Thoughts on The BaseCamp Mass Exodus

Like many, I have found myself enthralled with what happened at BaseCamp this past week. Mainly because it affects me personally. No, I don’t work at BaseCamp, but I do have startups, have operated and exited a startup, and like Jason and David, share very similar beliefs in how to lead teams and build companies.

While I have grown apart from their social persona’s, especially David, I find alignment, and have for years, in their ideas. Specifically those about where work really happens, remote work, and other similar cultural positions in today’s modern tech business.

Their latest position on what is, and is not acceptable, was no different for me. It was similar to prior positions and highlighted the real challenge many founders and operators have when they are building their teams (especially today). My alignment with their thinking comes from first-hand experience that comes with the very complex business of people management.

That being said, it is important to note that people management is far from a binary problem as a friend of mine said. To which I agree wholeheartedly, and it’s at the core of my personal philosophies on building teams. This is foundational to how I personally think, lead, and ultimately, the actions I traditionally take.

But surely, with so many leaving, it’s a clear sign of unity amongst their employees, and a clear sign the policy change was wrong! right?

Mass Exodus Brought on by Arrogance

Any time a company of any size loses a 1/3 (and growing) of their employees it’s a horrific thing, at least it would be to any outsider. But what if it’s not?

I was exchanging some emails with another founder and operator friend of mine, doing our own HBR case study on what could be happening and the potential impacts. We awed at the spectacular nature of it all.

But the real irony is how political BaseCamp is as a company!!  “Live by the sword, die by the sword”. 

Can a change like this, a policy, really bring about this type of exodus?

While possible, we couldn’t help but think this severe a response was indicative of a much bigger problem within the organization. This was simply the spark that set the blaze. While impossible to know from the outside, there was one common theme I attribute to the mass exodus – arrogance.

The Power of Arrogance

The arrogance to believe it was necessary to bring a private policy to the public sphere. The arrogance to be so deaf to the social state of the world. The arrogance to believe you could win a public debate on such a sensitive topic in the social sphere. The arrogance to offer 6-month severances if you don’t like the new policies. No matter how silly I might find it, I can’t help but marvel at it.

It’s this thinking that will drive this form of thinking:

  • Not worried about it at all;
  • Great time to trim some of the excess weight you pick up over time as a company;
  • Great time to see what roles we really need, and who we really want to hire;
  • We’ll be perfectly fine, we’ve been at this for 20+ years;

And, they will be correct.

At some level, many of us that start things, and run things, have some level of arrogance. It’s what allows us to do the things we do. So much so that it begs the question – was this planned? expected? was it acceptable?

Was the Exodus expected?

Another very curious thought process came up with another founder/operator friend, it went something like this:

“you know, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t know what was going to happen with something so controversial.”

For non-operators and founders, you might be appalled by this kind of thinking. But for those that are, there has likely been some point in your experience where you sat back and thought to yourself:

  • Why do I have so many people?
  • What does everyone even do?
  • Why does it feel like I’m moving slower today, than when I was a fraction of the size?
  • How do you even downsize at this point?
  • Do I need these people? Who don’t I need?

This happens in all organizations. The problem, however, is it especially difficult to tackle. Surely, everyone is gainfully employed? Where do you even begin to trim the fat? Especially when it’s not mandated by economics, investors, or some other external force? How can you consciously make the decision – I’m doing great, but want to downsize?

You then look at what BaseCamp did.

Compare their actions to how they think. They have traditionally focused purely on optimization, focus, when it comes to business, people and products, it makes all the sense in the world. For as much noise as they create outside of work, they value silence inside their organization. You hear it in their interview about sanity in the office space, and see it in their product refocus efforts (e.g., 37 signals focuses on BaseCamp, kills other products). So why would this be any different? because it involves people?

I would wager that in some virtual hallway, there was a conversation of the potential impacts and the various outcome were deemed acceptable. More important than having all these people, and having their skills, was having people that were aligned in their mission.

For those that argue that this will set them back, hurt them financially, etc… while you’re right, you’re also wrong. It’s right in the short-term, but wrong in the long term. Will it set them back? Sure, any time you have one key person leave, it’s always tough, make a 1/3 of your company and it will be felt at all levels. But, I don’t think it will be as severe as many might make it out to be. But will it also help them? Absolutely. This will help them clear the deck, start over and further optimize the business. For every person that left, there is an opportunity to invest in a new person and tackle a problem more efficiently.

For as fast as they lost people, they will backfill them and it’s possible that as a company they will be happier and more focused moving forward.

Lessons for Founders and Operators

If you’re thinking the lesson here is that your company should lean heavier into social issues, and foster social spaces internally, I would argue it isn’t. Unless it’s something you’re passionate about, I would recommend the complete opposite – stay away from it, leave it alone, and make it exponentially clear where your position is from the onset with all employees.

Here are the things that I take away from it:

1 – Nothing good comes from this kind of transparency and social debate for the company itself. There is no amount of explaining it away. For example, David actually does a wonderful job of explaining his thinking in his Mosaics of Positions piece but it fell on deaf ears in the fickle social, public, debate.

2 – Today, more than ever before, it is imperative that companies make their priorities, and focus, clear. If that is who you are, all the more power to you. But if it’s not, make it clear.

We are a company that does X, and this is what we focus on. We will not lean into social or political issues as a brand, or into those things that don’t directly affect what we’re doing. Our focus is on our people (employees and customers) and the company, and yes, we are a private, for-profit, business.

While we don’t ask for alignment on political, or social beliefs, we do ask for alignment on who we are as a company. If that is not for you, then we might not be the company you want to work at.

3 – For those of us that are creating these businesses, creating these products and services that solve really interesting problems, you are not alone. You are not crazy for failing to understand the hysteria of it all. You are not crazy for appreciating, and understanding, the negative impacts of these things on people, your company, and productivity. And it’s absolutely ok to focus on work.

4 – For as many founders and operators slamming BaseCamp, there are just as many that agree silently for fear of retaliation and being labeled. Agreeing does not make you evil, or a bad leader.

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