Common sense is the genius of humanity: the voice of Jason Fried

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.

The importance of fika time to a startup

My newest venture, thestartupfactory.tech, https://thestartupfactory.tech/ has been up and running for three months now, and we’re in good nick, building our confidence, rhythm, spirit, cadence and culture. We’re a team of passionate folk who work with tech startups to turn their vision into a reality, enabling innovation and customer-centred thinking into their new tech product and business.

We’re entrepreneurs, software engineers, designers, analysts, and agile practitioners. We’re also bloggers, explorers, speakers, swimmers, dog lovers, coffee addicts, campers, walkers, musicians, gamers, footballers, readers, travellers, gardeners, parents, and optimists.

That list is about ‘who we are’. We bring our true selves to work. Our business is defined by who we are, our values and the culture we create. More grit than glamour, we’re built on the spirit and down-to-earthiness of Manchester, ‘factory’ being an acknowledgment of the industrial heritage of what made Manchester special, and also taking the disruption, innovation and ethos of one of the city’s most evocative businesses, Factory Records.

With an attitude of graft and guile, we are factory workers, we get our hands into the machinery of building a startup, we roll our sleeves up, get dirt under our nails and get stuck in.

The essential moving parts of any startup are the people capital, not the venture capital, as Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we’ve spent time thinking and building our culture ahead of any rush to market.

When setting out on our venture, we looked to other entrepreneurs for a steer as to what makes for a happy and healthy business. We found this quote from Jeff Bezos: Find the things that are important to you and invest heavily in those things.

So we created the Five Pillars, to stay focused on a list of meaningful things that created and sustained intimacy and interaction between us, and connected us at a personal level. I spend more time with the team that I do with my dog, so there had to be reason to be here.

So here is the list of Five Pillars, it’s on our web site.

Vision & Values

  • Our business is about people capital, not venture capital
  • Reach beyond your expectations, every day
  • First names are important, job titles are not
  • Trusting each other is the platform for everything we do
  • Everyone practices humility and self awareness, but also self-esteem
  • We know the mentality to be successful and we have it in abundance

Culture

  • No office hours, but minds always open
  • 40 hours a week maximum; 32 summer hours – 4 day weeks, July & August
  • Weekend starts 1pm Friday
  • We pay for one weekend holiday a year for everyone
  • Fresh fruit breakfast in the office every day; pay for a weekly ‘Hello Fresh’ shop once a month
  • Team social last Thursday of every month

Knowledge

  • Everyone has a personal R&D project
  • Host Lunch & Learns third Thursday in the month
  • Run four hackathons a year
  • Wednesday afternoon is your personal learning time
  • Everyone goes to one event a month; everyone has a monthly book allowance
  • Performance of the business is transparent to everyone

Social impact

  • Lead a Code school in Manchester for under 11s
  • Provide a platform for unemployed people to get back into work
  • Sponsor & help the homeless in Manchester
  • Mentor a Social Enterprise
  • Provide paid internship opportunities
  • Be an active contributor to Manchester Tech Trust

Success

  • We will keep our company small and intimate, with reasonable expectations
  • Our place of work is a welcoming oasis, not a chaotic kitchen
  • Anxiety is not a pre-requisite for progress
  • We are calm by choice and practice
  • Everything is about having a reasonable day, going home, and living your life
  • Success is looking at a visible horizon, and getting there in the long run

We’ve not done everything yet, there’s a few wrinkles and edges to sort as we’re not doing some things as well as we can, but the Five Pillars gives us clarity and purpose about our direction.

I’ve long been interested in entrepreneurial cultures and the underlying philosophies, how you create the conditions to spark a startup based on the emotional intelligence and connectivity of the people. We’re more reflective than rebels, and on crafting the Five Pillars came across a concept from Ikea, ‘fika’, which we’ve implemented.

At 9.45am every day, we have ‘fika’ time. We each stop what we are doing and huddle around a table, have a cup of tea or coffee, and just be with each other. We chat about anything and everything but work. Friday was about Chuck’s pending house move; James neglecting his desk cactus; Jake’s obsession with 3D printing; and my ridiculous new waistcoat wardrobe. We also get loud about curating our tsf.tech Spotify list.

What we sample is an experience and unique word at the heart of Swedish life and work – ‘fika’ (pronounced ‘fee-ka’). According to the Swedish Culture website it is described in this way:

Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time.

Coffee is traditionally at the heart of the fika. When coffee arrived in Sweden in 1685, it became so popular that it upset the rest of the import business. So much so that it was banned five times in Swedish history!

