Would you ever think it possible not to have salespeople, advertising, goals, nor a focus on growth yet still have more than two decades of profitability? Jason Fried, the Founder and CEO of Basecamp, made this happen by creating a company culture that’s focused on putting the people first. In this episode, he talks about how his company differs from other traditional companies. He shares how meetings are conducted within their company and how decisions are made. He also discusses their hiring process, his stand on job descriptions, how they welcome members of their team, and what perks they have in the company. When he’s not out with his employees on a trip, Jason writes books such as Rework and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.
Listen to the podcast here:
People First: Unconventional Workplace Culture With Jason Fried
Our guest is Jason Fried. He is the Founder and CEO of Basecamp and the author of four books including Rework and It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. He thinks dramatically different. He has been an inspiration for me and our company for many years. We’re going to know how he’s created amazing workplace and culture by challenging the status quo and putting his people first. Jason, welcome to Business Done Differently.
It’s great to be here. Thanks.
I want to make sure these facts are still true because I want to set the premise of how you are dramatically different. You don’t have any salespeople?
You don’t do any advertising?
We’re dabbling, but essentially no.
You don’t have goals?
You don’t focus on growth?
No.The truth has a way of ironing out the fakes over time. Click To Tweet
You’ve had almost twenty straight years of profitability?
You said a strong stand is how you attract super fans and you got to draw a line in the stand. What’s your stand at Basecamp?
I’d say we have many stands but fundamentally we’re trying to be about enough, which is like, “Let’s build a company with the right amount of people. Let’s build a product that reaches the right type of customers. Let’s not be obsessed with growth. Let’s not be obsessed with numbers. Let’s not be obsessed with beating last year every year.” It’s not about that thing for us because those are all growth goals and they drive people a little bit crazy. They’re also arbitrary. You make them up and you’re like, “Let’s go to 25% more next year than we did last year.” Why not 23.2%? Why not 24.9%? Why not 27%? You make it up. We try not to make things up. We try to do the best work that we can and let the cards fall where they may.
Aside from that, the other thing that’s important about us is that independence is the most valuable thing that we have. We don’t have investors. We’re not ever going to go public. We’re not interested in selling the business. We answer to ourselves and to our customers and that’s it. We want to be able to do whatever we want to do, however we want to do it without having to justify anything, without having to show numbers that show it’s going work. We do what we think is right. Those are the kinds of things that fundamentally underpin all the other things that we do here.
I love it so much because we get asked the question, “Why didn’t you go to the Minor Leagues? Why don’t you go professional?” Because there’s all red tape there. For instance, our players go on dates with fans during games, our players dance during the games, you can’t do that at their level. Trying to scratch my own itch and do what I want, same thing to you. You don’t have investors. You can solely focus on what’s best for your customers and what’s best for your people.
It’s what’s best for my people first. We care a lot about customers, but you have to make sure that the internal culture in your company is solid first. The people want to be here, are doing challenging work, have autonomy and the space to do their best work. That’s the only way you can do things well for customers. You can’t have a rotting core, then also put on a happy face and have everything great on the outside. It doesn’t work. You need to have two layers of solid, strong experiences. I don’t want gatekeepers. I don’t want to have to ask permission. If you have to ask someone, they’re going to say no. I don’t want to be in a situation where someone else is going to tell me, “No, you can’t do this thing, this idea, this hunch, this thought that you have.” That doesn’t mean everything we do works, but it means everything we do, we get to do because we want to take a shot at it. That’s what is the most exciting thing about working here, I think, or at least my job here.
On your website, you say, “Giving a damn.” That’s what it’s about, giving a damn about people and how you treat them. Has that become like, “This is who we are?”
Yes. You got to know yourself. You’ve got to know what drives you. You got to know what you care about. You got to know what makes you happy, what doesn’t. Especially in our industry, there’s a lot of following going on, “I want to be like this company. I want to be like that company.” It’s okay to have that set up as an aspirational direction at a fundamental level. You can’t want to be them only. You might want to be like them, but you still got to be yourself. Having that self-awareness is important because you can chase things that don’t make you happy because they made someone else happy and you think they’re going to make you happy and they don’t.
You’ve got to be careful about that. Getting to know us and what we want, what’s important to us first is the only way to be able to do something for the long-term. Because in the short-term, you can fake whatever you want, but the truth has a way of ironing out the fakes over time. We’ve been in business for twenty years. Any company that’s been around for a long time is probably pretty true to themselves. The companies that go out are the ones that are trying to be something that they’re not because it’s very hard to sustain that approach.
You say, “Scratch your own itch,” and that’s so important to not to try to be anyone else. Do you like it? For me, I get bored at baseball games. How do I make it nonstop fun? I get nickel and dime to baseball games. How do I include all the food? For you, you are your own customer and the same thing you think not about your customer, but what’s the work environment I want to be a part of?
