For the last decade or so, I’ve been on a number of boards, consulted with a number of entrepreneurs, and have been both formally and informally involved in helping a number of young companies find their way.
Many young companies I’ve seen have one thing in common: They can’t wait to grow up. They desperately want to be taken seriously by others. They want to be perceived as sophisticated, as having it all figured out.
This is where they begin to get into trouble. As they technically begin to be able to do more things, it’s the things they can no longer do that turn out to be the big losses.
Take company size, for example. One way to be taken seriously is to hire more people. As a whole, bigger companies are taken more seriously than small companies. Thing is, small has major practical advantages over large. Small companies can do both small and big things. Big companies can not do small things. Once you get to a certain size, you can no longer do the small things. When you’re big, every initiative turns big, like it or not. Except the small things are often all that’s necessary.
Take “systems”, for example. I’ve seen a number of small companies jump into big sophisticated content management, inventory management, e-commerce management platforms. Buying into something the big guys use helps a small company feel like they’ve arrived. Now they’re ready to scale! But now all the sudden they can no longer do the things they need to do. Trying a quick idea they used to be able to just whip up becomes a wrestling match with the new system that prefers you do things the more complicated way. Now “let’s just try that” becomes “when can we schedule a time to figure out how we can try that?”
The other thing that’s lost in transition from small to big are instincts. I’ve seen companies paralyzed by ideas they can’t seem to implement anymore. They could still do things they same way they used to, but they can’t think that way anymore. For example, a small company that would have just spent a couple hours sending out 50 hand-written emails to test a personalized selling campaign, is stuck for days or weeks trying to figure out how to get their new e-commerce platform to automate the same thing. They could still just pick the customers and write the emails by hand, but they’re forgotten how to think about doing it that way. Once you have something in place that’s supposed to be able to do that work for you, you lose flexibility, your mind and muscles atrophy. You cease to be able to be scrappy.
Scrappy is a mindset, and the skills are lossy — once they’re gone, you can never recreate them the same way again. Being scrappy is easier the smaller you are, the younger you are, and the fewer options you have. Hang on to it for as long as possible! Don’t be in a rush to abandon such critical survival instincts.
It happens to all growing companies. We’ve certainly lost our fair share of scrappiness as well. My suggestion: Resist the allure of large — there’s very little payback, especially if you artificially get there before you’re really ready. Be aware — and beware — of the things you give up too early and never get back.
Before the viral unicorn poop video, before the appearances on Shark Tank and Dr. Oz and Howard Stern — Bobby Edwards was showing his invention at conventions and sending it to alternative health bloggers in hopes of getting coverage. The invention? Squatty Potty, a plastic stool that puts you in a squatting position to poop better. Today Squatty Potty brings in over $30 million in annual revenue, but the quirky company’s ascent to viral fame was far from assured. In today’s episode of the Rework podcast, Squatty Potty CEO Bobby Edwards talks about the years of work that went into marketing the Squatty Potty before it got national attention.
…Each [short chapter is] packed with a punch that seems both profound and practical — profound for how clear and different they tend to be from most accepted business wisdom, and practical because almost everything they describe is immediately applicable.
And the ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Amazon reviews are flowing in as well. And, BTW, if you’ve read the book, please do leave a review. Thanks much.
If you’ve read and enjoyed REWORK, you’re going to especially love “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”. It’s really the spiritual follow-up to REWORK. Irreverent, direct, fluff-free, short-essays, and straight to the point. And because we hate long business books we can never seem to finish, we wrote “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work” to be read in just about 3 hours.
What’s the book about?
We put it all right on the cover.
The lessons and stories in the book are based on nearly 20 years of experimenting with how to build a calm company. Inside we push back hard against unhealthy work practices, the obsession with growth at all costs, and treating people as if they’re simply limitless resources rather than human beings. We also share the things we’ve tried, and how we came to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
If you’ve got a few minutes, here’s the full intro below to fire you up…
“It’s crazy at work.” How often have you heard that? Or said it yourself? Probably too often.
For many, “it’s crazy at work” has become their normal. But why’s that?
At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing work days into a series of fleeting work moments.
Tie that together with a trend of over-collaboration, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.
It’s no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore.
Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers. The doggy bag. The remnants. The scraps.
That’s just not OK. It’s unacceptable.
What’s worse is that long hours, excessive busyness, and lack of sleep have become a badge of honor for many people these days. Sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honor, it’s a mark of stupidity. Companies that force their crew into this bargain are cooking up dumb at their employees’ expense.
