Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fireside Chat

When I saw a retweet from Jason Fried about available tickets to a fireside chat with him at Basecamp, I jumped on it. I figured if I can kill two birds with one stone, - meeting him in person and seeing their offices - it's a no-brainer. Company Culture was the topic of the conversation led by Aimee Groth, who visited Chicago to publicize her new book, Kingdom of Happiness about Zappos' culture.

Basecamp HQ

Basecamp HQ is as cool as you think it is. Very few desks, a couple of meeting rooms. It reminded me more of a train terminal with its large windows and limited furnishing than a real office. The office is centered around an auditorium, which is an effective PR and educational platform for the company.

I enjoyed looking at the walls covered with postcards from employees all over the world, but I especially liked David's H-1B approval notice from the USCIS from 2005. I laughed out loud when I noticed it, as I had to go through similar hassle myself, but mine is safely guarded with my documents at home.

Basecamp works in six weeks work schedule. Whatever the team can get down in six weeks, they will deliver it. The scope can change, but the six weeks schedule is hard set. This timeframe helps them delivering functionality, and since the company is working remotely, it worked out well for them.

They don't have managers who only manage people or projects, the teams are led by team leads. These team leads are developers as well, shipping code on a daily basis. Jason and his team realized that managers who do not code, grow away from the work. According to him, "professional (full time) managers forget to do the work".
At one point they've tried rotating team leads, but that did not work out, as the continuity was lost. I could see that: "I see this problem, but I won't deal with it, I'll leave it for the next person, who will take over." Basecamp is looking for people who are self-managed, however, Jason emphasized multiple times: "people like to be led". It's important to "rally the folks by clear goals and purpose".

Jason also talked about the Jeff Bezos investment in the company, which meant a small ownership stake in Basecamp. They did not need the money to survive, David and Jason felt having a person like Mr. Bezos is mutually beneficial to both parties. "Who would not like to have Jeff Bezos as an advisor in his or her company?!" They have not talked to Jeff Bezos for a while, but if they wanted to, they could just reach out to his secretary, set up a meeting, and Jeff would fly to Chicago for a meeting or dinner with them.

The best advice from Bezos - and according to Jason, this was worth the entire dividend they have paid for his investment - was: "invest in the things in your business, that won't change". Don't chase the shiny new things, stick to what will not change. For them, it's Basecamp. The company had 4-5 products that they sold a couple of years ago to focus on their main product, which is Basecamp.

Jason went into details why other products were divested (like HighRise, Backpack, Campfire). Maintaining the web, Android and iOS versions of their products resulted in 15 different projects. That led to insufficient focus for each platform for each product with the employees they had at the time. They could - of course - have hired other developers, but they intentionally wanted to stay small. They did not want to get richer, be the next billionaire, they were just as happy with what they had. This sounds strange, almost naive in the era of bloated startups that are bleeding money chasing to be the next Facebook.

I enjoyed the Q&A at the very end. Some interesting questions came up about the startup community in Chicago, about VCs in general. Jason kindly offered to stay as long as everybody's questions were answered. Really a courteous offer, considering it was after 8 pm on a Friday night.

Oh, yes, and one more thing: Basecamp has 130,000 paying customers. It's a remarkable achievement by a company that has never taken VC money, was profitable from the get-go, and created an exciting app in the "not-so-exciting" domain of project management.