The current state of work is not getting any better; in fact, it’s getting worse.
There are a lot of things that are crazy at work
The worst part is that we feel like it has to be like that. How else will we grow? How else will we get famous? How else will we pay for all this stuff around us?
Companies are pressured to incentivize or trick employees to spend longer durations with their “work family” so they can reach their overambitious targets. David Heinemeier Hansson says, “You know it doesn’t have to be like that, right?”
What we learned from this episode
-People spend an insane amount of hours at work because their time is poorly spent. Work is done in little, choppy blocks instead of focusing on deep work. The open office and the myriad interruption distract us from getting any real work done.
-If you’re a small company or just starting out, it is okay to say your company is big enough and stop the growth at the size where you enjoy to run the company. Basecamp did a hiring freeze at around 50 people because that was the size of company they enjoyed being.
-A lot of the technology companies that chase hyper growth focus on engagement, building the “stickiness” of their products. But, the less time you spend in a tool, the more work you can actually get done.
-Workaholism trickles down and your employee do what they see you do and not they hear you say. So, if you need to walk the talk, and practice what you preach. If you say you’re passionate about your and you don’t mind working 100 hours a week but your employees are free to work 40 hours, that’s not going to happen.
-Most tech startups don’t have a pristine origin story. Those get added on later.
-Companies find a way to pay for severance packages and recruiting, but can’t seem to find the money for taking care of the employees they have.
What you can do right now
-Read the book.
-Take steps toward making a calmer company.
-If you can’t, find (or create) a place where you can.
“If Basecamp was just because we were lucky, well, f*ck yeah. Great. Like hallelujah. Why would we want to give that up?”
“Growth in itself is not the end all, be all, except in a lot of startups, especially in a lot of tech startups, that growth really is the singular thing that gives the pursuit purpose. And I find that to be just an outright moral failing, I find it to be an economic failing, I find it to be a societal failing that we’ve incentivized an entire industry around growth, growth, growth.”
It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work
Today, our guest is David Heinemeier Hansson. He’s the co founder and CTO at Basecamp, the creator of Ruby on Rails and a Le Mans class-winning racing driver. Hi, David. How are you today?
Good, good. How are you?
Excellent, excellent. We’re very, very excited to have you on. There’s a lot we’re going to learn from you. We’re going to dive into a lot of what you have written in this book, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.” So, that’s the title of the book. Let’s define crazy. We’re not talking about crazy people, but crazy things, correct?
Yes. And now it’s, actually, we had a bit of a discussion before we switched to this title. The original title of the book was actually the Calm Company. And we had a thing going inside the company at Basecamp to discuss both the title of the book and the cover of the book. And the Calm Company ended up soliciting a lot of designs for the cover of the book. They were all about people sitting in zen poses and nice pictures of zen gardens and stuff like that. And we realized it doesn’t actually cover our tone. Both Jason and I are not just sitting calmly by hoping for calm to happen. We’re actually angry about the fact that calm isn’t happening, that calm is such a rarity. So, we switched the titles around and it definitely had some controversy within the company with that word crazy. And I think completely justifiably so, if you’re calling people crazy, that’s not okay at all. We were going for the standard answer that we kept hearing, that we keep hearing when we talk to people and we asked them, “Hey, so, how’s work?” “Oh, it’s crazy at work.” It’s just such a common reply. And we really wanted to anchor on that because this whole notion that it has to be crazy at work, or that it’s good that it’s crazy at work was a key target we wanted to shoot down in this book.
And it’s great. I think it hits on that. And we obviously are being sensitive to that word and everything. But there are a lot of things that seem crazy. And even the classic definition of that about how stressed out we are at work. We have companies that are valued at billions of dollars that don’t turn a profit. We have lots of discrimination and oppression that continue on. So, we’re almost at 2020. It almost feels like we should be better at this by now. We should have gotten over some of these things and really established a better culture, but we’re almost in deeper than we were before. So, what’s your take on what are the biggest causes of how we got to this place?
