JASON FRIED is the co-founder and CEO of Basecamp (previously 37signals), a Chicago-based software firm. The company’s flagship product, Basecamp, is a project management and team communication application trusted by millions. He is the co-author of Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application, which is available for free at gettingreal.37signals.com. He is also the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Rework and Remote: Office Not Required. Jason writes a regular column for Inc. magazine and is a frequent contributor to Basecamp’s popular blog, Signal v. Noise, which offers “strong opinions and shared thoughts on design, business, and tech.”
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
I think this one’s out of print, but I always tell people to find it and read it: Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger by Peter Bevelin. I think any book that reviews Charlie Munger’s ideas is worth reading, and this one in particular weaves in wisdom from some of history’s greatest minds. It’s a bit meandering and loose, but that’s fine with me.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Way back in the ’90s, when I was getting started as a web designer, I sent my work into an awards site called HighFive.com. At the time, it was the shit. If you were awarded a High Five award, you were recognized.
Now . . . I sent my stuff in, and David Siegel, the guy who ran it, emailed me back. I don’t have the original email anymore, but basically he told me I sucked, I had no business being in the web design business, and that I should never email him again.
That rejection filled me with so much fire. Not anger. Not resentment. Not disappointment. But fire. Fire to kick ass and prove his impression wrong.
I loved the rejection. It made me.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why? Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
One of these quotes:
“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in the dark with a mosquito.”—Betty Reese
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”—Eric Hoffer
“The fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”—John Rawls
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.”—Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut
“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”—Warren Buffett
“Everybody is somebody, but nobody wants to be themselves.”—Gnarls Barkley
“Life does not ask what we want. It presents us with options.”—Thomas Sowell
“Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.”—George S. Patton
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”—Theodore Roosevelt
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”—Henry David Thoreau
“Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.”—Warren Buffett
“The hole and the patch should be commensurate.”—Thomas Jefferson
“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”—Bertrand Russell
“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible.”—Javier Pascual Salcedo
“It is very important what not to do.”—Iggy Pop
“Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches.”—Andy Warhol
“Knowledge is the beginning of practice; doing is the completion of knowing.”—Wang Yangming
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”—Peter Drucker
“In the hopes of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet.”—Albert Schweitzer
“Our fears are always more numerous than our dangers.”—Seneca the Younger
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”—Harry Truman
“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”—Howard H. Aiken
“Don’t hire a dog, then bark yourself.”—David Ogilvy
“All good work is done in defiance of management.”—Bob Woodward
“Put one dumb foot in front of the other and course correct as you go.”—Barry Diller
“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”—Oscar Wilde
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”—John Gall
“Whenever there is a hard job to be done, I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it.”—Walter Chrysler
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”—William Bruce Cameron
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”—Mahatma Gandhi
“Most of the wonderful places in the world were not made by architects but by the people.”—Christopher Alexander
“I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment. They are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post: for support, rather than for illumination.”—David Ogilvy
“Lose an hour in the morning, chase it all day.”—a Yiddish saying, author unknown
“Communication usually fails, except by accident.”—Osmo Wiio
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
Every time I’ve given without any expectation of return. Money, time, energy, whatever. Whenever I’ve expected something in return, the investment was stunted. Whenever I’ve given purely for giving, for helping, for supporting, for aiding, for encouraging—with zero expectation or interest in any return whatsoever—it’s been thoroughly fulfilling.
Most recently, my friend Krys was opening his own personal training gym. He’d just left his father’s business, money was tight, and he was taking a big risk. I had full faith in him, I knew he would be great at it, and I wanted to remove some worry for him. So I paid his first year’s rent for him. No equity, no payback, no financial interest at all. It was just a gift. His business is thriving and it’s such a pleasure to see him and his young family (wife and two kids) so happy. I couldn’t be more thrilled for them.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I started working out twice a week versus three times. Small change, but something great happens when you work out less: you realize that you have to eat better, sleep better, and live better on your off days. Working out more frequently can cover up bad habits, but when you work out less frequently, everything else matters more. That really helps me make better decisions about how I take care of my health.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
Focus on your writing skills. It’s the one thing I’ve found that really helps people stand out. More and more communication is written today. Get great at presenting yourself with words, and words alone, and you’ll be far ahead of most.
Also, most of the stuff you’ll worry about doesn’t matter anyway. You’ll sweat so many details that no one will care about. It’s not that details don’t matter—they do—but only the right details matter. Pay close attention to what you’re spending your time on.
Time and attention are very different things. They’re your most precious resources moving forward. Just like you walk through the air and you swim through the water, you work through your attention. It’s the medium of work. While people often say there’s not enough time, remember that you’ll always have less attention than time. Full attention is where you do your best work, and everyone’s going to be looking to rip it from you. Protect and preserve it.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
There are so many. “Scale.” No, don’t scale. Start small, stay as small as possible for as long as possible. Grow in control, not out of control.
“Raise capital to launch a software/services business.” No, bootstrap. As in life, we form business habits early on. If you raise money, you’ll get good at spending money. If you bootstrap, you’ll be forced to get good at making money. If there’s one habit/skill an entrepreneur should practice, it’s making money. So force yourself into it.
“Fail early, and fail often.” No. What’s with the failure fetish in our industry? I don’t get it. Of course, most businesses don’t make it, but the idea that failure is a prerequisite for success has never made sense to me. I don’t think it’s a notch in the belt. It’s just a failure. Further, many people will tell you there’s a lot to learn from failure. Maybe . . . But there’s more to learn from success. Failure may tell you what not to do again, but it doesn’t help you figure out what to do the next time around. I’d rather focus on the things that work, and try those again, than try to take lessons from the things that didn’t.
There are really so many. I could go on and on and on . . .
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I’ve always been pretty good at saying no, but over the last couple of years I’ve come up with a new rule. If the ask is more than a week away, I almost always say no, regardless of what is it. Exceptions include family things I need to attend, and a conference or two I really want to speak at, but other than that, if the “yes” would tie me to something further than a week or so out, it’s almost always a no.
I keep it simple and direct. Unless there are special circumstances, I always explain why and say something like, “Thanks for the invitation, but I just can’t commit to anything more than a day or so in advance. I need to keep my schedule open for me and the people I work with on a regular basis. Best bet is to hit me up a day or two before you wanted to get together. If I’m available we can set up a time.”
This is loosely modeled on Warren Buffet’s purported “can I get a meeting with Warren” policy, as I wrote about on Signal v. Noise.
I’ve simply realized that the further out the yes, the more I regret the moment when it comes due. Because there’s no cost now, it’s simply too easy to say yes about something deep in the future. Further, a future “yes” ultimately means that the past controls your schedule. By the time you get around to later, your calendar is already filled with prior engagements. That limits what’s possible in the moment. Few things bother me more than wanting to actually say yes to something today but being blocked by a previous yes I said weeks or months ago.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I go for a walk. Preferably on a route I’ve never taken before. If it’s a routine route, I tend to ignore the surroundings and slip back into thinking about the stuff I’m unfocused on. But if it’s a new route, I focus outward and my mind clears up quickly. Seems like it has to be about 30 minutes or more to really do the job, but nothing refreshes me like walking in a new direction, toward something or somewhere I haven’t headed before.