And it’s not just about organizations — individuals, contractors, and solopreneurs are burning themselves out the very same way.
You’d think with all the hours people are putting in, and all the promises of tech’s flavor of the month, the load would be lessening. It’s not. It’s getting heavier.
But the thing is, there’s not more work to be done all of the sudden. The problem is there’s hardly any uninterrupted, dedicated time to do it.
Working more but getting less done? It doesn’t add up. But it does — it adds up to a majority of time wasted on things that don’t matter.
Many modern companies seem to be great at one thing: wasting. Wasting time, attention, money, energy.
Out of the 60, 70, 80 hours a week many are expected to pour into work, how many of those hours are really spent on the work itself? And how many are tossed away in meetings, lost to distraction, and withered away by inefficient business practices? The bulk.
The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less bullshit. Less waste, not more production. And far fewer things that induce distraction, always-on anxiety, and stress.
Stress is an infection passed down from organization to employee, from employee to employee, and then from employee to customer. And it’s becoming resistant to traditional treatments. The same old medicine is only making it worse.
And remember, stress can not be contained. It never stops at the edge of work. It always bleeds into life. It infects your relationships with your friends, your family, your kids.
The promises keep coming. More time management hacks. More ways to communicate. More information spread across separate platforms and disparate places. New demands to pay attention to more and more real-time conversations happening all the time at work. Faster and faster, for what? Panaceas left and right. Snake oil.
On-demand is for movies, TV shows, and podcasts, not for you. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Saturday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conveyor belt chat room conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.
If it’s constantly crazy at work, we have two words for you: Fuck that. And two more: Enough already.
At the heart of it all is an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down.
It’s time for companies to stop asking their employees to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego, not need. It’s time to stop celebrating this way of working.
Over the last 18 years we’ve been working at making Basecamp a calm company. One that isn’t fueled by stress, or ASAP, or rushing, or late nights, or all-nighter crunches, or impossible promises, or high turnover, or over-collaboration, or consistently missed deadlines, or projects that never seem to end, or manufactured busywork, or incorrect assumptions that lead to systemic institutional anxiety.
No growth-at-all-costs. No constant, churning false busyness. No ego-driven decisions. No keeping up with the Joneses Corporation. No hair on fire.
And yet we’ve been profitable every year since the beginning. We’ve kept our company intentionally small — we believe small is a key to calm.
As a tech company we’re supposed to be playing the hustle game in Silicon Valley, but we’re blissfully far away in Chicago with employees working remotely in 30 different towns around the world.
We each put in about 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour four-day weeks in the summer. We send people on month-long sabbaticals every three years. We not only pay for people’s vacation time, but we pay for the actual vacation too.
No, not 9pm Wednesday night. It can wait until 9am Thursday morning. No, not Sunday. Monday.
Walk into our office and it feels more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress — they’re just indicators of noise and movement.
We’re in one of the most competitive industries in the world. An industry dominated by giants and frequent upstarts backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in VC money. We’ve taken zero. Where does our money come from? Our customers. They buy what we’re selling and we treat them exceptionally well. Call us old fashioned.
Our benefits are focused on getting people out of the office, not enticing them to stay longer. Fresh fruits and veggies are delivered to people’s houses, not the kitchen at work. Want to learn to play the guitar in your own time? We’ll gladly support you and pay for that too.
We’ll pay for you to get a massage, but we won’t bring the masseuse to the office. Loosening up for 60 minutes only to tense back up hunched over your desk is faux relaxation. No “stay here” signals. Everything’s about wrapping up your reasonable day, going home, and living your life.
Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure — such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not — we’d be lying if we said it was. But we do our best to make sure those are the exceptions. On balance we’re calm — by choice, by practice. We’re intentional about it. We’ve made different decisions than the rest.
We’ve designed our company differently. We’re here to tell you about it, and show you how you can do it. There’s a path. You’ve got to want it, but if you do you’ll realize it’s much nicer over here. You can have a calm company too.
This book points out the diseases plaguing modern workplace and work methods. It calls out false cures, and pushes back against ritualistic time-sucks that have infected the way people work these days. We have a prescription to make it better.
Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work — side effects of broken models and follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let the suckers jump.
Calm is profitability. Calm is protecting people’s time and attention. Calm is reasonable expectations. Calm is about 40 hours of work a week. Calm is ample time off. Calm is smaller. Calm is a visible horizon. Calm is meetings as a last resort. Calm is contextual communication. Calm is asynchronous first, real-time second. Calm is more independence, less interdependence. Calm is about sustainable practices that can run for the long-term.
