Business & Economics
October 2, 2018
This is a quick, must read.
Chaos should not be the norm.
They run 6 weeks on, 2 weeks off projects. Sprints/release cycle for 6, 2 weeks to review and plan the next 6 weeks.
They don't use goals. They don't set targets for the sake of setting a target. They don't have a product road map. Promises lead to rushing. Promises pile up like debt and they accrue interest.
They opt for depth not breadth.
CALM REQUIRES GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH ENOUGH.
An unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost sets towering, unrealistic expectations that stress people out.
There’s not more work to be done all of a sudden. The problem is that there’s hardly any uninterrupted, dedicated time to do it. People are working more but getting less done. It doesn’t add up—until you account for the majority of time being wasted on things that don’t matter.
The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less bullshit. Less waste, not more production. And far fewer distractions, less always-on anxiety, and avoiding stress.
The modern workplace is sick. 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.
It begins with this idea: Your company is a product.
Like product development, progress is achieved through iteration.
But when you think of the company as a product, you ask different questions: Do people who work here know how to use the company? Is it simple? Complex? Is it obvious how it works? What’s fast about it? What’s slow about it? Are there bugs? What’s broken that we can fix quickly and what’s going to take a long time?
We work on projects for six weeks at a time, then we take two weeks off from scheduled work to roam and decompress.
Calm is a destination
What’s our market share? Don’t know, don’t care. It’s irrelevant. Do we have enough customers paying us enough money to cover our costs and generate a profit? Yes. Is that number increasing every year? Yes. That’s good enough for us. Doesn’t matter if we’re 2 percent of the market or 4 percent or 75 percent. What matters is that we have a healthy business with sound economics that work for us. Costs under control, profitable sales.
Mark Twain nailed it: “Comparison is the death of joy.”
we don’t do goals. At all. No customer-count goals, no sales goals, no retention goals, no revenue goals, no specific profitability goals (other than to be profitable). Seriously.
Do we want to make things better? All the time. But do we want to maximize “better” through constantly chasing goals? No thanks.
Goals are fake. Nearly all of them are artificial targets set for the sake of setting targets. These made-up numbers then function as a source of unnecessary stress until they’re either achieved or abandoned. And when that happens, you’re supposed to pick new ones and start stressing again.
Short-term planning has gotten a bum rap, but we think it’s undeserved. Every six weeks or so, we decide what we’ll be working on next. And that’s the only plan we have. Anything further out is considered a “maybe, we’ll see.”
Seeing a bad idea through just because at one point it sounded like a good idea is a tragic waste of energy and talent.
Oftentimes it’s not breaking out, but diving in, digging deeper, staying in your rabbit hole that brings the biggest gains. Depth, not breadth, is where mastery is often found.
we don’t cram. We don’t rush. We don’t stuff. We work at a relaxed, sustainable pace. And what doesn’t get done in 40 hours by Friday at 5 picks up again Monday morning at 9.
If you can’t fit everything you want to do within 40 hours per week, you need to get better at picking what to do, not work longer hours. Most of what we think we have to do, we don’t have to do at all. It’s a choice, and often it’s a poor one.
We don’t have status meetings at Basecamp.
Eight people in a room for an hour doesn’t cost one hour, it costs eight hours.
And between all those context switches and attempts at multitasking, you have to add buffer time. Time for your head to leave the last thing and get into the next thing.
A great work ethic isn’t about working whenever you’re called upon. It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do, putting in a fair day’s work, respecting the work, respecting the customer, respecting coworkers, not wasting time, not creating unnecessary work for other people, and not being a bottleneck. Work ethic is about being a fundamentally good person that others can count on and enjoy working with.
No one can see anyone else’s calendar at Basecamp.
We don’t require anyone to broadcast their whereabouts or availability at Basecamp. No butts-in-seats requirement for people at the office, no virtual-status indicator when they’re working remotely.
At Basecamp, we’ve tried to create a culture of eventual response rather than immediate response. One where everyone doesn’t lose their shit if the answer to a nonurgent question arrives three hours later.
People should be missing out! Most people should miss out on most things most of the time.
JOMO! The joy of missing out. It’s JOMO that lets you turn off the firehose of information and chatter and interruptions to actually get the right shit done.
One way we push back against this at Basecamp is by writing monthly “Heartbeats.” Summaries of the work and progress that’s been done and had by a team, written by the team lead, to the entire company. All the minutiae boiled down to the essential points others would care to know. Just enough to keep someone in the loop without having to internalize dozens of details that don’t matter.
The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. They’re there to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so that when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be.
