This week I celebrated my fifth year around the sun at Basecamp. For a lot of people that’s probably not a big deal, but for me it kind of is — it’s by far the longest I’ve ever been at any one job (my previous record was ~3 years).
That got me wondering — what’s so different this time around that made it stick? I eventually realized it basically came down to this:
I’m happy at Basecamp because every day I’m in a position to ship the best work that I can.
I admit that’s a rather generic statement, and pretty much every company in the world tries (or claims) to do the same. So what does Basecamp do that works so well for me?
Now before we get into the specifics, let me just say that this post isn’t meant to be a humble brag of how amazing Basecamp is. It’s simply an examination of how one company among many thousands operates, and why that meshes so well with someone like me.
So, as I was saying — what’s so special about Basecamp that it suits me so well? Well, it’s a bunch of things that all interleave together…
🚢 Shipping meaningful work is what matters
I’ve been at companies where I did a lot of “work”, but it often felt like I was just shuffling widgets around. I’d go to meetings, send emails, and make some stuff, but in the end, it’d be hard to tell if my work meant anything to the final product.
Other times we’d have so many pointless “stakeholder perspectives” that by the time we shipped, the final product was so watered down that it didn’t matter to anyone.
And yet other times, after months or years, some things would just never ship at all.
Basecamp is the exact opposite. As a small company working in small teams, we don’t have the luxury of spending any time on stuff that isn’t essential to shipping. And because we have to be choosy about what we work on, it’s usually the case that what we ship will be meaningful to our customers.
So we discuss ideas thoroughly, but don’t paralyze ourselves with analysis. We don’t pretend to know everything or try to predict the future, we ship and see what happens. We don’t have soul-sucking multi-hour meetings, we focus on the real work of designing, programming, and supporting our customers.
In the end, shipping meaningful work is what matters most to me, and that’s what keeps me motivated day in and day out.
😌 Calm is critically important
While shipping meaningful work is a great goal and motivator, even the best employees in the world can’t do their best work if they’re stressed, tired, rushed, or distracted. The folks at Basecamp know this, and that’s why calm and focus are cornerstones of everything we do.
One of the main ways we maintain calm is by not wasting time and energy on unnecessary bullshit and distractions. This is incredibly important to me — when I’ve got plenty of focused time to get my work done, I don’t rush. And when I don’t rush, I don’t feel stressed.
And while that may sound obvious and easy to avoid, I’ve worked at enough companies to know that wasting time is extraordinarily common. Opportunities to waste time present themselves in a lot of different ways, so here are just a few things we do to combat them:
- We have very few (if any) meetings during a normal week. If there are any, they have the fewest people possible involved, usually a max of 2–3 folks. And we definitely don’t have recurring meetings.
- We don’t commute. We all work remotely. Why spend 30–60 minutes traveling to some random building in a busy area to work when we can do the same work at home? This easily saves me 10 hours a week.
- We don’t chat all day. There’s zero expectation of keeping on top of every chat or responding to an IM immediately. In fact, if anything we’re encouraged to close everything communications-related (including Basecamp!) so that we can focus on the actual work on hand. I regularly do this for hours on end, every day.
- We don’t all work 9 to 5. We work hours that fit our life and brains. If, for example, you’re sharpest at 6 am, why the hell would you wait until “normal business hours” to start working? That’s a waste of your best brainpower! As long as we overlap a few hours with our team, we work when it makes sense, not by some arbitrary clock time.
Another major component of maintaining calm is to be very, very serious about not overworking and recognizing life’s priorities. In other words, when the work day is over, it’s over. And if something happens that’s clearly more important than work, we go take care of that . We work to serve our lives, not the other way around.
That means I don’t work some bullshit 60 hour work week.
That means that I don’t get notifications from the Basecamp app after 5 pm.
That means I don’t have meetings early in the morning or late in the evening that interrupts time with my family.
That means if I’m sick, I actually take the day off to get better, not partially stumble through the day trying to work.
That means if something comes up at home that’s way more important than work, I go take care of it and my co-worker’s don’t even blink at it.
That means I get a good night’s sleep because I’m enthusiastic about the next day’s work, not dreading it.
“Work-life balance” is an overused, rarely accurate term, but I think we’re doing it pretty damn well.
🙏 Autonomy and trust
A big part of Basecamp’s culture is the autonomy that we’re afforded. There are no managers, no daily stand-ups, and no playbook on how to do our daily work. It’s up to us to figure things out and own the calls we make.
For me that means I get to make a lot of decisions that have a direct impact on the outcome of my work — I choose what I want to work on, I make the final call on how any particular batch of code is shipped, and I’m ultimately responsible for how it performs.
Maybe this all doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to me.
To me having freedom and autonomy is a vote of confidence. When the people around me give me plenty of space to do my thing, it isn’t negligence or disinterest — it’s trust. It means an awful lot to me that people I genuinely respect have such trust and confidence in me. Maybe that makes me weird or lacking self-confidence or sappy, but it’s true.
Whatever the reason, it’s been an important, formative element of my five years at Basecamp.
🎩 It starts at the top
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned in my nearly 20 year career is that for me to have any kind of longevity at a company, it’s critically important to believe in the people at the top. I’ve worked for all sorts of companies before Basecamp, and I’ve never exactly felt super connected to those folks running the show.
Why is this important? Because at the end of the day, there are going to be a handful of people in a company that make the big decisions. And those big decisions in some way, big or small, have a direct impact on me and my work. These people are the ones deciding what’s important at the company, what isn’t, and what my work life is going to be like as long as I’m there.
And so the question becomes, do I believe in those folks? Am I more or less aligned with their principals — their professional beliefs, ethics, values, strategies, and overall ideals? Or do I have fundamental disagreements with a lot of what they believe in.
For me, Basecamp is the first place where I really do believe and trust in our leaders, Jason and David. Most everything they’ve done to build, grow, and sustain Basecamp agrees with me. And that makes it a hell of a lot easier to stick around and stay motivated than it would be working at a company where I’m constantly wondering “WTF are these clowns thinking?”
Now does that mean I agree with everything Jason and David do or say? No, of course not, I’m not some mindless drone. But generally speaking I do believe in the direction they provide and the choices they make. And perhaps more importantly, even if I do disagree, I respect their position, the thought they put into making a call, and the honesty and decency they treat everyone with.
👩👩👦👦 It takes a village
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the people I work with at Basecamp — what a crew! I truly, genuinely would not be where I am today in my career without them.
Sorry, it’s a tired trope but I have to say it — I work with really wonderful people. They’re so open-minded, friendly, welcoming, and damn smart. We’ve worked on so many great things together and I’ve learned so much from them. It’s an easy choice to stick around when you’re around folks like this. And beyond all that, they’re just great human beings.
Thank you Adam, Andrea, Ann, Ashley, Blake, Chase, Chris, Colin, Conor, David, Dylan, Elizabeth, Eron, Flora, George, Jabari, James, Jamie, Janice, Jason, JZ, Javan, Jay, Jayne, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Joan, John, Jonas, Justin, Kristin, Lexi, Matt, Matthew, Merissa, Michael, Nathan, Noah, Pratik, Rosa, Ryan, Sam, Scott, Shanae, Shaun, Sylvia, Tara, Taylor, Tom, Tony, Wailin, Zach, and all our beloved alums for making this a fantastic five years!