Back to Basic at Basecamp

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orange dome tent surrounded by silhouette of trees at blue hour

Basecamp (née 37signals) founder/CEO Jason Fried, posting on his personal HEY World blog/newsletter yesterday, announced some big internal changes for the company. Here’s a summary of his post, lightly edited for brevity:

Recently, we’ve made some internal company changes, which, taken in total, collectively feel like a full version change. It deserves an announcement.

As Huxley offers in The Doors of Perception, “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.”

Heavy, yes, but insightful, absolutely. A relevant reminder. We make individual choices. We all want different somethings. Companies, however, must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere, lest they get stuck circling nowhere.

With that, we wanted to put these directional changes on the public record.

1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. Update: David has shared some more details and more of the internal announcement on his HEY World blog.

Quick side note: this paragraph originally stated “No more societal and political discussions at Basecamp.” As edited, this is still a hugely divisive statement worthy of criticism. And at this moment, when all work is virtual (and at a company that’s been majority remote for ages), banning social discussions on the company account is the same as banning them at the company.

This has, predictably, been the graf that’s sparked massive outrage from the internet, more about which in a bit.

Jason continues:

2. No more paternalistic benefits. For years we’ve offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer’s market share, and continuing education allowances. They felt good at the time, but we’ve had a change of heart. It’s none of our business what you do outside of work, and it’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviors — regardless of good intention.

3. No more committees. For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free. But recently, a few sprung up. No longer. We’re turning things back over to the person (or people) who were distinctly hired to make those decisions. The responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops. The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David. A long-standing group of managers called “Small Council” will disband. Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.

4. No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions. We’ve become a bit too precious with decision making over the last few years. It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.

5. No more 360 reviews. Employee performance reviews used to be straightforward. Then a few years ago … we introduced 360s, which required peers to provide feedback on peers. The problem is, peer feedback is often positive and reassuring, which is fun to read but not very useful. … So we’re done with 360s, too.

6. No forgetting what we do here. We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company.

Who’s responsible for these changes? David and I are. Who made the changes? David and I did. These are our calls, and the outcomes and impacts land at our doorstep. Input came from many sources, disagreements were heard, deliberations were had. In the end, we feel like this is the long-term healthy way forward for Basecamp as a whole — the company and our products.

Basecamp (a company I’ve written about a lot over the years) is unusual among tech companies in several ways. They’re not only privately held, but very closely held by the two managing partners (Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson), and with the notable exception of the one time they took venture money from Jeff Bezos, of all people, have been independent and self-funding since the 1990s. They’re based in Chicago, but have been majority remote (and, in fact, really fierce advocates for distributed work) for most of their history. They’ve invested a lot of time and resources into developing subscription-based services, but have also open-sourced a lot of their underlying technology, starting with the Ruby on Rails framework which DHH created and still oversees.

In short, the Basecamp founders and team made their name on being iconoclasts. They’ve written and published books about their “heretical” philosophies and working principles: Getting Real, Rework, Remote, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, and most recently Shape Up.

Given that, the thing that stands out first for me about this announcement from Jason — which, to be clear, I think was a bad, tone-deaf, and upsetting statement from a company I’ve admired — is how basic it is. All of these “changes” move Basecamp further away from its small company roots toward something more like business as usual.

Having worked in big companies for almost a decade, I’m all too familiar with managers seeing a little more churn and chaos in decision-making, and deciding the answer is that roles and responsibilities need clarifying, or that some hot topic needs a single responsible decision-maker.

Because I work for a company known for its generous perks and respect for individuals’ freedom to be themselves at work, I’m less personally familiar with companies paring back benefits or curtailing speech, but all of that too seems like an embrace of the kind of impersonal “corporate minimalism” that I associate more with a place like GE or IBM than a 50-person company that publishes books about making work better.

Basecamp has never been an explicitly mission-driven company — it’s a fair statement by Jason that “we’re a project management software company, not a social impact company” — but one could argue their brand was built on an implicit mission of making work a kinder, simpler, more humane place. Their products don’t simply make work more efficient, but help make information more comprehensible and usable by the human beings doing that work.

(Their newest product, the HEY email service, continues that tradition and broadens it into the consumer world, as if to say it doesn’t have to be crazy in your inbox.)

Their design-forward, user-centered approach to what is frankly enterprise software predated companies like Slack and Dropbox by almost a decade, and has inspired a generation of designers and developers.

I embraced Ruby on Rails and Getting Real for those humane qualities; 37signals’ work kickstarted my career. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for them.

So even if it’s not that surprising to see Jason and DHH pivot their company toward a hard-bitten, head-in-sand, back-to-basics focus on work, it is surprising to me to see them do it in a way that is so unkind.

And regarding Jason’s statement that “input came from many sources, disagreements were heard, deliberations were had,” I have to question whether that’s true given that at least one longtime employee tweeted their surprise and disappointment at the news.

Leaving aside the obvious problems with trying to keep “politics” out of work at a moment when social change and turmoil consumes our lives outside of work, every one of these changes is aimed at disempowering all the individuals who work at Basecamp, apart from the two partners, whose power and role has increased. Before yesterday, one could believe that Basecamp was an employees’ paradise, where people had a voice and would be heard.

The clear statement from the founders yesterday was: you have no voice, and we do not want to hear you. It’s possible that all of this is being taken out of context — years ago someone who works with both Jason and DHH told me their blunt writing style masks much friendlier personalities and nuanced viewpoints — but if so this was a massive, avoidable communications failure. And I question why, exactly, it needed to be public, except to signal (as Coinbase did months ago) that people who are concerned about “politics” or who want their employer to care about them as people should find employment elsewhere.

Historically, Jason and David have tended to dismiss internet criticism as “haters” and “dunk tweets,” and I have to wonder if they’ve started to look at their team’s feedback through that lens as well. If so, that’s a dangerous place to be. I’ve also worked on teams where it was obvious no one had a voice besides the person in charge and a few loyal cronies, and it sucks.

That said, I hope they listen to some of the pushback, and soften or walk back some of what they’ve said. It would be a shame for the Basecamp legacy to end this way.