By the end of the book you’ll understand it all.
It would mean a lot to us if you’d pick up a copy, absorb the ideas, consider the suggestions, and try to make the work world a better place for a lot more people. We hope you ❤️ it. Got questions? Post ’em below and we’ll do our best to answer everything we can. Thanks in advance for reading!
A lot of businesses start as side ventures or hobbies that grow into full-time pursuits. The trick is often in knowing when to quit a comfortable day job to start a new business. We sit down with one of our own at this crossroads. Noah Lorang headed Basecamp’s data team for the last eight years, and now he’s the sole proprietor of a woodworking shop that makes topographical maps. In this episode, Noah talks about how he made his hobby into a viable business, what Basecamp taught him about entrepreneurship, and what he gets from carving wooden maps that he doesn’t get from writing code. Thanks for all the camaraderie, data analysis, and puns, Noah! We’ll miss you.
Also, if you’d like to be Basecamp’s new data analyst, check out the job listing! We’re taking applications until October 12.
👉🏼🎙 Is this thing on? We’re back from sabbatical! In our first post-hiatus episode, Shaun heads to Denver to visit his sister, who left a catering job at a big restaurant chain to run a coffee shop out of a Volkswagen Bus that she bought on impulse off Craigslist. Erika Hildner shares what she’s learned as a first-time business owner about risk-taking, customer service, and using common sense.
They’re mostly terrible, but there’s room for smart choices.
Last week, DHH skewered the open office floor plan. He was right. But wait, we have an open office floor plan. And we’ve done a respectable job figuring out how to make it work. Maybe I should share something about that.
First off, an open office is appealing from a few perspectives:
It makes economic sense. Building out separate private spaces for everyone is costly. Yes, you could argue people being unable to work out in the open is even more costly, and I wouldn’t fight you on that, but that’s an abstract economic impact. Paying construction bills has a very direct economic impact.
It’s more flexible to remain open. Companies like to imagine growth. If you have 20 employees today, but may have 40, 60, or 80 a year or two from now, it’s very difficult to forecast what you’re going to physically need. If you don’t build enough private offices for everyone, then some people are going to get pissed. If you build too many, you’ve wasted a bunch of space. Open is flexible and flexible is comforting — especially if you’re signing a 5+ year lease.
You need less space. You can pack a lot of people into 5000sqft of open space. You can nudge desks together, you can squish people in a few feet, etc. I’m not suggesting these are good ideas, but they’re practical and workable. But if everyone needs private offices, you’re going to need a lot more space, which means a lot more rent. That’s expensive.
So it’s not hard to see why open offices make sense from a purely practical, economic perspective. They’re also easier to clean and maintain, too. But like DHH, I don’t buy the collaborative benefits. Not for a second. That’s a mask used to obscure the real reason — cost savings. Open plans are cheaper to execute, period. And the people who make the decisions about how the office is designed are usually the ones that make the financial decisions.
Ok, so given all that, if you do go open, how do you make open work?
Walk into any library in the world and you’ll notice a few things. One, they’re generally open spaces with a number of desks and surfaces scattered throughout — similar to an open floor plan office. And two, they’re quiet. There are few things as culturally consistent as library design and library behavior. At Basecamp we call these Library Rules.
Libraries are full of people working, reading, thinking, studying, writing, contemplating, designing, etc. Yet they’re silent. People are heads down doing independent work. In our opinion, this is the model business, the model office. We pattern our way of working around Library Rules.
So this is the first lesson: Embrace Library Rules. Open offices work all around the world every day. They’re called libraries! And the more you treat your office as a library of work — rather than a chaotic kitchen of work — the better an open floor plan is going to work. Making an open floor plan work is a cultural decision.
Library Rules means keeping to yourself, keeping your voice down in hushed tones, not distracting one another. If you do need to talk to someone at normal volumes, grab a room. A key to making open floor plans work is also having private rooms scattered throughout the space. A place where a few people who need to discuss something in real time can jump in, talk it up and work it out without bothering anyone on the outside.
At our office, we call these private spaces Team Rooms. Here’s what they look like:
BTW, eliminating distractions doesn’t just mean physical distractions. It increasingly means virtual distractions. Real-time chat rooms/channels are basically open offices — and worse in many ways. So even if you’re fortunate enough to work remotely, or in an office with private rooms for everyone, if you’re forced to follow multiple real-time conversations all day long, you’re effectively working in open plan office too. Sorry!
What’s worse than an open floor plan? An open floor plan loaded with hard surfaces! And given that many open plans are housed in old warehouse/loft-like spaces, you’re materially at a disadvantage. All that wood and brick and glass looks great, but it sounds awful.
