Things are going so well we’re doing a hiring freeze


Business has never been better at Basecamp. Despite all the competition, all the noise, and all the changes since we launched 14 years ago, 2017 was the year we earned the most revenue ever.

While that alone is cause for some celebration, it’s hardly the most important thing for Jason and I, as the business owners. Sure, it’s nice to see numbers tick ever higher, but we passed enough many years ago. What matters far more than big numbers for us today is how the business feels.

And it’s really never felt better, in almost all the ways. Basecamp the product is the best its ever been. Tens of thousands of new businesses and teams continue to sign up every month. We keep hearing from customers about the profound changes to their organization, productivity, communication, and even sanity that Basecamp helps them realize. It’s deeply rewarding.

We’ve also kept up with our founding mission to out-teach and out-share rather than out-spend the competition.

Since shortly after the launch of Basecamp, we’ve been stewarding the Ruby on Rails movement. The latest major release has a brand new framework, Active Storage, that was extracted from Basecamp 3. So too was the last major new framework in Rails, Action Cable. And now we’ve shared our entire two-pack punch to front-end development with Stimulus and Turbolinks.

Jason and I are finishing our fourth book, extracted from the lessons running Basecamp. It’s called The Calm Company and will be released this year. And after a lovely run with The Distance podcast, we’ve launched a REWORK podcast to share ever more of our lessons and perspectives.

So. Things are good. Really good, actually. Which invariably invites the question I get asked so often: WHAT’S NEXT?! Which is really a question of WHAT’S MORE? What else are you going to do in addition to all the shit you’re already doing? It’s so ingrained in our entrepreneurial culture that you must always be on a conquest. Once a set of territories have been subdued, you’re honor-bound to push further north.

Thanks, but no thanks. Basecamp has never sought to conquer the world or the markets. We do not have to win a total victory from a total assault to be fulfilled. Which partly stems from the fact that we aren’t beholden to financiers, partly because the satisfaction of running Basecamp comes more from doing the work, less from owning the work.

It’s this focus on the satisfaction of doing the actual work that’s been driving our outlook since the inception of Basecamp. How can we structure the business in such a way that Jason and I are able to spend the bulk of our time doing our favorite things? Designing. Programming. Writing.

That’s harder than it sounds. The momentum of growth assumes control of the ship quickly, if you don’t dare wrestle back the wheel. It’s so easy to just go with the flow. Of course we’re going to hire more people! Of course we’re going to spend more money! Of course we’re going to build more features! Of course we’re…

Before you know it there’s no longer time to do your favorite things. Now all the things that simply have to be done fill first your weeks, then your months, and then finally the whole year. I keep the parable of the fisher man in my mind often not to forget this boiling pot.

At just around 50 people and no full-time managers, it feels like we’re just at this crucial break in the waves at Basecamp now. On the other side, the tide will pull us out further and further out to sea. And maybe there are ever-greater riches to be found out there, but we’d be lost and adrift. If we dare resist the pull, we can stay anchored and connected.

So we’ve decided to dare. To resist. And thus, in our celebration of BEST EVAH, we’re taking the unusual step to drop that anchor and freeze all hiring at Basecamp¹.

“Wait, what?”, I can imagine a few puzzled minds thinking. Hiring freezes are usually for companies that are struggling. Trying desperately to cut costs to stay afloat. And here we are, doing better than ever, pulling that same move? Yes.

We’ve always been great fans of constraints, and capping the headcount in the face of growth is perhaps the biggest constraint of all. Especially because we’re not at all about running faster. Squeezing out more productivity from fewer hands. Quite the contrary.

The constraint of having the same team means that you also only get to do the same amount of work. But you don’t have to do the same actual work, you can do different work. You can judo the work. You can say no to more work. You can focus on more effective work.

That’s the kind of environment that excites me.


¹ The sole exception may be support, which is the only department that doesn’t yield well to just “do less”. If there are more customers and they need help, you gotta help them. But we’re working on making sure that they both need less help and that we don’t take on excessive amounts of new customers.

Enough

This guy never had enough, is that really you?

The underpinning tenet of chasing exponential growth is that anything less than “all of it” is never enough. If there’s more possible, more out there, then it’s your gawd damn duty to hunt it down and make it yours.

Such a pursuit is undoubtedly exciting in its Napoleonic grandeur. Why stop at making a dent in the universe, if you can bend it whole? Glory awaits only those who stand atop all others.

Or at least so goes the virtue of conquerors. Dominators. WINNERS! It’s what we’re being sold over and over again as The Way. The path to relevance and impact. And who doesn’t want to bathe in those.

