Less Masswith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Businesses can get weighed down by things like excess staff, countless meetings, long-term contracts, etc. The more mass they take on the harder it is change direction. Being able to change direction, to change your mind, is essential to building a successful company.
- 07:20 - Newton’s laws of motion (Wikipedia)
- 20:34 - Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders - L. David Marquet (Bookshop.org)
- 21:35 - Hire managers of one (Signal v. Noise)
The Full Transcript
Shaun Hildner (00:00): Before we start the show, we have another question here from a listener named Mitch. Mitch writes, “I would love to hear how your roles have changed as Basecamp grows. As an engineer, I’m especially interested in how David makes time to still write code as an executive. What does your day-to-day look like now versus then?” I think he means by then, 12 years ago when the book came out.
David Heinemeier Hansson (00:21): That’s a good question. I try, desperately, to make it such that the day does not look that different from when it did 12 years ago. That’s not always successful. There are days, and sometimes weeks, sometimes several weeks, where the work is consumed by running the business. Then, what I find is I need to usually recharge after a stint like that. I recharge, most favorably, when I am writing code, when I am into the depths of it. I don’t know if, perhaps just, if you want to call them interruptions, which is perhaps a weird thing to think about when executive is in your title, then interruption of making the company work is not exactly an interruption, so to speak. That is the work. Outside of that, there are plenty of days that look the same. Jason and I are not executives in the style of having back-to-back meetings for eight hours a day, five days a week, with a calendar that’s booked two months in advance. That’s just not what we do here. As such, there are plenty of days where my day looks like, I have one call in the morning. Plenty of days, I have zero things, zero things, on my calendar. Those days happen all the time. When they happen, I dive into the things I enjoy the most, just as we did 12 years ago. I love writing. I write a bunch. I love programming. I program a bunch. It isn’t even just individual days. I just did a bunch of work on the rails seven release, extracting things that we’d been doing, putting it in, working with a new designer at Basecamp to get a new website up. All those things felt, the rhythm of the work felt exactly like it was when we were four people, or eight people. My ideal, in many ways, what I enjoy the most, is much the same as it was then. Maybe that will change. One of the things that we are doing now is sailing into uncharted territories for our company. We’re pushing larger than even the large, in our minds, that we already were. Maybe things do look slightly different when you’re at 100 people, also, maybe not. Part of the work that Jason and I have been doing, recently, is to build up the capacity of the company in such a way that we are not required to be involved with everything. Perhaps, there is even a way that we can get even more time than we’ve had when we ran a company of 50 people, and the only executive leadership at the company were Jason or I. Now, we have Elaine on board. We’re hiring other managers. We just put up a post for Director of Engineering. I would like to believe that we can get to a point where I spend more of my day on the things I enjoy the most, that I’m also the best at. A lot of this running the company work has been either finance or legal, whatever. Where Jason or I can step in and help do that work. It’s not what we enjoy the most, and it’s not what we’re the best at.
Jason Fried (03:28): Similar response. My design stuff has changed in the fact that I’m mostly doing a lot of sketching and thinking about design and mentoring versus getting in there in the HTML and the CSS, which I’ve become reluctantly rusty at. I can jump in and get in there, it always feels like I’ve got a little bit of an uphill battle, at the moment, to like learn all the new stuff. There’s a lot of new stuff that’s come along since I was really doing this all the time. I’ve come to really enjoy working with other designers, in a way that I don’t think I used to. I used to like to do it myself, and I’ve come to enjoy that. It’s cool to see people get better and come up, and come up with their own ideas and whatnot. That’s something. I have to be involved in making things, otherwise, I don’t want to be here. I basically don’t want to be here if I’m not making something. There’s just different versions of what making something looks like today, than it might have been 10 years ago, or 12 years ago. It’s still making something.
Shaun Hildner (04:29): This might be a discussion for a whole nother episode. I wonder if you have any insight into how you’ve created that system, how you’ve avoided the trap of becoming just a manager?
Jason Fried (04:41): I wouldn’t want to be that.
Shaun Hildner (04:43): So you just didn’t.
Jason Fried (04:44): Can’t. I won’t. I won’t do that. I don’t want to do that. We do more of it, but like David said, we’re headed in a new direction here, which is to grow the company a bit and to bring on some more leadership, and a few more layers here and there, to run some things. I think that’s preemptive. We need it, but it’s also preemptive to prevent David and I from becoming that, alone. There are periods of time where that is a lot of it. That’s not what we’re good at, even. It’s not even we want to or don’t want to, no one here should be doing something they’re not really particularly good at. We’re particularly not good at that stuff. We can stand in and do it, but that’s not what we’re best at. We might as well have everyone do what they’re really good at.
