Unplugged from the Matrix

The title of this post is how Kenneth Coats described the feeling of leaving his office job to start his own business. After he unplugged from the Matrix, he simply couldn’t return—not even when a challenge from the Illinois Attorney General forced him to shut down his first venture, a service to help people expunge their arrest records. In this episode of the Rework podcast, Kenneth shares the story of how he pivoted, and the drastic move he took to make sure he couldn’t go back to his old work life. Listen below, or click “Keep Reading” for a full transcript of the episode.

Keep reading “Unplugged from the Matrix”

Everybody helps: the evolution of all-hands support

All-hands support can be a touchy subject for customer support professionals. When you ask designers and programmers to reply directly to customers’ questions, doesn’t that imply that anyone can do our job?

At Basecamp, we learned the hard way that you shouldn’t expect other people to be able to do the work of your support team. The good news, which I shared at the Support Driven Expo Europe 2019, is that we’ve found new ways to leverage people’s existing skills into valuable work which helps improve things for our customers, our team, and the company as a whole.

If you’d like to learn more, watch my talk, “Everybody helps: the evolution of all-hands support”:

If this sounds promising, I have some tips on rolling out all-hands support at your company. And if you’d rather read my talk than watch it, click through to the full post.

Keep reading “Everybody helps: the evolution of all-hands support”

The 9 mistakes you don’t know you’re making as a new manager

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”. 

Keep reading “The 9 mistakes you don’t know you’re making as a new manager”

Work harder or the communists will win!

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.

If you define winning solely as “who has the greater growth”, you’ve already lost. If you dismiss the standard of living enjoyed in Europe – one without medical bankruptcies, crushing college debts, or falling life expectancies – as a “retirement society”, you’re the one who deserves to be dismissed.

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.

Evolving and explaining how we run our company

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:

First, what are the different responsibilities of an executive vs. a manager vs. an individual? At some level the differences are obvious, but at the edges it’s not always clear. And where there’s murkiness, there’s often confusion and then conjecture. In the pursuit of clarity, we recently added a section to the handbook defining these responsibilities.

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.

A great ad

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.

What’s the one thing…

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.

Subscription Hostages

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’s policy for California subscribers

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.”

For more on newspaper subscription tactics, check out our episode! And to get new Rework episodes whenever we release one, subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, RadioPublic, or your favorite podcast app.   

The MacBook keyboard fiasco is way worse than Apple thinks

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 using an external keyboard. 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?

Don’t solve the problem.

What makes a great manager isn’t the problems they solve, but the questions they ask. Start with these 16 questions here.

An employee comes to you and says, “I have a problem.” If you’re trying to be a great manager, what do you do?

Your initial instinct might be to roll up your sleeves. “Time to be the boss,” you think to yourself. You’re ready to step in, solve the problem and save the day.

Or something like that. You just want to be helpful.

In reality, your instinct is the opposite of helpful. Startlingly, when you jump in to solve a problem as a manager, it’s one of the biggest leadership mistakes you can make.

Keep reading “Don’t solve the problem.”