Reflecting on five years at Basecamp

Back when I was a kid, they called this place 37signals. 👴👋👽

This week I celebrated my fifth year around the sun at Basecamp. For a lot of people that’s probably not a big deal, but for me it kind of is — it’s by far the longest I’ve ever been at any one job (my previous record was ~3 years).

That got me wondering — what’s so different this time around that made it stick? I eventually realized it basically came down to this:

I’m happy at Basecamp because every day I’m in a position to ship the best work that I can.

I admit that’s a rather generic statement, and pretty much every company in the world tries (or claims) to do the same. So what does Basecamp do that works so well for me?

Now before we get into the specifics, let me just say that this post isn’t meant to be a humble brag of how amazing Basecamp is. It’s simply an examination of how one company among many thousands operates, and why that meshes so well with someone like me.

So, as I was saying — what’s so special about Basecamp that it suits me so well? Well, it’s a bunch of things that all interleave together…

🚢 Shipping meaningful work is what matters

I’ve been at companies where I did a lot of “work”, but it often felt like I was just shuffling widgets around. I’d go to meetings, send emails, and make some stuff, but in the end, it’d be hard to tell if my work meant anything to the final product.

Other times we’d have so many pointless “stakeholder perspectives” that by the time we shipped, the final product was so watered down that it didn’t matter to anyone.

And yet other times, after months or years, some things would just never ship at all.

Basecamp is the exact opposite. As a small company working in small teams, we don’t have the luxury of spending any time on stuff that isn’t essential to shipping. And because we have to be choosy about what we work on, it’s usually the case that what we ship will be meaningful to our customers.

So we discuss ideas thoroughly, but don’t paralyze ourselves with analysis. We don’t pretend to know everything or try to predict the future, we ship and see what happens. We don’t have soul-sucking multi-hour meetings, we focus on the real work of designing, programming, and supporting our customers.

In the end, shipping meaningful work is what matters most to me, and that’s what keeps me motivated day in and day out.

😌 Calm is critically important

While shipping meaningful work is a great goal and motivator, even the best employees in the world can’t do their best work if they’re stressed, tired, rushed, or distracted. The folks at Basecamp know this, and that’s why calm and focus are cornerstones of everything we do.

One of the main ways we maintain calm is by not wasting time and energy on unnecessary bullshit and distractions. This is incredibly important to me — when I’ve got plenty of focused time to get my work done, I don’t rush. And when I don’t rush, I don’t feel stressed.

And while that may sound obvious and easy to avoid, I’ve worked at enough companies to know that wasting time is extraordinarily common. Opportunities to waste time present themselves in a lot of different ways, so here are just a few things we do to combat them:

  • We have very few (if any) meetings during a normal week. If there are any, they have the fewest people possible involved, usually a max of 2–3 folks. And we definitely don’t have recurring meetings.
  • We don’t commute. We all work remotely. Why spend 30–60 minutes traveling to some random building in a busy area to work when we can do the same work at home? This easily saves me 10 hours a week.
  • We don’t chat all day. There’s zero expectation of keeping on top of every chat or responding to an IM immediately. In fact, if anything we’re encouraged to close everything communications-related (including Basecamp!) so that we can focus on the actual work on hand. I regularly do this for hours on end, every day.
  • We don’t all work 9 to 5. We work hours that fit our life and brains. If, for example, you’re sharpest at 6 am, why the hell would you wait until “normal business hours” to start working? That’s a waste of your best brainpower! As long as we overlap a few hours with our team, we work when it makes sense, not by some arbitrary clock time.

Another major component of maintaining calm is to be very, very serious about not overworking and recognizing life’s priorities. In other words, when the work day is over, it’s over. And if something happens that’s clearly more important than work, we go take care of that . We work to serve our lives, not the other way around.

That means I don’t work some bullshit 60 hour work week.

That means that I don’t get notifications from the Basecamp app after 5 pm.

That means I don’t have meetings early in the morning or late in the evening that interrupts time with my family.

That means if I’m sick, I actually take the day off to get better, not partially stumble through the day trying to work.

That means if something comes up at home that’s way more important than work, I go take care of it and my co-worker’s don’t even blink at it.

That means I get a good night’s sleep because I’m enthusiastic about the next day’s work, not dreading it.

“Work-life balance” is an overused, rarely accurate term, but I think we’re doing it pretty damn well.

🙏 Autonomy and trust

A big part of Basecamp’s culture is the autonomy that we’re afforded. There are no managers, no daily stand-ups, and no playbook on how to do our daily work. It’s up to us to figure things out and own the calls we make.

For me that means I get to make a lot of decisions that have a direct impact on the outcome of my work — I choose what I want to work on, I make the final call on how any particular batch of code is shipped, and I’m ultimately responsible for how it performs.

Maybe this all doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to me.