Well, I think you’re absolutely right, that this should be better. And this book, and our advocacy on this topic is really based on that disappointment that it isn’t, and not just the disappointment that it isn’t better, but that it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. When you look back at working hours or any of these other metrics that you can track over long periods of time, people are working more than ever. They’re sleeping less than ever. There are all these factors that conspire to make it absolutely crazy at work. And for us, we wanted to diagnose this in two major ways. One is the diagnosis of how we spend our time. The fact that we actually squander our time and the reason so many people feel a need to work 50, 60, 80, in some bizarro cases even more than 100 hours a week, is because of the time spent is poorly spent. It’s chopped up in tiny little work moments rather than giving someone a work day. It’s incredibly difficult at most companies to get into a great groove to do deep work. There’s just a myriad of interruptions. If you have the misfortune of working in an open office, there’s all the physical interruptions of that setup. If you have the misfortune of working at a company that uses chat as their primary communication platform, you have the pressures of constantly having to keep up with that conveyor belt.
So, a big section of the book is how can we spend the time better? And the premise being that if we do, if we find ways, and we have and other people have, this is not impossible. This is not a myth. This is not stuff of dreams. 40 hours is plenty. And eight hours a day is enough. This notion that you have to turn your entire life into an altar for work, it’s just crazy.
And then the second part of the book is to ask why. Why do people feel compelled to spend as much time at work, even if they spend it poorly? Why do companies feel compelled to pressure or incentivize or trick workers into spending this much time at work? They do it because they have unrealistic, outsized ambitions. And I think we’re used to thinking of ambition as purely a positive word. Usually you’d say, “Oh, that person is really ambitious.” And that’s a compliment. But there is a point where ambition falls over and becomes a bad thing. When every single technology company that gets started is on a mission to become a billion dollar unicorn, ambition is out of control. When everyone is constantly focused on beating the next quarterly earnings and making sure you’re posting these amazing growth metrics, ambition is out of control. In fact, this whole notion that growth has to be something that’s placed above all else is out of control.
So, we present our alternative at Basecamp, which is not growth. In fact, several years ago, we made the conscious choice at Basecamp to say, “You know what? Basecamp is big enough.” Around 50 people, that’s the size of company that both Jason and I enjoy to run. It’s the size of company our employees enjoy to work at. And we can do the kind of work that we all enjoy doing and servicing our customers and our users in the best ways possible. This is good enough. So, we essentially instituted a mild hiring freeze for the company, not because we were in dire straits, which is usually the time that companies institute hiring freezes, but because things were going swimmingly well. The year we instituted the hiring freeze, Basecamp had just posted its highest revenue numbers ever in the history of the company. And so, it wasn’t that we had to do this but we wanted to do this and even having that conversation of when is it enough? When is the company big enough? When are we doing enough products? When are we servicing enough customers? That is almost an entirely absent discussion for most companies, for most entrepreneurs and for most executives.
So, we wanted to put that out there and say like, hey, have that discussion. You might find that you are well satisfied, far below this mythical achievement of unicorn status. So, that’s really the two main lines of inquiry that we started with the book, how to curb your ambition and how to defend your time, and obviously we dive into all the supporting elements of that, how you create a culture that allows you to pull back on ambition, allows you to respect people’s time, how you deal with the process of actually making that happen, how do you become a company that is still highly productive, doing meaningful, impactful work if you’re saying 40 hours is enough. And yeah, that’s the gist of it.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic book. I read it in about two hours, just sat down and went through the whole thing. It was really encouraging for me to read. I like to use this word myth because there’s the myth of the billion dollar unicorn out there. But then in some ways, you guys have created yourselves as a myth of like, “No, there’s not really a company out there that can really just stop at 50 employees or can work 40 hours a week. Like, this is impossible.” So, tell us more about do you guys feel like you’re living this mythic life that everyone around you is just surrounded by these crazy things around them and you’re living in a bubble that’s protected because you’ve done so much or do you feel like there are other people that are actually out there doing this, too?
Yeah, it’s one of those things that’s funny. We get this all the time. For example, when the company started, we were also just working 40 hours a week. People will literally not believe us. They will literally think we’re lying as in, “No, that’s just something you’re saying. You were really working 80 hour weeks, right?” And we were like, first of all, how can I disprove that to you? I don’t know what else I can say than, no, we worked 40 hours a week and since the inception. In fact, Basecamp, our primary product, was created with me as the sole technical person for the first version that we released to the public on 10 hours a week. I was going to school, I was doing other things. It’s actually quite amazing what you can do with just a little time if you spend it well.