I own the company but it’s also my day job. I want to go work at the company that I want to work at. I want to create a job that will inspire me. It will keep me interested in my career and my progression for 20, 30, 40 years. You’ve got to create that environment that you want to go work in. Your examples are wonderful. In our world, we build the products that we need. We’ve built Basecamp because we needed Basecamp. We’re building this new thing called HEY, which is a new email service because we feel we need it. We’re not happy with the way email works right now. We’re always scratching our own itch first and recognizing that there are probably many people out there like us that have similar itches in similar places. It’s not everybody. We don’t need to sell. We don’t need to have millions of customers. We have 50,000 customers or 100,000 customers. We can carve out a nice business that does enough. It keeps us happy, keeps us doing what we’re doing, keeps us profitable and also makes a dent in a very small universe for the people who are like us.
I say start with the mirror moment. Look in the mirror. What are those things that frustrate you about what you’re in that industry? What frustrates you as coming to work. Nobody in the world wants to be managed. People want to be led. No one wants to be micromanaged in a certain sense. Don’t do that. Why do we do that? It seems like we have such a similar mindset of that. What I’m fascinated in, Jason, is going through a little of your progression on how you bring someone on board and what that looks like. I want to get into the perks later because that’s speaking my language, but I want to go into building your team. There’s one thing that hit me. We’re not a family. We’re allies to families. We do treat each other like family but we’re not a family. That’s almost a starting point. Tell me how you use that as a bridge to start the hiring process with someone and bringing them on board.
Step one is we only hire 1 or 2 people a year. Sometimes there might be an outlier year where we hire four, but that’s it. The point is that because we only hire 1, 2 to 3 people a year, we can be very selective and we can be very thoughtful about writing the job ad, which we might spend a month writing to get it right. It’s very detailed, very extensive. It’s not about the bullet points like, “You need twelve years of experience.” It’s more about like, “Here’s what your average day would look here. Here are some things you might’ve done last week if you had this job or here’s some stuff you might do next week if you have this job.” It helps people understand what the work is like, what the place is like and what their responsibilities might be. More so than that I check this box off of my resume and this box and this box.
How long does that job description get typically?
It can be over 1,000 words.
It goes detailed into what a day in the life of what they would be doing.
That’s what we found to be the best way to explain the job. Otherwise, it’s a title. We have job titles, but the problem with titles is that lead designer at one company might be different than lead designer in another company. Customer service rep in one company might be different than another company. You have to say like, “What does that mean? What would I be doing next week? What would I have done last week? What did someone in my position do today?” That’s where it all begins because you have to attract the right people. You have to lay out a realistic position that people can see themselves in. It will attract the people that want to do that work and it will repel the people who don’t want to do that work.
You’ve got to start there. The other thing we do is we always put the actual salary in the job ad so people know exactly what you’re going to get paid. There are no questions. It’s not like you negotiate or you interview someone. Things are going fantastically. You spend three weeks interviewing them back and forth and at the end it’s this painful negotiation where you’re $20,000, $30,000 away from each other. You can’t meet in the middle and it’s over. You’re like, “We wasted all this time. We lost this great person.” Lay it all out and be honest up front. All of the other things we do, it has to start. There has to be a solid foundation of honesty, truth and clarity so we attract the right people. Once we do that, and this always depends on the job title, but the last few people are always been hired for one week on a contract basis to do a project for us.
Let’s say I’m hiring designers. Let’s say we get down to five people. Each person will be paid $1,500 for one week’s worth of work in spare time that they have to redesign a webpage or a website or something that we say, “Here’s this thing. How would you make this better?” Everyone has the same assignment. The reason we do this is because we feel you have to look at actual work to judge the work. If you look at resumes, people say on their resumes, “Designed Nike.com,” it’s like, “No, you didn’t.” Maybe you were a part of it and that’s legitimate, but I don’t know what you did. Let’s do a project together. It’s not about the work because we know people have day jobs already, so they only maybe have a few hours to squeeze in to do this project. It’s about talking it through afterwards. “Why did you do this? What were you thinking about when you do this?” I might push back on an idea and I want to see how they take feedback and how they give me feedback. We try and make things as real as possible. That’s the best way to judge people.You’ve got to remember that doing something that works is not the end. That's just the beginning. Click To Tweet
You said hire for work, not the resume. For us, we ask for three things. A video cover letter because we’re outward facing. We need to see your personality, your enthusiasm. One page that you fit our core beliefs and then the future resume. It’s not what they’ve run the past but what they want to do in the future. That’s our three steps. The challenge that I’m having, which I love, you look at these projects, Jason. What would you suggest to someone’s project that’s not digital, but they actually face people? If we hire 150 game-day staff and interact with 4,000 fans, I want to see how they are with people. Is there a project that you could think you could have them do?
It depends on the role. Give me some examples.
Concessions, serving beer.
