The Focus Course

The Basecamp Way To Work: Workshop Retrospective

It was a Monday night before Christmas.

And Jason Fried tweeted that tickets to the next Basecamp Way to Work workshop were available.

I didn’t even blink.

I clicked the link and bought two tickets ($500 each) as fast as I could. And I would have paid twice that price.

Three weeks later, I was walking down the freezing sidewalks of a Chicago in January, en route to Basecamp HQ for the workshop.

In Chicago for the Basecamp Way to Work event

As I write this, it’s about one week since the workshop, and for the past several days I’ve been trying to clarify all the things I learned while in Chicago.

Now, this may sound weird, but it’s actually very difficult to explain the workshop. Fortunately, however, that won’t stop me from trying.

Jason Fried at the Basecamp Way To Work Event in Chicago

The Workshop started out with Jason Fried standing up at the front with a blank iA Writer document being projected onto the wall behind him.

There were roughly 35 of us in the Basecamp theater. And to kick things off we went through the rows with each person introducing themselves and sharing why they were there.

The challenges that folks were facing were a pretty even range from those who wanted to get better at team collaboration and project management, to those who wanted to improve how they ran their company. Almost nobody was there because they wanted to get better at using Basecamp the product.

When I originally signed up for the workshop back on that Monday evening, I had no agenda. I just knew I wanted to go and that I’d learn whatever there was to learn.

Once I was there, and as long as Jason was asking, there were two primary things I was hoping to walk away with:

  1. Insights and ideas into building a company culture that values deep work.
  2. Advice from Jason for how he balances his CEO role of running and growing the company while also having a regular cadence of writing and publishing and doing creative work.

As you may know, in January of 2016 I hired my first full-time employee: Isaac.

Isaac is awesome. He has helped take over 90% of the day-to-day administrative work for running Blanc Media. He handles our sponsorships and weekly newsletters and a million other little things.

He’s also a massive creative contributor and plays a huge role in many of the bigger projects we’ve done this past year.

The reason I hired Isaac last year was because I could no longer handle all the admin work plus the creative work. He took over the admin so I could continue focusing on the creative side of things.

Now I’m at a new wall of learning to balance the business development work with the creative work. This challenge is far less stressful because ideally, growing the business should be directly proportional to the amount of writing I publish, etc.

However, it’s not always that cut and dry. And, honestly,

I can’t imagine ever wanting to step out of a role where I’m able to do creative work and share it with you guys. But, as the owner of a company, I’m also spending a lot of my time thinking about how to grow. Not growth for growth’s sake, but growth for the sake of sustainability.

How can we find more new customers and members? How can we offer ongoing value to our customers and members? How can we serve more people?

As I sat in the Basecamp workshop for those 6 hours, I began to get a glimpse into what the Basecamp culture is actually like.

The whole event had a feeling of slowness and calm.

Basecamp is a thoughtful, articulate, driven company.

There is no addiction to urgency; no reactiveness; no emotionally-driven projects. And when I say “nothing is emotionally driven”, I don’t mean that nobody feels anything. It’s just that none of the work is done because someone in leadership thinks it would be cool and just really really wants it and thus forces everyone to stop what they’re doing in order to be pulled off a project and respond to something the boss wants done right now.

Jason almost seems to live outside the pressures of your normal business owner. He values the slow approach to work and clearly believes that 16-hour days are not necessary.

At first I began to feel frustrated — even disheartened. Actually, perhaps jealous is a better term. I couldn’t imagine ever getting to the same point in my business and in my work life that Basecamp and Jason are at.

But then I thought screw that. Of course I can.

If Jason and his team can have a culture of steady, focused work then so can we.

If Jason can have a week completely free from obligations and meaningless work, then so can I.

If the Basecamp team members can have complete autonomy of their work hours, so can my team.

When you’re at something like the Basecamp Workshop, it can be easy to fall into a victim mindset. You’re comparing where you’re at with where Basecamp is at, and you think the void is too much. But that’s just not the case.

I’m not saying that Basecamp is the perfect company or that their offices are perfect. But it’s undeniable that the company culture and the work cadence and the attitudes within Basecamp are all very healthy. They’re healthy for the company, healthy for the owners, healthy for the employees.

And it’s that healthy foundation which is the aim. And the fruit of that is a company that truly values people’s time; a company that only works on meaningful projects; and a company that doesn’t zig and zag at every emotional whim or idea of the senior leadership.

A Deep Respect for People’s Time

At Basecamp, they want the company to be able to run on 40 hours per person per week. Time is the single most valuable resource of the company. And pretty much every single Basecamp employee has their entire day free to work on the one project at hand.

Literally everything they do at Basecamp is about safeguarding everyone’s time. Nobody’s time at Basecamp is more or less important than anyone else’s. And the whole company culture and work process and everything is surrounded on making sure that everyone is free to work for long hours at a time and to only ever work on things that matter.

