Basecamp, why did you blow it all up?

Portable's CEO, Andrew Apostola, reflects on Portable's journey as a tech agency, our position in a wider eco-system of other similar agencies and the social role that technology companies play. In this thought piece, Andrew also responds to Chicago based company Base Camp's recent post which outlines a series of changes to the workplace culture they wish to enact.

Back in 2006 around the time Simon Goodrich and I first started Portable, it was a very lonely landscape in Australia when it came to the internet and technology companies. The dotcom bust in 2000 was still part of the waking dream of day to day life in the ecosystem that surrounded us and long gone was the enthusiasm and vibrancy that had preceded it. As a result, when we came onto the scene with our first product, there were very few mentors who were prepared to guide us, beyond exposing their battle scars and laboring us with their sage advice around the almost impossible chances of success for companies like ours in Melbourne and Australia for that matter. So we naturally looked elsewhere.

In those early days, if you weren’t Apple or Google, no one knew who you were but that meant it was easier to connect with the community, literally by knocking on the front door of someone who inspired you. In Australia, you could write an email or pick up the phone and connect with companies on the other side of the globe, because the community was small and we were all trying to figure out how to make the internet work for us. It was just like that back then. I recall finding the phone number for a company in New York called Karpville that was making some weird, experimental products. I dialled the international prefix and the owner of the company, David Karp, picked up the phone and we had an hour long conversation about experimentation, the internet and the pain of trying to get people to use the stuff we made. David went on to make one of those experiments a success in Tumblr. There were many, many others we created good relationships with and those connections and success stories, of real people, kept us going in those backwater days when Australian success stories were defined by companies like Seek. 

One of the other connects we made early on was with the team at Threadless, who were based in Chicago. They introduced us to their own ecosystem operating in their area and one of them was a company called 37Signals, which operated a project management software company called BaseCamp, led by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Jason Fried was the type of person you saw not only as a voice in the community but a vocal leader for the alternate side of software and internet culture. Signal vs Noise, the company’s blog, was a must read for everyone in the industry as it consistently spoke against the grain of whatever trend or fad that was spewing out of the mouths of the San Francisco VC mafia or the increasingly reductionist tech-bro crew. Posts like How much is Basecamp worth? I don't know and I don't care which spoke to the internet’s equivalent of the slow food movement, would appear on Jason Fried’s feed and you’d spend the day thinking, you know what, the same applies to my company, who cares, I don’t need to raise a dime!

It was Jason Fried and David Heinemeier’s 2010 book Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever which captured the idea that companies could operate with a different cultural model and distilled it into a practical guide you could present to your co-founder, boss or investors as an example of how to do it differently. Remote working, shorter working weeks, staff sabbaticals and even emulating drug dealers in your approach to product design spoke to a workplace that was modern, edgy, but more importantly possible.

Fast forward to this week, I was on a call with George Aye from Greater Good Studio in Chicago and Ivy Teng Lei from Exygy in San Francisco speaking about the role of design agencies in the social impact space, when George mentioned this post by Jason Fried which had first been doing the rounds in Chicago before making its way onto the New York Times and major tech publications across America. Entitled Changes at Basecamp the post outlined a series of changes to the workplace culture, the main essence of which I have quoted below:

"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. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It's become too much. It's a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. 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. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can't happen where the work happens anymore."

Other new changes at Basecamp include the removal of “paternalistic benefits”, the abolition of committees, and the end of 360 reviews which started to “feel like busy work”. The edict goes on to outline that the core responsibility of the people working at Basecamp is the work and the product. Leave the rest at home.

This change in policy at Basecamp to me, like many others, made me feel like an important star in the internet zodiac had disappeared from the night sky. Not only because of the direction put forward, which I’ll get to in a moment, but the fact that the team that for over fifteen years had been leading the way when it came to leaning into difficult problems rather than taking the easy route, had taken what I perceived to be a more traditional approach to workplace culture. When Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, made the headlines last year for banning political discussion and causes at his company, whilst I disagreed with the sentiment, it made sense that a company like Coinbase, which is focussed on making a buck from crypto-arbitrage, would choose to deliberately hit the mute button on everything except the product. Why not? With millions of dollars in venture dollars in the bank and an impending IPO — which would transform his shareholders into the dominant stakeholder at Coinbase — CEO Brian needn’t worry about the reaction of the Marc Andreesons, Fred Wilsons and other VC mindset-oriented board members. Hit the mute button, lower the amplitude and focus on the crypto. But at Basecamp, where you’ve blazed a trail against the status quo, never taken a dime of outside money, written the book on how to not be like the rest, it’s a different type of decision that both David and Jason would have had to make. 

