The Basecamp Saga: An end of an era

The Basecamp saga continues

And at this point, it's gained enough material to show that there's a split in company styles coming. But before I get into that, let's lay down the timeline because I feel like this entire thing is at the end game. Severance packages have been offered by David and Jason, and this means that there's no going back from now. Overall, despite some blow back, my observation is that there's not enough to cause Basecamp and Hey Mail any concern. They'll probably have a dip, myself included, and then business will continue as usual. Jason was not a huge public figure in any case so he'll live his life. David will probably find himself uninvited from some podcasts for a while and every Twitter post of his will have angry replies for some time. But beyond that, I think he'll continue as normal within a month or so. I really wouldn't be surprised if that's how everything plays out.

All that said, in the heat of this moment, I found myself asking: "Why do I care so much? Why am I so upset??". And after much reflection, I think I have my answer as well as a feeling of what I need to be optimistic about. But first, the timeline!

The timeline

If you are already aware of the timeline all the way up to David's post today, feel free to skip down to the the section of why this matters so much. I've included my commentary on the timeline though so maybe just skip the quotes

Let's begin with the blog post that started it all.

Jason makes the first announcement detailing policy changes around how Basecamp works. Where Jason Fried announces that they are doing away with any kind of political activism in the company that isn't related to how the company makes money:

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.

On the same day, David follows up with his own thoughts on why this policy makes sense

Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.

By trying to have the debates around such incredibly sensitive societal politics inside the company, we're setting ourselves up for strife, with little chance of actually changing anyone's mind.

Next, Basecamp, as a company, is no longer going to weigh-in publicly on societal political affairs, outside those that directly connect to the business. Again, everyone can individually weigh-in as much or as little as they want, but we're done with posts that present a Basecamp stance on such issues.

At this point, many people in Basecamp voiced their disappointment. You can find more happening on the Basecamp Twitter list too.

Next day, David and Jason each roll out their own posts. Jason's talks about decision making and how reacting quickly to the reactions around a decision is unproductive. His core idea? Decisions should be allowed to play out before revisiting them.

When the complications around the concern have cleared, how will it feel? That's how I find peace in making decisions today. The outcome comes along, it's rarely here now.

Interestingly, it stands in contrast to his first post:

4. No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions. .... It's time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.

And David's post is about how people can have a myriad of opinions that places them in differently perceived political "tribes".

We all have our own red lines. Positions we find so beyond the pale that they're instant deal breakers. Good, fine, break those deals. But the more lines you accumulate, the more cross you're going to get.

And then came a pretty damning post from Casey Newton on his Platformer newsletter. According to the report, all this furor had mostly stemmed from the discussion of a "funny customer names" list that had been created a long time ago and had been re-discovered. The list apparently made fun of how people's names sounded and this included people from minority communities. This led to some debate around why this kind of list is an issue and eventually, David replied. He accepted responsibility for not stopping this when he and Jason knew about it. But he also went on to disagree with the framing of the issue and wanted to treat it as just a bad company practice and nothing inherently racist/politically connected.

Employees say the founders’ memos unfairly depicted their workplace as being riven by partisan politics, when in fact the main source of the discussion had always been Basecamp itself.

“At least in my experience, it has always been centered on what is happening at Basecamp,” said one employee — who, like most of those I spoke with today, requested anonymity so as to freely discuss internal deliberations. “What is being done at Basecamp? What is being said at Basecamp? And how it is affecting individuals? It has never been big political discussions, like ‘the postal service should be disbanded,’ or ‘I don’t like Amy Klobuchar.’

Employees took a different view. In a response to Hansson’s post, one employee noted that the way we treat names — especially foreign names — is deeply connected to social and racial hierarchies. Just a few weeks earlier, eight people had been killed in a shooting spree in Atlanta. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent, and their names had sometimes been mangled in press reports.

Hansson’s response to this employee took aback many of the workers I spoke with. He dug through old chat logs to find a time when the employee in question participated in a discussion about a customer with a funny-sounding name. Hansson posted the message — visible to the entire company — and dismissed the substance of the employee’s complaint.

Two other employees were sufficiently concerned by the public dressing-down of a colleague that they filed complaints with Basecamp’s human resources officer. (HR declined to take action against the company co-founder.)

Less than two weeks later, Fried announced the new company policies.