And this spending it well is also not this mythical thing. It’s not because we walk around thinking we’re super geniuses. It’s simply about having some core heuristics about how time is spent well. And the key part of that is continuous time. If you have 10 hours and you get to spend it in two 5-hour blocks, it is amazing what you can accomplish in that time. If you have 10 hours and you get to spend it in 30-minute blocks, it’s almost equally amazing how little you can get done, which is usually absolutely nothing.
So, I think the other factor of this is that Basecamp, obviously, it’s an American company. We speak primarily to American entrepreneurs. And there is a culture in the U.S. that makes it seem like it’s a fairy tale what we talk about. But I’m Danish, I grew up in Denmark, I lived there until I was 25. I worked for a lot of Danish companies. This is absolutely the norm. This is not some wild idea that companies can work in this way or that a technology company can work just 40 hours a week. This is what everyone does in large parts of the world. In many ways, this workaholism, or workism, as it’s been called, is a uniquely American affliction in the sort of Western world.
Now, there are plenty of other places. China is a great example that I usually pull out as a scare example. They have this idea of 996, that you work from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days a week. I look at a model like that and go like, wow, that just sounds like institutionalized human rights abuses. Other people, including venture capitalists in the U.S., look at that with just sparkles in their eyes and think, “Wow, this is amazing. Look how hard the Chinese are working. Hey, hint, hint, if you don’t adopt something like 996 for your own company, you may get left behind. The Chinese are going to come get you.” And I just go like, this is perverse. This is disgusting, actually. Because this is people’s lives that we’re talking about. So, that’s a big part of the motivation for this book is to first of all say this isn’t that abnormal, we are not that abnormal. We are very plain in a different part of the world, that we actually should look more to for healthy ideas on how to work and how to structure society, and so forth. And this push for ever more work, ever less sleep, ever more fawning over Chinese 996 schedules, that’s the true sickness and we need to push back against that.
Let’s talk about this idea of good enough once you reach a point. I like what you said that you and Jason figured out that 50 people seem like a great size. And for most owners, entrepreneurs out there, they feel like, okay, 50 is just somewhere I’m going to have to cross. I might enjoy that a lot. But I have to get bigger. So, I just enjoy it while it’s there. And it goes on. It’s kind of like raising kids that they’re only going to be small ones. But you guys have actually taken the idea that, no, these are the good old days that we’ll talk about later are right now. So, let’s hold on to that. And let’s say this is how we’re able to do that. Was that a really difficult decision to do, just mentally trying to get out of that model or was it pretty obvious? It’s like we just want to stay here.
It was very easy in many ways. And I don’t say that in a flippant way. I say that because both Jason and I, we’ve been in business for 20 years. We’ve talked to a lot of entrepreneurs over those 20 years. And the stories we would keep hearing over and over and over again were all these stories about these entrepreneurs loving those early days, loving when they knew everyone in the company, when they were still involved with the product, when their entire workday was not just one long scheduled meeting chopped up into various different bits and pieces. And they would just reminisce about that. And it was like, “Wow, wasn’t that amazing?” And every single time I’d hear that story, I’d go like, why didn’t you stay there? Wherever you are now reminiscing about those days, that sound great, right? Like, I mean, this is me projecting some of my sensibilities onto this. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who get their kicks out of growing the thing as much as they can, or they like being in charge of thousands of people, or whatever, whatever, whatever. But I heard this story enough times. Jason and I heard this story enough time to go, like, “You know what? That sounds great. Can’t we just hit pause, say this is enough and stop here?”
But for a lot of the majority, I’d probably say that either it ends in tears that the thing failed to live up to the success criteria or it does succeed. And they still go like, “All right, I’m done. Let’s start the new thing.”
I really like Jason Fried, my business partner, on his Twitter profile, he says, “not a serial entrepreneur.” Everyone in the tech industry seems to be so obsessed with like, well, doing it once is lucky. Doing it twice means you’re good. Like they have such a chip, and maybe I’m projecting here, but the chip on their shoulder and that statement just seems to be like, I have to prove to someone else that I’m really good. You know what? I don’t have to prove to anyone that I’m really good. If Basecamp was just because we were lucky, well, fuck yeah. Great. Like hallelujah. Why would we want to give that up? What if I am just lucky, entirely possible, by the way, overwhelmingly possible at least in the terms of reaching a success to the levels of Basecamp have been, why would I want to give that up? Just to have some chance of proving myself? To who? For what? Why? Seems crazy to me.
