more with less, organizationally speaking. 

A Remote Manifesto

Back in 2013, alongside the company’s name change, Jason also cowrote a book with Basecamp co-founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson: Remote: Office Not Required. Hot on the heels of Marissa Mayer — Yahoo!’s CEO at the time — forbidding remote work at the company, the book served as a clarion call for the practice of distributed work. As Jason lamented in the book, “work doesn’t happen at work.”

The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. In fact, offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor — it chops your day into tiny bits. Fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there, twenty here, five there. Each segment is filled with a conference call, a meeting, another meeting, or some other institutionalized unnecessary interruption.

Remote was an early manifesto for distributed work from the perspective of founders, and highlighted the value the practice provides to open-minded employers. The book mocked “petty evaluation stats” that allow managers to fool themselves into thinking productivity is high simply because desks are occupied from nine to five. Jason and David decried long and frequent meetings and the rampant distractions that characterize the modern office. 

In 2018, Jason and David followed Remote with a third book (their first, Rework, was released in 2010): It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. This book rejects the notion that successful companies have to overwork their employees to stay competitive. They argued that burnout is avoidable and sleep is indispensable. They built on the arguments in Remote, explaining how distributed work can be more productive, healthier for employees, and less stressful. 

Less Talking, More Writing

A common thread in Jason’s writing is his distaste for pointless meetings, an aversion that he’s translated into Basecamp policy. The first step in avoiding meetings at Basecamp is arranging workers into efficient two- or three-person teams, with one or two programmers paired with a designer. 

“Three is a wedge, and that’s why it works,” says Jason in his latest book. “Three has a sharp point. It’s an odd number, so there are no ties. It’s powerful enough to make a dent, but also weak enough to not break what isn’t broken.”

These teams have the freedom to work autonomously, such that communication across teams is minimal, and meetings only happen when they’re absolutely necessary. “We don’t have a lot of meetings,” says Jason. “We don’t share calendars. It seems like a simple thing but it has such a huge influence.” Jason tries to reduce systemic meta-work, the busyness that sits on top of actual work and that may or may not add value — meetings, extended group chats, and check-ins, to name a few. 

I don’t like talking about making things, I like the making of things. So whenever I’m together with somebody and we’re working on something real, [I] love those all the time. And I’ll do that many times a week. But just to sit around a table and have people go around a table and talk about stuff that isn’t actually the work — I think it’s important to have those discussions, but I don’t think they need to be happening in person or via video. 

According to Jason, a lot of inter-office communication probably doesn’t have to happen, and the time companies dedicate to these exchanges would be better spent on deep work. 

When nobody can take anyone else’s time through a system, people end up with more time to themselves. When you have more time to yourself, you end up doing better work and more work. You can get a lot more stuff done in a given day than maybe you could in another organization that has six times as many people but 20 times as many meetings, 30 times less time during the day to yourself. So we try to avoid anything that breaks days into smaller and smaller chunks.

Asynchronous chat can also be disruptive. The problem with Slack, as Jason sees it, is that there’s no way to “own” a conversation; to have “the floor.” Anyone trying to communicate a lengthy series of ideas will be interrupted with questions and comments. 

Instead of meetings and chat, the company encourages workers to communicate in longform using the Basecamp platform itself. Jason prefers longform writing because it pushes collaborators to work through their thoughts, and to collect and share them as a single unit. The format then allows others to read, reflect, and respond with equal care. 

In order to facilitate high-quality longform communication, the company hires excellent writers. 

Writing is very important, and then we often give a lot of writing exercises through the job hiring process, depending on what it is, and continue to double down on that. And every time we’ve been hesitant about someone, their skills have been great but they weren’t great writers, it turned out that we probably shouldn’t have hired them. And the main reason why here is because most of our communication is written.