Shaun Hildner (05:27): Perfect. Thank you, Mitch, for writing in. If you would like to have one of your questions, or comments read on the air, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In fact, I would actually prefer if you would record a voice memo on your phone and send that to me, so I don’t have to keep listening to my own voice. You can also leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850. All right. Let’s get onto the show. Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp, about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Shaun Hildner. This week we’re talking about mass. Let’s go back to eighth grade physics for a second. The more massive an object is, the harder it is to stop it, start it, or change its direction. Just like objects, businesses also have mass. Long-term contracts, excess staff, constant meetings, these all add mass. Once your business gets too heavy, it becomes extremely hard to change its direction. Optionality, and the ability to change your mind are essential to running a successful business. As always, here to discuss eighth grade physics with me are the co-founders of Basecamp, and the authors of Rework, David Heinemeier Hansson. How are you?
David Heinemeier Hansson (06:34): Good. Good. How are you, Shaun?
Shaun Hildner (06:36): Wonderful. Jason Fried, how are you?
Jason Fried (06:38): Doing pretty well, thank you.
Shaun Hildner (06:39): Good. This week we’re talking about the chapter in Rework called Less Mass. What do you mean by mass, and what’s the problem with it?
Jason Fried (06:48): When we were writing this essay, the thought was where does mass pile up in an organization. It can be team size. It can be company size. It can be the size of a feature, or of a product. The number of people involved in a decision. There are so many different ways where mass can pile up. If you think about it in a physical way, the more mass something has the more energy it takes to change its direction. I don’t know what law of thermodynamics that is, or whatever.
Shaun Hildner (07:18): I’m sure we’ll put Newton in the notes.
Jason Fried (07:21): Put Newtons in the show note. The more energy it takes to change direction. That’s so true in businesses, too. We’ve always been careful about not to accumulate more mass than we need. That’s about finding the right size, and the right size can be different at different times in an organization’s history. Also, when someone’s new, they need more mass around them. Then, you want to also relieve them of that mass once they’re rolling. You want to take that off in the momentum, carry them in different directions. It’s more of a thinking about, if something like a company was physical, of course, it is physical in some respects.
Shaun Hildner (07:56): If it was an object.
Jason Fried (07:57): Yeah. As an object, would it feel too heavy, would it be hard to push around. We talk a lot about, also, this is a bit of a tangent, but the idea of pouring concrete in software and decisions. What decision we are making now that’s going to pour some concrete, meaning this is going to be really hard to change later, so let’s be really sure that we know what we’re doing. Other decisions are very temporary and can change. Mass is tied to of that, as well. Heavier it is, the harder it is to change.
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:22): I think the thing about mass is, in the moment, when you design a feature, you bring on a policy, or you’re hiring someone extra that you think maybe we’ll need that, it seems like a small decision, and it seems like a one-off decision. When in fact, mass accumulates. It’s not just that individual policy, it’s that that policy is still there two years later, along with the other five things you put on top of that. The same thing with software. You put a feature in place that we can do it, as in we can implement it, yeah, but can you support it, can you carry it forward. That’s the thing about mass is that it’s accumulative. It’s so easy to just say yes to each individual thing and no big deal. No big deal. No big deal. Until, you reach this straw that breaks the camels back. Then, all of a sudden, how did this happen, how did we become this slow company that can’t seem to do anything, with features that take forever, permissions that need to be secured by three layers of management, how did this happen. It happened one bit at a time. Having that sense of defense up front, that mass, in and of itself, is something to be suspicious of, I think helps guide you through all the no’s you have to invoke for most anything. Anyone proposes something, or you have an issue that seems it needs a general old solution, you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s do that.” Less mass is about saying, “Actually, wait a minute. Do we need to do that? What if we didn’t.” That’s the way I like to treat this question the most. What if we didn’t. What if we just didn’t do that? You can see that in the structure of Basecamp in so many ways. Been around for over of 20 years, and the entire time, it’s interesting, we’re just now interviewing for a general counsel, a lawyer, at Basecamp. We’ve run over 20 years. Over that time done hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, so on so forth. Never had a lawyer on staff. That’s a thing where you think that doesn’t sound plausible, how would that even work. When we went, in the beginning, what if we didn’t. Let’s try first not to. Can we try not to for a while, and then see how that goes. At some point, okay fine if it tips. You go, “Geez, there’s too much. We can’t do without.” Then, you do it. There’s so many assumptions built into, of course, I need this. Of course, I need that. Of course, I need blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think when we look at our 20 year history, it’s remarkable how many of those things we did not do. As a result, how low our mass was, and as a result, how much shit we got done, how many things we influenced, how many books we wrote, and things we started, and whatever, without it being it was just added on top. That’s the other thing about masses, as we talked about, with your day. How does your day accumulate mass? I have these three, four, five standup meetings. I check in one-on-ones with these people every week. Before you know it, you’ve created entitlements around 30 hours of your week. That’s just at the baseline. There’s 10 hours left now to do things. Not that the other stuff isn’t work, but that it’s already accounted for. I loath that sense. I get such an anxiety of feeling I’m being held down in such a way if my week is fully structured in a way that’s just accounted for, that I can’t get out of. No. Absolutely not. As little mass as possible. Next week, I just fucking want to focus on 40 hours. I’m just doing programming. You can’t do that if you’ve accumulated all this mass that has all these obligations on top of you.
