Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a web applications company based in Chicago, has a philosophy to startup tech that is clear, articulate and makes complete sense. Fried pushes back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as fundamentally flawed.
Why do we often refer to the pace of our workplace as ‘crazy’? I hear this all the time when talking with startups, the need for 12+ hour days, working into the early hours two nights a week, and over weekends too. While this has been accepted as the ‘new normal’ in many tech startup workplaces, Fried’s approach is to simply turn this on its head and debunk the myth.
And it’s not just what he says as a spectator, commentating from outside in. To stereotype Fried as just another dreamer would be a mistake. Fried’s company not only has millions of users for its products such as Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, and Backpack, but it has been profitable from day one, and chased customers, not investors – it remains privately funded by the founders.
Basecamp was founded as 37signals in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim as a web design company. David Hansson joined later, and was instrumental in developing the open source web application framework, Ruby on Rails.
The company was originally named after the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. There are apparently billions of signals and sources of noise in space, but, according to Horowitz, there are 37 signals that remain unexplained.
Fried’s story is a personal entrepreneurial journey of creating answers to problems he had, then scaling the solutions into products to sell. His first product came from the early days of having an AOL account and dial up modem. He was looking for software to organise his personal music collection, didn’t find anything that appealed, so set out to make his own.
He found FileMaker Pro, then made a music-organising database for himself, designing his own graphical interfaces around the standard database elements. He called it ‘Audiofile’ and uploading it to AOL, he asked people to pay $20 if they liked it – and they did!
And that was how Fried’s software startup journey started, the last twenty years have been based on that experience, and today Basecamp is the same thing – the team make products for themselves that they sell to other people. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems they have!
So, looking at Fried’s blogs, published on https://m.signalvnoise.com/ and https://medium.com/@jasonfried, and his books Rework, Remote, Getting Real – and the forthcoming It doesn’t have to be crazy at work – what are the key takeaways from Fried’s philosophies? Here are some thoughts, based around his own words.
1. Be a calm company
For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their normal. At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing workdays into a series of fleeting work moments, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.
It is 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 answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Tuesday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.
Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis – an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth – is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way
So build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that lead to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement.
No hair on fire. Build calm. As a tech company you’re supposed to be playing the hustle game. But Fried has Basecamp working at 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour, four-day weeks in the summer. The workplace is more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen.
Basecamp focus on doing just a few things. It seems everyone else is trying to do new and innovative stuff. They are more focused on usefulness rather than innovation. We take our inspiration from things like the stapler and paper clip. It might not be as sexy and newsworthy, but it gives us the opportunity to be around for a long period of time.
2. Love Mondays
It’s actually more Fridays I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it.
Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week has to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, before reality pummels your spirit.
I think the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-type stuff. No digging into the mountain of overdue emails, no ‘just checking in’. Let the weekend be a desert for work and Mondays will seem like an oasis.
Of course, that’s if you actually like what you do and who you do it with. If neither of those things are true, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: Why are neither of those things true? Then take steps to remedy the situation once that question grows old (and before you do).
Turning Mondays into a delight rather than a dread is really all about moderation. Humans are designed for balance. The best recipe is a mix, not a single-ingredient sludge. Take the weekend to enjoy an exclusive plate of not-work, and wake up hungry for Monday’s fresh serving.
3. Being tired isn’t a badge of honour
Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. Rest be damned, they say , there’s an endless amount of work to do. People pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausted. They’re just too tired to notice that their work has suffered because of it.
I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Scientists suggest that your ability to think declines on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.
And there’s more to not getting enough sleep than compromising your own health and creativity. It affects the people around you. When you’re short on sleep, you’re short on patience, less tolerant, less understanding. It’s harder to relate and to pay attention for sustained periods of time.
If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify sustained lack of sleep? The only people who try to do so are tired and not thinking straight.
One argument I hear a lot about working long hours is that when you’re just getting started, you have to give it everything you’ve got. I understand that feeling. And there’s certainly some truth to it. Yes, sometimes emergencies require extra hours and you need to make an extra push. That happens. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary. Such cases should be the exception, not the rule.
But people don’t stop working that way. We’re creatures of habit. The things you do when you start doing something tend to be the things you continue to do. If you work long hours at the beginning, and that’s all you know, you can easily condition yourself to think this is the only way to operate. I’ve seen so many entrepreneurs burn out following this pattern.
So it’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better, and be a better person. Sleep is great for creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?
In the long run, work is not more important than sleep. If you aren’t sure how important sleep is, think about this: You’ll die faster without sleep than you will without food. And, on balance, very few problems need to be solved at the 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning.
4. Give it five minutes
You don’t have to be first or loudest with an opinion – as if being first means something. Wanting to be the first and loudest voice really means you are not thinking hard enough about the problem. The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.
Man, give it five minutes. It’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give ideas some time to set in. ‘Five minutes’ represents ‘think, not react’. Come into a discussion looking to learn, not prove something. There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions, to learn.
Learning to think first rather than react quick is tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. Dismissing other people’s ideas is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is think about it, let it marinate, explore it, mull it over, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.
So next time you hear something, or someone, talk, pitch or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or won’t work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.
So, four interesting perspectives from Fried that run counter to the hullabaloo we see in tech startup mantra on the street.
Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!
Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple – here’s a beautiful way to put it: leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.
Equally, chose fulfillment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, with intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph. I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow incredibly slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.
I’ve not always been able to run myself by Fried’s philosophies, but for the last decade his common sense, people-centric, purpose and principles lead approach has been my yardstick. Go on, give it a go yourself.