And the thing is it’s not exactly like that’s some unique idea either. The fact that the baker who likes to make bread wants to just have the one bakery and not open a chain of 45 and deal with all the shit that comes with dealing with 45 bakeries instead of pounding bread or dough. That’s not exactly something we look at as a weird thing normally. We look at that with actually aspiration and say they’ve really found something that they like doing. They want to keep doing that. And they are. You can look at so many other institutions, whether it’s hallowed educational institutions, Cambridge, or Harvard or whatever. They’re not like, oh, let’s open more franchises. Let’s just get more people in here. No. Growth in itself is not the end all, be all, except in a lot of startups, especially in a lot of tech startups, that growth really is the singular thing that gives the pursuit purpose. And I find that to be just an outright moral failing, I find it to be an economic failing, I find it to be a societal failing that we’ve incentivized an entire industry around growth, growth, growth. Because what usually happens is that the dreams of unicornness do not come true, right? There’s only a tiny handful of companies who reach that status. And then almost by definition, by setting up the game in such a way that that’s the end destination, that’s the success point, we’ve labeled everyone else failures.
And that’s actually the literal label, more or less, that we’ve often had attached to our business, that when we tell of our business, and we say that we reached enough, people go like, “Oh, isn’t that cute? That’s a nice lifestyle business.” First of all, who the fuck uses the word lifestyle business as a prerogative? What’s wrong about having a lifestyle? What’s wrong about having other interests outside of work? I mean, that just is fascinating to me, right? But there’s just also this looking down upon a business that would choose to do that
as though they were opting out of reality. So, that was the choice that we made. We’ve been really pleased with that choice. I mean, I tried to set things up. And I’ve had the same conversation with Jason, let’s set up Basecamp in such a way that we would actually want to work here in 30 years. That’s the other thing about the general pursuit to become a unicorn. In a lot of cases, it’s a sprint, well, sprint if you can call a decade’s worth of slaving work sprint. But it’s a time box where you’re rushing to some destination. And then you’re done. You cash out. You sell the company or you go public and someone else has to take over. In a very, very few number of cases, that’s not the case. The original founders stay on and they find their calling and they go with the thing.
Yeah, I like it. Let’s shift to the actual technology a little bit. When we look at social media platforms that are out there, I think originally, I believe somehow that they were intended just to build connection to make people get closer and share ideas, but obviously, we’re way far away from that.
Also, no, they really weren’t, right? I think that’s actually important. I think it’s important there that we stop giving entrepreneurs that come out of venture capital, funded startups that extreme, naive benefit of the doubt that they really truly just had the noblest of intentions when they were started out. And somehow along the way, they just got utterly corrupted. I fall into that trap myself. But if you actually look at the origin stories of say, Facebook, what did that start out as? Like, it’s a pretty well known and documented origin story, right? Like, it started out as a hot or not site, not exactly the best of intentions. How did it get that much data? Well, because, in the words of Zuckerberg, because the dumb fucks gave it to me, I don’t know why. Right? So, a lot of these origin stories, they’re not exactly that pristine or that pure.
Good, good. Well, it’s good to establish that, that we’re not dealing with angels that had some problems along the way.
Which, by the way, sorry to stop you again. Just take that word, right? Angels. How do most seek investors characterize themselves, how is the whole industry characterized?
Yeah, angel investments.
How fucking self serving can you be? How self grantisizing can you be to pick the word for what you do, which is to invest money in a bunch of startups, as an angel? Geez. There’s just so much to unpack in that world that, I mean, I’ve been picking at it for 20 years, and I feel like barely scratching the surface still.
So, we’re going to move from social tools to business tools, which have the same story behind them. We’re looking at trying to just sell it to businesses now. How can business tools end up really doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing, which is to be helping people to work better. But yet, so many of the tools we use, you talked about messaging platforms, you talked about all sorts of other things, they actually do the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing and helping us be more organized. We’re spending more money, we’re using fancier tools, but we’re not really any better at work than before. So, how can we get around that?
