Beyond the unicorns and late nights, Basecamp’s way of doing business
David Heinemeier Hansson isn’t one to mince words. He unabashedly describes many angel-invested, unicorn-seeking businesses as “horribly distorted role model systems,” “pressure cookers,” and “time bombs” that have tainted expectations of how successful businesses look.
“What you’re trying to do is compress your entire working life into this short amount of time and then find the pot of gold at the end,” he told us. “That kind of pressure, I don’t think humans are generally well built to cope with.”
His perspective comes from a place of credibility. David’s the creator of the programming framework Ruby on Rails, co-founder of the 13-year-old communications platform Basecamp, and author of five books. He’s also a racecar driver and dad of a 10-month-old and 4-year-old.
And while his successes might sound like other tech stories you have heard of, his vision sounds different. To David, success doesn’t mean sexy headlines about sacrifice, billion-dollar revenues, or hiring by the dozens. It means personal happiness, commercial longevity, and employees treated like humans. Basecamp’s steady, deliberate growth from four employees in 2003 to 50 employees today represents David’s philosophy of sustainable success, “where I can keep working at Basecamp for the next 40 years,” he said.
Vantage outside the Valley: The 40-hour workweek
Basecamp is headquartered in Chicago but has employees spread throughout the world. How could work possibly stay within 40 hours a week? It helps being outside Silicon Valley, where David believes the model of overcollaboration is flawed. Productivity shouldn’t be equated to a full office parking lot after 6 p.m., he said.
“There’s so much less to do, so many fewer policies and supervision that you have to employ, when what you look at is the work,” he told us. “Being present is not the same as being productive.”
David’s model for working hours was how Basecamp functioned in the early years. Developing the company (then called 37signals) took up about 10 hours of Hansson’s time weekly while he was based in Copenhagen and his cofounder Jason Fried was in Chicago. They had just a few hours of overlapping work time per day, but welcomed the constraint. With a backdrop of the dot-com bust and a fear of growth-obsessed lifestyles, they were conscious to avoid forming bad work habits that would be hard to break later, like overworking or growing too quickly.
Today, with staff distributed across the U.S., Europe, and Australia, Basecamp uses 40 hours of work per week as a rough guideline, in which there’s no clock to punch in and out, no requirement to work from a certain location, and no set schedule.
“It’s about having a sustainable, comfortable way of working, where you have enough overlap with your colleagues that it doesn’t feel like the bad old days of outsourcing, where you send an email to India and the next day you got a reply,” David said.
In summer, the workweek drops to 32 hours, and employees pick a day to take off. Their product supports their work philosophies, too; with Basecamp’s feature Work Can Wait™, new-post notifications won’t be sent until the next time the recipient signs on to work.
“If working 40 hours a week means that it’ll take 12 years to get to someone else’s definition of success, that’s fine,” David said. “We’re going to have a wonderful time along the way.”
Perks for the people
“The vast majority of all the perks and benefits that we have at Basecamp are the exact opposite of the Silicon Valley model we’ve talked about,” David said.
He sees the stereotype—the sprawling company campus where employees can work out, wash clothes, nap, and play games—as simply a way to make leaving inconvenient. So Basecamp offers benefits focused on getting people home and living good lives while they’re there: A community-supported agriculture program (CSA) for fresh vegetable deliveries; exercise stipends; continued learning stipends. Oh, and a fully paid-for vacation worth around $5,000 for every employee.
Basecamp’s office manager works with an outside vendor to put together a travel brochure for 16 different options for employees as individuals, couples, or families to take a trip and travel the world. Since the trip can’t be turned into actual dollars, just about everyone takes advantage of the experience.
David sees this benefit as a way to get employees to actually take vacation, which used to be a problem at Basecamp: “In the past we had a policy of just unlimited vacation, which I’ve now come to believe is a complete bullshit and cop-out way of forcing and shaming people into not taking any vacation,” he said.
Payoff in playing the long game
Basecamp’s policies might sound cushy, but they’re also practical. As David told us, in a time when people worked with their hands, swinging a hammer for a few extra hours per day could be called increased productivity. But in a world of creative, intellectual work, productivity looks different.
“The science is uniformly clear that the amount of work that you make at the point of extreme exhaustion is shit,” David said. “Not only is it shit, it’s counterproductive. If you work with design or with programming, you’ll be making bugs. You’ll be making bad decisions.
“Look at the actual work outcome and output and you’ll realize that, very often, the most amount of work is done by the people who are the most well rested, who take frequent vacations, and who have interesting, fulfilling lives outside of work.”