Let’s go with concessions. This is not my idea. This is someone else’s idea, but I’ve always loved this idea. Let’s say you had five finalists. I would say, “Here’s $1,000,” or whatever it is. “Here’s a budget. Who can sell the most water bottles?” You go out and someone’s got $500 and they might buy a bunch of water, they may buy a little bit of water. You can see how they sell water and who can sell the most water with a given budget and generate the most revenue from that water. That’s the question. Everyone’s got $500. You can buy as much water as you want or as little water as you want. At the end, you look at how many bottles sold and what was the revenue. You ask them to document the process and maybe have a film crew hanging out with them, but they go out in the street and selling water.
You can see how they interact with people. You can see the pitches they make. You can see where they go, how they choose to decide how to sell the water, where to sell the water. Do they go on a street corner? Do they go into the lobby of a business? Do they go outside of a school? I don’t know, wherever they could go. I’m like, “What are the decisions they’re making? Why are they making these decisions? What are their interactions like with individual people?” It’s not necessarily that whoever generates the most revenue is the winner. That’s what you set out. There is some a target here, but what you might like the person who came in third there. You love their personality and their integrity. The person who sold the most might have cheated or might’ve lied about it. You’re like, “You sold the most bottle. I want you.” That’s how I would simulate what it’s like to sell concessions at a baseball.
Anybody who gets a job, they should do a project because you don’t know how they are until they actually do work. I interviewed a woman, Valerie Washington, at the Charlotte airport and she sings at a register, sings the whole time. I interviewed her and she said, “I used to be in a bathroom and I was only making $3.13 an hour. I started singing and greeting people. The minimum I made was $400 in tips because I was singing things like, ‘Don’t worry, pee happy now.’” She was having fun. I was like, “I love that because you made it fun and people rewarded you for it,” which is cool. How do you make the offer special? We’re big into thinking, how do you make it a celebratory moment?
I don’t think we’re probably as good at that as you are. The offer is probably pretty straightforward here. After someone’s accepted the offer, what we do in Basecamp, the person who hired the person writes up a message introducing this new person. This new person has not joined the company yet. They might not join for a month or whatever. They write up why they picked this person out, why they feel great about this person. Everybody else in the company leaves a wonderful comment down below saying, “Looking forward to meeting you, Jamie. We’re so excited to have you on board.” There are 50 comments below the write up, which is positive.
This is before they started. The person who hired them does an introductory message, but they put them on the platform so they can already see it.
No, not yet. They do an introductory message, but everybody else in the company then says something wonderful down below. The first day this person joins up, they’re added to Basecamp and given a link to this message, which is a very warm welcome from 50 coworkers saying, “We can’t wait to have you. This is going to be great. I can’t wait to meet you.” That first day, they’re hit with this overwhelming sense of welcome from all the people who work here. The thing is we’re remote, so most people don’t see each other. We can do videos. There are other things we could do, but it could be quite tedious to watch 50 videos where someone could actually instead read this long write up. They could print it out, keep it, and have it on hand. That’s how we make the welcome warm initially. We fly them into a city, Chicago typically, which is where our headquarters are. A bunch of people come in and we hang out and we have dinner and we catch up over lunch. We walk through onboarding joining the company. There’s a personal touch there. Even though we’re remote, we always start out in person if we can. That’s how we do it. We’re probably not as enthusiastic perhaps.
We get a little over the top, but that’s who we are, silly string and parties. It’s a whole other celebration. That’s so great because it builds also a recognition culture and also will develop respect from that person coming to learn from that person. Are they supervised? How do you word that? What’s their terminology? Who writes that?
The team lead. Let’s say you’re hired for a design role. Jonas would be the team lead on the design team. He would write the thing. If you’re being hired on support, Kristen would write that. If you’re being hired on data, Jane would write that. We have different people writing these things. It depends on if you’re hired for programming, someone else will write it. It all depends on who the team lead is. Jeff is programming. Troy would be ops. It depends. Sometimes I’ll write it. Sometimes Dave will write it.
It means a lot. It’s a great welcome. It’s important. The onboarding process, you said nobody hits the ground running. We always hope you’re going to hit the ground running. That’s such a great point. How do you make sure the onboarding process hits their expectations and people feel not overwhelmed? They feel they have a purpose. What does that look like?
We have not always been good at this, but lately we’ve gotten a lot better. We write up a document for each person calling out every 90 days essentially for you starting up. What do we expect over the first 90 days? What to expect over the first six months? What do we expect over the first nine months to two years? The first 90 days are like, “Get to know us.” We’re going to get to know you. You get to know us. You might jump in on a few projects, but the expectations are not you’re going to hit it out of the park. It’s not like that.
You have low expectations for the first 90 days to get them acclimated.
Let’s say reasonable expectations. This is mostly about getting to know the company, breaking some maybe bad habits that you had from working at other companies in other ways. Getting to know how we work, who works here, our methods, our ethos. I know some people, depending on the role, get more involved quicker. Typically, if someone’s joining as a programmer, which we already have a dozen programmers, it’s a little bit easier to get acclimated compared to someone who’s starting up in a new position we’ve ever had.
