The Basecamp way of Creating and Managing Products

Jason Fried, CEO & Co-Founder of Basecamp

Basecamp thinks and works differently than most fast-growing SaaS companies… and it’s completely fine with that. Jason Fried, Co-Founder and CEO, is known for his unique take on building products and companies, and joins us in this INDUSTRY Interview where no questions are off the table.

Note: We had some issues with Jason not being able to see or hear Mike, but we went with it anyway for this “text-a-question” and answer session!

How Basecamp does things differently

Charge for products from the start

If you want to figure out if your product is any good, you have to put it out there and charge for it. Putting your product out there for free doesn’t really tell you if people think it’s good enough to pay for it. If you don’t know that, it’s hard to figure out where to go next.

In addition, if you don’t charge for your product, you won’t generate revenue. If you don’t generate revenue, you won’t make any profits. If you don’t make any profits, it’s difficult to stay in business.

Ignore rapid growth

Don’t worry about market domination. Don’t try to conquer anything or anybody. Don’t strive to be a large company. Just put your best foot forward and see what happens.

That also means no goals, and OKRs and no key metrics.

Only work 40 hours a week.

Eight hour days are plenty of time to get great work done. If you can’t get your work done in eight hour days and 40 hour weeks, you’re probably spending your time on the wrong things. You’re stuck in meetings, you’re in conference calls, you’re being pulled around by things that aren’t important.

You’re better off figuring out how to get the best work you can get done in eight hours versus trying to squeeze more work into more hours.

Work in six week cycles, without roadmaps or backlogs

Every six weeks start from scratch and figure out what you think you want to work on next. Pick a few projects that are going to take the full six weeks and pick a handful of projects that are going to take a few weeks or a few days each. Put together a few small product teams with three people or less and do those projects

Nothing you pick is going to take longer than six weeks and that there’s at least a six week or less version of just about everything. Working on things longer than that tends to make them go on much, much longer than that, which can be demoralizing.

Six weeks is enough time to get into something deeply and yet get it done and move to the next thing.

Decide what you’re going to work on during the next six week period right before that six week period. Don’t hang on to ideas you came up with months before. What seemed like a good idea before may not make sense now. That means no roadmaps. That means no backlogs.

How do you reflect and grow as a leader?

When you’re a leader, the key thing is to be self aware and reflect on your weak spots. Sometimes people will tell you those things, many times they don’t.

If you run a company or own the company there’s a power dynamic and people are reluctant to let you know about your failings or the failings of your organization.

You need a tight group of people who you trust to speak honestly and directly with you. You need to be self aware enough to realize when you made a mistake or when you said something that, that you weren’t happy with.

It’s a matter of taking stock, paying attention, realizing that you’re not going to get all the feedback you want as the business owner.

How do you balance discovery and delivery?

Basecamp doesn’t explicitly do product discovery. They use the product that they build and rely on their usage as the main way to understand the product. Using the product is the best way to really know if the product works or not.

Basecamp also does a bit of customer research via interviews, but they don’t do focus groups and don’t do Beta testing. They rely on their use of the product and feedback from others who use the product in real life situations.

Work Does Not Have to Be Crazy

Jason and his business partner David Heinemeier Hansson recently wrote the book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. There were a few questions that came up about craziness at work.

Why is work crazy?

There are two main reasons why it’s crazy at work.

First, there’s an obsession with growth. When growth is your primary objective, there’s no limit to the hours you ask people to work. There’s no end to the things you ask people to do. Breakneck speed is not fast enough.

People go fast and take shortcuts. Code gets messy. Everyone is in meetings all day. The direction changes constantly. Priorities change. The hours add up. People work at night and on weekends because they can’t get anything meaningful done during the day. And because all of this happens to realize growth, it just feeds on itself.

The second reason work is crazy is because of all the distractions that you face at work. Those distractions primarily come from the tools we use. Real time chat distracts you from your focused effort. All those notifications draw your attention away from your focused efforts. They break your flow and pile on the distractions.

How do we make work less crazy?

So how can you make work less crazy if don’t have the power to make broad sweeping changes? You want to start as local as possible. Change your team, or change your own personal behavior.

Constantly being interrupted by other people? Think about how you can avoid interrupting others and set an example through your own actions.

Do you lead a small team? Shield that team from unnecessary meetings and distractions.

Don’t spend your time trying to change the whole company. Figure out what you have control over and what you can influence and focus on changing the things you can control. As others in the organization see the changes you’re making they may start following your example.

How do you find talent in unexpected places?

Do you think your organization is fighting a talent war? Jason suggests that’s the wrong metaphor for finding people to be a part of your organization.

You don’t have to fight a talent war. There are plenty of great people around the world who do great work. You just need to rethink who you look for and how you look for them.

When you look for employees, use your job ad to put out signals for the kinds of people that you want. Don’t set your expectations so high that there’s only one person in the world who meets the description. Describe what you’re looking for and be willing to consider people from unusual locations.

What mistakes should product people look out for?

First, don’t overreact to early feedback and watch out for knee jerk reactions.

When you put something new out there in the world, you’re going to get feedback on it quickly. This initial feedback is going to be the most vocal and filled with the most energy.

The best thing to do for over the first couple of weeks of launching anything new is to sit back. Take the feedback, read it, listen to it, tell people thanks for it, but pause before acting on it. Consider what the feedback is telling you and think about the best next move.

Second, watch out for too much collaboration when it comes to decision making. Gather feedback and collect perspectives from the right people, but when it comes to making decisions, make sure it’s clear who the decision maker actually is.

How to get in touch with Jason

If you have questions for Jason you can contact him via Twitter @JasonFried.

Kent McDonald
kentjmcdonald@gmail.com

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has IT and product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent currently practices his craft for a leading agriscience company and provides just in time resources for product owners and business analysts at KBP.media and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.