As a leader, the most costly mistakes are often the most imperceptible.
I’ve never met you, but I’m going to make a guess about you: You’re making leadership mistakes you don’t even know about.
I don’t mean to sound presumptuous (or crass!). I’m in part reflecting on personal experience – I’ve made a boatload of leadership mistakes, myself.
More objectively, I’m citing probability: Gallup’s research on millions of managers over the past 7 years revealed that companies choose the wrong manager 82% of the time. And if that’s not disconcerting enough, they found only 1 in 10 managers possess what they describe “the natural talent to manage”.
It’s desperate times for those still clinging to their workaholic, exploitive ways. From Japan to China to even the US, there’s a growing understanding that working 70-80-90 or 130 hours per week is not glorious. Not virtuous. Not healthy.
So what’s a whoever-works-the-most-wins advocate to do? Sidestep the question of efficiency, of health, of sustainability, of course. Just press the pedal on fear and competition. Here’s your host of terror, Jason Calacanis:
Yeah, that’s it. Those who reject the wisdom of overwork is really helping the ENEMY. This is democracy vs communism!! What is this, 1950? Whatever year it is, it’s stupid.
Rather than support a grassroots rejection of the exploitive abuse of the Chinese workers under the 996 regime, Calanis is doubling down on the premise that to “beat” the Chinese, you must submit to their worst work practices. What?
This is at best a lateral move from “work harder or the kitten gets it”. A trope that’s meant to be a punchline, not a policy recommendation.
Besides being imperial paranoia, urging American companies to adopt Chinese abuses, lest they be left behind in the chase of growth uber alles, is the furthest away you could get from winning. Accepting the terms of engagement by your so-called opponent is a basic, rookie mistake in any form of strategic out-maneuvering.
You’re not going to “beat” the Chinese by one-upping 996 with 997. You’re not going to top Jack Ma’s calls for sacrifice by injecting nationalist fervor and clash-of-civilizations rhetoric into these base pleas for a deeper grind. This is madness.
The ideological underpinnings of capitalism are already in an advanced state of ethical decay. You don’t save the good parts of said capitalism by doubling down on the worst, most exploitive parts. Racing to the bottom just gets you there faster.
As we write in “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work“, you should treat your company as a product too. To improve a product, you listen, learn, (re)consider, concept, and iterate. The same approach should be used to improve your company itself. How you work, how you manage, how you develop and communicate policies and procedures should all improve through iteration as well.
With that, we wanted to share how we’re improving through iteration on the inside. We recently updated our Employee Handbook (which anyone in the world can read) to clarify a few key points:
Second, what happens if an employee finds themselves in a situation where their performance has been called into question? Not knowing where you stand when there is a problem – or not even realizing there’s a problem at all – is an uncomfortable and unproductive place to be. You can’t do your best work when your mind is riddled with anxiety stemming from existential questions about job security. To clarify the process for helping identify and resolve such problems, we recently added a section to the handbook that details our newly formalized performance plan process.
Third, what does it look like to build a career at Basecamp? At many software companies, work is a job – and a relatively temporary one at that. The average tenure at Amazon and Google is only around 12 months. At Basecamp, our average tenure is 5 years (our team page shows how long everyone’s been here). Given that, it’s important for us to define what progress looks like at Basecamp. To help clarify those details, we recently updated our handbook page on making a career at Basecamp to include more details on progression, titles, pay and promotion, and the review process.
As you can see from the last updates times/dates on our Handbook, how we run the company, and how we explain how the company runs, is always being updated. Our Employee Handbook isn’t printed and forgotten. There’s no been there, done that. It’s not a project that ends. Rather, it’s continually updated updated and republished. And while some pages may be steady at a few years old, many have been updated within the last few hours, days or months. We’re always aiming to be clearer, fairer, and better, and we find that publishing our Handbook out in the open is an especially handy way to keep us improving – and honest about how we do it.
We believe publishing how a company works is a public good, not a private act. When customers choose to buy your product, they should know what kind of company makes it. We think that the more open we can be about our internal practices, the more comfortable the public – our customers – can feel about doing business with us. Spending money with a company is essentially voting for a company. We want our customers to feel proud when they vote for us.