If the boss really wants to know what’s going on, the answer is embarrassingly obvious: They have to ask! Not vague, self-congratulatory bullshit questions like “What can we do even better?” but the hard ones like “What’s something nobody dares to talk about?” or “Are you afraid of anything at work?” or “Is there anything you worked on recently that you wish you could do over?” Or even more specific ones like “What do you think we could have done differently to help Jane succeed?” or “What advice would you give before we start on the big website redesign project?”
Posing real, pointed questions is the only way to convey that it’s safe to provide real answers. And even then it’s going to take a while. Maybe you get 20 percent of the story the first time you ask, then 50 percent after a while, and if you’ve really nailed it as a trustworthy boss, you may get to 80 percent. Forget about ever getting the whole story.
The further away you are from the fruit, the lower it looks. Once you get up close, you see it’s quite a bit higher than you thought. We assume that picking it will be easy only because we’ve never tried to do it before.
Declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do.
And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.
All-nighters are red flags, not green lights. If people are pulling them, pull back. Nearly everything can wait until morning.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at the job if you’re an ass. Nothing you can do for us would make up for that.
We don’t need 50 twentysomething clones in hoodies with all of the same cultural references. We do better work, broader work, and more considered work when the team reflects the diversity of our customer base. “Not exactly what we already have” is a quality in itself.
For example, when we’re choosing a new designer, we hire each of the finalists for a week, pay them $1,500 for that time, and ask them to do a sample project for us. Then we have something to evaluate that’s current, real, and completely theirs.
What we don’t do are riddles, blackboard problem solving, or fake “come up with the answer on the spot” scenarios. We don’t answer riddles all day, we do real work. So we give people real work to do and the appropriate time to do it in. It’s the same kind of work they’d be doing if they got the job.
They hire someone based on a list of previous qualifications, not on their current abilities.
Stop thinking of talent as something to be plundered and start thinking of it as something to be grown and nurtured, the seeds for which are readily available all over the globe for companies willing to do the work.
We no longer negotiate salaries or raises at Basecamp. Everyone in the same role at the same level is paid the same. Equal work, equal pay.
We assess new hires on a scale that goes from junior programmer, to programmer, to senior programmer, to lead programmer, to principal programmer (or designer or customer support or ops or whatever role we’re hiring for). We use the same scale to assess when someone is in line for a promotion. Every employee, new or old, fits into a level on the scale, and there is a salary pegged to each level per role. Once every year we review market rates and issue raises automatically. Our target is to pay everyone at the company at the top 10 percent of the market regardless of their role. So
We encourage remote work and have many employees who’ve lived all over the world while continuing to work for Basecamp.
There’s a fountain of happiness and productivity in working with a stable crew. It’s absolutely key to how we’re able to do so much with so few at Basecamp. We’re baffled that such a competitive advantage isn’t more diligently sought.
Rather than thinking of it as an office, we think of it as a library. In fact, we call our guiding principle: Library Rules.
In our office, if someone’s at their desk, we assume they’re deep in thought and focused on their work. That means we don’t walk up to them and interrupt them. It also means conversations should be kept to a whisper so as not to disturb anyone who could possibly hear you. Quiet runs the show.
To account for the need for the occasional full-volume collaboration, we’ve designated a handful of small rooms in the center of the office where people can go to if they need to work on something together (or make a private call).
In our industry, it’s become common practice to offer “unlimited vacation days.” It sounds so appealing! But peel back the label and it’s a pretty rotten practice.
Unlimited vacation is a stressful benefit because it’s not truly unlimited.
“Basecamp offers three weeks of paid vacation, a few extra personal days to use at your discretion, and the standard national holidays every year. This is a guideline, so if you need a couple extra days, no problem. We don’t track your days off, we use the honor system. Just make sure to check with your team before taking any extended absence, so they’re not left in the lurch.”
If you don’t clearly communicate to everyone else why someone was let go, the people who remain at the company will come up with their own story to explain it. Those stories will almost certainly be worse than the real reason.
A dismissal opens a vacuum, and unless you fill that vacuum with facts, it’ll quickly fill with rumors, conjecture, anxiety, and fear. If you want to avoid that, you simply have to be honest and clear with everyone about what just happened. Even if it’s hard. That’s why whenever someone leaves Basecamp, an immediate goodbye announcement is sent out companywide.
When it comes to chat, we have two primary rules of thumb: “Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time” and “If it’s important, slow down.”
