The Way I Work: Jason Fried of 37Signals
You could sum up Jason Fried's philosophy as "less is more." Except that he hates that expression, because, he says, it still "implies that more is better." Fried prefers "less is less." It's a core principle of 37Signals, the Chicago-based company he launched in 1999 with Ernest Kim and Carlos Segura. The company started as a Web design firm. Then, in 2003, Fried hired David Heinemeier Hansson, a Danish programmer, to write software to keep the company's design projects organized. Soon, clients began requesting the program, and by 2005, software development eclipsed design in both revenue and focus. Today, 37Signals, which is run by Fried and Hansson, has a staff of 16 and more than three million customers who use the company's Web-based applications, such as Basecamp and Campfire, to collaborate and manage projects. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is the company's only investor. Fried, 35, isn't afraid to do things differently or to express his opinions. He condemns traditional corporate office culture, with its 40-hour workweeks and constant meetings, and shoots down many of his customers' suggestions. And he's not opposed to a little goofing off in the afternoon.
I don't use an alarm clock. Lately, I've been naturally waking up at 6:38 every morning. I used to wake up at 7:31 every morning, which is actually when I was born. So that was kind of creepy.
I try not to grab my phone and check e-mails first thing. I used to do that, and it's just not good for you. Instead, I'll go and brew some tea and try and relax a little bit. But the computer's always kind of pulling me toward it, so I end up looking at e-mail sooner than I'd like to.
I love tea. I drink green tea and white tea mostly. I play with different varieties depending on my mood. These days, I'm really into matcha, which is a powdered tea. You add hot water and use a bamboo whisk to make a frothy liquid. You actually consume the tea leaves. I get it online, because there's better selection, and I'm lazy.
For breakfast, I usually eat a couple of maple-infused Van's waffles and a handful of pistachios. Unless it's really cold -- then I have oatmeal. Three mornings a week, I go to the gym for an hour. I've been going to a trainer for two years. Otherwise, I think I'd blow it off.
Then sometimes I head in to the office. I might work from home for a week and then get bored of that, so I will spend the next week at the office. I live about two miles from my office. I drive there most of the time. I should bike more, but I saw someone on a bike get hit two years ago, and it really freaked me out. I figure I'm better off driving.
I usually get to work between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Of the 16 people at the company, eight of us live here in Chicago. Employees come to the office if and when they feel like it, or else they work from home. I don't believe in the 40-hour workweek, so we cut all that BS about being somewhere for a certain number of hours. I have no idea how many hours my employees work -- I just know they get the work done.
I spend most of my day writing. I write everything on our website. Communicating clearly is my top priority. Web writing is terrible, and corporate sites are the worst. You don't know what they do, who they are, or what they stand for. I spend a lot of time taking a sentence and reworking it until it's perfect. I love the editing process.
Our blog has more than 100,000 readers, but I don't post every day. I write when I have something specific to say. I recently wrote a scathing piece on the tech media. It really bothers me that the definition of success has changed from profits to followers, friends, and feed count. This crap doesn't mean anything. Kids are coming out of school thinking, I want to start the next YouTube or Facebook. If a restaurant served more food than everybody else but lost money on every diner, would it be successful? No. But on the Internet, for some reason, if you have more users than everyone else, you're successful. No, you're not.
I spend another good portion of my day thinking about how to make things less complicated. In the software world, the first, second, and third versions of any product are really pretty good, because everyone can use them. Then companies start adding more and more stuff to keep their existing customers happy. But you end up dying with your customer base, because the software is too complicated for a newcomer. We keep our products simple. I'd rather have people grow out of our products, as long as more people are growing into them.
I used to handle all the customer service e-mails, but now we have two people dedicated to that. I still get involved, and so does my partner, David [Heinemeier Hansson], if something has escalated and the standard operating procedure doesn't apply. If anyone ever writes us with a complaint, our stance is it's our fault -- for not being clear enough or not making something work the way it should. I'm constantly keeping an eye on the problems that keep arising, and then we address them. But I don't keep a list of all the complaints, because that's too time-consuming. We also get thousands of suggestions. The default answer is always no. A lot of companies lie and say, "Sure, we'll do that." We never make promises that we can't keep, so we say, "We'll keep that in mind." Some customers don't like that.
We first designed Basecamp for our own needs, to help better organize our projects. That's our philosophy: Build what we like, and other people will like it, too. Ta-Da was built to make simple to-do lists. Backpack is a digital version of a filing cabinet. We created Writeboard when we were collaborating on Getting Real, our first self-published business book, to track all of the back-and-forth drafts and keep us from going insane. Even though there are better products out there, I still use Writeboard, because it's dead simple. In fact, we just wrote our second book, Rework, using that program.
These books are our cookbooks. I look to chefs for inspiration. Mario Batali is a great chef who invites a camera into his kitchen and shares his recipes. It's a great business model. In the business world, people are proprietary -- they're afraid to share. Rework is our recipe for doing business.