To me having freedom and autonomy is a vote of confidence. When the people around me give me plenty of space to do my thing, it isn’t negligence or disinterest — it’s trust. It means an awful lot to me that people I genuinely respect have such trust and confidence in me. Maybe that makes me weird or lacking self-confidence or sappy, but it’s true.

Whatever the reason, it’s been an important, formative element of my five years at Basecamp.

🎩 It starts at the top

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned in my nearly 20 year career is that for me to have any kind of longevity at a company, it’s critically important to believe in the people at the top. I’ve worked for all sorts of companies before Basecamp, and I’ve never exactly felt super connected to those folks running the show.

Why is this important? Because at the end of the day, there are going to be a handful of people in a company that make the big decisions. And those big decisions in some way, big or small, have a direct impact on me and my work. These people are the ones deciding what’s important at the company, what isn’t, and what my work life is going to be like as long as I’m there.

And so the question becomes, do I believe in those folks? Am I more or less aligned with their principals — their professional beliefs, ethics, values, strategies, and overall ideals? Or do I have fundamental disagreements with a lot of what they believe in.

For me, Basecamp is the first place where I really do believe and trust in our leaders, Jason and David. Most everything they’ve done to build, grow, and sustain Basecamp agrees with me. And that makes it a hell of a lot easier to stick around and stay motivated than it would be working at a company where I’m constantly wondering “WTF are these clowns thinking?”

Now does that mean I agree with everything Jason and David do or say? No, of course not, I’m not some mindless drone. But generally speaking I do believe in the direction they provide and the choices they make. And perhaps more importantly, even if I do disagree, I respect their position, the thought they put into making a call, and the honesty and decency they treat everyone with.

👩‍👩‍👦‍👦 It takes a village

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the people I work with at Basecamp — what a crew! I truly, genuinely would not be where I am today in my career without them.

Sorry, it’s a tired trope but I have to say it — I work with really wonderful people. They’re so open-minded, friendly, welcoming, and damn smart. We’ve worked on so many great things together and I’ve learned so much from them. It’s an easy choice to stick around when you’re around folks like this. And beyond all that, they’re just great human beings.

Thank you Adam, Andrea, Ann, Ashley, Blake, Chase, Chris, Colin, Conor, David, Dylan, Elizabeth, Eron, Flora, George, Jabari, James, Jamie, Janice, Jason, JZ, Javan, Jay, Jayne, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Joan, John, Jonas, Justin, Kristin, Lexi, Matt, Matthew, Merissa, Michael, Nathan, Noah, Pratik, Rosa, Ryan, Sam, Scott, Shanae, Shaun, Sylvia, Tara, Taylor, Tom, Tony, Wailin, Zach, and all our beloved alums for making this a fantastic five years!

Thanks for reading — if you enjoyed it, please do mash the 👏 button so we can show Medium that they really nailed that 50 clap idea! 😏

The owner’s word weighs a ton

Be careful not to throw your weight around without knowing it.

Yesterday I was in a board meeting for a company I advise. Great group, strong business, profitable, all the good stuff. But the owner-CEO was stuck. He felt like he’d laid out a pretty clear vision and direction, but people’s priorities kept shifting. This thing was important, then all the sudden it was this other thing. Lots of bouncing around, not quite enough focus. He didn’t know what was causing it, but it turns out it was him. But how?

We dug into it. As we went, I recognized the problem.

As much as we’d like to pretend we’re just one of the crew, the owner is the owner. And when the owner makes a suggestion, that suggestion can easily become high priority. It’s rarely what the owner intends, but it’s often how it’s received. When the person who signs your check says this or that, this or that can quickly become the most important thing.

It’s like the old EF Hutton ad “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.”

So something as minor as “Are we doing enough on Instagram?” can shoot Instagram to the top of the marketing priority list. It was a mere suggestion, but now it’s a mandate. “Why would he be talking about Instagram unless he really thought Instagram was super important?”

What’s worse is when the owner finds him or herself in the weeds. Meddling too much in this problem or that problem. If that’s where they’re spending their attention, people assume it’s top priority. It may be a mere curiosity, but that’s not the impression it makes. If she’s looking over there, then we should be looking over there. The owner’s presence in a problem area can re-prioritize the organization’s plate without intending to.

And that’s just one example. But owners like to lob ideas all over the organization, and often many at the same time. You can think of them as tiny pebbles being tossed into a pool. When the pebble hits the surface, it radiates small waves. If you’re in that pool, you’ll be affected. A splash over here sends waves this way, a drop over there sends them in another direction. Before you know it, the stillness is broken up by intersecting rings of water. It can get chaotic pretty quickly. And after a while, it’s unclear where all the action started, it’s hard to trace. It’s just busy, churning water. It takes a long time to settle it back down again.

So if you own the place, be careful what you say and when you say it. Most of the time your word carries more weight than you wish. Reserve that weight for when it’s really necessary.

Do people live up to our expectations?

Let’s answer some reader mail…

Piotr asks:

Do you sign up to the adage that people live up to our expectations (both at work and in life?

That’s a great question. And my answer today is different than it would have been a few years ago.