Jason Fried (12:22): Tied to that, mass seems to accumulate in advance. That’s what it is. You almost don’t see it until you come upon it. To David’s point, I hate looking at my calendar and going, “Shit, it’s one of those where I’ve just got a bunch of stuff I agreed to in the past. It’s full.” Sometimes you got to have some stuff. Today’s a good example. Let’s be current. Today, I’m just loathing today. There’s so many things I want to do. I feel I have a bit of a creative streak going, at the moment. I’ve got maybe two hours to do what I want, and that involves writing a bunch of stuff and thinking about a bunch of things. It’s just not enough time, really, to get into it. That’s one of those days, just have one of those days. One of those days is fine. When you have a few of those days, it can be okay, when you have one of those weeks, and one of those months, and one of those quarters, it’s not okay. If you’re not careful, it just adds up. Especially, when the cost of saying yes is close to zero. That’s what happens when you commit too many things in advance.
Shaun Hildner (13:24): I apologize for an obnoxious podcast producer taking half an hour of your time.
Jason Fried (13:26): I was going to say, this is twice in one week. Come on, man.
Shaun Hildner (13:34): What are some of these things that cause mass to build up in a business? There’s a few examples you mentioned in the book. Meetings, excess staff, that kind of thing.
Jason Fried (13:43): It’s funny, we were talking about this, as we’re looking to hire a bunch of people, trying to find the right cultural fits. Sometimes there’s some people who would feel they’d take up a lot of room, and other people who feel they’d fit right in. You got to think about the person you want in a particular team. In the broad sense, what we try to avoid are… This is a great way to avoid adding mass, is to try to avoid people and processes that will create a lot of work for others. You don’t want a lot of people around who are making work for other people. That’s a problem. That’s where a lot of mass accumulates, especially when it’s almost shrapnel. Someone having a certain position, or certain responsibility, just impacts too many people. That comes by impacting their time and their day, and cutting it up into pieces. You got to be very, very careful about that. To David’s point about we never hired a lawyer, which almost seems okay. We’ve never had someone in charge of finance, until a few months ago. I’ve seen a number of startups with six or seven people that have a CFO already. That’s too early, I think. I would say. Way too early. That’s accumulating maybe the wrong mass too early. Not that that role isn’t important, it’s probably not important yet. Especially, if you don’t even have any revenue coming in yet, or any of those things. A lot of it is timing. It’s not necessarily position. It’s timing.
David Heinemeier Hansson (15:07): I think that’s one of the areas where we’ve just, almost to make a point, tried to push the envelope. Could you have tens of millions of dollars in revenue, 60 people at your company, and not have someone, a head of finance. In charge of finance. Is that a possible thing to do. I think on a lot of questions of that regard, I’ve almost been surprised. Actually, you can go that far without it. I think, perhaps, to Jason’s point about being hesitant with people who create work for others, is the one where I’m the most sensitive. Those early experiences of my career, working with managers who, in my best assessment at the time, were negative. They ended up creating up more mass for everyone else to carry around. For what? Who were they taking the load off for. Especially, these status reporting change. This person that’s constantly walking around asking, “Is this done yet? When is this done?” Then, aggregate that somehow, then going up the chain with it. I had a few experiences with managers like that. This doesn’t mean they’re not nice people, but in their function, you’re worse than useless. You’re literally inflicting damage on your organization by you being here. If you were not here, things would be better. Now, we are in this spot a bit, I mentioned the Director of Engineering role, and we’ve had a few other roles where these people are here mainly to manage. You reach, at some point, a certain size where it does more harm to the organization than not if you don’t have someone in charge of these things. I think this is one of the things that’s so fascinating about the current time at the company. We are charting into some unknown waters and we don’t know fully how it’s going to play out. That shouldn’t hold us back. I had a bad experience with a bunch of managers fucking 20 years ago, more, is not a reason that we can’t try some things. We walk into it with this in mind, less mass. What if we didn’t do it.