If you were to take the pages of Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, and plant them next to some magical beans… and then if a magic bean stock grew up… you would climb that beanstalk up to the Basecamp offices. This is a work place unlike any I’ve seen.

And what was so shocking to me was how shocked I was to see it in person. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been tracking with Basecamp philosophy for a decade. And the real thing is far more intense and inspirational than the books and blog posts.

If a Basecamp team cannot accomplish something within the scope of 40 hours per week then they just eliminate it. The assumption is that if it can’t get done within a specific time frame then it wasn’t important enough. I had to chew on this for a few days and even still it doesn’t fully make sense to me.

Again, this comes back to the value that everyone’s time and attention are the most important resources. And thus they don’t require real-time communication, they don’t have standing meetings, they don’t have big in-person status updates or calls or anything like that.

Everyone is in charge of his or her time and attention, and everyone is expected to work hard and be focused. But, in return, everyone is given the space to actually work hard and actually focus.

As a result, Basecamp is extremely efficient. They’re team of just 51 people support a customer base of over 100,000 active paying users.

In contrast, Isaac and I also visited another office in Chicago. This company currently has 85 employees and serves about 25,000 paying customers. Their office was a completely open space and it felt full of energy and camaraderie. Yet in contrast to the Basecamp space, this other office felt almost chaotic.

Something Jason said during the workshop was that there is an “epidemic of collaboration” amongst corporate spaces.

Sometime I think may be true even of the Blanc Media HQ, even though it’s just Isaac and I right now. The two of us often have white board brainstorming sessions. We could probably pull back on those a bit and focus more on the current project at hand.

At Basecamp, it seems that nothing at all is driven by emotion or urgency. There is a calm and mature approach to the work. Nothing and nobody feels out of control.

There were many times I found myself nervously laughing. Thinking, that’s fine for Jason.

If I had a company that was mature, highly profitable, and had a strong sustainable revenue stream with a staff of smart and focused workers, then I’d feel quite calm and confident as well.

But then I thought, why not me? Why not my company?

If I want a company culture similar to that found at Basecamp, I can start today with baby steps…

I can start by protecting my employee’s and my time and attention at all costs.

I can start by working only on the things that matter and which are interesting.

I can start by not chasing certain finances, numbers, or other “industry” metrics.

I can start by keeping my expenses low and my margins high.

I can start by refusing to allow scope creep to sneak in.

I can start by making sure that the projects we take on now are done in such a way that when they ship they can be left alone indefinitely.

I can start by simplifying everything we do, and everything we create so that it requires less maintenance.

I can start by expecting my employee(s) to think for themselves and to manage their own time.

I can start by giving my employee(s) as much autonomy on their projects as possible.

Here are a few of the notes I took during the workshop

Independence Versus Interdependence

Try to remove as many dependencies as possible so there are no bottlenecks forcing people to wait to get work done until they finally hear back from someone else. Also, make project teams as autonomous as possible — giving them the most amount of freedom to work on things at their own discretion.

People need their time and attention in order to do their work.

And when they have the time they need, and their attention is undivided, then they will actually do the work and they will do better work.

Basecamp tends to hire great writers.

If job opening comes down to two equally qualified candidates, and one of them is a better writer, the better writer will definitely win. In fact, writing chops will even outweigh skill set in some cases.

Basecamp has found that written communication skills are critical. Because with strong writing skills, it means you have employees who also have the ability to think critically and communicate their ideas.

Moreover, Basecamp hires people who are strong, independent contributors who are also good team players.

6-Week Work Cycles

Basecamp works in 6-week cycles.

During a cycle, they will build and ship 1-2 “big batch projects” and 5-6 “small batch projects”. These are each done by smaller teams of 3, which are comprised of 1 designer + 2 developers.

After a 6-week cycle, everyone takes 1 or 2 weeks off from project work in order to work on other side projects, to clean up any loose ends, close any loops from the work cycle, etc.

I loved learning about this because Isaac and I just implemented something very similar for Blanc Media.

We’ve been calling them “sprints” rather than cycles but the idea is almost identical. They’re even 6 weeks long.

For us, each 6-week sprint will have a specific focus. A clear project that we are going to dive into and accomplish within that 6-week period.

Work will take as long as you allow it to take. A project can take 6 weeks or 6 months. So, why not have a shorter cycle so that you can get more done, be more focused, and have a clear light at the end of the tunnel?

Something one of our Focus Club members, Ross, shared about this was brilliant…

Ross said that it makes sense to attack the highest-value, low-effort items first in order to bring value to customers asap. And then you may not ever need to get round to lower value higher effort items. In short, what this means is that you are mostly focusing your day-to-day energies on the quick wins that will incrementally move your product and company forward.

Avoid Work Debt

This mindset was a game changer for me.

There is no backlog of work at Basecamp. Every 6-week work cycle is a new cycle and there is no “plan” or “map” of what they’ll do next. There is only the project at hand.

Take a minute and think about how big your backlog is. I have hundreds of ideas for articles. Hundreds of unfinished to-do items that I’d like to someday maybe get to.