We hired a head of marketing. We’ve never had a head of marketing ever. This is a new role for us. We don’t know how it’s going to go. We don’t know what it’s going to be. There’s a little bit more of a slower ramp up in that position because we don’t have anything to model it on, compared to joining an existing team, which is a little bit easier. Still, we want to set expectations so there’s no surprises. We have this document and give it to each person who’s new. This is what we’re expecting roughly at these timeframes.
When you bring in the new position you never had before, I know you’ve probably done this before. Our challenge, the only turnover we’ve ever had, was when someone came in from the outside and they didn’t have a direct person helping them on their way. It was a brand-new position, a director of events, director of so-and-so, and they were figuring out as they went. It was very tough for them. Have you figured out when you have someone in new position that they don’t have someone that actually knows how to do things, how that works well?
It’s been hard for us too. That’s been our challenge as well. For example, a few years ago, we hired a COO for the first time. She was wonderfully talented and great, but we’d never had a COO before. We didn’t necessarily know what a COO would do. With David, my business partner, we hope that someone would take a little bit off our plates and handle some more of the infrastructure and the operations, but we didn’t know what that role was and it didn’t work out. Also, she’d come from much larger companies. She worked running a team of 400 and whatever. We’re like, “We want this experience here.” It turns out that she was wonderful, but it wasn’t a great fit. After about a year, we had to let her go. The same thing has happened in a few other positions where we hired someone for the first time. There’s always more risk involved. The key is to recognize that. It’s almost impossible to get it to go away. This is a harder role to hire for. It’s a harder role to succeed in. It’s a harder role for us to explain what we’re expecting from somebody.
It’s more of a learning process and it might take about a year to figure out if we’re getting anywhere. It’s hard. The key though with all of these things is being honest with the reality and going, “We know that this is going to be challenging.” One of the things we don’t talk about here at Basecamp much is certainty. We talk about bets, risks, tradeoffs. Nothing is certain, but we know that there’s more uncertainty when you’re hiring for a brand-new position than there is hiring a programmer. We know what a great programmer is going to look like. We know what a great designer is going to be like. We know what a great customer service person is going to be like. We don’t know what a head of marketing is going to look like. We don’t know what a COO is going to look like. We don’t have a CFO. We don’t know what those would look like. We have an idea, but we don’t know and we seem to admit that and that helps us all out.
You’re doing things that have never been done, especially in your field. That’s what happens. In our field, we’re doing things we haven’t been done. We don’t know what the answer is. Jason, we eliminated all advertising from our ballpark. Literally every single ad, we’re going an ad free experience, which normally wasn’t done before. We don’t know what the outcome is. We think it’s best for our fans. We don’t think anyone comes to a ballpark and wants to be advertised to. You say it’s cool to be clear with your people, “We think this is best. We hope this is best.” As Jeff Bezos, you’ve mentioned he’s a little part of you and he said, “The people that are right, they often change their minds.”Three or four are enough people to make a decision. Anything more than that ends up making it worst, longer, or more indecision. Click To Tweet
I love that you did that. You’ve got to figure out how to make the business out of it all work, but everyone knows that’s what people want. Who wants to go to a ballpark and see a bunch of ads? Nobody. I go to Wrigley Field. Wrigley Field for a long time here in Chicago didn’t have advertising. Now, they do. You’re like, “It’s not the same as it was before.” Wrigley Field for a long time didn’t have lights. Probably night games are probably a good idea for them.
They may be different before. You had to go to the day games. You didn’t get ads and now they’re becoming everyone else.
I know there are pressures and I get it. Night games might be more accessible for more people because people have day jobs and they can’t go then. These are all tradeoffs and they’ve made some different tradeoffs. It would be wonderful if you go back to Wrigley Field and there are no ads. It would be amazing if somehow they could schedule with Major Leagues like, “We’re going to have no night games for 2021. Our 10th year anniversary having lights, we’re not going to do it for a year, so let’s see if we can schedule around that.” That would be interesting and entertaining and different and fun. I love hearing that you guys eliminating ads and doing all these other things that are silly, including food. Who does that?
Every single ticket includes all your food, your soda, everything. When we look at what are those frustrating points, we scratch our own itch. Just like you, what would be great for my workplace? I’m constantly thinking we don’t have any convenience fees, extra charges, ticket charges. We’ve made all shipping free. It takes away short-term profits. We’re still profitable. Take some short-term profits, but to build long-term fans. That’s what you’re doing. You’re focused on long-term fans of not just your customers, but your people.
Here’s the other thing. A lot of companies try and squeeze an extra $1 or $2 out of everybody. How does it feel when they do that? Come on, it sucks. Nobody likes that. Yes, you’re probably leaving money on the table. As are we all day long. It’s fine as long as we have enough to be profitable and to cover our costs and to make what we need to make. We’re in a slightly different business. We have very high margins because we’re a software business and everything. I understand margins are different in different businesses. For example, a friend of mine owns a grocery store down the street and grocery margins are thin. You do have to be extra careful about certain things. At the end of the day, if you make or break your business based on trying to steal an extra $1 or $2 out of someone for a convenience fee, might as well not be in business at all.