Jason Fried (17:23): Also, it’s funny. Most people listening to this would be like, “You guys are afraid of going from 60 people to 100?”
David Heinemeier Hansson (17:30): Which is still tiny.
Jason Fried (17:32): You’re afraid of hiring your first lawyer. It’s a good example of all problems are relative. It’s not that your problems don’t matter, they’re your issues, whatever they are.
Shaun Hildner (17:43): As Basecamp grows, how do you plan to try to stay nimble?
Jason Fried (17:47): I think the big part of it is team size. Even if we’re aiming for 100 people, that’s not to make our product team, for example, when we say product team, that’s a team that works on a particular feature, let’s say, over a four to six week period, or two week, whatever. That’s still going to remain two people, maybe three. Something like that. It’s not about making the teams larger. It’s about having more teams. I think that’s the way you do this thing. Now, one of the challenges is structurally, reports and all that stuff, which is why we’re adding some additional layers, because as you add more people, you can’t have someone with 20 reports. That doesn’t really work. The teams themselves are going to stay small. Really small. We found, it used to actually be three, it used to be two programmers and one designer per feature. Now, we’re at one program, one designer. Maybe that’s right, maybe it’s not, but I can’t imagine that ever going to four, or five, or six. That wouldn’t make things faster or better.
Shaun Hildner (18:42): A lot of this chapter and a lot of this book, deals-
Jason Fried (18:45): Can I add one more thing? Sorry, Shaun.
Shaun Hildner (18:46): Of course, you can.
Jason Fried (18:47): I was just sharing that about product development, but as I’m thinking through, as we’re interviewing for a lawyer, and I’ve been upfront with the lawyers we’re interviewing, “I’m afraid of lawyers in companies.” Most companies I know that have a lot of lawyers, are lawyer run businesses. They speak legally. Everyone has to run things by them before they do anything. There’s a calcification that forms. You can’t really move fast anymore. We make a lot of decisions, we just make decisions and move. I want to make sure we maintain that. Obviously, there’s some key decisions you run by people and whatnot. I don’t want to be afraid, and I don’t want to have everything gut checked by legal. We’re trying to find someone who goes, “I wouldn’t want to do that either. I’m not that lawyer.” That’s another thing, in terms of staying nimble, is making sure that whoever you hire in a role, allows the company to continue to do what it’s good at. Then, also, provides support for things that it’s not good at. I think that’s a good example of right now, we don’t have everybody in house to review things. We have to always send everything outside and we don’t have it a liaison, internally. We definitely need someone for that.
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:57): I think the other part there is, resisting this point of installing checkpoints, sign off points. Someone comes up with a good idea, then first, they have to get that signed off by their lead, then they have to get that signed off by a manager, then you have to get that signed up by an executive, or whatever. Those stories just make my skin crawl. The distance between I have a good idea, I notice an issue, to I fix things, I’ve made it better, has to remain very, very short. This is where the book Turned the Ship Around, was really good at crystallizing that concept by the notion of I intend to. You have a bunch of people on your ship, or in your company, who act as though they are fully autonomous agents, who can make their own decisions because they are close to the work that they’re doing, and they simply proclaim, “This is what we’re going to do.” We don’t ask, “Can I? Can I do this? Is this allowed?” No, no. Say, “I intend to.” If someone has an issue with them, it’s on them to step in and say "No, actually-
Shaun Hildner (21:06): Let’s pump the brakes.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:07): We got to pump the brakes, we got to do something else. I’d rather make mistakes by doing too much in that regard. That someone takes too much initiative, and then you go “Let’s just have a chat about this.” Or roll it back, even, than fall into the other trap, which is that everyone needs to have four levels of sign off before they can do anything. That is just such disempowering environment. It also cuts so strongly against our long term value of managers of one. That even if you have a manager in the sense that you’re reporting up to someone, you should still feel as though you’re in charge of your own domain and your expertise. You know best. In most cases, the majority of the information on which way to go, especially on feature design, especially in the details, lie with the person who’s currently working on it. Don’t take that away and bubble it up to someone who’s barely in tune with what’s going on. Keep it at the people doing the work.