Moreover, think about all the projects that you ship with all the ugly parts in there that you’ll come back to and fix later.

When you build and ship something that isn’t the ideal version, or something that done poorly, because you expect that that you will come back and re-do it later, you’ve just created work debt for yourself. Now you will have to return to that project instead of being able to move on to what’s next.

Also, a good rule of thumb: when you are doing something, don’t create work for others. Take care of all the loose ends.

Bugs are the edges of what works.

Software simply has bugs. And so if it’s not a critical bug — (such as: if it’s not losing customer data) — then they probably won’t ever fix it. Because to fix an edge bug and chase them all down means they’re not making new things or improving features that really matter.

Scope management, not time management

“Scope Hammering” = take a big idea / project and hit it with a hammer until you’ve beaten all the unnecessary crud out of it and all that’s left is just the most simple, important idea.

When building a big project, break it down into orthogonal components. And then apply the inverted pyramid approach to it, with the most critical piece in place first and the less important pieces to follow.

Here’s an example that Ryan Singer drew out for us showing how you could take the different parts of a project and divide them up into the most important, 2nd-most important, etc.

Basecamp Way to Work event - Orthogonal Scope Management

If you don’t get to all the orthogonal components, then those which are left over didn’t matter so they are done with. Time to move on.

If the full scope of a project doesn’t get done within the 6-week timeframe, then the remainder of the unfinished components are cut. And nothing carries over from unfinished projects.

This took me a while to comprehend. It seemed crazy to me that they would set out to work on a project and that whatever they didn’t finish within the allotted time of 6 weeks just didn’t get done and might never get done.

But it comes back to their value of not carrying over work debt. You know more about a project after working on it for 6 weeks than you did at the beginning. And so, after the time is up you ship what you’ve created and move on. If the un-finished aspects of the project are important, then they’ll come back up at a later date for a future work cycle, but it’s not assumed or expected that they will.

Thus, the company has zero work debt. And that, I can imagine, is very liberating.

Additional Miscellany

  • Any employee in the company can pitch an idea for a project for a cycle. And there is a place where all those pitches exist, but there is no expectation that any pitch will turn into a project.

  • Use the Basecamp message boards to document ideas and collaboration in the moment. But that doesn’t mean you have to act on them right away. This way you’ve captured something in that moment of inspiration, but your excitement doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s time.

  • My team and I have been using Basecamp (the product) all wrong. Getting to see how Basecamp (the company) uses Basecamp (the product) to run Basecamp (the company) and build Basecamp (the product) was a revelation.

    The reason we were using it wrong was because we were still in version 2 and thus only using Basecamp as a project management software rather than as a whole-team central spot for the whole company. Basically, Basecamp has been built to be the central repository for all things related to your company: team communication, discussions, file sharing, progress updates, project management, tasks, etc. We’ve been using a combination of Slack, Basecamp, Dropbox, regular email, and iCloud Calendars. We’re going to try moving (almost) everything over into Basecamp (we still like Slack for real-time communication).

  • Let time dictate what matters.

  • More time to work on something often means it will be bigger but not better.

  • More people working on a project means things will move slower, not faster.

  • Focus helps you move quickly.

  • Build high-leverage features and products.

  • YOU should control your own time. Not just the boss — everyone should have their own control of their time.

  • Simplify.

  • Have a central source of truth. (Where does an idea live? Where does an important document live? Where do conversations live? Where does a document or file live?) This is the advantage to using Basecamp 3 for everything — you can find ideas, documents, conversations, and more all very easily. Everyone knows where everything is.

  • Communicate via written text, diagrams, photos, and scribbles instead of frequent face-to-face meetings.

  • Everything at the company is about protecting people’s time and attention.

  • Basecamp’s goals: stay profitable and do work they’re proud of. They’re not driven by numbers or data.

  • They see the company itself like a product. And so they are intentional about trying to improve the company itself. Trying new things, adding things, removing things, etc.

  • Equity in a company is like a lottery ticket. And if you are building a company that you do not plan to sell, then equity is a lie.

Hooked on a Feeling

The Basecamp workshop was unlike any other business event or conference I’ve ever been to. In short, it was Jason Fried uncut. It was a peek behind the scenes and into the heart of Basecamp.

After 6 and a half hours sitting in the Basecamp theater, I stepped back out into the cold sidewalks of Chicago with a few friends. We were all buzzing with hopeful ideas and inspiration for our own businesses.

While I have many pages of notes and ideas scribbled down, my biggest takeaway is actually a feeling

And I want that feeling to exist within my own office.

After spending a day at Basecamp HQ, you couldn’t help but pick up on the overall feeling of calm and focus.

I also left with a feeling that, as a business owner and creator, I’m not challenging enough assumptions. And the realization that, as a boss, I’m surely squandering more of my employee’s time than either of us are aware.

An incredible company culture is one that happens by design and iteration, not by default.

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