Look Away Silicon Valley: Here's How Not To Work An 80-Hour Week

Andrew Cave
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Working Wrong: Silicon Valley's capital city of San Jose (Source: Getty)

Jason Fried is a CEO in the workaholic world of US technology where executives and their underlings regularly put in 80-hour weeks, take few or no holidays and sometimes barely sleep in pursuit of the god of work. Where he is different from others, however, is that he doesn’t believe a word of it.

Fried, 42, is chief executive of Basecamp, a Chicago web application firm part-owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. However, he is also a strong advocate of worker rights and leadership best practices. His TED Talk on these subjects achieved 4.5 million views and he has written two well-regarded books.

For Fried, a commitment to safeguarding time and attention is paramount to success and happiness. Alarmed by stories of companies pushing limits with their employees and becoming ever demanding on their time and energy, he helped launch Work Can Wait, a call to action to employers to offer staff an alternative way to work.

Work Rules

At Basecamp, he says, if work can’t be done in a 40-hour week, then it doesn’t happen. More than 150 leaders have signed the Work Can Wait pledge to follow suit and he is passionate in his belief that other bosses should put parameters around work without sacrificing the bottom line.

“We’ve worked really hard over the past ten years specifically at creating a calm place to work,” he says. People work 40 hours a week. That’s it. We don’t push people to work 50, 70 or 80 hours. Forty hours is enough.

“We don’t work on Fridays in the summer so we have four-day weeks from May to October. We don’t every work weekends and we only work late nights during an emergency.

“We’ve learned about how to build a calm company; one that’s not running around with its hair on fire all the time, one that’s not full of anxiety, one where people don’t feel rushed or constantly on deadlines that cause them to be stressed out at home.

“We’re a company that doesn’t take peoples’ personal lives and turn them into work time. I’m just so fed up with modern workstyles that are basically saying that work can impede on your personal life and can take any time it wants to away from your life and that if your boss says something to you at 9pm then you’ve got to do it. It’s just a toxic, terrible and unsustainable trend and we’re pushing back on all of that.”

A New Way of Working

Basecamp, which was previously called 37signals, makes tools for small businesses to communicate with and share files internally, employing 51 staff. Its sole product, also called Basecamp, was first developed in 2004 and sells via a software-as-a-service model.

Formed in 1999 and owned mainly by Fried and David Heinemeier-Hansson, the company is profitable and self-funded with no reliance on venture capital or private equity. Bezos has held a minority stake since 2006 but there are no plans to float and the company still doesn’t have a board.

“I would quit if we went public,” says Fried. “I’m not interested in running a public company or being part of one. We want to keep the company private, do things our own way and enjoy ourselves. We’re been a business now for 17 and we hope that to be 30 or 40 years or however long we can make it.

“The current trajectory is to keep doing what we’re doing, enjoy every day and run a profitable, sound, fundamentally-good business, which is something that most silicon valley companies don’t seem to be able to figure out very well.

“It’s about basic economics and making more than you spend but these companies keep raising money and they keep losing money.

“I find it to be perverse. I understand why the game is played that way but I still don’t like the game. It doesn’t feel right to me. I’ve seen a lot of companies raise a lot of money and lose their way. Companies that raise a bunch of money are forced to grow at all costs. You don’t have to go big or bust.

“It perverts and distorts fundamental economics. It’s all about the big exit but I’m a believer in not exiting but staying in something and building for the long-term.”

Advice For How To Have A Life

As for Fried’s advice to people trapped in companies that are not calm, he admits that it’s hard to dictate terms if you’re not the business owner.

However he believes that small teams within companies that function autonomously can effectively set their own rules and support the people who work for them.

"Just because another group in the company is working at 9pm on a Wednesday or at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, it doesn’t mean your group has to,” he says.

“You can effect local change in your little team. I don’t think people should ever try to change their company. It’s too hard unless you have some power but you can change your own local situation.

“At our firm, for example, we don’t ever have meetings. We don’t meet in person to discuss things. We write things up, post them into Basecamp and people can read them when they have time.

“At our company there are no expectations that anyone will get back to you on your schedule. People will get back to you on their schedule. It’s a fundamentally different way of approaching work and communication but it makes all the difference in the world.”

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