Gut-checking growth

If someone moves out, do you need to move someone in?

When you’re in growth mode (read: hiring people), you rarely get a chance to stop and gut-check your growth. Why are we growing exactly? What are we after? Is there an alternative? What if we decided to grow a bit slower? What if we decided not to hire at all for a while? What if we let natural attrition carve ourselves into a leaner, tighter organization?

Finding the moment to even ask these questions can be more elusive than the answers themselves.

So here’s my rule of thumb. People leave companies. Sometimes on their own, sometimes they’re asked to leave. Whatever the reason, when someone leaves it’s a great moment to break out of the replacement mindset and ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t replace that person?

Use the moment as an opportunity to break a pattern and question your next step. What if you gave yourself a few months without the role? It’s easy is getting used to what you have. It feels hard to live without something you’ve grown used to. And when you’re on a certain trajectory, momentum is a powerful thing to push against. But that’s not justification enough. This is actually a great moment to see if you can live without. Maybe even flourish without. It’s a great time to gut-check your growth.

We had a developer leave recently. And rather than jump to replace him, we’re sitting back for a while and seeing what happens. There’s always more work to do, so naturally it feels like the only right thing to do is to put more people on it. But the surprise of the situation is to ask yourself “is more work worth doing? Could 13 people do what 14 people were doing, without overloading those 13? Would we decide not to do the same kind of work if we didn’t have the same number of people? Or are there efficiencies that we’d gain by having a slightly smaller team in this case?” The answers aren’t always obvious, and sometimes they aren’t what you expect, but they’re important to ask nonetheless.

Now there are of course situations where quick replacement is important. For example, late last year we lost a designer that was the only person in a specific role. We really need that role (we’re certain of that), so we immediately set out to find a new designer. But if we had 8 people in that role, and we went down to 7, it would have been a good time to ask if we needed to move back up to 8.

If things are going well it’s a rare opportunity to get a chance to question the push to grow, but growth has its hidden costs too (organizational complexity, communication breakdowns, more mass to move around, etc). And costs are always worth questioning. So “do we need someone here where someone was before?” is absolutely worth asking.

Basecamp 3 is our secret weapon — it allows us to do big things with small teams. Everyone knows what everyone’s working on, we can discuss things quickly or in-depth over time, we can organize and divvy up the work that needs to get done, and we get to know everyone better as people and not just co-workers. Basecamp 3 is all you need.

We don’t fight the talent war

We’re happy pacifists when it comes to finding great people. The best are everywhere, hiding out in all sorts of quiet places.

“The only winning move is not to play” — WarGames

Snapchat poaching from Airbnb. Uber poaching from Twitter. Facebook poaching from Google. If you run a tech company, you’re familiar with the talent war. You may have even been a soldier or a general.

But, as with any war, you’re probably better off staying away unless you’re guaranteed to win. That’s why at Basecamp, we’re pacifists when it comes to finding talent.

You know the drill: Developer makes a name for herself at a hot tech company, plays some other tech companies off one another, and incites a bidding war involving lots of cash and equity. The winning company gets some ink and piques the attention of VCs by landing the prize prospect.

To us, the idea that tech companies are fighting over a few good people is ridiculous. Unless you’re in need of someone with an extremely rare expertise — someone like a head of engineering at Tesla (one of whom, incidentally, just got poached by Apple) — we can think of no good reason to aggressively chase any single individual.

In fact, if someone comes from a hotbed of talent, we usually steer clear. It’s not that we couldn’t get that person; we just don’t think it’s worth the effort. Even if you win the chase this time, when people know they’re in high demand, they’ll get antsy soon enough and begin looking for the next big opportunity. You’ll become just another blip on their résumés.

But more than that, we believe great talent is waiting to be found in unexciting places. It’s on us to find awesome people who are stuck in jobs that don’t allow them to flourish.

Oddly enough, even though we’re a prominent software company spread across the country, we don’t have a single designer, programmer, or product person who lives in the Bay Area, the mecca of engineering talent. We found one of our best designers in Oklahoma; one of our best programmers in the rural outskirts of Toronto; and our head of technical operations in Tampa. Then there’s one of our best customer service people, who lives on a small, fifth-generation family farm in southern Tennessee. Before joining Basecamp, he managed a fast food restaurant. Many people who work at Basecamp had been working at lower-profile shops — or entirely different industries — prior to joining up with us.

So how do find undiscovered talent? Ask around — but ask specific questions, like: “Do you happen to know anyone who’s cramped in his or her job? Someone who’s great but hasn’t been given the opportunity to do great work? Someone who’s stuck in a situation that feels like a job instead of a career?” If you post ads on job sites or your own site, cast your language specifically to catch these kinds of people.

One of my favorite moments of talent discovery came when we hired a designer who was hiding out at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. Ever heard of Lemont? I hadn’t either. He previously applied for a job at Basecamp, but he didn’t make the cut. A year later, another position opened up and he put his hat in the ring again. We’re so thankful he did — he’s grown into an outstanding designer, and he’s an even better person.

I’ve found that nurturing untapped potential is far more exhilarating than finding someone who has already peaked. At Basecamp we hired many of our best people not because of who they were but because of who they could become. Many of our employees have been with us for more than five years. That’s something that means much more to me than having a celeb cycle through our company every few quarters.

