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.

Why are some people successful over and over and over again?

Star Trek cast with J.J. Abrams — pic by Eva Rinaldi

Work hard and…

Star Trek Beyond is doing great at the box office, but some critics aren’t impressed. Owen Gleiberman at Variety has seen better:

Where is there left for the series to boldly go? I don’t believe that “Star Trek Beyond” is the answer. Justin Lin’s new film delivers in terms of action, but it’s a deluxe place-holder, earthbound in spirit and a bit leaden, all too rooted in ancient interplanetary tropes. It has visual extravagance (especially in the vertiginous climax), as well as tasty bits and pieces of the characters’ personalities, but it rarely gets both things together in the same place, and that’s a serious setback.

Another thing caught my eye about Owen’s review. Though he was a fan of J.J. Abrams first and second effort at the rebooted franchise, he had this to say about Abrams and his second Trek movie Into the Darkness:

By the time of his second “Star Trek” movie, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it was more or less evident that Abrams was auditioning for “Star Wars.” He wanted to captain that franchise, and he earned the promotion by proving himself to be a master of retrofitted nostalgia.

Is that even true? Did Abrams use Star Trek as a stepping stone to Star Wars? After all Abrams wasn’t even a fan of Star Trek growing up, but he sure was a Star Wars fan.

Turns out this doesn’t seem true at all. Abrams turned down an offer from Disney to do Star Wars exactly because of Star Trek. From Neil Daniel’s biography of Abrams:

There were the very early conversations and I quickly said that because of my loyalty to Star Trek, and also just being a fan, I wouldn’t even want to be involved in the next version of those things. I declined any involvement very early on. I’d rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them.

Abrams finally considered Disney’s persistent offer only after Into the Darkness was done with production.

So what? Well, I think this shows us some interesting behavior Abrams exhibits about work and perhaps why he’s so successful over and over again.

On July 20, 1969, man stepped on the moon. That feat was an incredible collaboration of ideas and thinking from the most brilliant minds on earth. One of the key groups was Nasa’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The JPL wasn’t always Nasa’s. The JPL goes back to 1936 when they were the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and were inventing and testing rocket technology for the military.

Given JPL’s age and history, in the 1990s, many of the engineers that helped put man on the moon were retiring. A new generation of JPL engineers were replacing them.

One problem. Those new engineers weren’t solving problems as well as the old ones. Sure they were smart. Came from the best schools. Knew their stuff. But they often weren’t able to complete difficult and complex projects all the way to practical execution.

What happened? And what could they do to fix it.

They discovered an article by Nate Jones. Nate ran a machine shop of engineers who worked on race cars and tires. He saw the same thing the JPL was seeing. The new engineers just weren’t problem solving as well. So he dug into interviewing folks and discovered a correlation, one that the JPL confirmed.

The older more senior engineers who were good at problem solving also happened to have grown up building gadgets, taking apart things, making their own soap box race cars, and just generally “playing” at being engineers before they were ever technically trained as engineers. The new engineers, who weren’t up to snuff, didn’t. They knew theory from text books, and learned all the things well that they needed to learn. But they didn’t grow up playing as engineers or embracing play even as adults.

This is just one anecdote from a wonderful book called Play by Stuart Brown, M.D. that explores powerful research and findings on how important play is for realizing our full potential. When we don’t play and everything is just work, we don’t grow like we should. Play is insanely important in the animal kingdom and through our own childhood. But we forget, it doesn’t stop being important. Adults need it too.

Let’s look a little closer at J.J. Abrams.

I think the reason Owen Gleiberman thinks Abrams was auditioning is that Abrams sort of is. But unintentionally. He’s playing. He’s taking something he did before and pushing it a little further. Kids play the same way. They take an ability and see if they can push it a little differently. They learn to swim and then try to swim backwards.

Abrams is the well known creator of the popular TV show Alias. But many don’t realize that Abrams was also the creator of a TV show before Alias called Felicity, which focused on college relationships and drama. Alias was Abrams playing:

What if Felicity were a spy

When you look into Abrams past you see he was playing at being a movie maker even as a child. He’d shoot Super 8 films and create special effects like a “lighting bolt” monster by scratching the actual film frame by frame. (Turns out Spielberg was shooting Super 8 films too as a kid.)

And Abrams never lost that sense of play.

In fairness, I don’t think I’ve stopped writing dodgy screenplays. When I was in college I wrote around ten screenplays. Some were about young people going through crazy adventures. Some were more offbeat — there was always an odd love story at the core of it. It was the beginning of wanting to try to figure out how to write a screenplay. There’s never a moment you go from being an amateur writer doing the best you can to being a professional writer who does great — you’re always doing the same thing but if you’re lucky at some point, you make a living from it. I don’t feel any different when I sit down to write something today than I did back in college. It still starts with: “What if I did this?”’

He doesn’t feel any different from when he was a kid just playing. I think that’s a huge reason Abrams has been able to get to where he is and why he remains so prolific even after strings of failures.

I think it’s not about when your time is and isn’t, and people have ups and downs. I think you can’t predict anything. You don’t know what anyone’s going to say.

“You can’t predict anything.” According to Brown one of the key ingredients to making something play is its apparent purposelessness. I think Abrams admitting that he can’t predict what his work will do allows him to still treat his projects as play even when it’s now his job.

Don’t get me wrong. You can’t just play and become the success J.J. Abrams is. Plenty of people used a Super 8 as a kid and aren’t the next Spielberg. But I think most successful people, if you look closely, you’ll see they’ve figured out how to turn work into play. And it’s an important part of getting through all the stuff in our way.