Our office space started as a 10,000sqft concrete and glass box. It was a former furniture factory, and a present day echo factory.
A big part of our office design was acoustic design. For example, we built a huge volume in the middle of the office that’s wrapped in stacked felt. The felt serves as a sound absorbing material, and the irregular stacking helps deflect sound. The material and application looks like this:
We also lined one long wall with an acoustic material used in recording studios to help absorb and deflect sound.
Carpet tiles lines the floor of the open work area to further reduce echo and sound transmission when people are speaking openly:
And even the team rooms themselves — rooms designed for collaboration and normal volume communication — have been designed with acoustics in mind. From the acoustic ceiling tiles, to the stacked and slotted cork walls to deflect sound and kill echo, each decision was deliberately made to keep sound from traveling where it shouldn’t.
And because we can’t help ourselves, we even installed neoprene grommets between any team rooms that shared the same glass wall. It’s hard to see this in the photo, but there’s a slight gap between rooms where the glass passes across an inner wall. The neoprene expands to fill that space and kill sound transmission between rooms.
We also built a separate sound proof (room inside a room) recording studio for recording our podcasts. It’s also lined with the same material we had on that long back wall.
Desk dividers out in the open office are made of another acoustic material made from recycled plastic:
And finally, anyone who needs to make a private phone call (personal or business), can duck into one of three phone rooms. The rooms are sound proof and lined with the same material we use for the desk dividers. There’s also an IN USE sign that lights up whenever someone’s inside — reminding everyone that someone’s in there.
Density and desks
Aside from acoustics, there’s another consideration which plays a large role in keeping an office quiet a calm — density. Packing people on top of each other is a form of induced stress. Desks face each other (but dividers keep people from seeing one another), and there’s about 10 feet of space behind each person’s desk. You never have to worry about rolling your chair back and hitting someone.
Further, our desk layout is arranged so no one is looking at anyone else’s screen. Knowing people are looking over your back — even unintentionally — is a really uncomfortable feeling. We’ve eliminated that with our layout.
Last, the desks are lined up along huge windows to make natural light a full part of everyone’s day. Natural light is especially calming, and independently operated shades help with the rare glare based on the season.
Open’s a choice
Yes, an open floor plan is a choice, but it requires a cultural commitment to respect and quiet. Luckily everyone already knows how to do that since everyone knows how to behave in a library. Beyond that, it also requires a capital investment and deliberate office design choices. Even if everyone’s quiet, tossing a bunch of desks in an echo chamber isn’t going to get the job done. If you want to keep things quiet, you have to think about what you’re designing. Every decision has an impact one way or another.
And it’s all optional!
We did the best job we could designing an open office (and a culture) that allows everyone to work in focused peace and quiet every day. But even that’s not good enough, which is why no one is ever required to come into our office. Basecamp is a fully remote company of 54 people, and even the 14 people who work in Chicago work remotely from home most of the time. Walk into the office on any given day and you’ll see 3–5, if you’re lucky. Yes, it’s a tremendous waste of space most of the time, but that’s a concession we’re comfortable making.
Who needs a fancy office when you can work out of a dingy food court? Who needs fancy equipment when you can buy what you need at Walmart? Who needs to hire an SEO specialist? What does an SEO specialist do, anyway? (A question for another episode, or maybe another podcast altogether.) On this episode of Rework, three very different companies — a fashion brand, a company that sells fresh salads from vending machines, and an auto detailing shop — discuss their humble beginnings and offer practical advice about being resourceful and staying lean.
A few weeks ago my father was taken by ambulance to the emergency room with trouble breathing. After that 5 day hospital stay, he’s been doing really well!
But one thing that stands out from the experience was how my own psychology fluctuated. During the initial couple days I’d go to sleep at my parents by myself leaving my mom and father at the hospital. And I was a mess.
Plunging ourselves into ice cold water isn’t usually a pleasant experience. So it’s a common practice research psychologists make people do when studying how people deal with pain. They call it the cold pressor test.
And in 2003, a group of researchers performed the cold pressor test, but this time they tested what would happen if people with their hands submerged in ice cold water were with someone else. A friend. Even a stranger.
The people who had company during that painful moment felt less pain.
Things remarkably changed when everyone descended upon the hospital to join my mom, father and me. My sister came into town with her boyfriend and my niece. My sister’s best friend showed up for multiple visits and help. My wife grabbed my daughter and all our pets and moved them over to my parents place. Even a great friend of mine came and spent a couple hours visiting my father and eating some McDonalds in his hospital room for dinner with us.