We rarely have meetings. I hate them. They're a huge waste of time, and they're costly. It's not one hour; it's 10, because you pulled 10 people away from their real work. Plus, they chop your day into small bits, so you have only 20 minutes of free time here or 45 minutes there. Creative people need unstructured time to get in the zone. You can't do that in 20 minutes.
Instead, we use Campfire, our group chat tool. We built it when we started getting bigger -- with employees in different cities. We wanted to be able to communicate as a group easily. Campfire is like an all-day voluntary meeting. If I'm busy, I can close the window. And when I'm free, I can check it and chime in. If people have questions for me, they will post them, and I will answer when I can. Very rarely is a question important enough to stop people from doing what they're doing. Everything can wait a couple of hours, unless it is a true emergency. We want to get rid of interruption as much as we possibly can, because that's the real enemy of productivity.
I almost always order in lunch, usually from my favorite Middle Eastern takeout place. I love hummus and tabbouleh. I usually just eat at my desk. We have a catered lunch every Thursday that everyone in the Chicago office is encouraged to attend, because we don't see each other very often. We also plan a company vacation twice a year -- last year, we went to Maine and rural Wisconsin. So all the employees see each other for five days, twice a year. We talk about business; people might spend a few hours each day getting together to work on stuff, but there's also fun free time. When you don't see each other very often, you appreciate the time more when you get together.
After lunch, I get a little lazy between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. I don't feel that productive, so I'm usually screwing around, which I think is really important. Everyone should read stuff on the Web that's goofy or discover something new. I hate it when businesses treat their employees like children. They block Facebook or YouTube because they want their employees to work eight hours a day. But instead of getting more productivity, you're getting frustration. What's the point? As long as the work gets done, I don't care what people do all day.
I like to read in the middle of the day, to give myself a break. I don't read fiction. I find it a waste of time. There are so many amazing things that are real; I don't need to spend any time on a made-up story. I like to read biographies, especially books about inventors and their inventions. I'm also interested in American history. Around 3 p.m., I like to have another cup of tea as a pick-me-up. The one I'm drinking lately is gyokuro, which has high levels of theanine, a potent amino acid that helps you really focus for a few hours.
Launches are the most hectic times, because so many things will go wrong. But the cool thing about Web-based software is you can update things in real time. If something is broken, we can fix it in three seconds, hopefully. But as we get bigger, small problems become bigger faster. Every move you make now is magnified, especially with launches. An announcement that might upset a few people today will upset a few hundred tomorrow. I spend a lot of time responding to that. I have about 15,000 followers on Twitter -- some are loyal customers, some are people who hate me. I don't know 99 percent of them, but many of them are waiting for an opportunity to say "you suck." Twitter has become an outlet for anger, because the short format is perfect for negativity. It can hurt sometimes. You have to grow some thick skin.
I'm in charge of the finances for the company. We have an accountant who runs the numbers, which David and I look at daily. We built an administrative screen that shows us how many customers signed up, upgraded, downgraded, or canceled a product. I will check these numbers throughout the day: Everything updates in real time. I can also see where the traffic spikes are coming from -- a news story, blog mention, or Google search. That's how I discover where we are being talked about.
We don't have big, long-term plans, because they're scary -- and they're usually wrong. Making massive decisions keeps people up at night -- I don't like to make those. The closer you can get to understanding what that next moment might be, the less worried you are. Most of the decisions we make are in the moment, on the fly, as we go.
I usually leave the office around 6 p.m. I'm a political junkie, and used to watch a bunch of talking-head shows after work. I'm not so much into that anymore. I prefer hanging out in my backyard or with friends. I have a garden, and I like to go out back and just look at my plants. I might weed or prune. I like to get my hands a little dirty after being in front of my computer all day.
I started taking drumming lessons a few years ago, so I sometimes will go play for an hour or so after work. I use drum brushes, so I don't bother my neighbors. I'm planning on buying a set for my country house and really pounding away. I bought a stone farmhouse built in the 1850s. It's in rural Wisconsin. The closest neighbor is half a mile away. I spend almost every weekend out there. I love it. I just bought a tractor. I am really excited about mowing fields. Next year, I want to plant an acre of corn. Or an acre of something, just to see if I can do it.
I enjoy cooking, but I'm single, and I don't like to cook for myself. I go out often, but I don't like fancy dining experiences. I find people putting a napkin on my lap uncomfortable, and don't like worrying about using the wrong fork.
At night, I often get a real productive boost, and I do a couple of hours of work. Usually the more complicated, detailed things that require deep thought. But sometimes, I just wind down by reading or watching TV. I relate to Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I also watch House, M.D. And sometimes I'll watch American Idol. I love the whole American dream, underdog thing, but I also love the conflict. Simon is brutally honest. And he's always right.
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