First, we have to critically examine the metrics and the success criterias that these tools and businesses are holding themselves accountable to. And if you look at a lot of these tools that are chasing hyper growth, one of the key metrics is this word engagement. And engagement is often a fancy euphemism for just hours spent, that simply getting someone to spend more hours in your tool has become a shorthand for my tool is great. And in fact, I’d go as far as to say that Basecamp is a little bit the opposite. The less time you get to spend in Basecamp, just being in the tool for the sake of being in the tool, the better it is, right? Like having someone trapped inside of Basecamp for eight hours a day, that doesn’t actually sound that great. There’s not a whole lot of people who where that equals productive work. But there’s plenty of other platforms, chat tools in particular, who use that metric engagement as some sort of metric of success because they think that means, and they’re probably right, that it means that the customer is sticky. Which by the way, what a nasty term again, right? That you want your customer to be stuck in your spider web, that that’s so sticky that they can’t get out. That whole idea that you capture customers, and you have to capture as many of them as possible, and you have to make your product so sticky that they can’t escape, it’s just not a value system that we believe in at Basecamp.
And we want to believe that we put out a product that, by the way, does not really benefit from network effects so one customer can choose to use facecam and another can choose to do something else, and we can all be happy. And that that’s fine, that we don’t need to capture 100% of the market. In fact, if we simply appeal to what 1% or 0.001% of everyone who needs software to manage their communications or their projects inside of companies, that’s fine. That’s plenty. And that that level of ambition allows us to design different software. Because when you’re not designing software for maximum engagement, there’s just all sorts of different choices that you make. For example, at Basecamp, one of the features we have at Basecamp 3 is called “work can wait”. And it’s literally a feature that makes the product less sticky for people outside of normal working hours. You have “work can wait” on and the Basecamp app won’t send you notifications after, I believe it is 5pm or something like that, and it won’t send any notifications on weekends. That’s a way where we’re essentially harming the stickiness of the product because we believe that it’s actually a better outcome that people shouldn’t be pulled into work, whether that work is in Basecamp or somewhere else at all these odd hours of the day.
One of the leading causes of all this overwork is that we have a million different pieces of software and electronics that can constantly rope us back in. Back in the day when you used to work in an office, all your files were at the office, you closed your file cabinet at 5:00 o’clock and go home, work would not pull you back in. It would really have to be an emergency before that landline would ring, right? Versus now, emails, chat, all these tools are constantly bombarding your phone, and most people, they share one phone for both work and home. So, it’s this very unhealthy mix and blend that ends up encroaching on home, on life in completely unrealistic and unreasonable ways. So, we wanted to build tools that does something else. But we can’t do that unless we also accept these other values. So, that’s the other part of the broader perspective here is that it’s not just enough to have better habits, it’s not just enough to have better tools or techniques, unless those things are grounded in better values, you’re lost.
And I liked the point you brought in your book that said that even as an owner, if you’re saying, I’m going to send out this email on a Saturday or late at night, and I don’t want anyone to respond to it. I’m going to send it out on an asynchronous platform just whenever you get around to it. But just the fact that the owner’s doing that sends a signal to everyone else. It talks about the culture you’re creating around you, too, that says, hey, I’m up. I’m doing this. Even though I say that I don’t want you to, you can really get over that boundary. Everyone’s going to assume that that’s the expectation, right?
