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How to run a calm workplace: review of Basecamp's book (economist.com)
82 points by martincmartin 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

I read the book and I enjoyed it. It still feels like a recruitment tool for Basecamp in the same way all "self help" books just seem to describe what the author does well, rather than how to deal own with personal difficulties. If you happen to have a company like theirs (<100 employees, ability to work remotely, profitable), this book will help better align your team's efforts and create a good work environment. If you work at a startup or for IBM, this might do more to depress you...

I used to work for a VC funded startup that was full on Silicon Valley (HBO) style nuts. Wacky group living. CEO that thought he was reincarnated Steve Jobs. Just insane amounts of what I can only describe as "thrashing" as people tried to figure out what to work on, etc.

I'm now working at an enterprise software company in the marketing group and it's "calm" in the sense that Basecamp uses the term. Everyone's a professional. Everyone just does their job. Team is mostly remote.

It's phenomenal how much faster in terms of growth the enterprise job moves. Simply because there aren't any "performative metrics". Nobody cares if you show up early and leave late because the metric we're held to tie back to the business. Because we're making actual money we can do more growth experiments. Because we have proven we can do this, we aren't mired down in bureaucracy (CEO and whoever his advisor was that week approval) and weird turf wars between departments.

It's just calm, competent execution 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. The company certainly isn't Basecamp, but the lessons and ethos still work.

Who do you work for? I'm done with crazy.

Basecamp purposefully remains small, so I am not sure if it is a recruitment tool, but it's possible.

Basecamp has offered such a refreshing counterweight to the Silicon Valley unicorn mantra. I believe if some companies, such as Evernote, had followed in their path, they could have had a profitable and useful product that would have continued to be loved and used all over the world.

It's probably not a recruitment tool, but it does feel like one when you read it.

> Basecamp has offered such a refreshing counterweight to the Silicon Valley unicorn mantra. I believe if some companies, such as Evernote, had followed in their path, they could have had a profitable and useful product that would have continued to be loved and used all over the world.

You're right here. Silicon Valley is built, these days, on high valuations and eventually-profitable businesses (at least that's how it feels from the outside). Once you leave that bubble, and the tiny bubbles in other cities, you'll note that most tech businesses start with profitability in mind and to remain private.

> It still feels like a recruitment tool for Basecamp

Not so much when you consider that they aren't hiring anyone right now.

Something that surprises me is the number of people that don't believe a company can actually want to remain small.

Management books have never been written for the people who are working at various companies. They're written for managers, usually higher level ones who have the power to actually change things, or those starting new companies. A tremendous amount of damage has been done by the management books written in the 1980s, whose influence lingers to this day. The way companies work certainly won't change for as long as every management book out there starts with "employees actually don't want money, they want recognition" and "you don't work for the customer, you work for your investors" and such things. So it is quite refreshing to see a book that apparently (I've not read it yet) puts forward the idea that if you don't make your company into some endurance game optimized to be as negative an experience as possible for employees, the whole world at least isn't guaranteed to implode.

I read RE:WORK when I was working for a large consulting firm supporting an even larger government client. While it doesn't do much to solve your current situation, it certainly helps you re-evaluate your basic assumptions about how you would like to work and what is possible in your work. I definitely began thinking about my projects differently.

Similarly, with REMOTE, I don't think I would've considered working remotely as a good option for me before reading the book, but here I am doing remote work and loving it.

The book is in my "To Read" queue but typically while aspirational I do find them helpful even if it is just to motivate you as a team lead or developer to carve out a calm niche for your team within a larger environment.

It's useful to step back and realize that some of the things Basecamp advocates are privileges, not strategies.

In other words, they've been blessed with enough success that they can choose the path they're on. OF COURSE there's a feedback loop—remote work helps them be more successful, without a doubt. But, the trade-offs Basecamp makes are not always available to other businesses, and do not offer the same clear upsides to either employees or owners.

(Having said this, I'm a big fan of their style and have learned a lot from them...)

>But, the trade-offs Basecamp makes are not always available to other businesses

Shouldn't we build an environment where they are?

E.g. if a company doesn't use slave or child labor today, or doesn't pay in company scrip, it's not a loss for them, because no company can use those either. Unpaid overtime was similarly outlawed in lots of western countries.

Societies should build a legal environment where this is true for most sane things companies should be doing and bad things companies should be avoiding.

DHH mentioned that it's not all that calm and zen and well oiled at Basecamp, that the book is also aspirational.

I don’t think this is fair to say because they have been writing like this for nearly 20 years. Getting Real and their blog predate Basecamp.

