Leading Wisely

Listen to Ricardo Semler's Podcast

This is the second part of our interview with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from Basecamp. (Make sure to visit the first part here.) Jason and DHH have spent much of the last 17 years challenging us to think differently about our work lives. They also wrote the New York Times Best-Selling book, Rework, and they’ve got a new book coming out titled The Quiet Company.

This part of the conversation gets very philosophical. We try to understand the two core questions of "Why do we do the things we do?" and "How can we do them in a way that brings us more personal fulfillment?" What’s just as interesting is the very basic question of "Who can really give business advice in the first place?" The world of business changes very rapidly and what may have worked five years ago may not work today.

Ricardo Semler (RS):

Both of you have talked about the importance of understanding the impermanence of a business. So, how do you think about structuring your company around the reality that everything will eventually change?

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH):

You can't control what your employees or what your competition does in the future and shouldn’t really try. It's just going to make everything worse. If you give up this notion of control, then it just gives you a more calm outlook on business and the time that you spent with your partners and employees. This turns your focus towards the actual enjoyment of the work that you do. Jason and I have both decided that what we really like to do is to build and refine Basecamp! It's not simply that we like "business" or "growth" - we like the work that we do. There's just a clarity when you accept that this thing you like doing might not last forever - but, you can do the best job you can while you have the chance.

Business can change very quickly. Five years ago, GoPro was doing very well, but they went through a cycle where the product has simply started to matter less. Before them, Flip Video Cameras last about five years. We’ve made it 17 years, but maybe we last for a total of 25 years. Maybe 40 years. Obviously, I want to continue to do this as long as we’re relevant and doing good work - but should the day arrive where we are no longer relevant and no longer doing work that people are interested in, then that’s okay too.

RS:

Some of these ideas are not applicable to the millions of people who are sitting working as employees at a supermarket or in an automobile plant. How can you apply some of these ideas to the majority of people who don’t own their own business?

Jason Fried (JF):

Honestly, I just don't spend a lot time thinking about it. There are a few universal truths:you've got to breathe oxygen, you've got to drink water, and you've got to eat food. Other than that, I think we can spend a lot of time trying to apply lessons from one thing to another that really don't apply - but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

I think this is actually one of the biggest problems with business schools today. The schools and entrepreneurial programs all focus on case studies about big companies. Big companies have nothing to teach small companies. They're entirely different things. Yes, they both deal with profits and revenues, but they just totally different in scale.

DHH:

We took inspiration from your book, Maverick. We looked at your story and saw how much innovation you were able to do at a company that was much larger than ours. We figured, "if they’re able to do that, then our tiny company should be able to be 10 times as radical, right?" There’s definitely value in hearing people’s experiences and being able to recast them into your situation. That’s how we approached Rework. We wanted to provide jolts to the mind to get you to think about your business.

JF:

I think a lot of people in business give a lot of the advice that they don't know much about anymore. I wrote a post on our blog about how advice should expire. Look, I've been in business for 17 years. I know nothing about starting a new business. I did start a new business 17 years ago, but I am the wrong person to talk to about starting one today. It's been too long and so my advice has expired on that topic. I have advice on continuing to grow a business and other things that we still do but I don't know anything about starting a business anymore - and I certainly don't know anything about the manufacturing business. I just try and stay away from that so I don't look like an idiot.

RS:

That’s all very true, but it’s also true that you guys are clearly motivated to speak to MBA and entrepreneurial programs. The fact is that there seems to be a motivational zeal which makes you produce ideas and try to influence other people - otherwise you wouldn't be writing books, speaking to groups, and trying to propagate these ideas related to work.

DHH:

Absolutely. For me, at least, it's a way to process the experiences as I go through them. Writing down my experiences and exposing them to a little bit of rigor helps me to analyze what happened and what it all means.

Also, I feel like there's a sort of an obligation for me to share some of these ideas because of my experiences working in miserable conditions. And, I say that in a half-joking sense because I know there are environments where people are miserable in a real physical sense - not just people writing code indoors without any air conditioning, for example. But there are still psychological and mental conditions where you think, "This is completely unnecessary. You guys are making it way harder on yourselves. You're making it de-motivating. You're making people frustrated to be an employee here." My personal experiences imprinted on me and are seared into my mind. It's such a point that I'm still trying to sort of process them.

So, Jason and I said, "Okay, we’re not going to do that." Both of us have experience working for other people and that led us to this idea that we wanted to rethink a whole lot of things from first principles - not just what a company of a certain size just does. I think we've found that, after you throw everything out, you rediscovered some of the stuff that you threw out was actually pretty valuable and you could just re-import it. But, you don't get that appreciation until you try to throw it all out and start from scratch.

JF:

I like being able to show someone that there's other ways of doing things. I find our industry to be especially formulaic. Everybody says that you have to go out, raise money, grow fast and then you IPO or you sell. It’s all about valuation. If you spend time in Silicon Valley, pretty much every entrepreneur you talk to starts their business and runs their business the same way and everyone's running and gunning for growth. It's nice to be able to go into the belly of the beast sometimes and go, "Hey. You don't have to do it that way. Let me show you another way that we've done it. We've been doing it for 17 years and we've been profitable for 17 years. We call our own shots and we do our own things. We don't answer to anybody but ourselves and our customers." And, to a lot of people that is incredibly radical. They’ve never heard that before. I just like to leave people with the notion that they can ask questions about things that they thought were already settled.

RS:

If we were to use a religious metaphor, we could say that you guys are evangelical about being agnostic as long as it brings insights.

JF:

That’s good.

We're actually going to start on a new book soon and we’re thinking about writing on a topic that has just bugged me about business over the last few years. If you ask somebody "Hey, how’s it going?", they’re probably going to say "Oh, it’s crazy at work." Everyone always starts with this "It's crazy at work" thing. And, to me, that's crazy that everybody thinks it's "crazy at work". That work has become this crazy, chaos stress.

I'm so driven to remind people that work doesn't have to be the way it is. We have examples that we can share about how we've tried to create a calmer company than the norm. But it is this feeling of Iit doesn't have to be this way."

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