Parallel to this Jane Yang, an employee of Buffer, wrote an open letter to David and Jason

there were also some yellow flags. Whiffs of smoke that I was starting to pick up on. Your disproportionate, chilling response to a retrospective that you asked for. The whispers of how you had handled a prior company discussion when someone raised the able-ist language in the title of a recently published company book. The continued mourning years later of an executive who had centered the employees as her job, and then was summarily fired for not living up to the additional expectations of working miracles in marketing.

Jason and David, I believe that your recent company policy changes are both terrible and redeemable. But to be redeemable, you first must recognize that you are a BIG part of the problem. That you too perpetrate the myth that some people deserve to oppress and repress others. Once you hold yourselves publicly self-accountable, then the next step is transparency. Show us all the warts along with the unblemished skin. And from there, we can go about healing Basecamp.

There's so much more in there. It's a rough one to read and ponder about. Espcially if like me, you've had a rosier picture of the internals of Basecamp in your head.

And now, to wrap it all up, David release a final-ish blog post a short while ago. In it, he decides to go all out on sharing what his responses were on the internal basecamp and why he believes that the employees participating in these discussions were the problem. There's a lot more nuance in that post, but at the same time it shows itself in an honest and straightforward way:

I've read some opinions on all of this that charge that facilitating these kinds of discussions, however acrimonious or uncomfortable or unresolved, is actually good, because a lot of life right now is acrimonious, uncomfortable, and unresolved, so work should reflect that. I can't get behind those arguments. As I wrote in the segment posted from our internal announcement of the changes, all of that, inasmuch as it does not directly relate to the business, is already so much of everyone's lives all the time on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever. Demanding that it also has to play out in our shared workspaces isn't going to lead anywhere good, in my opinion.

The last 2 sentences tell so much about privilege and power. For individuals in a majority position of power, thinking about social challenges really is limited to just Twitter and Facebook and "outside work". To them, conversations about their "hard edges" are cute intellectual debates. Not angry raw emotional pleading to be treated with equity which is what minorities who don't feel heard have to go through constantly.

deep breath

That's the timeline.

Why care this much?

I found myself asking this question ever since this drama (debacle?) started. I'm not an employee of Basecamp. I work a great job at Buffer. Why should I care so much? Why do so many of us care so much? Before I share what my answer to that is, I do want to acknowledge some points in David's post. I think it's impossible to move the discussion forward without first addressing a couple of core ideas there.

If you do indeed strive to have a diverse workforce both ideologically and identity wise, you're not going to find unison on all these difficult, contentious issues. If you did, you'd both be revealing an intellectual monoculture and we wouldn't be having these acrimonious debates.

This is the first main idea that David presents as why they needed to make this decision. And honestly, I agree with some of it although I think the wording sets up a straw man of sorts. I've argued for trans rights with people who disagreed and it hasn't turned acrimonious. It's been healthy and educational. And on the flip side, I personally was not always someone who understood the issues that women faced in the workplace. Yet it was early workplace conversations and observations that led me to being educated on the topic. More recently, at Buffer I've gained so many new insights and my position has shifted on arguments without ever going through acrimonious debates.

The problem here is this assumption that people with differing "hard edges" are destined to only have acrimonious debates. I personally believe this would reveal a lot more about the people involved. People like David for example. Acrimonious tends to happen when people in majority groups believe that they have the understanding to dismiss the experiences and ideas of minority groups.

Kind of like how David dismissed the idea that the "funny names" list could have any connection to the pyramid of hate. This is despite him tacitly acknowledging the truth behind it in his own comments at Basecamp:

Today, in 2021, I'd like to believe that many people would have raised concerns about this list, if it had come to their attention. Because times have changed. Sensibilities have changed. Awareness has changed.

Those sensibilities didn't change out of nowhere. We got here by creating frameworks and pedagogy for minority groups to express how oppression creeps up on them. Like the Pyramid of Hate. You can't say that sensibilities have changed and that in 2021, the list would have been viewed very differently and then say "but this list is just some silly corporate junk with no connection to larger arguments". It's a contradiction. But David doesn't see that. David blew past it and in many ways, David started the fire for an "acrimonious debate". The only hard edge that clashed here was whether or not David wanted to listen.

And then David goes on

So if that is something you want, I continue to believe that a diverse workforce should be something that you want, you have to consider what guardrails to put on the internal discourse. My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry. Not to repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ.

