Basecamp: A Cautionary Tale in Company Culture

Sometimes I really hate being right.

Basecamp: A Cautionary Tale in Company Culture
Photo by Patrick Hendry / Unsplash

Sometimes I really hate being right. Less than two weeks ago I published an article called “Culture Doesn’t Matter”, in which I outlined a very simple idea: that company culture doesn’t matter unless it's actively lived by the leadership. Then just a few days later, Basecamp-gate happens.

For those of you who don’t already know what happened at Basecamp, my colleague John Breen summed it up pretty succinctly on his own blog:

A few days ago, Basecamp, a tech darling helmed by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, announced some policy changes. These changes effectively ban Basecamp employees from “societal and political discussions” at work. Unsurprisingly, these changes received quite a bit of attention on Twitter and throughout the tech industry. Shortly thereafer [sic], Casey Newton reported in The Verge about the underlying issues that prompted the policy changes. [1]

Through the back and forth on Twitter, various blog posts, and even media outlets like The Verge, new details are revealed about how the company was being led, the kinds of activities that went on behind closed doors, and the true attitudes the founders of Basecamp hold. But rather than do a re-hash of what’s already been said I want to look at Basecamp’s company culture and see how what they say lines up with what they do, because the two are very very different.

If you go to Basecamp’s About Us page you’ll see the following:

Treating people right is fundamental to how we do business…Our goals have always been the same: Have fun, do exceptional work, build the best product in the business, experiment, pay attention to the details, treat people right, tell the truth, have a positive impact on the world around us, give back, and keep learning.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds an awful lot like a statement of company values, just disguised in informal language so the tech-bros don’t accuse anyone of being a corporate-type. And when reading through this list of values a few things jump out at me: “treat people right”, “tell the truth”, “have fun”, and “have a positive impact on the world around us”. When comparing these tenets with the events of the past few weeks its clear that not only do the leadership of Basecamp not embody the ideals they’re espousing but I would be willing to bet they don’t even believe in what’s written on their own website. The evidence of their actions in how they have treated their employees and the people around them reporting and commenting on the fallout from their decisions proves this point. At no point have they treated their people right, consistently told the truth, fostered a fun and open working environment, nor have they made an impact for good on the world around them. Instead DHH and Jason Fried have instituted the corporate version of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all” rule that we’re taught in kindergarten. But that they failed to realize is that axiom doesn’t apply to real life, only life as a 6 year old. Being able to give and take criticism is one of the most important traits of a healthy employee and a healthy company, regardless whether that criticism comes in the form of work-related feedback or social-pressures. Banning all talk that’s uncomfortable, even talk that isn’t strictly work related, doesn’t create a space void of uncomfortable topics, it creates a negative vacuum where bitterness and secrecy can rush in. Conversations go from public channels to private DM’s, grudges and hate speech are fostered in the secrecy of private groups, and no one is able to cross the echo-chamber walls.

In the aftermath of all of this a reported one-third of the company has either already left or put in notice. In one hilariously bad miscalculation Basecamp has not only gone from a reputable player in its space to the punchlines of jokes, but also dug themselves into a manpower-sized hole that is not going to be easy to fill, not after this very public meltdown.

As I’ve stated before, company culture is bullshit if it’s not lived and demonstrated by leadership each and every day, and as we’ve all discovered lately, something stinks over at Basecamp.


[1] “On Basecamp”, April 28, 2021 (https://breen.tech/post/cringe-camp/)