Basecamp's Problem Isn't Politics. It's Philosophy

Lunch in the old Basecamp HQ: every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude

Basecamp's implosion—losing one-third of staff—is about much more than politics. It's a failure of philosophy. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have been good writers, but their latest work sounds like a 14-year-old discovering Ayn Rand.

"By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude," Fried writes, quoting Aldous Huxley. OK dude, but you literally make software for teams.

martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone

Fried introduces his Changes at Basecamp post with this Huxley quote which is absolutely bonkers. I'll reproduce it in full.

As Huxley offers in The Doors of Perception, "We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude."

Heavy, yes, but insightful, absolutely. A relevant reminder. We make individual choices.

What the actual fuck is he talking about here? Why would I buy team management software from people that believe we're always alone? Why would I buy email from people that don't even believe in the connective power of sex? It's no wonder 33% of Basecamp made the individual choice to leave.

Huxley has written many smart things, but this isolated quote isn't one of them. Many people have walked through the doors of perception and discovered great connection, even oneness. The Buddha reported that there was no self at all, that our sense of separation is just illusion. As Wang Yangming said:

Only those who are petty regard themselves as separate from others solely because of the space between their bodies.

Hell, many people have taken a bong hit and figured out something similar. We all come out umbilically attached to another human being. We are deeply connected to other people. Life is rarely suffering or enjoying in solitude. Work is no exception to this, which is why we work in teams. Which is why the market for team management software or email even exists.

always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves

I'm talking philosophy because this was really an important part of Basecamp's USP. You could get project management software anywhere, but with Basecamp you could get a management culture. There was a flood of blog posts and books and podcasts behind Basecamp, and it was different. It was how they differentiated their product. But look at the managing philosophy now:

"Who's responsible for these changes? David and I are. Who made the changes? David and I did... It's time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on."

Decades of management writing have been compressed into shut up and listen to the boss. Which is, like, OK, but people used to buy Basecamp products because they felt good about it. Because it was different. But this is just how most companies are run. There's nothing innovative here, nothing worthy of books called 'Rework'. People have been shutting up and listening to the boss since we started hunting in packs.

Hence people left. This exodus has been explained as some great downsizing coup, but nobody plans to lose 33% of staff (and pay for it). Nobody plans to lose the entire iOS team at once. This is a fuck-up. Basecamp is only 57 people and losing 19 is catastrophic. Even if you wanted to, there's better ways than internet-embarassment, especially when your marketing is based on looking smart.

Have customers left? I dunno, I did. I've been refreshing the Hey page every week waiting for custom domains. I wanted to host my email with a company that didn't suck. But now they do suck, so fuck that. I'm just one person and who cares. No marketing is bad marketing, and this criticism could even be considered an ad. I'm not even saying the software is bad, though it's unclear who's developing it now.

I'm just saying this is a vapid philosophy, and it's not the Basecamp I knew: "We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company." But Basecamp was a social impact company. It impacted me, and they knew this.

I was a fan. They'd earned my loyalty. That's the main reason I wanted to move my email over to them, the center of my digital life. But not now. Now they've told me fuck that, they just make software. But I already have software. That's not what I was buying from them. I was buying a philosophy, and that's all sold out.