I spend time trying to teach my daughter the importance of working hard and being smart. As she goes to sleep I’ll tell her how proud I am of her that she’s learning so much and working so hard to figure things out. I praise her curiosity and how much time she spends asking us questions.

My wife was pretty shocked when my daughter then was giving our pet cat, Tela, advice randomly one day. She told Tela, “You need to work hard and…”

Tela definitely needs to get off the table. But yes, my daughter just taught me a lesson that I often forget. Work hard and play.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking that below. And you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us make better decisions. If you find yourself organizing your own small business and marketing, check out how Highrise can help!

How I became (and stayed) a successful programmer

3 strategies that have been crucial to the longevity of my programming career

For a while now, interest in programming has been skyrocketing. So there are a lot of beginners out there starting their careers — and that’s a wonderful thing!

If you’re one of those beginners, eventually you may start thinking about the long-term prospects of your new skills: How do I take a new skill like programming, grow it, shape it, and tune it over time so I can achieve longevity in the industry?

I asked myself that same question early on in my career. Now, a mere 15 years into it, I’m hoping I can give you some answers.

Below are a few general strategies that have helped me become (and stay) a successful programmer over the long haul.

1. I surround myself with programmers who are way better than me

Over the course of my career, I’ve always tried to pick work where the people I’d be working with are exceptionally talented. To put it more bluntly, I put myself in the company of programmers who were way better than me.

This is crucial, because the best way to improve (at anything) is to learn from people better than you. It might be a nice ego boost if you know more than everyone around you, but you’re otherwise just flat lining your actual progress.

When I’m around these talented programmers, I constantly keep my eyes and ears open for nuggets of wisdom. I watch how my fellow programmers carry themselves, how they breakdown a problem, how they talk to each other. I look at their code for patterns and style choices that I can mimic. I remind myself to talk less and to listen more.

Unless you’re the Michael Jordan (or dare I say the LeBron) of your respective field, there should always be someone better than you — this is a good thing!

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain in such a situation. Take advantage of it. 🚀

2. I occasionally leave my comfort zone

I’ve found it beneficial to leave my programming comfort zone once in a while. It helps me think differently by challenging a bunch of established ideas I already have.

For sure, you don’t want to do this constantly because it can be hard to get into a rhythm with your normal area of work. But in moderation it can really open your mind to new ways of thinking.

For example, my comfort zone is Java and Android. But over the last year, I’ve taken on stuff well outside that zone:

  • I helped build an open-source framework. Turbolinks Android was the first time I’d ever worked seriously with Turbolinks (new tech to me), it was my first open-source project ever (new process for me), and it was a cornerstone for Basecamp 3 for Android (a new product for the company). It was one of the hardest projects of my career!
  • I started writing Kotlin instead of Java. I’d been writing Java for over a decade, so picking up a new langauge was no trivial task. Not to mention I’d never written a single line of Kotlin previously! But before I knew it I jumped in head first and am now writing Kotlin most of the time. (Incidentally, I’m completely in love with the language!)
  • I’m learning the underpinnings of our open source rich text editor. By learning the ins and outs of Trix, our Android team will be able to better utilize its capabilities now and in the future. But as someone who isn’t totally up to speed on advanced Coffeescript and DOM manipulation, this has more or less melted my brain. But I shall prevail!

Here’s what’s important to remember — none of this stuff was particularly easy or comfortable for me. In fact much of it was downright uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, and filled with doubt. At times I literally felt like I had no idea what I was doing.

But as challenging as they were, I did them anyway because I knew how valuable those experiences would be . They gave me the opportunity to work with a variety of the programmers, let me reacquaint myself with technologies I’d fallen behind with, and let me learn brand new stuff that few others in the company got to. All of that made me a better programmer.

So find a programming task that takes you out of your comfort zone and make it your next project. Then watch it pay off in spades. 💰

3. I value being independent

When you’re just starting out, you’re going to have a lot of questions. That’s OK!

What’s most important is how you choose to find the answers to your questions.

One philosophy that’s always served me well is to be independent. Usually this means that I’ll try to do most things myself first, and only when I really get stuck, I’ll ask for help.

Being independent has tons of benefits, but to name just a few…

  • You learn how to be resourceful. Finding answers may just be one Google result away, or it might take a dozen different queries. You might have to patch together 5 different solutions that you’ve found to work together. Who knows. Finding the answers you need on your own is a skill that’ll serve you well for years.
  • You earn respect by being courteous of other people’s time and work. When you prioritize your independence, working with other programmers is easier. They’ll appreciate that you’ve done a lot on your own and have taken it as far as you can before asking for help. By respecting other people’s time and work, you’ll earn respect back. And mutual respect is the cornerstone for trust and solid teamwork.
  • You start developing your creativity. When you need to come up with answers, you’ll find yourself coming up with creative solutions you hadn’t considered. You’ll try things that seem crazy and out of the realm of possibility. Some will work and some won’t, but you’ll begin to develop a palette of creative solutions that you can draw from many times down the road.

The next time you have a burning question, see if you can answer it yourself, even if it takes a little longer than asking someone. It’ll be worth it.🔥❓✔️

Becoming a successful programmer is, like anything worthwhile, hard work. But these strategies have always served me well in the long run — after all, I ended up getting my dream job working at Basecamp. I hope they can help you get to where you want to be, too. 😀

I hope this article was helpful to you! If so, please do hit the heart button below and let me know on Twitter.

We’ve been working really hard to make the all-new Basecamp 3 and its Android app as great as they can be. Check ’em out, we hope you love them.