Basecamp is a web-based project management tool, and like so many other software tools and startups before it, the creators of Basecamp made it for themselves. They just needed a decent way to manage projects and collaborations. It just happens that other people want to use it to.
The company now known as Basecamp was founded 17 years ago by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim. Originally called 37signals and involved with various types of web design and development—including products like Campfire as well as what became Ruby on Rails—they eventually shifted their focus to their namesake product, Basecamp.
Jason Fried, CEO, keeps things pretty simple as he runs the company. No real to-do lists, no multiple monitors, no alarm clock. Just a clear focus during the day so that the work doesn’t encroach upon the boundaries of daily life. Here’s how he works.
Location: Chicago, IL
Current Gig: Founder and CEO of Basecamp
One word that best describes how you work: Calmly
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook 12″
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and was a pretty crappy student. I loved learning, but school never interested me.
Some time in the late ‘80s, my next-door neighbor got this weird thing called a Macintosh SE. He called me over to check it out. First thing I ever saw on it was this flight simulator and it completely blew me away. The graphics were so sharp. Black and white, but sharp sharp sharp. I was floored.
I went home and asked my parents for a computer. They asked me to put together a pitch… Why did I want a computer? So I wrote up 100 reasons (quite repetitive reasons, I’m sure), but my effort was convincing enough. So we bought one. It was an SE/30 at that point.
A few years later I had a big music collection—tapes, mostly, but some CDs, as well. I was loaning them out to friends, but I never got them back. Worse, I forgot to whom I loaned them out, so it was really my fault. Around this time we got an AOL account. Dial-up modem days. And I started looking around for software to organize my music collection. I didn’t find anything I liked that appealed to me. So I set out to figure out how to make my own.
I found FileMaker Pro and learned that. Then I made a music-organizing database for myself. What was really cool about FileMaker was that you could design your own graphical interfaces around the standard database elements. So this is where I got my start designing graphical UIs. So I made my own music collection database thing. I ended up calling it “Audiofile” and uploading it to AOL. I asked people to pay me $20 if they liked it and listed my parents’ home address for where they should send the check.
That summer I got an envelope from Germany (I think). It was an airmail envelope—one with the blue and red checks around the edges. So fancy! I didn’t know anyone in Germany, so I opened it up with great anticipation. Inside was a print out of the order form I included with Audiofile and a crispy $20 bill. SOMEONE BOUGHT THIS THING I MADE FOR MYSELF!
And that was how my software business started. The last 20 years have been based on that experience. And today, Basecamp is the same thing—it’s a product we make for ourselves that we sell to other people. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems we have. It’s hard to organize teams, hard to communicate companywide, hard to keep projects on track and people on the same page. Basecamp!
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
Here’s a boring, but meaningful one for me… I’ve really come to enjoy Instagram. I use it differently than most though. For me it’s an educational platform. I’m really into collecting vintage watches, and there’s a vibrant vintage watch community on Instagram. I’ve learned a ton from seeing so many different watches in such a short period of time. I can’t imagine how I’d have ever learned so much so quickly any other way. I’ve also met some really wonderful people this way.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I work half from home and half from our office. At work we have standing desks. At home I work from a table, but I can also shift to working on one of the shelves on a deep bookcase that’s perfect for standing height.
I’m a one-computer guy—a 12″ MacBook, so I can work from anywhere. Years ago I used multiple monitors and had multiple computers. Then I jettisoned multiple computers but kept the multiple monitor setup. And a few years ago I tossed out the second monitor and have been a single computer, single screen person since then. I go full screen on nearly every app. I also hide my dock. I don’t want anything pulling my attention away. When I’m curious I’ll look. Otherwise, I’m looking at what I want, not what someone else might want me to see.
I can’t stress this enough—protect your attention like you protect your friends, family, money, etc. It’s among the most valuable things you have.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Saying no. Techniques and hacks are all about managing what happens when you say yes to too many things. All the techniques and hacks in the world never add up to the power of no. Having fewer things to do is the best way to get things done. I’m very careful with my time and attention—it’s my most precious resource. If you don’t have that, you can’t do what you want to do. And if you can’t do what you want to do, what’s the point?