A version of article is also available in the July/August issue of Inc. Magazine.

How to give feedback to your boss

When I was an employee four years ago, I felt stuck.

I had some ideas about how I thought the company could be better… but I had no clue how to bring it up to my boss at the time.

How could I mention these ideas without it feeling like an attack on him? I didn’t want him to think I was arrogant, assuming I could run the company better than him. And I didn’t want him to become defensive, and brush off my ideas outright.

I was torn about what to do. Comments can easily be misconstrued — and in this scenario, it could cost me any good will with my boss, my reputation in company… and even my job.

I decided not to do anything. I didn’t share my ideas with my boss. I ended up leaving the company later that year.

I’m not proud of my silence. Looking back, I often think: What should I have done instead?

Now four years later, after consuming every article, study, and book I could get my hands on, working one-on-one with companies through a consulting practice I started, and speaking with hundreds of business owners as the CEO of Know Your Team… I know exactly what I should have done to give feedback to my boss.

If you’re an employee and you want to give your boss feedback, here’s are the lessons I’ve learned on what you can do.

Set up a time to talk

The worst thing you can do to your boss is surprise them with information or create a situation where they feel caught off-guard. Instead, you can send over a note to your CEO or manager to set up a specific time to talk with them.

Here’s something you could start with:

Hey [your boss’s name],

I know how much you care about maintaining a strong culture at the company… I have some thoughts / ideas on that I’ve been thinking on lately! Would you be up for chatting sometime? Perhaps we can grab 30 minutes over coffee next week, when things slow down for you? Please let me know! Looking forward to it.

Ask for feedback about yourself

Another way to kickstart the conversation with your manager is to ask for feedback about yourself. This will help your CEO or manager let their guard down, and realize that you’re not looking to blast them. You’re showing you’re open to a two-way dialogue.

For example, you could write something like this to them:

Hey [your boss’s name],

Lately, I’ve been thinking hard about how I can improve in my role. Would love to get some feedback from you and riff on this together. I’ve also been chewing some ideas about the company that I’d love to share with you too, if you’re open to it! Got time for coffee sometime next week?

Just make sure you’re open and ready to hear this feedback about yourself. In other words, don’t be willing to dish it unless you can take it.

Make your intention clear upfront.

When you do sit down to give feedback to your CEO or manager, begin the conversation by making it very clear why you’re wanting to give them this feedback.

For example, let them know: “I’m saying this because ____ matters to me, and it’s something I could see benefitting the company as a whole. And just to be clear, these thoughts aren’t coming from a place of disrespect or mistrust in you or your ability — I completely understand and accept that this is your thing to have the final call on.”

Another way to do this is by reinforcing what you have in common. You’ll want to remind your CEO and manager that you’re on the same team. “I’m only sharing this because I care about the company culture and am worried about ____, and I know that’s something we both care about.”

Acknowledge that it’s only your opinion

You don’t want your words taken as a critique on your boss’s character. Your words are not a definitive stance on their value as a person — and they shouldn’t be interpreted as so. So you’ll want to reinforce that your feedback is coming only from your personal point-of-view. This will show humility on your part, and encourage them to not take your comments personally.

For example you could say: “Keep in mind this is only my opinion and I could be way off here… I thought you might want to know though, regardless, and I wanted to share these thoughts with you for the sake of transparency.”

One last tip: In preparation for this conversation, I’d highly recommend writing down what you want to say beforehand. (I even do this today as CEO when I give feedback to an employee.) Consider… How do you want your boss to feel after you’ve had the conversation? How can you frame what you’re saying to help them feel that way? Articulating the points clearly to yourself first will help make sure you articulate them clearly to your CEO.

Granted, this all is much easier to do in theory than in practice. I remember all too well how nerve-wracking it was to even consider reaching out to my boss like this. But take that first initial step to schedule the time to sit down with them, and you’ll be surprised at how open most CEOs and managers are to hearing what’s on your mind.

Don’t get too hung up on anticipating how your CEO might react. You can never control another’s person’s reaction. You can only control yourself — what you put out into the world, and your own intention behind it. So focus on that. Fear should never get in the way of you sharing something you think could truly benefit the company.

If the content of what you’re trying to express is worth it, there’s only one way to find out how they’ll react: Speak up.

You’ll never know, otherwise. It’s what I wish I would’ve done four years ago.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Don’t scar on the first cut

Many policies are organizational scar tissue — codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again.

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.

This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy — one scar — at a time.

So don’t scar on the first cut. Don’t create a policy because one person did something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over again.

This essay first appeared in REWORK, our New York Times Bestselling book about how grow a right-sized company.

Employee benefits at Basecamp

Our headquarters in Chicago.

I’m often asked about the benefits we offer at Basecamp. Potential employees are obviously curious, but most of the questions I get are from fellow business owners and entrepreneurs. Everyone’s looking to know what everyone else is doing — as are we — so I figured I might as well post our current benefit list publicly.

Note: Since the majority of our staff works remotely, and some outside the US, some of these benefits are provided in different ways. For example, the 401k is only available in the US. We’re currently working on making sure everyone, no matter where they work, have commensurate benefits (or at least as similar as possible). We’re still working on this, so hopefully I can write more about how we’ve addressed this down the road.

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