It’s About Time: A Look Inside Basecamp’s Culture 

Most of us don’t use our time very well. That in and of itself has become a crime. The systems we adopt to convince ourselves we are winning the time battle are mere illusion. The technology we use is a crutch. The apps are merely a Band-Aid. The New Year’s resolutions become forgotten. To improve your ability to lead, you must come clean. Time is the enemy. And you’re sleeping with the enemy every single day.

We feel chronically overwhelmed. “I’m just so busy,” we say to anyone who dares to ask how we’re doing. If you’re hip, you call it “cray cray busy.” Simultaneously, we’re texting our boss. Our answer to the “How are you doing?” question is delivered with a lack of feeling usually reserved for epidurals. 

Ultimately our mis-management of time has reached epic heights, the point at which it’s detrimentally affecting our ability to lead self and others.

To counter the problem, we read a hopeful article about constructive use of time or attend a workshop on time management. We commit to change, but then fall back into the same time trap. Later we watch an inspiring TED Talk. It gives us a motivational jolt, but we remain blinded by the time light. We buy a fancy time-management Moleskine. It sits on the shelf collecting dust next to your copy of The 4-Hour Workweek.

It’s the term “time management” that produces a bitter irony. Time adultery, perhaps. So whom should we look to blame?

Should We Blame Ourselves?

In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates full-time employees work nearly nine hours a day. The daily hours spent at work have been on the rise since the 1970s. What happened to the eight-hour workday, let alone the four-hour workweek? Like a sandcastle that got built when the tide was out, our intended structure is annihilated when the water comes in.

Worse, according to Glassdoor, full-time employees in the United States take less than half of their allotted vacation time. On top of that, two-thirds of them admit to working while on holiday. 

Commuting tells a story, too. In the United States, commute times have risen from a one-way average of 21 minutes in 1980 to nearly27 minutes today. That’s nearly 30% higher. It’s no better in Tokyo, where one-way commute times average 49  minutes. Across the whole of Germany, it’s 60 minutes. Thus, commuting has become a global issue.

Time management isn’t the answer, however. That type of thinking is a boatload of balderdash. You can’t manage time, because time is a constant. There are 168 hours every week. Deal with it. Get over it. 

You can, however, manage your behavior as it relates to time. Behavior change is the key. Being in the moment, mindful, and focused is critical to leading self and others. I call it the ability to stay present.

The Story of Basecamp

Which is why the story of Basecamp is so intriguing. Basecamp is an online project management tool. It originated out of necessity. In 1999, Jason Fried founded a web-design company called 37signals. Realizing there was no useful web-based collaboration tool that allowed communication and project management to go hand in hand, he and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, developed Basecamp.

Jason and David invited customers to use the platform to collaborate on their projects. The customers loved the tool, perhaps even more than the company’s web-design services. By 2004, Basecamp became the product — as well as the company’s name — and the rest is history. Goodbye managing projects by cumbersome “reply all” email chains. Hello Basecamp.

Since its inception, the company has successfully gained over 3 million unique subscribers to the Basecamp platform. I’m one of them. It really is a fab product. To say the company is successful is an understatement. Basecamp is profitable, and indeed it has been every year since 2004. It has just over 50 employees, and they are scattered across the world. Jason works out of Chicago, and David lives in the south of Spain. Engagement is high across all team members.

But what makes Basecamp such a unique story is not the collaborative project management product it sells (although it’s quite good) but rather the manner in which the company operates. Basecamp employees are time aficionados, masters of staying present, mindful, and attentive. They are time-behavior experts. It might even be more worthy a cause than the product they hawk that helps millions. It starts at the top with Fried and Heinemeier Hansson — quintessential leaders of self and others.

Fried literally gives a damn about time. He’s big on “a good day’s work and a good night’s sleep.” Fried and Heinemeier Hansson insist on running the company as calmly as can be. They don’t want stressed-out employees who pull all-nighters. They believe in a maximum 40 workweek, except for the summer months, when it is reduced to 32. A common mantra at Basecamp is that if a problem can’t be solved by 5 p.m. on a Friday, it will still be there on Monday at 9 a.m.

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Behaviors at Basecamp

The co-founders instituted “Library Rules,” where Thursdays are considered no-talk days. It’s whisper-quiet, online and in person. Just like a library. And if that weren’t enough, the employees’ calendars are private. (You can’t book a meeting with a tool like Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar because you have no idea if the other party is available.) Like university professors, Basecamp team members post “office hours” during which they’re officially available for meetings and discussions.

It all sounds a bit nuts. But it’s only nuts if you continue to think that sleeping with the time enemy is a good idea. Quick reminder: It’s not. Also, did I mention Basecamp has been profitable since it launched?

In their most recent book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, the co-founders wrote: 

“A great work ethic isn’t about working whenever you’re called upon. It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do, putting in a fair day’s work, respecting the work, respecting the customer, respecting coworkers, not wasting time, not creating unnecessary work for other people, and not being a bottleneck.”

They don’t manage time; rather, they encourage better time behavior. As the CEO and CTO respectively, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson not only set a tone of balance, they don’t freak out when things go sideways. Calm is the ruling behavior, not chaos, busyness, or tension. There is no “cray cray busy” at Basecamp. They believe that a healthy lifestyle includes getting plenty of rest, taking your vacation time, and enjoying hobbies. It makes for a better life itself. (And this spills over into work.)

The co-founders insist on leading this type of life; otherwise, they do not consider themselves leaders: “Workaholism is a contagious disease. You can’t stop the spread if you’re the one bringing it into the office,” they state. “The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. They’re there to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so that when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be.”

Basecamp isn’t alone. Take, for instance, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, who wrote:

“I’m home at 5:30 pm every evening. I don’t travel on the weekend. My job is incredible, but it’s also just a job. Family and personal health rank higher in my priority list. We don’t burn out people. We give people space. And that’s why people show up to work as their authentic selves.”

When you misuse your time — and fool yourself into thinking time management is actually a thing — you wind up committing a crime and murdering any chance for mindfulness. But when you realize that navigating your use of time occurs with better behavior — by being present, mindful, and focused — you just may end up as calm and engaged as everyone at Basecamp (or Shopify).

Adapted from Lead. Care. Win.: How to Become a Leader Who Matters by Dan Pontefract. (2020)

Dan Pontefract, a leadership strategist with 25 years of experience, is the founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group, a firm that improves the state of leadership and organizational culture. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at four different TED events and writes for Forbes and Harvard Business Review.

 Dan is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business, garnering more than 20 industry awards throughout his career. Previously as chief envisioner and chief learning officer at TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company with revenues of over $14 billion and 50,000 global employees, he launched the Transformation Office, the TELUS MBA, and the TELUS Leadership Philosophy, all award-winning initiatives that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90%. Prior to TELUS, he held senior roles at SAP, Business Objects and BCIT.

Dan is the best-selling author of four books: Lead. Care. Win., Open to Think, The Purpose Effect, and Flat Army. Open to Think won the 2019 getAbstract International Book of the Year and the 2019 Axiom Business Book Award Silver Medal winner in the Leadership category. For more information about Dan Pontefract, please visit www.danpontefract.com. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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