I’ve always loved this kind of design. It’s clear, it’s colorful, it’s honest, it’s approachable, it’s folksy, it’s effective. ALL CAPS works. “NO JOB IS TOO SMALL” is impossible to improve on (it also says this in huge letters on the front of the truck). “Rain, sleet, or snow the gutters must flow” rhymes (and they’re right!). You could argue that the URL is too small, you could say it’s messy because there are too many colors, fonts, styles, etc. But I’d say so what? How does any of that make this a bad advertisement on the side of a truck? It’s beautiful – and ugly – in all the right ways.
Wouldn’t it be great if there really was just one secret you had to know, and all your professional or entrepreneurial dreams would come true? Then you wouldn’t have to bother trying what works for your or your domain. You’d just have to apply The Secret, and voila!
Needless to say, if there is such a unifying secret, I haven’t found or heard of it. And yet, I keep seeing this false hope powering one of the most common questions I get in interviews: What’s THE ONE THING that you’d tell your younger yourself/other entrepreneurs/new programmers?! This is followed by the breathless anticipation of whatever profound wisdom the questioner most wish they could glean from my life’s experiences.
The boring truth is that the big leaps are all the result of an interwoven tapestry of practices, each contributing a strand of progress or insight. If you pull just one, all you have is that thin, disconnected strand. It’s only together the colors come alive.
That’s why all the books Jason and I have written together really are just a collection of essays. Yes, there’s a theme, but no single, unlocking narrative. REWORK is 88 separate essays, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work has 66.
As long as you’re stuck on a quest for that one super-power practice or North Star principle, you’re not going to make space in your brain for the fact that no individual secret is going to make the difference. Only compound wisdom will.
Back in February, DHH took to Twitter to rant about the hoop-jumping required to cancel his SiriusXM subscription. Others shared their own subscription cancellation horror stories, and before long, I had something to chase down.
Today we released a new episode of the Rework podcast about our inquiry into hostile subscription tactics in the newspaper industry. I contacted major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about their online cancellation policies, which require a phone call or online chat (in the case of the NYT) to get out of a subscription. None would provide much comment on why they don’t offer online cancellation to all subscribers—I say “to all subscribers” because there is a small exception to the Journal’s policy.
The Wall Street Journal allows online cancellation for California-based customers because of a law introduced in 2017 that, among other things, requires companies that sell subscriptions online to let customers cancel the same way. Because the legislation applied to so many kinds of products, from gym memberships to cosmetics to software, it drew broad opposition from the California business community. One of the groups that pushed back was the California News Publishers Association, which represents newspapers in the state.
“The goal was to try to do everything we could to ensure those techniques and tools that newspapers had at their disposal to try to retain their subscribers could continue to be used,” said Jim Ewert, the CNPA’s general counsel. He said contacting subscribers to try and keep them as customers has been “a practice for at least a century.”
In other words, newspapers—like cable companies and other kinds of businesses—want to get exiting customers on the phone to persuade them to stay. But this tactic feels like a trick.
“I think it’s reasonable of them to ask” to have a conversation, said Laura Hazard Owen, deputy editor of NiemanLab. “I don’t think it’s reasonable of them to require it as a step for giving up your credit card information. You shouldn’t be held hostage until you’ve explained to a real human why you don’t want this anymore.”
I called up a friend from journalism school, Pete Mortensen, to get his take on why this dark pattern persists in the newspaper industry. Pete has worked in journalism, human-centered design, and the business side of media, and he traces the unfriendly subscription tactics to the very start of the industry’s fraught history with the Internet.
“One of the original sins of how we got here was the certainty that the real product was the print newspaper and the website, therefore, was at best an ad for the print publication,” Pete said. “A number of poor decisions cascaded and we’re all dealing with the fallout here almost 25 years later.”
For starters, newspapers didn’t charge for access to their websites. This conditioned readers to see the websites as inferior to the print product. Meanwhile, newspapers loaded up their websites with invasive ad technology, making for a miserable reading experience. In my past life as a newspaper reporter, it was endlessly frustrating that the deeply reported stories that deservedly received star treatment on A1 or section fronts were often nowhere to be found on the home page, which would be full of whatever news was deemed to get the most clicks—a numbing parade of breaking crime stories, aggregated wire stories about celebrities, or photo galleries, interspersed with junky ads.