Look at what happened to Blockbuster. What percentage of their profits were based on the late fees? It was crap. Our company knows that. We’ve got a lot of inspiration from you because it’s constantly looking at what’s different and not just say, “That’s opportunity to make money.” No. What’s an opportunity to make a fan? A different mindset.
Let me ask you a question about this because the more I think about you guys, I’m sure there are parallels drawn with Harlem Globe Trotters. Did you take inspiration from their approach?
Disney, PT Barnum, WWE, anything in entertainment not baseball-focused.
That’s what I love about it. I was hoping you’d go there because people will ask me, “Where do you go for inspiration?” I try never to look at my own industry because if I look at my own industry, if I want to get inspiration for an interface design, I should not go through the App Store and look at other apps because then I’m going to design what they already have. I look to architecture, nature, retail, other experiences or book design. Other stuff that’s way out of our realm, that’s where you get the new ideas that you can bring in. That’s how you can come up with original ideas. I love that you guys are looking all over the place.
We go to the hotel industry, carnival. We take our team, our staff, and this gets into perks a little bit. We’ve surprised our staff with trips on cruises. We’re going to Disney. We surprised them some bucket list trips. We sent our Fans First director to Ireland with her dad. We understand this is great for them as people, but also it’s an inspiration to see, “Look at what they’re doing here. How do we build that into a baseball experience and make it a great thing?” I am fascinated by what you’re doing as far as the perks and you’ve learned. We’re in the middle now in our company. I started years ago. We’re only going in our fifth season here in Savannah. You’ve learned things about cash and not doing cash and changing. Can you tell your progression of the perks and what they’ve become to now?
When we first started, we had no perks. It’s a salary and that was it. Eventually when I get to the end of the story, you’ll see we have a lot of perks, but people ask like, “When should I do these things?” It’s when you can afford to. Don’t put yourself out of business offering ridiculous things we do. We can only do this now because we can afford to being in business for so long. We didn’t have health insurance for a long time. We didn’t have a lot of basics because we couldn’t afford it. Also, we hadn’t even considered it. A lot of these things we hadn’t considered. The most interesting first perk that we began to offer was the idea of four-day work weeks. We started doing them all year round one point, but we decided eventually to do in the summer. Let’s focus on that. We work roughly 32-hour weeks in the summers from May through September.
The idea behind that is that, “Let’s see what happens. Are we basically getting about the same amount of work done?” We’re getting a little bit less and it’s a little bit harder. What’s the trade off? You get a three-day weekend in the summer. You can hang out with your family more. You can do things that you couldn’t do. You can take a road trip that you couldn’t take because the place you’re going is eight hours away. If you only have two days, you’d never be able to enjoy a day. You can do more things. That’s worth it for us to encourage our employees to do more things in life and not work harder and work longer. Four-day work weeks, that came up at some point. We’ve been doing that for a long time. We used to get cash bonuses and they were arbitrary. We said like, “We had a good year, so you get $10,000 or $5,000,” or whatever it is.
The problem was that if you don’t keep that up and you give less the next year, people see it as getting less, even though it’s free money. We didn’t realize it, but it causes all sorts of problems. Even though you’re giving people more money than they would have normally made on their salary, if they got less of a bonus in the previous year, they’re upset with it. It got messy. We decided to stop doing that. Instead we said like, “What can we do that’s a reward for a great year that’s not monetary?” It’s so easy to compare dollars. $100 this year, $90 this year. First thing we did was we did this beautiful kitchen knife with this guy named Kramer Knives up in Seattle who makes these knives by hand. It’s a beautiful art. It takes a full day to make a knife. We bought kitchen knives, something that lasts forever. We wanted to make things and give people things that would last forever. Longevity, a long-term, so knives were one of those things. Now what we do is every year, we give everybody a wonderful trip to some interesting place. We pay for it. We do a menu of trips. You could go to Morocco. I don’t remember all of them.
Who selects them?
Andrea, who runs our people ops group, she picks the trips. You can also choose your own adventure. If you’ve always wanted to go to Tokyo and it’s not on the list this year, it’s $5,000 budget per person, we’ll plan your trip to Tokyo for you. If you want to stay longer and it costs more, you can pick up the difference, but we’ll cover the first $5,000. I’ll mention one other thing. We want to help people be more interesting people. A lot of companies will do continuing education. They’ll pay for that, but they’ll only do a continuing education in your field. If you’re a programmer and you want to become a better programmer, the company will pay for that.