Despite all the upsetting and scary things we were now dealing with, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off me when all these people showed up.
It just goes to show you how important it is that no matter what you’re going through. If it’s work or career stuff, or these moments in our personal lives, it’s important to experience them socially. Don’t isolate yourself.
Over and over again, we find that, whether we’re social butterflies or we’re introverted or we’re shy, when we have people around us, even strangers, we can far better endure the inevitable stress that comes with life.
You in business? What are you doing to last? Not to grow. Not to gain. Not to take. Not to win. But to last?
I wouldn’t advocate spending much time worrying about the competition — you really shouldn’t waste attention worrying about things you can’t control — but if it helps make the point relatable, the best way to beat the competition is to last longer than they do.
Duh? Yes, duh. Exactly. Business is duh simple as long as you don’t make it duhking complicated.
So how do you last?
Obviously you need to take in enough revenue to pay your bills. But we’ve always tried to reverse that statement: How many bills do you need to pay to limit your revenue requirements?
Rather than thinking about how much you need to make to cover your costs, think about how little you need to help you survive as long as you want.
Yes, we’re talking about costs. The rarely talked about side of the equation. I’m honestly shocked how little attention costs get in the realm of entrepreneurial literature.
Whenever a startup goes out of business, the first thing I get curious about are their costs, not their revenues. If their revenues are non-existent, or barely there, then they were fucked anyway. But beyond that, the first thing I look at is their employee count. Your startup with 38 people didn’t make it? No wonder. Your startup that was paying $52,000/month rent didn’t make it? No wonder. Your startup that spend 6 figures on your brand didn’t make it? No wonder.
Even today… Some of the biggest names in our industry are hemorrhaging money. How is that possible? Simple: Their costs are too high! You don’t lose money by making it, you lose it by spending too much of it! Duh! I know!
So keep your costs as low as possible. And it’s likely that true number is even lower than you think possible. That’s how you last through the leanest times. The leanest times are often the earliest times, when you don’t have customers yet, when you don’t have revenue yet. Why would you tank your odds of survival by spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Beats me, but people do it all the time. ALL THE TIME. Dreaming of all the amazing things you’ll do in year three doesn’t matter if you can’t get past year two.
2018 will be our 19th year in business. That means we’ve survived a couple of major downturns — 2001, and 2008, specifically. I’ve been asked how. It’s simple: It didn’t cost us much to stay in business. In 2001 we had 4 employees. We were competing against companies that had 40, 400, even 4000. We had 4. We made it through, many did not. In 2008 we had around 20. We had millions in revenue coming in, but we still didn’t spend money on marketing, and we still sublet a corner of someone else’s office. Business was amazing, but we continued to keep our costs low. Keeping a handle on your costs must be a habit, not an occasion. Diets don’t work, eating responsibly does.
Try it for a year. Think less about revenues and more about costs. In many cases they’re easier to control, easier to predict (seek out fixed costs that’ll stay the same as you grow, vs things that get more expensive as you grow), and easier to manage. But only if you keep them in mind as you make decisions about how you’re going to last — and outlast.
Fired up about a new idea, but can’t seem to get traction to make it happen? Chat rooms aren’t traction, they’re treadmills. Lots of talk without going anywhere. You need Basecamp 3 — discussions, to-do lists, schedules, the ability to hold people accountable. Don’t just talk about it, do it with Basecamp.
A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to the Art Institute here in Chicago. She’s three.
So as you can imagine it wasn’t a tremendous success of actually seeing a ton of art. We had a lot of fun though doing crafts they had set up for kids and eating lunch.
My proudest moment was when she yelled out “I really like that picture!” It was Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom. It’s my favorite too.
There’s an interesting exercise you can do at the Art Institute or other major art museums. Go find some Picassos and note how old he was when he made them. Now find some Cézannes and do the same.
It’s possible you spot something like Economics Professor at the University of Chicago, David Galenson did.
Picasso’s most valuable work, based on prices paid at auction, peaked when he was 25.
Cézanne at 65.
Some artists peak young. Others get better over time.
Galenson saw this over and over with writers and artists in all sorts of different time periods and industries.
I think the world puts too much focus on the Picassos and the young phenoms. We overlook the Cézannes. The folks who took a while to experiment on getting better and better and who never stopped.
The thing I take from this is that if you find yourself still experimenting in life. If you don’t have it all figured out. If you’re 30, 40, 50, 60 and still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up…
There’s still plenty of room and time to get better. Your peak is still ahead.