At this point basecamp has a bit of a 'broken clock is right twice a day feel' that drives a content marketing machine for their SMB product. This is a classic one: https://signalvnoise.com/posts/2585-facebook-is-not-worth-33...

What basecamp is promoting is totally fine, but at this point you have to recognize that bootstrap / small biz style vs. VC style biz are two different kinds with their own tradeoffs and the emotionalism in the articles are not that necessary.

But the emotionalism behind the articles is probably what makes the content stick, as people frustrated with their current work environment get inspired by SvN blog articles to start their own SMB and buy basecamp products to organize their business.

Damn, that post aged badly.

Yeah, I think there needs to be books that are honest about the tradeoffs of running a business different ways, rather than espousing that "this is the way to do things". Ben Horowitz's "The Hard Thing About Hard Things" is the only one I know that really claimed that sometimes things call for relaxed management and sometimes things call for a maniacal death march.

It reminds me of Joel on Software where Spolsky claims that web technology and web apps will not replace desktop apps.

It's funny how Fog Creek Software is similarly based in NYC. Silicon Valley folks, tired of the breakneck VC-bloated striverism of the city, seek the homespun wisdom from a simpler age and small companies.

I found it interesting (just started reading it, so this is near the beginning) that they have no employees in the SF Bay Area. Since I assume they are using Ruby and RoR (heh), it seems like there must be some filtering function removing the many talented developers expert in their stack from their recruiting pool. It could be as simple as salary (maybe they aren't willing to pay "market-rate" for SV) or it could be something else. Anyone know?

I work at Basecamp. From our handbook [1]:

"Basecamp pays at the top 10% for our industry at San Francisco salary levels, regardless of where an employee lives. The comparison data is provided by a company called Radford that polls compensation data from all the major companies in our industry and plenty of our smaller peers as well. Because we don't pay bonuses, we match our base compensation to the base + bonus of our peer group."

[1]: https://github.com/basecamp/handbook/blob/master/making-a-ca...

Basecamp's "calm" ethos is in direct opposition of so much of SF's "to the moon at all costs!" mentality and the types of devs it attracts. Seems like a direct conflict of end goals.

I'm sure it's completely possible for a very talented rails dev to live in SF and be aligned with Basecamp's values, but just not as likely as one might assume.

What percentage of the world's technologists and designers live in SV? I don't know what it is but I bet it's overwhelmingly more everywhere else combined. Through that lens you can see how Basecamp ended up with 30 or so who don't live in SV.

(Disclosure: I work at Basecamp and don't live in SV.)

Why would they be willing to pay the hyper-inflated "market-rate" for SV employees when they are optimized for remote workers, so being located in the Bay has no value to them?

I'm not arguing they should. Just proposing a possible answer that would be reasonable.

"Open-plan offices are particularly bad at providing an environment for calm, creative work, they argue. So “library rules” are imposed at Basecamp. Conversations are kept to a whisper and there are separate rooms when meetings are needed."

So I take it they do have an open-plan office?

Take a look for yourself:


~10k sq ft for... 14 people who work in the Chicago office. Well, not really (they have spaces with specific purposes), but there seems to be plenty of space for whatever workstyle a given person prefers.

A.f.a.i.k they are mostly remote, with a small office of ~5 people and few meeting-rooms?

12-15 in Chicago. It's nice to work there when I'm in town. Very quiet when it needs to be, and the team rooms are fantastic for collaboration(if the parties are there).

I would assume. It's bad but it's still cheaper than building walls.

FWIW, here's a discussion we had on HN looking for companies with a culture similar to Basecamp's: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16015715

Outline link: https://outline.com/893xwr

The Economist is another website that seems to have been plagued by GDPR and other current web publishing trends.

Funnily enough, that link breaks because it requires Google Analytics.

Sounds great. Are there any other company that have similar values?

Sounds like a lovely target for private equity. If you own a company that can afford to do this and want an out, ping me to ghostwrite your self help no-seller and we can get the jackals circling.

That is morally reprehensible and very smart. Find all the companies that have such great margins that they can treat their employees well and gut them for temporary gains.

What about the opposite? Find companies that are massively over staffed and duplicate their product with 100x less people?

Missed my calling, apparently. But that's the calculation they make. Could see a lot of tech companies that raised insane valuations with institutional money whose revenues are otherwise respectable but don't justify those valuations, get picked up as distressed assets by PE firms during the next crash.

You need revenue to justify perks, so perks could be a tell. Hmm, glassdoor should have some data on this...

Brewing 2nd and 3rd order signals. Machine learning, innocuous public information sources ...

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