If you’re a programmer and you want to learn how to play banjo, we’ll pay for that. If you want to learn how to fly a plane, we’ll partial pay for flight school. If you want to learn how to be a gardener and you want to take botany class or something, we’ll pay for that. If you want to take a poetry class, we’ll pay for that. The point is that we want to help you do things that you want to do that you might not normally have done and we want to encourage you to do that, so we’ll cover for you. We’re always trying to make people more interesting and give them opportunities to do things they might not normally do.
What has been the response, especially when people are learning some of these unique things?
People take advantage of it. There are other things that we do too. The trips have been things that matter most for people because these are getting back to things that lasts forever. A memory, an experience either with your family or yourself or your partner or wherever you go and whoever you go with or a friend or family, whatever it is, your parents. You remember that amazing trip to Morocco that you would not have taken normally. We said, “Go to Morocco. That’s on us. You’ll have an amazing experience. You’ll remember that. You’ll come back with new perspective and new point of view or a fresher point of view. You’ll see a new culture, a new part of the world. That’s good.” People remember those things and they appreciate that.
You also do charity allowances. You do fitness allowances. It’s thinking about how you help these people have better lives.
For example, everybody who works at Basecamp gets $100 a month CSA share, Community Sponsored Agriculture. It’s like a farmer’s market share. We pay for fresh fruits and vegetables in your home, not at work. We’re not making you dinner at work. We’re not asking you to stay later. We want you to have good food at home too. It’s those kinds of things. These things don’t cost that much. What they do is they send a message. First of all, we want you to be healthy. That’s a good thing. Also, you don’t need to be at work all day long. It’s not all about work. It’s about other things in life.Nobody hits the ground running. Click To Tweet
The question everyone should ask is what can you do to help improve your people’s lives? It’s not, “I care about them for what they can do as an employee. I care for who they are as people.” That is a different question.
You care about your fans. It’s not about the $2 that you can make off a convenience fee. You can make that money, but that shows you don’t care.
Jason, we’re going to do our first game. This is truth and dare. Which one do you like first?
We’re going to do a game that we do here at the stadium. Four thousand fans, but we’re going to do it with you. It’s usually 2001 grandstand, 2000 another grandstand. A sing off. When the song stops, you have to finish those song lyrics. The song fits your whole calm environment. You’ll notice it’s going back a little old school. It’s a famous band, “Lighten up while you still can. Don’t even try to understand. Just find a place to make your stand. Take it…”
“Easy.” That’s all I know.
Take it Easy by The Eagles. “Just find a place to make your stand. Take it easy.” That’s what you are about, to calm us. Are you ready for the truth?
What do you think are one of the best changes that you’ve made since you started Basecamp years ago if you were to say one thing, “This made a difference?”
There are lots of things that come to mind. One of the best things we did was change our name and focus down to one product. When we started the business, we were called 37 Signals. We decided to go to change our name to Basecamp. At the time, we had 4, 5 or 6 different products depending on how you explain them or what you consider a product. We had a small team and we suddenly thought, “We’re not able to do the quality of work we want to do with a team size that we have on the products that we have. We have too many products.” We don’t want to hire because we want to stay small. “What are we going to do?”
We decided to either spin off other products to roll them into Basecamp to consolidate around one thing and rename the company to reinforce the fact that’s what we’re going to do and focus in on that. It was a big, huge change. It was a risky change in a sense. I felt good about it. It was a good move. Although, we are about to release a second product. We’re about to change our minds again, but it felt good. It felt it was the right thing to do at the time because have we not done that, we would’ve had a hard time. We would’ve been frustrated. We would’ve been stretched thin and we had to cut back, not on people, but on ambition. That was a valuable thing.
I love it because it’s similar here. We had events at our stadium constantly. We had tap in the morning, beer festival, haunted stadiums, food truck festivals, and had tons of events and it was significant money. We eliminated them because we realized it was making us be someone that we didn’t love. We had to have to advertise and we had to promote that. We had to sell people them. We had to sell all these tickets, so we cut that and we focused on less. Let’s make our team the best we can. We’re teaching what we do and eventually we’ll probably take it on the road. It’s less than you said. The only way you can get more done is to have less to do. You said you knew we need more two don’ts over to-dos. How do you break that into your culture?
The first thing you have to do is recognize that you can’t do everything you want to do. You have to recognize that. A lot of companies don’t recognize that. What they do is they go, “We’ve got a million ideas, we’re going to hire a bunch of people, we’re going to raise a bunch of money because we got to do all these ideas.” They keep doing more things and hiring more people and growing and growing, getting bigger and bigger. At some point, you’ve got to remember that doing something is not the end. That’s the beginning. You have to maintain the things that you’ve built and you’ve got to service the customers. For us, it’s recognizing that we simply can’t do everything that we want to do.
That’s where the big know begins. What we decided to do is every six weeks we decided what to do next. We don’t plan a year ahead of time, and this may not work for all businesses, but we don’t plan a year ahead of time or six months ahead of time or five years ahead of time. I don’t know where we’re going to be in five years. I don’t know what we’re going to be in one year. I know what we’re doing for about the next six weeks. That’s about being honest with ourselves. Once we decided to do those things, we do those things. We don’t change our minds two weeks in and then pull everyone off something or do something else because some new big idea came up. If a new idea comes up, it’s got to wait.
