Holding meetings and speaking jargon – two wastes of time: A day in the life of Basecamp CEO Jason Fried

Jason Fried doesn’t do alarm clocks. Hasn’t done for years and years. He lives about three miles from Basecamp’s Washington Boulevard, Chicago address and says that he doesn’t need any help in waking up in time for work.

There’s isn’t a clock beside his bed to confirm the time when sunlight wakes him up.

“I wake to light, around 6.30am, and get up when the sun comes up. I think that’s a good time to start the day. If it’s good enough for the sun, it’s good enough for me,” he says.

Over a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal and Greek yoghurt, he’ll decide where he’s most likely to get an uninterrupted stretch of time, ideally two to three hours. That’s when he does his best work. It’s always been the case.

If he reckons he’ll get those hours at Basecamp HQ, great. If not he’ll stay at home and work remotely. He says that the company’s flexibility in this regard is one of the best things about working there.

After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in finance in 1996, he spent time working as a freelance web designer before co-founding Basecamp – then called 37signals – in 1999. It was the result of a realisation that he had to “run his own thing”.  

The years spent as a web designer left a mark on Jason. He hates meetings.

What am I doing here?

“When I used to do work for hire, I would have to sit in meetings with clients. They all seemed to last about an hour. Very little information was actually exchanged.

“Everyone would just go around the room and have their say. I would be staring at the wall thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ I had one too many of those moments and realised that meetings aren’t worth it,” says Jason.

A typical day in Basecamp will see zero meetings. Jason says that cutting meetings from the office’s daily schedule gives employees back roughly five to eight hours a week. A whole extra day.

He says that if you’re struggling to get great work done in a 40-hour week, don’t make the mistake of adding in extra hours and staying late. Take a look at what’s sucking up your time.

That said, Jason makes a clear distinction between collaborating with others and just meeting for the sake of having a meeting.

“Working on something with somebody else, looking at a problem and working through it together, is a really exciting moment. That to me is not a meeting,” he says.

Basecamp help you cut down on meetings and actually get things done

There’s no such thing as privilege

Jason has outlined his feelings on meetings in a Ted Talk called ‘Why work doesn’t happen in work’, in which he also called out managers as productivity killers in the office. They’re the ones who typically call meetings after all.

If his early experiences of enduring pointless meetings inform his current no-meetings policy, Jason’s early bosses equally influence how he manages his team. He’s written about his reluctance to be treated like ‘the boss’, and how he doesn’t feel his opinion should be given more weight by mere virtue of his job title.

It all started in Shelby’s shoe store, just outside Chicago.

“I had one manager, a guy called Greg, who was wonderful. He gave us a lot of freedom and he trusted us to make good decisions.

“I never felt like he was breathing down my neck. I always worked better for people who clearly trusted me and who wanted me to do great work,” says Jason.

Jason’s early experiences as an employee taught him how to treat employees; he wants to treat them the same way he liked to be treated. There are no private offices at Basecamp; no special spaces for high-ranking employees. Everyone’s desk is the same. Everyone works the same way.

“It’s the fairest way of doing things and it sends the right message. Nobody is different or special or has privileges others don’t have. The more egalitarian the environment the better,” says Jason.

No offices – nice mural though

There was no romance – it was pure demand

Despite the talk of egalitarianism, fairness and efforts to chop down unearned workplace privilege, Jason is pragmatic on his reasons for launching Basecamp. He’s no idealist.

It grew from web design shop 37signals, a company that Jason co-founded with Carlos Segura and Ernest Kim. They needed a project management tool that would allow them to present work to clients and get their feedback on record. There was no such tool.

“It wasn’t born out of some romantic notion of what a business should be. It was pure demand for a utility that didn’t exist. So we went off and built it.

“As we were using it with customers, it became clear that there was a product there,” says Jason.

Basecamp was launched to the public in 2004 and a year later it was bringing in more business for 37signals than web design. The decision was made to focus solely on Basecamp in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the company rebranded as such.

It was a solution. Jason says that he’s always enjoyed problem solving and that, for him, that’s what product design is: hundreds and thousands of problems to solve.

He still gets excited about product work and thinking through customer experiences, and wishes he could spend more time on both. Day to day, it’s just not really possible.

As a CEO he has to deal with staff issues, personalities, conflicts and “legal and accounting stuff”. He’s not a fan. He’s also subjected to jargon.

Stop saying growth hacking

Jason particularly doesn’t like the term ‘growth hacking’ – it’s his least favourite piece of jargon (which is saying something) and he considers it a manipulative term.

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell more product, it’s just the jargon of it: ‘growth hacking’.

“Like you’re trying to get people to buy things by ‘hacking’ them with a little bit of trickery, a little bit of deception. I don’t find that to be a very noble pursuit,” he says.

If you’re going to use language like that when reaching out to contacting him, don’t bother – you’re wasting your time. He says that as soon he gets a mail with those kind of words in it, he just thinks, “Delete, delete.”

“I won’t read it. If that’s how you communicate, there’s no point even continuing. It’s about respect. If you’re just going to throw jargon at me, you’re not actually trying to talk to me. You’re trying to talk over me.

“It’s not worth my time. We all have limited attention spans. I’m not going to spend my attention on someone who speaks that way. It’s not interesting to me,” he says.

His attention is best caught at night. “I feel at I’m most productive and most creative when it’s dark outside,” he says.  

You won’t find him in the Basecamp office as night falls however. He leaves at a normal time – 5.30pm – and always does his best to get a full eight hours of sleep in. It’s biological.

“A lot of the time people in the tech industry think they can do superhuman things. You just can’t. You’re a human being,” he says.

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