Basecamp and Leadership

So, Basecamp announced some internal changes this week for how they are going to run their company.

Over the years, Basecamp has built up a reputation for resisting some of the hustle culture associated with so many startups, and for working smarter, not harder. Among other things, they invented Ruby on Rails, they have been big proponents of remote work since long before the COVID pandemic, and being incredibly transparent with the world about how they operate, selling books and workshops about how they work, and even sharing policy changes on their blogs.

Which brings us to Jason’s post this week.

His bullet points (parenthesized parts are mine):

  • No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account
  • No more paternalistic benefits (referring to some of the allowances they offered for fitness and wellness and buying from farmer’s markets)
  • No more committees (which includes shuttering a recently spun-up DEI committee)
  • No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions
  • No more 360 reviews
  • No forgetting what we do here

It gives off some serious white dude entrepreneur energy.

These are fucking stupid decisions. Some are even contradictory. For instance, if you’re getting rid of benefits because they’re paternalistic, why would you add a policy as paternalistic as “you can’t talk politics at work”?

Twitter has weighed in on these and has articulated the issues better than I could have:

This has prompted Basecamp employees to speak up as well. Jane Yang posted about the struggles of David and Jason’s reluctance to get on board with protecting Basecamp’s most vulnerable users, and their disappointing retreat into making decisions unilaterally for the entire company. The employees that put on Basecamp’s Rework podcast put out a somber message announcing they are putting the podcast on hiatus (a disappointment given that Rework routinely features businesses that are challenging the status quo of traditional ways businesses are run and govern themselves).

Ironically, if Jason and David had a committee filled with diverse people who were empowered with making decisions of this nature for the company, this committee likely would have pushed them to understand the folly of their reasoning.

Instead, they have doubled down on this decision. DHH posted a follow-up of sorts that seems to imply that the issue isn’t that his decision is bad, but that there was nuance to how it was announced that we must have missed out on.

And I’m sure there are plenty of other white dudes that feel that Jason and David should stay the course (case in point), and plenty are likening this to a Twitter mob to try to paint it as a frivolous thing that the public gets up in arms over for a minute (another case in point, also from John Gruber). This isn’t a Twitter “hate machine;” it’s the public very quickly coming to terms with the fact that two revered leaders in the community have revealed themselves to have some really toxic characteristics and they’re holding Jason and David accountable for it.

This is where I had several paragraphs about how its time for companies to start being leaders and start actually taking stances on social issues (I’ll write about that later I guess!) but actually, it turned out there was more to this story: these policy changes appear to be in response to a lot of internal push from employees after it was discovered that employees were circulating a list of customer names they thought were funny (source: The Verge).

And that’s where the decision went from seeming somewhat boneheaded to demonstrating full-on terrible leadership on Jason and David’s part, and this is being confirmed by multiple Basecamp employees. The sting is greater given how Basecamp have painted themselves as leaders in terms of how they run their business. David especially has been a vocal critic of Big Tech, even going so far as to publicly decry Jeff Bezos, who actually co-owns Basecamp with them.

But now that the shoe’s on the other foot, David and Jason are behaving pretty much exactly like the kinds of people they insisted they didn’t want to be.

I’m pretty sure Jason and David might be too far gone at this point on the matter, and they seem to want to keep digging their heels on the issue. To that effect, I feel for the Basecamp employees that are probably having a really bad week at work and are faced with a pretty ugly decision.

Bring this up in your next 1–1 with your boss. Let them know this isn’t acceptable and that you expect far better from your company. Make sure your boss understands the importance of meaningfully being able to bring your whole self to work, and make sure your boss understands the weight that comes with a white founder weighing in on a serious issue and being dismissive of the idea that there might be some racism behind it.

And although the overwhelming sentiment on my Twitter feed is one of disappointment toward Basecamp’s founders, I’m keeping a close eye on the people who quietly (or not-so-quietly) are cheering on this decision and think it’s a refreshing change of pace. Because I’m seriously worried that the people in tech with power are walking away from this incident with the entirely wrong message.