Leveling the Global Playing Field

Despite almost all of Basecamp’s employees working outside the Bay Area, the company pays competitive San Francisco salaries. These salaries are non-negotiable; everyone knows what everyone else makes, as salaries for different roles fall within standardized ranges. If you’re a senior programmer, you make as much as every other senior programmer in the company, regardless of your geography. Jason sees several benefits in this practice. It reduces anxiety among employees who might otherwise wonder why they’re not making as much as their colleagues, and it removes some of the tension out of the interviewing process. It also gives new employees a clearer understanding of their earning potential over what has often become a long tenure at Basecamp. 

“There is no reason why you have to be a great negotiator to get what you’re worth,” says Jason. “It’s hard enough to be good at your job, and then to also be an ace negotiator doesn’t seem fair. People don’t like to negotiate for their cars, for their houses.” 

But even with these standardized compensation scales, there are still some tricky elements that a distributed business must navigate. For example, exchange rates fluctuate, sometimes dramatically. International Basecamp workers who aren’t paid in U.S. dollars submit invoices, and their paychecks are adjusted to match shifts in exchange rates. 

Employee benefits represent another fuzzy area. For example, healthcare is subsidized by some governments; for many U.S. workers, it’s not. Basecamp pays 75 percent of employee healthcare fees in the U.S., and compensates those living in places with socialized healthcare with an equivalent cash benefit. 

“The numbers can’t be exact,” says Jason. “We do our best to make them as close as is reasonably possible.” 

The Slow Work Movement

On Basecamp’s Rework podcast, Jason’s colleague and co-author David Heinemeier Hansson took aim at Marissa Mayer’s claim that 130-hour workweeks built Google

When Marissa Mayer is talking about the fact that it’s possible to work 130 hours a week, if you’re just being strategic with your bathroom breaks… “Look at me, I am so virtuous that I can work these hours. Clearly, you can work a leisurely hundred hours a week…” There’s the trickle down of both the value systems and then the practices of it where I do think it is kind of cynical, and the cynicism may not even be conscious in the sense of someone like Marissa Mayer or anyone else who is spouting this philosophy of work. That “Oh, if I put this out there, then I can really crack the whip and I can get people to run faster and faster.”

Jason and David wonder why, if productivity tools have improved so much over the last few decades, people aren’t working less. Instead, the opposite has happened: we work more than ever before, even with tools that drastically enhance productivity — faster computers, convenient smartphones, and countless collaboration and communication apps. The co-founders argue that we may be working more hours, but we’re likely getting less real, added-value work done. 

In the parody book trailer for Remote, an actor playing a startup CEO states, “I hire morons who can’t be trusted that need constant adult supervision. You can’t just have them working from anywhere.” This is hyperbolic language, but it hints at the logical implications of the way many managers think. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work builds on this theme, pushing back against the toxic culture of overwork. The argument is simple: If you feel the need to constantly monitor and push your employees to the limit of their physical and mental capacities, you’ll end up with unmotivated, unproductive, and resentful workers, and your business will ultimately fail. 

Jason believes that managers have more to fear from employee overwork and burnout than from underwork. 

“The people who brag about trading sleep for endless slogs and midnight marathons are usually the ones who can’t point to actual accomplishments,” writes Jason. “You can’t outwork the whole world… Assuming you can work harder and longer than someone else is giving yourself too much credit for your effort and not enough for theirs. Putting in 1,001 hours to someone else’s 1,000 isn’t going to tip the scale in your favor.”

This philosophy runs counter to mainstream startup philosophy, where working nights and weekends is considered a prerequisite for success. Basecamp instead aims for a 40-hour workweek. They divide development projects into six-week blocks, and split up days into uninterrupted one-hour chunks. They eschew long-term goals and focus on incremental improvements and small successes. They default to “no” when discussing new ideas, staying open to unseen opportunities, but avoiding goals that are tangential to the success of the core business. They focus on making the best version of a narrow set of tools, so they aren’t scrambling to scale in order to capture market share with secondary products. They give people the freedom to work from wherever they want so their employees have more time to focus on getting things done. 

Jason’s co-authored books and Basecamp’s successful 20-year run both reflect an alternate reality where companies succeed thanks to treating their employees like adults — with fairness, trust, and respect. 

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