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Letting Go: The Best (and Hardest) Thing You'll Ever Do

Few entrepreneurs like to delegate. But give it a try--you may be surprised at what you learn.
Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals. Basecamp, Highrise, Ba

Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals.

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A few weeks ago, I did something that once would have been unimaginable: I handed over day-to-day control of 37signals's most popular product, Basecamp. A different Jason, Jason Zimdars, is steering that ship now.

Understand, Basecamp is not just any product. It's our signature offering. We launched it nine years ago, and it boasts tens of thousands of paying customers and millions of users across scores of industries around the world. It's critical to our success--and because many customers use the software to run their businesses, it's critical to their success, too.

For years, I felt I was the only one who could manage Basecamp. But I recently spent some time reflecting on my day-to-day responsibilities. Every day, I make dozens of decisions, some big, some small, about 37signals--about our culture, employees, customers, current products, future offerings, and more. As a result, very few things get my undivided attention anymore. And that's become a problem.

To put it another way: For me to hold on to Basecamp is no longer in the best interests of the company. In fact, our continued growth depends on me becoming a different kind of leader--one who is able to see when other people can do a better job than I can.

It also occurred to me that the only reason I was running Basecamp was that I had always run Basecamp. And that's no reason to do anything.

From the outside, this may seem obvious. But letting go is one of the hardest decisions a business owner ever makes. It's especially challenging when you've been doing things your way for years.

Given all that, you might ask why I didn't start with some baby steps and hand off something less important than Basecamp. I guess it's because baby steps are baby steps. They're not going to take you very far. It was time to take a big leap.

Basecamp is at the top of its game right now. Last year, we redesigned it from the ground up, and our customers have been delighted with the results.

But there's a flip side to that success: the risk of complacency. When something is working well, it becomes too easy to let things run themselves. Fix a few things here, improve a few things there, launch a new feature every so often. That's coasting. And I don't want Basecamp to coast. And I finally came to understand that given all that is on my plate, that person no longer can be me.

I was lucky. Because if deciding to delegate was difficult, deciding whom to delegate to was a cinch. Jason Zimdars has been a designer here for years. And lately, he's really stepped up, singlehandedly taking over projects without waiting to be asked. He's proved, without being asked to prove, that he is capable of making smart decisions and producing on-time, quality work.

When I asked Jason how he felt about taking over Basecamp, he asked if he could take the weekend to think it over. On Monday morning, he came to me and said, "Hell, yeah!"

I'll still be involved, of course. Everyone at 37signals contributes to what we do and how we do it.

But in the end, it'll be Jason who will make the final call. As for me, I'll finally have time to devote my attention to new ideas. There's an important lesson here: By offering Jason a chance to develop his talents, I am also giving myself a chance to grow. And that's the best kind of win-win.

IMAGE: jetheriot/Flickr
From the June 2013 issue of Inc. magazine




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