Design and story selection, especially at larger papers, has improved, but as Pete puts it, “There’s a little bit of not feeling great about the overall digital experience as the ideal way to read and therefore, for digital-only subscriptions, they try to…make it really irritating to leave. That’s common whenever you have a product that people don’t really fully believe in—to feel the need to almost trick you into staying a customer.”
I asked Pete for an example of a newer media outlet setting a positive example in the realm of subscriptions, and he pointed to The Athletic, an ad-free sports publication that charges $9.99/month (and is easy to cancel online). In the Rework episode, I interview Jen Sabella, co-founder of Block Club Chicago, a neighborhood news nonprofit. It costs $59/year to subscribe to Block Club Chicago, which as Jen points out, works out to 16 cents a day. It’s also a simple click to cancel.
“I personally can’t stand when I have to jump through a bunch of hoops,” Jen said, adding: “We’re not trying to trick anyone. If you don’t find it valuable, we don’t want to make you pay.”
Apple keep insisting that only a “small number of customers have problems” with the MacBook keyboards. That’s bollocks. This is a huge issue, it’s getting worse not better, and Apple is missing the forest for the trees.
The fact is that many people simply do not contact Apple when their MacBook keyboards fail. They just live with an S key that stutters or a spacebar that intermittently gives double. Or they just start usinganexternalkeyboard. Apple never sees these cases, so it never counts in their statistics.
So here’s some anecdata for Apple. I sampled the people at Basecamp. Out of the 47 people using MacBooks at the company, a staggering 30% are dealing with keyboard issues right now!! And that’s just the people dealing with current keyboard issues. If you include all the people who used to have issues, but went through a repair or replacement process, the number would be even higher.
Worth noting here is that the 3rd generation membrane keyboard did nothing to fix the issues. Six out of thirteen – nearly half!! – of the 2018+ MacBooks we have at the company have a failed keyboard.
I backed up those figures with a Twitter poll that has over 7,000 respondents already. That’s a 63% failure rate!! But Apple is only seeing 11% of those, as the vast majority of customers are simply just living with their broken computer:
This is a disaster. A complete unmitigated disaster.
But as always, in a time of crisis, the event itself is less indicative of the health of a company than the response. Is Apple going to accept that they’re currently alienating and undermining decades of goodwill by shipping broken computers in mass quantities?
“Passwords just aren’t cutting it online. It’s getting worse. We all feel it.” This is what Jeremy from Basecamp’s Security, Infrastructure, and Performance team wrote in a February blog post after dealing with a mass-login attack. Intruders with huge lists of login credentials—obtained in previous data breaches—tried using those passwords to access Basecamp accounts. Hear how Basecamp addressed the immediate incident and was also forced to reflect on longer-term plans for customer security in an increasingly insecure age.
From 2:13am GMT March 13 / 9:13pm Central March 12 until around 4:10am GMT / 11:10pm Central, Basecamp 3 was mostly offline and Basecamp 2 unable to process file uploads and downloads, as our cloud storage provider had a severe, sustained outage. We continued to have minor disruptions in service from 4:10am GMT / 11:10pm Central until everything was cleared at 6:53am GMT / 1:53am Central.
This is the second time in a week that I’m forced to write “I’m so sorry”. That’s incredibly painful. Both because it’s because we’re failing our customers for the second time in a week, but also because it’s showing us just how unprepared we’ve been as an organization to deal with these cloud challenges, despite our belief otherwise.
I’m not going to bother you with platitudes about “lessons to be learnt”, because I’ve already done that just a few days ago. This goes much deeper than just a few lessons. It has called into question our entire risk management and operational structure at Basecamp.
It’s also been a mighty fall. From reaching for 99.999% in uptime – the hallowed five nines! – we’re now scrambling for two of them. From riches of reliance to rags of shambles. To say this is humbling is an epic understatement.
We’re stopping all major product development at Basecamp for the moment, and dedicating all our attention to fixing these single points of failure that the recent cloud outages have revealed. We’re also going to pull back from our big migration to the cloud for a while, until we’re able to comfortably commit to a multi-region, multi-provider setup that’s more resilient against these outages.