Important topics need time, traction, and separation from the rest of the chatter. If something is being discussed in a chat room and it’s clearly too important to process one line at a time, we ask people to “write it up” instead. This goes together with the rule “If everyone needs to see it, don’t chat about it.” Give the discussion a dedicated, permanent home that won’t scroll away in five minutes.
You can’t fix a deadline and then add more work to it. That’s not fair. Our projects can only get smaller over time, not larger. As we progress, we separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves and toss out the nonessentials.
And who makes the decision about what stays and what goes in a fixed period of time? The team that’s working on it. Not the CEO, not the CTO. The team that’s doing the work has control over the work. They wield the “scope hammer,” as we call it. They can crush the big must-haves into smaller pieces and then judge each piece individually and objectively. Then they can sort, sift, and decide what’s worth keeping and what can wait.
Here are some of the telltale signs that your deadline is really a dreadline: An unreasonably large amount of work that needs to be done in an unreasonably short amount of time. “This massive redesign and reorganization needs to happen in two weeks. Yeah, I know half the team is out on vacation next week, but that’s not my problem.” An unreasonable expectation of quality given the resources and time. “We can’t compromise on quality—every detail must be perfect by Friday. Whatever it takes.” An ever-expanding amount of work in the same time frame as originally promised. “The CEO just told me that we also need to launch this in Spanish and Italian, not just English.”
When we present work, it’s almost always written up first. A complete idea in the form of a carefully composed multipage document. Illustrated, whenever possible. And then it’s posted to Basecamp, which lets everyone involved know there’s a complete idea waiting to be considered.
We don’t want reactions. We don’t want first impressions. We don’t want knee-jerks. We want considered feedback. Read it over. Read it twice, three times even. Sleep on it. Take your time to gather and present your thoughts—just like the person who pitched the original idea took their time to gather and present theirs.
That’s how you go deep on an idea.
Friday is the worst day to release anything.
So instead of shipping big software updates on Fridays, we now wait until Monday the following week to do it. Yes, this introduced other risks—if we somehow make a big mistake, we’re introducing it on the busiest day of the week. But knowing that also helps us be better prepared for the release. When there’s more at stake, you tend to measure twice, cut once.
This encouraged us to take quality assurance more seriously, so we can catch more issues ahead of time.
We hire when it hurts. Slowly, and only after we clearly need someone. Not in anticipation of possibly maybe.
When calm starts early, calm becomes the habit. But if you start crazy, it’ll define you. You have to keep asking yourself if the way you’re working today is the way you’d want to work in 10, 20, or 30 years. If not, now is the time to make a change, not “later.”
Today we ship things when they’re ready rather than when they’re coordinated. If it’s ready for the web, ship it! iOS will catch up when they’re ready. Or if iOS is first, Android will get there when they’re ready. The same is true for the web. Customers get the value when it’s ready wherever, not when it’s ready everywhere.
So don’t tie more knots, cut more ties. The fewer bonds, the better.
We’ve been practicing disagree and commit since the beginning, but it took Bezos’s letter to name the practice. Now we even use that exact term in our discussions. “I disagree, but let’s commit” is something you’ll hear at Basecamp after heated debates about specific products or strategy decisions.
Companies waste an enormous amount of time and energy trying to convince everyone to agree before moving forward on something. What they’ll often get is reluctant acceptance that masks secret resentment.
Instead, they should allow everyone to be heard and then turn the decision over to one person to make the final call. It’s their job to listen, consider, contemplate, and decide.
Calm companies get this. Everyone’s invited to pitch their ideas, make their case, and have their say, but then the decision is left to someone else.
Knowing when to embrace Good Enough is what gives you the opportunity to be truly excellent when you need to be.
Change makes things worse all the time. It’s easier to fuck up something that’s working well than it is to genuinely improve it. But we commonly delude ourselves into thinking that more time, more investment, more attention is always going to win.
Calm requires getting comfortable with enough.
The only way to get more done is to have less to do.
It’s not time management, it’s obligation elimination. Everything else is snake oil.
Nearly all product work at Basecamp is done by teams of three people. It’s our magic number. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s one or two rather than four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chop problems down until they can be carried across the finish line by teams of three.
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. We don’t work on projects like that—intentionally.
Three is a wedge, and that’s why it works. Three has a sharp point.
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.
If the boss is constantly pulling people off one project to chase another, nobody’s going to get anything done.
“Pull-offs” can happen for a number of reasons, but the most common one is that someone senior has a new idea that Just Can’t Wait.
We make every idea wait a while. Generally a few weeks, at least. That’s just enough time either to forget about it completely or to realize you can’t stop thinking about it.