Six weeks comes around, we decide what to do next. We’re always working the six-week cadence and there’s only so much you can do in six weeks. We only have so many people. We don’t have a backlog of things we must do. You have ideas that bubble up and that we can consider. If we don’t do them, it doesn’t mean they’re on the plate for the next six weeks. It means maybe they’re reconsidering, maybe they’re not. It’s about this rolling a commitment six weeks at a time. Also, the recognition that we can’t do everything we want. We shouldn’t try to do everything we want to do. We shouldn’t plan ahead too far because then we’re going to get to the point where we’re going to do things we don’t want to do any more, but we wanted to do before. I don’t want to be in that situation either where you’re regretting the decisions that you made in the past. It’s about having a relatively small window and reasonable expectations about what’s actually possible. That’s the root of it all. There are other small noes along the way, but the big noes are the ones that create the boundaries.
It comes back to the same thing over again. You don’t want to feel you’re on a treadmill and you’re constantly doing more and more. You don’t want to feel that enough word. It guides you in everything you do. It seems like you literally look at everything from your entire work environment. Do I like that? Is that frustrating? How do we eliminate that? In one area, I talk about meetings are toxic. A few people are like, “Another meeting.” That’s a mindset we all have and it was like, “No, we’re not going to play the game everyone else that plays.” I want to share this because I’d love to hear some of your ideas on what meetings have become for you. It’s remote but it’s still forms of meeting.
We get together, video conferencing. A meeting here is three or fewer people. It’s very rare that we ever have more than three people discussing something together at the same time. Most discussions that we have are written up in Basecamp and we post them to Basecamp and then people can chime in. Maybe the whole company can chime in or seven people can chime in over time. It might go 1 or 2 or 3 days while we have this discussion, but anytime we need to talk about something immediately, it’s three or fewer people. The idea is that’s enough people to make a decision and anything more than that ends up making it a worse decision or a longer decision or more indecision. We’re very tight about these things.
If we jump in a room together, there are 2 or 3 people max in a room if we’re talking about something. What we don’t do is get the big round table where there’s seven people around a room, go around, get everyone’s perspective and opinion. It’s too many perspectives and too many opinions. It’s not that they’re not valid. It’s too many. If you think about cooking, salt on a dish is good. Too much salt is bad. It’s not that salt is bad, it’s just too much of it is bad. You need the right amount. It’s true for any ingredient. In addition, you need the right ratios and the right amounts. For us, if we get together and make a decision or talk about things, three people is the right set of ingredients for us to make those decisions.
That’s how we approach that thing. Since we’re not typically together, we do have an office in Chicago where about twelve people work. Often, we either write up in Basecamp or do video conference this with Zoom or something that. We make it quick too. It’s not we set aside an hour. We talk for as long as we need to. If it’s longer, that’s fine too. We don’t create these artificial borders and boundaries. We go and make a move on. The other recognition is that decisions are temporary. If it’s the wrong decision, we change it later. There are a few that might be more permanent than others, but for the most part, most decisions are not end games. You can change it if you need to.
I love it because you’re thinking about both ways. Speed, quick wins, you talk about a lot. You talk about always shipping and it’s good for your customers, but it’s also good for your people. If your people don’t feel making progress and they’re not having momentum, good luck. It’s part of your DNA. It’s like, “How do we do this because it’s best for our people as well?”Let's not be obsessed with growth because they drive people a little bit crazy and they're also arbitrary. Click To Tweet
That’s how we approach it.
I’ll finish with the rapid fire here. Simple life, I’m obsessed with keeping things simple. You say, “I find it more rewarding and intellectually challenging to make the simple simpler rather than the complex simple.” What’s one area that you are simplifying your business for your team?
Specifically, when I wrote that tweet, what I was referring to is writing. I love taking a sentence that has seven words and turning it into six and not losing anything but gaining something and then seeing if I can turn it into five. That process to me is such a fun, rewarding, challenging process. I enjoy taking a complicated paragraph and turning it into a simpler one, but then the real fun means is squeezing a little bit more simplicity out of it and clarity out of it to get an even simpler. I find that to be more interesting. Also, when it comes to product development, figuring out what does this feature truly about? What is somebody struggling with that we can help them with to eliminate the struggle and then stop there?
The thing that’s tricky about software, I feel you have a much easier business than we do in this realm. Software has no edges. It can do anything. It can be as big as you want. It can be as small as you want, but there’s nothing pushing back. You have to push back. You get 4,000 seats, I don’t know. You can’t sell 6,000 seats. If you have these natural limits to what you can do and how much you can make and all these things. We don’t have that in software, which is why most software becomes complicated and complex because you can’t see the whole thing.