Fika is a combination of the Swedish colloquial word for cafe – fik – and coffee – kaffe. Who knows, perhaps the term fika served as a kind of code for those who took part in this once illegal activity. It is said that during the bans, Swedes were forced to drink their coffee secretly, out into the woods

Making time for fika is so sacred to Swedes that it’s built into many employee contracts. Some even say that the best ideas spring from fika breaks. We use fika time to cultivate an almost tactile sense of connection, here’s what we are trying to bring into our business.

Communicate frequently and constantly In tsf.tech we are always active on collaboration tools like Jira, Zoom and Slack instant messenger. Besides work content, we post links to interesting items, videos, learnings and stories. The point is that in the physical workplace we know we can relax and chat to people when we see them, but when we’re away from our work space and operating in the more detached digital world, we need to work harder at connecting, talking and feeling close. Fika gives us this.

Be open, vulnerable and honest Not every day is intense, but what works in the digital workplace is to reveal what matters to each of us. Speaking in your own authentic voice is essential. Honesty creates intimacy in digital worlds just as much as it does in the physical. Connecting becomes a deliberate rather than assumed experience. In tsf.tech we say that you do not need to be present physically but you do need to be present digitally, so if you can’t make fika face to face, connect using the tools.

Place your leadership front and centre The beauty of the digital workplace is that it has qualities that are impossible in the physical world. So take IKEA for example. In the physical world, their leaders cannot be everywhere in person having coffee and chatter with colleagues. But in the digital world, through real-time and other collaborative services, they can be ‘felt’ across far more frequently and with a much greater reach. But you have to invest time and authenticity in making it happen.

Use all the technology you can to bring you closer In tsf.tech we grab every new tool that may make us slicker and faster, as well as strengthen our bonds and connections. There is also a level of curiosity and experimenting. We do this because we like to be a ‘digital workplace lab’, we are in a position to experiment and innovate with new digital services in a way that large companies may not be. With all the team save myself under twenty-six, they are ‘digital natives’ and have a natural instinct for UX and gamification.

Make the social side of connection richer and deeper I dislike the term ‘social media’, it’s an oxymoron, because it drives isolated experience and consumption, it connects but doesn’t create engagement. Social for me is sitting next to someone and talking, and the things we talk about and do that are explicitly not work – they are social. Yes, we use social and online tools and the ways in which we use them are clear and distinct, engendering personal connection and relationships inside and outside the company. The point is we share our lives – issues, pets, families and homes. This generates the culture of closeness that the Swedes so value.

Use your own voice to talk and listen I mention voice particularly because on a phone call, Zoom or Webex we are talking and listening in reality. So far the only aspect of me as a human being that can be communicated digitally in the same way as if we are sitting together is my own voice, tone, intonation. I believe how we listen also matters hugely and when someone is listening to another person attentively, the talker can see that quality of listening. This is a key underpinning of fika.

We also have a ‘Your Voice’ item on our fortnightly team meeting agenda, when I encourage sharing ourselves with each other about how work ‘feels’. We also challenge each other and have debates and even arguments when needed at fika time, but we do that using our own voices because our vocal cords and tone of voice are such a powerful and distinct part of who we each are.

Meet in person when you can and make it matter Sometimes for some meetings this is not possible, but using opportunities to meet face-to-face does make a difference. It’s easy to default to the smart tech tools, but if we can meet in person, it adds to the richness of relationship, looking people in the eye and getting a sense of their body language is of much more value to see how we are.

While fika is good for mental and physical wellness, offering a period of calmness in a busy working day schedule, it can also help us to stay focused in the long run. Research has shown that taking breaks increases productivity. Sometimes, during the middle of a task, you might be stuck. With fika, you can have a break, come back refreshed and look at things from a different perspective. We insist that work talk is prohibited in fika. It forces you away from your work so you can re-evaluate things, come back refreshed and prioritise tasks when you do return.

So another year, another Scandinavian lifestyle trend. In 2016, the UK was fascinated by the Danish practice of hygge (finding the simple pleasure everyday life). For me, fika is an opportunity to slow down, come together for a face-to-face and interact. The social aspect of work is incredibly important.

The essential part is making a little space in your day to take a break. In our modern, hectic lifestyles, this is the part that is important: that we take a few moments to slow down in our day and make time to just sit and appreciate the moment.

So, perhaps there are aspects of the IKEA fika around coffee and cake that you can create inside your own digital enabled workplace, like we have in tsf.tech, to enable you to enjoy that atmosphere and chemistry of connection the Swedes love so much. The only part missing so far for us is the cake, but I guess we’ll just have to wait for Jake’s 3D printing of food and add that to the digital workplace menu at tsf.tech fika meetings.