Basecamp is continuing to redefine what it means to be successful and dynamic in technology, business, and the court of public opinion. For 22 years, the company’s founders have refused to be defined by the “accepted” rules of the road, and its April 26 ban on company-wide politics in the office rededicated the company to its customers and its staff for what could be two more decades of success.
Just as importantly, the resulting criticism from many commentators who have never run a business shows that Basecamp isn’t just shaking itself up – it is shaking up the idea that companies must engage in politics to succeed in the 21st century.
On April 26, co-founder Jason Fried announced six “directional changes” to company policies. They included turning fitness and farmer market benefits into employee cash, eliminating “societal and political discussions” on the firm’s “Basecamp account,” and changing how employee reviews are conducted. All of these changes were because Fried and co-founder David Hansson “feel like this is the long-term, healthy way forward for Basecamp…the company and our products.”
Many online critics lambasted the company for the discussion change – creating the impression that the move was a classic “foot-in-mouth syndrome” decision that creates salivation for crisis communications companies. But what Basecamp’s leadership really did was put customer value first to create a strong company culture that drives long-term company value and social impact.
From eliminating committees and societal and political discussions, to changing fitness and farmer market benefits to cash, Basecamp put customers and staff above the politics of the day. Fried’s post pointed to how the fitness benefit was alienating to people who aren’t into fitness, just as political discussions created tension among those who politically disagree and those who don’t engage in politics.
Many of the media hot takes have focused on how about 20 staff have announced their departure. But does anyone think that Basecamp won’t find 20 or 40 or 80 fully qualified people to take their places – and to be more focused on company success and customer service than those who quit? Taking politics out of the company equation may actually improve its contribution to the human condition because everyone is focused on the same mission. As the company explained on its “About Us” page, “millions of people all over the world have used a Basecamp product….we’re helping a whole lot of people communicate better and do their best work.”
Basecamp’s publicity victory
The headlines came fast and furious in the days after Fried’s post. “Basecamp’s Ban on Political Talk Prompts Wave of Employees to Quit,” announced Bloomberg. “Basecamp sees mass employee exodus after CEO bans political discussions,”proclaimed Tech Crunch. “A third of Basecamp’s workers resign after a ban on talking politics,” yelled The New York Times.
As click-bait headlines to drive a narrative, these headlines did their job. As accurate assessments of the announcement, they were so far off so as to qualify as “fake news” because no ban was instituted. “People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account,” Fried wrote in his announcement. “But it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.”
Additionally, Hansson’s response to the reactions reminded staff and observers that the company itself would selectively engage in politics. “that directly relate to our business or products. This means topics like antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance,” he wrote.
Fried’s original post said that announcing the changes was in keeping with the company’s “tradition” of sharing “as much as we can” with the public. The post also forthrightly admitted that some people wouldn’t like the company changes, just as some people don’t like its products. And Hannson’s follow-up noted that “Unsurprisingly, parts of Twitter is very. disappointed. in. us. And the search for the tweet to serve as a stake for that disappointment is in full swing.”
On the surface, pro-actively inviting bad headlines seems like a bad move and a violation of the basic rules of business branding. However, those headlines were going to come, anyway. Today, no high-profile company can make changes related to company culture without those changes becoming public. This is especially true for a tech company like Basecamp, whose founders have written best-selling business books.
By publicly announcing the new policies, Basecamp drove its narrative first – outmaneuvering online critics through transparency and announcing universal values like employee equality and putting customers first. We may never know if that’s why several of the most high-profile departures have been polite and apolitical even when highlighted in anti-Basecamp articles. What we do know is that without its narrative out there, Basecamp would have been scrambling instead of prepared for the impact of putting customers ahead of politics.
Where does Basecamp go from here?
The hot takes predict Basecamp’s demise and declare it to have an autocratic culture. These things may be true, and the criticisms may become bipartisan because it appears Fried suspended a senior employee – who later quit – for saying America and Basecamp don’t have white supremacist cultures. But Basecamp is a technology company that survived the internet boom and bust. It survived the 2008 recession. And it got through the Covid-19 pandemic. The company has always done things differently – and in 2021, that means asking staff to put the company, their colleagues, and customers before their personal desires. And if those personal desires are too important, Fried and Hansson understand – they didn’t fire anyone who disagreed with them on eliminating company-wide politics. Instead, they went above and beyond by offering severances to help staff who didn’t fit the company culture find a better fit.
Hot takes aside, we don’t know where Basecamp will end up. But I’d rather bet in favor of a norm-breaking, highly successful company than with the Twitter takes of people who have never had to run a company.