If I pop a drone up in your stadium, I can see all the people, the edges. I can see what this thing is. In software, you can see that. It’s important for us as a company, at least for our way of doing things, to make sure we’re always pushing back on frivolous expansion. Before you know it, you’ll get the best of us and we’ll make complicated things. I like to start with simple and then see what’s the even simpler version of that and will that solve the problem good well enough that we can stop there. That’s how I mentally think about that.
Marketing minute. What was some of the best things you’ve done to market your brand?
For us, it’s always been the same, which is sharing everything that we know. I’ve written about this. We try to emulate chefs. Here’s another cooking example, but chefs write cookbooks. In their cookbook are recipes, which is the secret to how they make their things. They’re not afraid of that. They’re not afraid of putting those secrets out there. They’re not afraid of someone reading their book, opening a restaurant next to theirs and putting them out of business. It’s not how it works. What they’re afraid of is no one’s going to know who they are.
No one’s going to know about the restaurant. No one’s going to know about their food. We feel the same way. We’re always sharing everything we know about our business, about the things we’ve learned about our point of view. We’re not afraid that someone’s going to take this and use it against us. It’s not what it’s about. We’d much rather share. We don’t have much of a marketing budget. We finally hired someone, but for years we’ve solving, sharing-based and so that’s the most valuable thing for us. Don’t be afraid to share everything you know with anyone who’s willing to listen.
We spent crazy marketing and it ended up on an air bed and selling two tickets and now, we spend zero marketing and now fortunately every game sell out. When you share who you are, what you stand for and your point of view, you get people that believe what you believe and then they want to be a part of it. That’s a true story. We were using another software beforehand, a chat software. We left that and we were comfortable there to go to Basecamp and it was because of your books. It wasn’t because of the platform. We went from paying nothing to paying $100 a month because of sharing your beliefs. It works. Many companies are scared of that. Also, from talking about culture, it gets people attracted to want to be a part of you.
I don’t think companies are scared. More importantly, most companies don’t actually have a point of view. Their point of view is, “Make more money. Grow. Do whatever it takes to get bigger.” You have a point of view, we have a point of view and now you put that point of view out there and then you get super fans or you get fans, you get haters, you get it all. I’m sure there are people who think what you do is ridiculous. Some baseball fan, “That’s ridiculous. That’s cheapening the game,” or whatever. “That’s cool, fine, whatever.”
We hear that too like, “You make simple to-do lists. I can do that in a weekend.” “That’s fine, whatever.” Where people know where you stand and who you are and what you say is what you believe, then there’s always enough people out there who want that. You find those people and they become true fans and then they become supporters. They become evangelists, then you take good care of them and they take care of you and they know what you believe in. Even if they disagree, at least they know that you’re being honest about what you believe in, not just saying something to be opportunistic.
If you were to give advice to someone or something that you’ve experienced and the best way to stand out in business or in life, what would you say?
You’ve got to know who you are, what you believe in and stick to it. It’s not that you can’t change your mind. You can of course change your mind, but you have to be honest about who it is that are and what is that you believe. Have a point of view and not be afraid to share that point of view. I know there are people out there that maybe have a point of view, but they’re afraid to share it because they’re afraid of what other people might think about it. They’re afraid that they’re going to turn certain customers off or whatever. You have to be able to do that.
If you want to stand out to get your point standing out, you need to be able to create contrast. Contrast is what separates one thing from another. If you’re gray like everyone else, no one’s going to pick you out. I’m not saying everything’s black or white, but you want to be less gray. You want to go to a little bit of the edge and do something different and be original and that’s how you stand out by creating that contrast. If you look to the leaders and go, “I’m going to do what they’re doing because it’s working,” you don’t need another one of you if it’s already working for someone else. You want to do something different.
First, you’ve got to share your differences and then share how you make a difference. You’ve shared your differences and your books and it’s like, “I align with that. That’s so great.” At the end of my book, Finding Your Yellow Tux, I finished with, “How do you want to be remembered?” I’m fascinated with you, Jason, and how you want to be remembered.
I would probably say I’d like to be remembered as somebody who’s fair. I want to be fair to everybody, to everything that I can be. That’s a sliding scale, of course. That would be nice.
You’re doing it. I appreciate you being here. I love connecting. You’ve been a big inspiration and you’ve got to get the books. They’re fascinating. I’m sure you have more books in the future. You have a lot going on, but Rework and It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. You’ve got the new software coming out. You got the email, HEY, coming out at Hey.com. How else can people find out more from you?
They can find me on Twitter, @JasonFried. We have a podcast that talks a lot about this stuff, Rework.fm. Check out Hey.com. That product is coming out in April of 2020. We’re excited about that. It’s something we’ve been working on for a good year-plus and looking forward to that.
Thanks so much for making an impact.
Thanks for having me on.
It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work
- Kramer Knives
- Finding Your Yellow Tux
- @JasonFried – Twitter
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