Jason Fried’s new set of rules speak to the underlying challenges of any modern workplace living through the times we’re living in. There is an enormous amount of injustice and social change taking place in every country and political setting across the world and we as individuals, as members of families and as employees are navigating this complexity the way that we as humans usually do. We connect. We talk. We share our opinions. We listen. We reflect. We react. We respond. We realign. It’s a necessary part of finding our place in the world and it’s just plain math that much of this finds its way into our working lives. Some organisations are used to conversations around race, gender and politics taking place by the water cooler or on Slack. For many these conversations are at the heart of the mission that draws them to their jobs in the first place. But for those who have not “gone there” the introduction of these kinds of conversations shake up the status quo and that can be challenging and confronting for leaders who are charged with running a business for profit and a culture that supports it. There is no switch you can flick to change the culture: it demands a new set of skills that weren’t required by business leaders a decade ago, let alone five.

Our workplace is not in Chicago and we’re not purely a software company, but we are roughly the same size as Basecamp on a headcount basis and we have been around roughly the same amount of time, so the comparisons for me are close enough to reflect on the differences and similarities. The fact that we operate in the social impact space, which is a large part of our value proposition to our staff and to our clients, means that conversations around inclusion, ethics and social justice are part of our fabric. But even though we operate in this space, I’m not in a position to say that it is easy to navigate the complexity and magnitude of issues that make their way from the public discourse into our work community. It’s extremely challenging: for leaders and for staff. We’re often called out about what we do, what we say and how we do it all the way up and down the org chart from senior leader to junior staff member and vice versa. We’ve had to have tough conversations about the type of work we take on, the lack of progress on gender and cultural diversity and whether or not assisting with certain causes is right for the business as a whole. 

But this is now the operating environment that we inhabit and as such we have to work hard and invest time and money into the kind of infrastructure required to enable these types of discussions to take place safely, maturely and with respect. Staff 360s take up a lot of time and require all of us to not just give honest feedback but to receive it well and act on it too. Committees and working groups slow down the decision making process and generate debate or conjure up policies that may make go against the natural instincts of senior leaders. Policies born out of good intentions can end up being complexer than they initially were thought to be or have unintended outcomes for the individuals they were intended for. Work is in essence a community of people and there are always going to be people who disagree with an outcome or are displeased with where the group lands on an issue: you can’t please everyone and leadership requires us to draw a line somewhere. But I think it’s impossible for us to simply compartmentalise our worlds in such a binary way. To lightly borrow an analogy from our world, it feels like the leadership team at Basecamp has abandoned an entire feature set intended to solve both an infrastructure and an end-user problem, and instead has just reverted back to the same old hot-fix.

There’s more behind the story of why the leaders at Basecamp have decided to go in the direction they have taken. According to Kym Lyons at the Verge, who interviewed a number of employees at Basecamp over the week, including the founders, the change in policy was a byproduct of internal discussions concerning diversity and inclusion, precipitated by the founder’s handling of a list of customer names at Basecamp that had been adjusted to take on allegedly racist connotations. It appears that this conversation became too much for Jason and David to continue to have with their team. They got fed up with the complexity of it and the distracting nature of these discussions, so instead, they sought to blow it all up and take a different route. 

For me, this doesn’t alter the past fifteen years of work they’ve put into building a great company and contributing to the discourse on work and technology. I’ll still quote their work and I’ll continue to support their approach and voice when it is relevant to do so. Over the past six months I’ve been engaging our leadership team at Portable on the idea of what a modern design and technology agency should look like, which in essence speaks to the idea of aspiring to create a place that balances good work with good work practices. In my presentation, I open with this video of Jason Fried talking about the pressures of work and how Basecamp approaches burn out. Nothing about the last week makes the content of this video less relevant and I’ll continue to use it. What I do believe is that aspiring to a set of progressive values in any industry requires hard work, investment and perseverance, along with humility and the ability to at times to look at the situation you’re in, fess up to the problems and change your direction when you get it wrong. In this instance the leadership at Basecamp got it wrong and it’s a perfect opportunity for David and Jason to listen to the voices of their staff, re-read the oeuvre of their own work and continue in the same vein that they have been known for. 

 ^In this essay, I’d like to note that I have used and reworked a phrase used by the Australian Newspaper columnist Nikki Gemmel that I thought carried the timely perspective on this. You can read her full article here

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