Shaun Hildner (22:05): You place so much importance on this ability to change your mind. Why is that so important to you? It’s not something you hear a lot, especially, if you’re talking about business. It’s a lot of like stick to your guns talk. I think this book, especially, goes very deep into the importance of being able to change your mind.
Jason Fried (22:23): I don’t know. I would say decisions are product of the moment in which they’re made, and time changes, and situations change, and moments are different. Why wouldn’t you want optionality if you have new information, or a better a take, or a new idea, or whatever. It actually makes for a better decision. I think you’re more willing to make them, and commit to them, knowing we can always change this if it doesn’t work out. Decisions that are permanent, or feel permanent, are loaded with a lot of fear and anxiety, and typically, not quite as sharp, because you’re always hedging a little bit, just in case versus you can commit fully to something, and if it doesn’t work, you just do it again differently, next time. It feels like a feature of a good decision is not to worry about it.
David Heinemeier Hansson (23:08): I think it allows us to be more aggressive on pushing the envelopes, and things. We had all these discussions in the product, I remember, with HEY, in particular. We took all these very hardcore stances, “No, you can’t import your emails.” That’s a stance. We’re going, “We’re going to push that. For, V-1, this product is going to be full of really sharp edges, and all of it is up for renegotiation.” We look back on partners, is this the thing we want to stick to?" Spy pixels, actually, should the product actually have spy pixels. No. We made a decision on that, we’re not going to change our mind on that. Importing some of your emails, is one of the things we’ve been talking about. Could we relax that somewhat? Yeah, perhaps. Probably. Is that a good idea? I don’t know yet. Just the fact that the doors open makes it so much more comfortable, in my opinion, to make these hard decisions, or sharp decisions, I should say. That makes for more interesting products. Sometimes you’ll take whatever 10 decisions, 100 decisions, and you’ll think those were really sharp. Some of them turn out that was exactly what was needed. We were never going to get there unless we trusted our instinct to do it. As Jason said, you would’ve watered it down if you thought this was going to be a permanent thing you had to live with forever. We’re in this moment, right now, as a company, as a whole, there’s all things we’re looking at, all premises we’re testing, which I think becomes even more important the longer you’re around. The half-life of a good decision is quite short. This company is a collection of decisions that we’ve made over the course of 20 years. Some of those decisions are 15 years old, some of those decisions are nine years old, some of the decisions are two years old. Not all of them aged like fine wine. Some of them just spoil and you go, that doesn’t work anymore, it’s got to go. Sometimes it’s because you got wiser, I realized I was just wrong. Sometimes the environment just changed. That was the right thing at the time, it’s no longer that time. We got to do something else. I think embracing that sense of it is all up for discussion, it doesn’t mean we discuss every thing from first principle every morning. That would create some long days. The theory that it is up for discussion, I think creates a flexibility. Also, makes it more interesting. That’s the other thing at this point, at least in my career, I think the same is true for Jason is, the work has got to be fucking interesting. There’s plenty of people who’ve essentially retired by age 42. I could do that, too. If I show up every day, we talked about this earlier, if the days start feeling weighed down by mass and obligation. I could also not. Part of the work here, for Jason and I, is to ensure that we create a company that is interesting for us still to be at. Then, hopefully by extension, that is interesting for other people who work at the company. That we create interesting products. We create products and make decisions that no one would give us permission to if we were asking investors. That no one asked for. HEY is full of decisions that no one asked for. That space, I think just becomes so much more interesting when you’re not afraid of making decisions, and you’re not afraid of changing your mind.
Shaun Hildner (26:24): I think that’s a wonderful place to end. Next week we’ll be talking about embracing constraints. For now, I would like to say thank you to David Heinemeier Hansson.
David Heinemeier Hansson (26:36): Thanks, Shaun.
Shaun Hildner (26:36): And thank you, Jason Fried.
Jason Fried (26:38): Thank you.
Shaun Hildner (26:38): We’ll see you next week.
Jason Fried (26:40): See you then.
Shaun Hildner (26:45): Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clip Art. We’re on the web at rework.fm, where you can find show notes and transcripts for this, and every episode of Rework. We’re also on Twitter at Rework Podcast. If you’re following along with the book, next week, we’ll be discussing the chapter, Embrace Constraints. If you like the show, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave review on Apple podcast, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you’re listening to this. If you have any comments or questions for Jason or David, please leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850, or better yet, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to email@example.com.