Three’s company

Three is lucky enough.

At Basecamp, three is a magic number.

Nearly all product work is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s two or one — not four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chisel problems down until they can be tackled by three people, at most.

We rarely have meetings at Basecamp, but when we do, you’ll hardly ever find more than three people around a table. Same with conference calls or video chats. Any conversation with more than three people is typically a conversation with too many people.

What if there are five departments involved in a project or a decision? There aren’t. Too many dependencies. We don’t work on projects like that — intentionally.

What is it with three? Three is a wedge, and that’s why it works. Three has a sharp point. It’s an odd number so there are no ties. It’s powerful enough to make a dent, but also weak enough to not break what isn’t broken. Big teams make things worse all the time by applying too much force to things that only need to be lightly finessed.

The problem with four is that you almost always need to add a fifth to manage. The problem with five is that it’s two too many. And six, seven, or eight on a team will inevitably make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Just like work expands to fill the time available, work expands to fill the team available. Small, short projects become bigger, longer projects simply because all those people need something to do.

You can do big things with small teams, but it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to do small things with big teams. That’s a disadvantage of big teams! Small things are often all that’s necessary. The occasional big thing is great, but most improvements come as small incremental steps. Big teams can step right over those small moves.

Three keeps you honest. It tempers your ambition in all the right ways. It requires you to make tradeoffs, rather than keep adding things in. And most importantly, three reduces miscommunication and improves coordination. Three people can talk directly with one another without introducing hearsay. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to coordinate three people’s schedules than four or more.

We love three.

The team, the years

48 of the best people I know work at Basecamp.

The Basecamp team as of March 23, 2016

We’ve been working at Basecamp for 5, 6, 5, 1, 5, 4, 2, 3, 15, 1, 2, 1, 5, 2, 3, 8, 17, 7, 5, 1, 8, 9, 4, 5, 6, 5, 1, 5, 4, 1, 5, 7, 4, 3, 5, 6, 6, 13, 11, 8, 5, 2, 6, 3, 2, 3, 6, and 3 years.

Collectively, across just 48 people, that’s 244 years of experience together. As a business owner it makes me feel great seeing longevity, loyalty, and low turnover as a common theme. In return we try to offer the best benefits in the business.

Something I always keep in mind: Behind these people are family trees. Husbands, wives, partners, children. As a business owner I feel a responsibility to these other people too — I don’t want to create tired, anxious, resentful employees who bring those emotions home with them. It’s not just the quantity of hours at work that affect life at home, it’s the quality and impact of those hours spent at work, too. A healthy work-life balance isn’t about separation as much as it’s about how one influences the other.

At Basecamp we’re not just building a different kind of product, we’re building a different kind of company. The kind of company we’d want to do business with if we were in the market for a product to help our company communicate clearly, work together better, and form stronger bonds with each other.

An observation: Looking at the picture at the top of this post, it’s clear need to work harder on diversity. We’d also like to have a roughly 50/50 split male to female to better represent the population at large. It’s tricky for us since we don’t hire often — maybe just a few people a year — so it’ll take some more time to get to the ideal mix, but we’re aware of it, working on it, and have been getting much better at it over the last couple years.

Want to join the crew? We’re currently looking to add two new designers to our team. One focused primarily on product design (Basecamp the apps), and one focused primarily on marketing design ( the site). From time to time we cross over — product designers work on marketing stuff and marketing designers work on product stuff. If you’re interested, email me in a way that demonstrates your skills, your character, and helps you stand out amongst the hundreds who apply whenever we have openings. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Want to see what this team makes together? What we spend our days improving and perfecting? Then check out the all-new Basecamp 3. It’s unlike any Basecamp before it, and a unique product in the industry. In many ways it’s our company operating system, and we’ve seen how it can turn any small business into a better business. Want to find out more about Basecamp 3? Email me and I’ll give you a personal tour. — Jason Fried, CEO, Basecamp