What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I don’t track to-dos. I have a small handful of things I know I need to do every day. If I can’t keep them in my head, I have too many things to do. Every day is a blank slate for what I need to do. If something I was supposed to get done yesterday didn’t get done yesterday, it’s not automatically on my mind for today. Today’s mind is a clear mind, not yesterday’s remnants.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
I’m a vintage watch nerd, so I feel naked without an old watch on my wrist. We live in such a temporary culture that it’s nice to be reminded multiple times a day that things can be built to last. Right now I’m wearing an old Longines dive watch from the ‘60s. It’s nearly 60 years old, and it still works. And should for the next 60 years. That’s saying something.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I’d like to think it’s making a great cup of Japanese green tea. Certainly there are people who do it better, but most people either boil the water too hot, steep the tea too long, or use crap tea that tastes bitter and turns people off of tea. The proper amount of Japanese sencha at around 170 degrees, steeped in the right amount of water in the right vessel for about 45 seconds without agitation, is really a delight. I’ll make you one.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favorite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
I have to have some sound in the background, but the more I can tune it out the better. Can’t be people talking, because then I listen to the conversation. Music, white noise, a loud air conditioner, something. I have tinnitus (my ears ring), so whatever I can do to drown that out, without being interrupted otherwise, is key. Lately I’ve just been playing random playlists on Spotify to broaden my horizons a bit. If left to my own devices, I’d play bebop-era jazz just about all the time.
What are you currently reading? A novel, comic book, website, magazine? Or what’s something you’d recommend?
My favorite site to read these days is HODINKEE.com, a site about watches. I’m into the subject matter, but the writing is really top notch. Jack Forster, the editor-in-chief over there, is one of the best writers anywhere. Deep knowledge made accessible. Poetic, fun, a real gymnast with words. There’s great rhythm in his writing. The guy respects writing and it comes through in everything he does. Highly recommended, even if you aren’t into watches.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
It’s easy for me to forget about work. I work about 40 hours a week, and I strongly encourage everyone at Basecamp to do the same. Forty hours is enough when you actually have 40 hours to use for your work, versus showing up for 40 or 50 or 60+ but only having 15 or 20 to yourself. When I’m done, I’m done. Some ideas linger—stuff I’m chewing on, ideas I’m rolling around—but those happen in the background. They aren’t active work.
I have dinner with my wife, not my work. I go to sleep with my wife, not my work. First thing in the morning, I get my kid, not my work. When it’s time to work, I focus. But when it’s over, it’s gotta go. But when I do need to recharge, I hit nature—the woods, botanical gardens, anywhere I can take a walk around something green.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
~8 hours a night. Neglecting sleep is a terrible mistake. It’s the one debt you can never pay off, and it affects everyone around you, too. I go to sleep around 10ish, and get up around 6ish—either to the sun or to my son. I used to go to bed a bit later and sleep until 7:30 or so, but since having a kid (he’s 2ish now), he’s the alarm clock. Since he’s getting up around 6ish these days, I make sure I’m in bed about 8 hours earlier. As far as an actual alarm clock—I haven’t used one in 10 years. I never schedule anything that would require me to be up before my natural wake-up time, so I just get up naturally. Forcing yourself awake at an arbitrary time is a good way to have a shitty morning.
For a while I was using a wristband thing that would wake you up within a window based on body movement and that was pretty good, but I still prefer getting up when my eyes open and I’m ready to get out of bed. It’s always early enough anyway.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
A 10-year-old (with the word ‘work’ removed from some of the questions).
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve received so much great advice from so many great people, but one that comes up over and over for me is something my dad told me: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Such a simple rule. If you want something, ask for it. If you want someone to buy something you’re selling, ask them to buy it. If you want someone’s help in spreading the word, ask them to spread the word. The worst thing isn’t that they say no—the worst thing is that they would have done something for you if you’d only asked.
While I’m on the topic of dad advice, another one he shared with me that always sticks with me is, “No one ever went broke taking a profit.” That’s core to how we run our business. Basecamp has been in business for 17 years, and profitable all 17.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
How about this… What do readers want to know? Let’s compile 100 questions and I’ll answer all 100 in a single shot for a future article.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Andy.