Like many, I used to think people live up to the expectations you set for them. Expect them to do well, and that “empowers” them to do well.

But really, isn’t that wildly egotistical? That it’s your expectations that determine if someone else does good work? Perhaps with a child this makes sense, but I don’t think it applies to well formed adults.

People do great work because that’s the kind of work they want to do. They care about the work, they care about themselves, they care about the people they’re working with, and they care about the people they’re doing the work for. They don’t do it because you expect them to do great work. You didn’t hire them to do shitty work, did you?

Yes, you can help motivate (or demotivate) people. Yes, you can help lead (or confuse) people. Yes, you can create an environment where people feel comfortable doing/acting/being their best (or worst). You can influence through your actions, and how you treat, and teach, and act towards them, but your expectations have nothing to do with their output.

So no, I don’t believe people live up to your expectations. I believe they live up or down to their own intrinsic motivations. They do good because they enjoy doing good. Doing good is meaningful for them.

But if people do live up to anything in someone else’s mind, it’s how much you trust them. I do believe that.

I remember way back in the day I used to work at a golf and tennis store. I primarily sold shoes and tennis rackets. I was 15 — I certainly didn’t know myself back then — so there were two people who had a direct influence on how well I did my job. My manager, Greg Sheehan. And the owner, Shelby Futch.

Greg was an amazing manager. He felt like a mentor. Mostly because he trusted me. He knew I was into shoe culture, he knew I read up on all this stuff, he could tell I paid attention to the rep when they came and showed us the new stuff, etc. So he let me do my job.

The owner, however… She wasn’t very kind. She was always looking over our shoulder. She was an outright racist and wasn’t kind to some of our customers. No one really liked working for her. I have no idea what she expected of us, but I certainly could tell she didn’t trust us.

So on one hand, I loved working with and for Greg. We felt like a team, we had each other’s backs. And everyone else who worked under Greg felt the same way. But we didn’t really like working for the owner. But ultimately, I just liked shoes, and I liked selling, and Greg trusted me to do my thing, so I did good work while I was there.

It was trust.

Give 40, Take 0

A manager’s job is to protect their team’s time and attention.

Companies love to protect. They protect their brand with trademarks, their data and trade secrets with rules and policies, and their money with budgets, CFOs, and investments.

Companies protect a lot of things, yet many of them are guilty of one glaring omission. Too often, there’s something they leave wide open and vulnerable: their employees’ time.

Companies spend their employees’ time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing. Yet workers’ time and attention are the most precious resources we have.

Employees are under siege for their time and attention. They are sliced up by an overabundance of meetings, physical distractions in open workspaces, virtual distractions on their phones, and the expectation they’re available to anyone, anytime, for anything that’s needed.

If companies spent money as recklessly as they spend time, they’d be going out of business. And you can bet they’d find a way to put an end to that. But where’s their responsibility when it comes to the clock?

Time and attention are best spent in large blocks — large bills, if you will, not spare coins and small change. Yet what filters down to staff are just scraps of time in which they’re expected to do a wonderful, thorough job. No wonder people are working longer hours, late nights, and weekends. Where else can they find the uninterrupted time?

Think about it: When was the last time you had four straight hours to yourself at work, four hours not chopped up by meetings or discussion or conversation? You probably can’t remember. Or, if you can, it was probably on a plane or that one time you accidentally left your phone on your nightstand.

Many CEOs think being an enlightened, competitive company means you’re always on. Available all the time, for anyone. I believe that’s a dangerous, frivolous mindset. It causes people to burn out and resent work. It can even lead to their leaving.

As a business owner, I’ve come to realize that protecting my employees’ time and attention is one of the most important things I can do.

For example, we don’t have status meetings at Basecamp. We all know these meetings — one person talks for a bit and shares some plans, and then the next person does the same thing. They’re a waste of time. Why? While it seems efficient to get everyone together at the same time, it isn’t: Eight people in a room for an hour doesn’t cost one hour; it costs eight hours.

Instead, we ask people to write updates daily or weekly on Basecamp for others to read when they have a free moment. This saves dozens of hours a week, and affords people larger blocks of uninterrupted time. Meetings tend to break time into “before” and “after.” Get rid of those meetings and people suddenly have a good stretch of time to immerse themselves in their work.

I believe 40 hours a week is plenty to get great work done if you actually give people 40 hours a week to do it. Having them come in for 40 but giving them only 12 to themselves is like stealing 28 hours a week from someone. At Basecamp, we’ve made significant strides toward making sure 40 hours means 40 hours.

Remember, when you hire someone, you don’t own that person. When you think about a workweek as “company time,” you’re turning it into something the company owns. But really, it’s not company time — it’s the employee’s, to do work for the company. The company is paying people for their time, not to borrow the company’s time. It may sound like semantics, but it actually requires a pretty radical shift in thinking.

This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Inc. Magazine. If you like it please let me know by clicking the ❤️ button below!