Absolutely. Workaholism trickles down. Everyone mimics what’s higher up in the hierarchy. So, this is the excuse I often see from a lot of entrepreneurs. “Well, just I’m so passionate about my business, I just love it so much that that’s why I work 110 hours a week. But of course, my employees, they’re free to work 40 hours a week.” Oh, come on. No one is going to look at that and have that be the outcome. Anyone who wants to do well at a company, they’ll look to what leadership does, not what they say, what they do. And then they’ll try to copy that. And they’ll try to impress according to the values that’s being projected. So, I think that’s one of the reasons why this idea of a calm company, it has to come from the top. Now you can do all sort of self defense techniques, and they can be very helpful and we offer a bunch in the book. But to truly arrive at a calm company, you have to have a calm executive, you have to have a calm leadership. And that calmness, I mean, as we talked about, particularly in the U.S., particularly in tech startups, is really sadly quite rare and hard to come by, which is why we’re trying to attack the values that underpin that level of crazy, right? That if we can somehow entice that executive, those entrepreneurs, perhaps not once they’ve been through the whole mill, but earlier in their careers to look at a broader set of values that they could possibly adopt, and not end up being those executives that work 100 hours a week and does entice everyone else to do it. Because the thing is the habits you set early on are the habits that stick. It is very rare for any entrepreneurs who set a mad schedule of working 100 hours a week to somehow think that they can work less when the company is about to go public, or is public? Once the success arrives can they actually work any less if they’ve set the habits and trajectory early into careers for not doing that? No, they can’t. The vast majority of people aren’t able to break out of that.
We’ve seen that theme even in other ways, too, of these aren’t just like add ons you can do. It’s not just like a culture hack you can say offer these benefits or closed on the office here. It’s got to be deep in the culture and from the beginning that it’s set up that way. You can’t just turn your system to say now we’re going to be remote. We’re going to support remote workers. It just doesn’t happen, unless everyone’s committed to it, and you’re already practicing those details. That’s a part of it.
Yeah, it has to be authentic. It can’t be veneer. It can’t be trinkets. And I think that that is the unfortunately very successful ploy that particularly a lot of tech companies have used for a very long time. “Hey, look how fun we are not in a hierarchical. We have a ping pong table and there’s funny colored chairs and they can all spin around. Like, isn’t this great? Oh, we have a chef, too. Oh, it just happens to be that they serve dinner at 7:00. So, if you’re here at 7:00, you’ll get a nice chef dinner.” What kind of benefit is that? That’s a company benefit, not employee benefit. All these things are ploys to keep people trapped at the office. And it’s bullshit. And it’s one of the things that we tell people about. What do benefits look like at Basecamp? They’re all about getting people out of the office, about enjoying life away from the office. Because what we’ve learned over the past 20 years is that the best, most creative, most engaged workers, they aren’t the ones you can keep trapped the longest in the office. It’s quite the opposite.
The fact that you can get someone to show up for eight hours of work, four or five days a week, well rested, well exercised, well read, well entertained, well connected to their community, these are far superior workers if we are to be so crass about it. I think we really shouldn’t because this is just a better way to live. I mean, in the deepest sense of the word, that we can actually have opinions about what a better way to live and work is and these are those opinions. But even if you just did the cold, hard analysis, I think this analysis is just better. If you look at the retention rates, for example, of a company like Basecamp, I think our average tenure is more than five years at the moment, and the industry average is 18 months. How much money do these companies spend on hiring, training, and well, firing and severance and all these other things that go into the constant churn of having an 18-month average tenure? Astronomical sums, right? But it’s like there’s always money for that. There’s never money enough to give people the proper time off or parental leave or any of these other things, never money for that. Always money for hiring.
One of my favorite rants in the book has to do with being a family. People say, hey, we’re one big family here at the company. So, tell us about what you think about that.
Yes, I think “we’re just a big family” is one of the most insidious and harmful ploys that company owners can pull. And the reason they pull that is they want you to do something you don’t really want to do out of a sense of obligation. We are hardwired as humans to generally think, well, we need to take care of our family. We need to take care of each other in our family, and we need to go above and beyond. So, when a company invokes that notion that they’re just a family, they’re trying to essentially get you to extend all that love and care to what? Profits? Revenue? Saving a customer? None of these things amount to anything that’s worth pulling that card of the family. And more importantly, it’s not exactly like it’s a two way street. When the company says, “We’re a family,” does that mean that they will just love you unconditionally? That they will forgive everything that you do? That they will treat you with all the care or respect that you would hope that the most functional families would have for each other? Of course not. You will be fired the second that’s expedient for someone who says, “Oh, we’re just a big family.” They’ll exploit you under the guise of the family for as long as that’s needed. And then they will absolutely dump you the second it’s not. So, family, for me, being invoked in a work setting is one of those huge red flags where it’s not even always evident, I think, to the person who says it, to the executive or the company owner who said, “Oh, we’re just all a big family.” But it’s illuminating. It’s one of those things that reveals an entire value system below that statement where you can just go like, nope, nope, nope.