This is the second part of David's argument. It's based off the strawman that differing opinions must lead to bad faith arguments. And it introduces a new strawman: That people somehow repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ. I'm sorry, that's really not how it works. It's a bad faith argument that paints the employees of Basecamp as a bunch who would only bicker if not for the guiding hand of their benevolent leaders. But let's assume for a moment that that's true. The question then is how do you even get there? It's not the employees who are at fault, it's the leaders. And if that's the case, the leaders don't get to say "we don't want this" and shut everything down.

And this right here, is the crux of where the disappointment in David and Jason kicks in.

David asks the valid question, strawman phrasing aside: If you want to have a workplace with diverse opinions, how do you manage it when conversations become difficult from time to time between groups of people with opposing views?

That's a hard question and if anyone says they have an immediate answer to this one, I'd love to hear it. If your answer is "stop these conversations completely" though, I really don't want to hear that. But that's the thing. Running a business is hard. Leading a group of people is hard. And every year, new challenges are added to this enormous task. And at this point, it feels like David and Jason effectively decided that they are tired of it and they'd rather run things the way they have from the start.

Why it matters so much to me

The thing is, when I think back a decade, I think of what business practices looked like then. What was accepted as the only right way back then? What were things that people said "ohhh no you have to run a business this way". I can think of a few:

  • work hours must be longer than 40 hours a week to succeed
  • You need VC to build a startup. Lifestyle business is a pipe dream
  • Your business needs to capture markets in a zero sum game.
  • You need to be next to the people you work with in order to be productive
  • More money, always growing larger companies. That's the right way to build a business

These were all operating norms when I entered the workforce a decade ago. Operating norms that I faced personally. You know who didn't think this was normal? Basecamp. David and Jason.

David and Jason pushed hard against these normal operating ideas and said "here's a better way to build a business". They looked the tech industry in the eyes and challenged it with fresh ideas. And the impact of it is real. In many ways, the rise of the indie hacker movement has some roots in Basecamp's advocacy to run a business with the simple model of charging money and being profitable. On the Indie Hackers podcast it's not uncommon to heard Basecamp/David/Jason being mentioned as inspiration.

And I was one of the people impacted. When I started working I fought with conviction to create better workplaces based off the ideas that the book Rework had inspired. My first managerial role saw me making it a priority to ensure that everyone could go back home by 5 PM. And I didn't just end up in remote by accident. Basecamp was a key influence early in my career and I placed bets as early as 2010 that I'd eventually become a remote worker.

So when I think of David and Jason and Basecamp, I don't just see a business that builds a project management tool. I see people who helped shape entire parts of an industry by challenging the status quo and by pushing back against what was considered sensible operating standards. Right up into 2021, Basecamp was pushing boundaries with their latest being standing up to monopolies and their financial bullying. How can you not be invigorated by the work? And that's why I care so much. Because suddenly, these people who helped shape so much of my world view have chosen to take up a position that I cannot relate to at all. And that's jarring.

But new hopes dawn

So here we are now in 2021, and it looks like this is as far as David and Jason go in the kind of thought leadership they've pushed so far. As much as we would have hoped this day didn't come, we have to accept that it's here and that the world of companies has changed more than David and Jason can. Which means it's time to lay the idea of them as champions of sort to rest. It's time to look elsewhere for inspiration. Someone is going to come along and write "the book" that helps define another decade of doing business a "better way" and it's not going to be David or Jason. It's going to be someone who pushes for building businesses that think beyond just the standard day to day operational work and more about the relationship that company and its people have with the world around it.

It sucks that it has to be this way though. Ultimately, in the bigger picture, this is a small event. But it still carries this feeling that we are at crossroads in the future of businesses. A friend of mine at Buffer expressed it beautifully.

I suppose it comes down to the role we want workplaces to play within our society.

Do we treat employees as resources that simply contribute to the growth of the fictional entity that a company is so we can all "make a living" and accumulate wealth.

Or do we treat workplaces to be part of the civil society where a group of people with shared vision and mission, come together to learn from one another, to lift up one another, and to ultimately contribute to the larger world in a positive way.

Even if my answer is yes! to the second, I can think of people who would answer "first please!". More power to them. But to me, that's going to be the older way of running a business. It's going to be similar to the ideas I pushed against a long time ago when I first started working. Moving towards the second type of business is going to be tough. It's going to be pushed back against. But eventually it'll likely become "a better way to work". And I can't wait to see who carries this torch in the future.

I for one, welcome the next generation

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Posted on April 28 2021 by Adnan Issadeen