What makes this pause possible is that our projects don’t go on forever. Six weeks max, and generally shorter.
That means we have natural opportunities to consider new ideas every few weeks. We don’t have to cut something short to start something new. First we finish what we started, then we consider what we want to tackle next. When the urgency of now goes away, so does the anxiety. This approach also prevents unfinished work from piling up.
Having a box full of stale work is no fun. Happiness is shipping: finishing good work, sending it off, and then moving on to the next idea.
Winter is when we buckle down and take on larger, more challenging projects. Summer, with its shorter 4-day weeks, is when we tackle simpler, lighter projects.
People grow dull and stiff if they stay in the same swing for too long.
We’ve also intentionally never gotten ahead of ourselves. We’ve always kept our costs in check and never made a move that would push us back from black to red. Why? Because crazy’s in the red. Calm’s in the black.
Revenue alone is no defense, either, because revenue without a profit margin isn’t going to save you. You can easily go broke generating revenue—many companies have. But you can’t go broke generating a profit.
The worst customer is the one you can’t afford to lose. The big whale that can crush your spirit and fray your nerves with just a hint of their dissatisfaction. These are the customers who keep you up at night.
We’ve rejected the per-seat business model from day one. It’s not because we don’t like money, but because we like our freedom more!
So we take the opposite approach. Buy Basecamp today and it’s just $99/month, flat and fixed. It doesn’t matter if you have 5 employees, 50, 500, or 5,000—it’s still just $99/month total. You can’t pay us more than that.
First, since no one customer can pay us an outsized amount, no one customer’s demands for features or fixes or exceptions will automatically rise to the top. This leaves us free to make software for ourselves and on behalf of a broad base of customers, not at the behest of any single one or a privileged few. It’s a lot easier to do the right thing for the many when you don’t fear displeasing a few super customers.
Third, we didn’t want to get sucked into the mechanics that chasing big contracts inevitably leads to. Key account managers. Sales meetings. Schmoozing. The enterprise sales playbook is well established and repulsive to us. But it’s also unavoidable once you open the door to the big bucks from the big shots. Again, no thank you.
Becoming a calm company is all about making decisions about who you are, who you want to serve, and who you want to say no to. It’s about knowing what to optimize for. It’s not that any particular choice is the right one, but not making one or dithering is definitely the wrong one.
At Basecamp we live this philosophy to the extreme. We don’t show any customers anything until every customer can see it. We don’t beta-test with customers. We don’t ask people what they’d pay for something. We don’t ask anyone what they think of something. We do the best job we know how to do and then we launch it into the market. The market will tell us the truth.
Putting everything we build in front of customers beforehand is slow, costly, and results in a mountain of prerelease feedback that has to be sifted through, considered, debated, discussed, and decided upon. And yet it’s still all just a guess! That’s a lot of energy to spend guessing.
Since the beginning of Basecamp, we’ve been loath to make promises about future product improvements. We’ve always wanted customers to judge the product they could buy and use today, not some imaginary version that might exist in the future.
It’s why we’ve never committed to a product road map. It’s not because we have a secret one in the back of some smoky room we don’t want to share, but because one doesn’t actually exist. We honestly don’t know what we’ll be working on in a year, so why act like we do?
Promises lead to—rushing, dropping, scrambling, and a tinge of regret at the earlier promise that was a bit too easy to make.
Promises pile up like debt, and they accrue interest, too. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off and the worse the regret. When it’s time to do the work, you realize just how expensive that yes really was.
And if the whole world’s singing your songs And all of your paintings have been hung Just remember what was yours Is everyone’s from now on And that’s not wrong or right But you can struggle with it all you like You’ll only get uptight —Wilco, “What Light”
What people don’t like is forced change—change they didn’t request on a timeline they didn’t choose. Your “new and improved” can easily become their “what the fuck?” when it is dumped on them as a surprise.
We still run three completely different versions of Basecamp: our original software that we sold from 2004 to 2012, our second version that we sold from 2012 to 2015, and our third version that launched in 2015. Every new version was “better,” but we never force anyone to upgrade to a new version. If you signed up for the original version back in 2007, you can keep using that forever.
Things get harder as you go, not easier. The easiest day is day one. That’s the dirty little secret of business.
If you understand what the future might look like, you can visualize it and be ready when the rain doesn’t let up. It’s all about setting expectations.
Startups are easy, stayups are hard.
Turning down growth, turning down revenue. Companies are culturally and structurally encouraged to get bigger and bigger.
Maintain a sustainable, manageable size. We’d still grow, but slowly and in control.