And it shows some lack of self awareness to realize that we’re not a family. We’re here to do business. We’re here so that we can all make some money to live off and have fun, but that’s about as deep as it’s going to go. And we can friends, we can have relationships outside of that, but at its core, that’s what we are.
Right. And most people, they have a family. They’re not interested in supplanting their actual family with this fake, corporate family, right? And I should say, it is more than good enough to simply show up for work 40 hours a week to do diligent, creative, great work that’s respectful, engaging, all these other things that we’ve talked about. This is enough to make a great business. In fact, I’d say more business would be far greater if they realized that these were just the ingredients that it took. And they didn’t have to squeeze the lemon so hard in all these other ways, right? So, saying that the company is not a family is not at all a diss. It’s not like, oh, work isn’t important, where you spend eight hours of your day every day is not important or that you shouldn’t take it seriously or that you shouldn’t be engaged. None at all. It’s just it’s work. It’s not your family. And if you are to rank the two, it should be very clear in almost all circumstances that number one is your actual family.
Well, this has been fantastic to talk through. What I want to end people with is if they’re really looking for an action item to take, obviously getting the book, reading through it, going through things. But for companies that are in the middle of this that have already started to talk about it, we’ve had people on from the Center for Humane Technology talking about the design of products. We’ve had people on talking about B corps. Do you know of any other groups or ways that if companies really want to latch on to these ideas of the calm companies, as you guys talk about, are there any other ways they can join that movement?
I think the examples you give are good. We haven’t actually at Basecamp pursued any of those examples. We’re doing it more just on our own ethics and our own values. And I can see how that’s sometimes hard. So, it’s hard to give “actionable advice” to companies who are currently stuck in crazy ways. Because it really is quite difficult to reform an organization, an organism that’s already enmeshed and entangled in a bad set of values because oftentimes those values are also expressed in who owns the company and how the capitalization is done, and so forth. So, I try to focus more of my energy not on existing companies that are behaving badly in the sense or in the hope that I’m going to speak some truth to the people who are actually in power to make something different. I try to speak to the next generation. So, people who are starting companies right now or who just started a company or who run a small company, that early phase where they still have the power and probably still have a lot of questions about what kind of company do we want to be. This is when you’re at the soft clay level. Once you reach 150 people and millions in revenue, you’re no longer soft clay, you’re a little bit more like porcelain. When you’re quite fragile and maybe you’ll crack if we try to bend too much.
And like you said in the book, too, the company is a product. And if you get in there and you realize you have all these things that are about you’d like, if you see a product that’s just messed up all around, your first instinct is, well, let’s trash it all and start over again. So, you can’t do that with a company. It becomes much harder.
It is. And sometimes I think, what you realize, too, is I can’t change this. That’s an okay conclusion to arrive at. Say you read this book and you go, “Yeah, I’d really like to work at a company like this. It’s not the company I currently work at.” Now, you can absolutely try, and I think it’s noble to attempt to try to change the organization you’re already in. “Can we be more like this?” But at some point, you also got to accept that it is hard to bend porcelain. And maybe it’s time to find an organization that’s a bit more like the soft clay where you can actually leave an imprint, where you can actually leave a change and structure this, which is, I mean, in many cases, the argument for startups, for new companies and new entrepreneurs and I understand that that’s not an avenue that’s open to all. And there are also good things about large porcelain structures, that maybe they pay well or they seem more secure, or there’s these other benefits that can come from large company employment. And I respect that. And there are different people who for a different time in their life can do different things. But if you have the opportunity, if you have the flexibility to make an imprint, find a place where you can.
Fantastic. David, it’s a great place for us to end. I’ve loved this conversation. I gained a lot of encouragement from it, and I hope that people listening in feel the same way. Yeah, this is something that we can aspire to. We can say we’ve reached enough. We can have calm companies out there and we can enjoy things at work. It doesn’t have to be crazy. So, I like what you’re saying. I like your message and hope to continue to partner with you in that.
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for having me on the show.
David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of Ruby on Rails, cofounder & CTO at Basecamp, best-selling author, Le Mans class-winning racing driver, frequent podcast guest, and family man.