But it’s not the only paradigm available for rent. Once you realize that the prevailing narrative of entrepreneurship is a paradigm, and not an immutable natural law, you open your eyes to alternatives. One of which is that of enough.

Big enough. Ambitious enough. Profitable enough.

But how much, exactly, is enough? Well, obviously that depends. What’s easier than trying to pin down a goal a priori is to accept when you’re past it.

That’s where I am right now. At enough. Hell, I’m probably a fair bit north of enough, but like going from darkness to light, it takes a while for your senses to adjust. For ambition to stop running on autopilot. For your stomach to realize its full.

Enough is the opposite of hunger. The counter to paranoia. The antidote to anxiety.

But one thing is to recognize when you reach enough, another is to take its consequences. If things are going well in business, growth happens. And growth can’t help but change and mutate its host. And what luddite creature is against change? It’s the only constant™!

Oh, please. Change can be good, sure, but it so much certainly can also be the opposite. One of the most common changes in a business that grows is the increasing distance between owners and product, owners and customers, owners and employees. The more layers of delegation you stack to cope with growth, the further away you get.

Now some people clearly like that. To be generals in the modern sense of the world, safely placed at a desk far from the front lines. But there’s nothing inherently noble in such a preference.


My personal preference is to only be a general if it can be in the Roman tradition of charging in with the first wave. And I know I’m not alone in that.

The most common reminiscence I hear when talking to entrepreneurs who make it big is about The Early Days. Back when necessity required them to be intimately involved with actually making things with their own hands and head. Not merely as a drop-in supervisor or exclusively as an editor. When they couldn’t just derive strategy and rely on others for the tactics.

Yet in the recount of all these stories, there’s an underlying premise that of course it could not last like that. The inevitable price of success is that you must give up the direct involvement. That ever taller ladders of reporting is unavoidable.

Why? Why is that inevitable? Why is that unavoidable?

One explanation is that if you don’t chase all growth, someone else will, and when they’re finished with what you didn’t pursue, they’ll come back for your slice. Thus the only way to defend yourself is to buff up by gorging the business on whatever it can devour, and then you’ll be safe.

Tell Blackberry or Nokia that. Giants tumble all the time. At the current churn rate, 75% of the S&P 500 will be replaced by 2027. More mass does not protect you from calamity, and often quite the contrary. And even if it doesn’t outright kill the business, it may well render it a shadow of its former self.

The longest lived businesses in the world aren’t the ones that were biggest in their day. Many of them are family firms, or small to mid-sized enterprises content with steady evolvement of their niche. Content with enough.

Bigger isn’t automatically better, and may well simply be more brittle. Bigger risks, bigger dangers, harder falls from grace.

Another explanation is that chasing growth is simply the fiduciary duty of a company, as a means to extract maximum profits out of the enterprise in service of its shareholders.

But here too the objective may well not be best served by getting as big as possible. There’s a long parade of companies that placed growth above all else, got big, then never got to actually extract any profits because the market disappeared or self-inflicted wounds took them down.

Taking profits every year, along the way, insulates owners from ending up as the last, biggest fool to buy a stake before the valuation stops growing.

So this brings us back to answering the question of why is growth inevitable? It won’t guarantee longevity, and it doesn’t promise profits. And aren’t those the two main, economic concerns of a business? To be ongoing and to make money?

When I look at the business Jason, I, and the employees have built in Basecamp, I can easily satisfy those basic, economic demands: We’re still here, we’re still making plenty of money.

Which brings me full circle to why this question fascinates me so much. Having reached a personal fulfillment of enough, having reached a business fulfillment of longevity and profitability, what would I give up to push any of that further? The answer is not much.

In the abstract, it’s easy to rationalize why we should push further still. Basecamp has reached just a small sliver of the addressable market, and there are so many more businesses that could benefit from using it!

So the question is better presented in the form of concrete trade-offs, like, would I double the size of the business, if it required growing from ~50 to ~150 people? No. Would I grow the profits of the company 20%, if it meant having to spend millions of dollars in advertising with companies like Facebook? Again, no.

The freedom of enough is the freedom to say no. No to the expected, no to the conventional, no to the “no brainers”. There’s a deep satisfaction in such “no”s that the lure of future potential just can’t match.

Ultimately, what defines enough is up to you. The paradigm shift is to decide that there is such a point, and that the point is below “all of it”.


Does the idea of having enough and being satisfied with that tickle your fancy? Then you’ll probably enjoy these related essays on the topic, like RECONSIDER and Exponential growth devours and corrupts. Hell, you might even like the product I make, Basecamp.

https://basecamp.com/svn