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Jason Fried

About Jason Fried

Jason co-founded Basecamp back in 1999. He also co-authored REWORK, the New York Times bestselling book on running a "right-sized" business. Co-founded, co-authored... Can he do anything on his own?

Can old world be more modern than new school?

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 12 comments

I’ve got two machines on me.

One’s strapped to my left wrist. The other lives in my pocket.

The one on my wrist can tell me the time (precisely in 12 hour format, roughly in 24), the day of the week, the month of the year, which year of the leap year cycle we’re in, and the current moon phase. But that’s its limit. There’s no software, only hardware. It’s programmed in springs and gears and levers and jewels.

The one in my pocket can tell me anything and do just about everything. It knows my voice, it responds to my touch, and it even instantly recognizes my fingerprint out of fourteen billion fingers. This machine even knows the angle, velocity, and distance it travels when I swing it around. And it always knows exactly where it is anywhere on the planet.

But sometimes I wonder which one is more modern.

The one in my pocket can do more, but only for a limited time. And then it can’t do anything. It dies unless it can drink electrons from a wall through a cable straw for some hours every day. And in a few years it’ll be outdated. In ten years it might as well be 100 years old. Is something that ages so fast ever actually modern?

And then there’s the machine on my wrist. It’s powered entirely by human movement. No batteries, no cables, no daily dependency on the outside world. As long as I’m running, it’s running. And as long as one person checks it out once a decade, it’ll be working as well in 100 years as it works today. It’s better than modern. It’s timeless – yet it keeps time.

As time goes by, my pocket will meet many machines. My wrist might too. But when I look down at the machine on my wrist today, and know that in 50 years my son will be able to look down at his wrist at the same machine ticking away the same way it ticks today. That’s a special kind of modern reserved for a special kind of machine: the wonderful mechanical wristwatch.

The difference between time and attention

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 11 comments

I recently realized that if I’m too busy to take something on, I shouldn’t say “I don’t have the time”. In fact, I often do have the time. It’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for someone.

What I don’t have – and what I can’t squeeze in – is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time. So what I should say is “I don’t have the attention”. I may have 8 hours a day for work, but I probably have 4 hours a day for attention.

This summer a guy wrote me out of the blue asking if he could intern for me this summer. His email was great – clear, thoughtful, kind, inviting, confident but not pushy, and not too long (but long enough to say what he had to say without leaving anything out). He was studying at Harvard Business School and was going to be back in Chicago this summer.

He asked if he could swing by and say hi. His email made it easy for me to say yes. So he did, and we had a great session. We spent maybe an hour or so together. I learned about his background, what kind of stuff he was interested in, what he wanted to learn, what he could teach us, etc. Then we riffed on a few ideas. It was natural, flowing, effortless. Really promising.

Then I told him I’d think a few things over and get back to him soon. He checked in a few weeks later, and I said I’d get back to him soon again. And I didn’t.

A month or so after that I wrote him and told him I was really sorry. I’d mislead him – and myself – thinking I had enough time to take on a intern that summer. I wanted to, I really liked him, I thought he’d be great, but I just didn’t have as much time as I thought I had to even consider it more and line up work and spend time with him, etc.

But really, as I thought about it, I realized I had the time. Every day is the same 24 hour cycle. Every workday around 8 hours. Surely I could have found even 20 minutes a day to work with him. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find the time. I couldn’t find the attention.

My mind fills up with a few key projects and that’s it. I’m absorbed by those. That’s where my attention is. Had I made 20 minutes here and there for him, I’m be physically present in that moment, but mentally I’d be elsewhere. And that’s not fair to either of us.

Time and attention aren’t the same thing. They aren’t even related.

We’ve since talked a few more times, and we caught up again last week. I think I’ll have more attention next year. We’re going to keep in touch, check in from time to time as he finished up school, and then try again.

How much are we worth? I don't know and I don't care.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 11 comments

I was recently speaking to a class at a local university and the topic of valuations came up. One student asked me what our valuation was. I gave her the honest answer: I haven’t a clue.

How is it possible that a successful software company today doesn’t know its worth? A valuation is what other people think your business is worth. I’ve only ever been interested in what our company is worth to us.

Startups these days are bantered about as if they were in a fantasy football bracket. Did you hear Lyft raised another $150 million at a $2.5 billion valuation? But Uber got tossed another $2.8 billion at a $41.2 billion valuation! Then there are the companies barely off the ground getting VC backing with 25x valuations, despite having no product or business model.

Entrepreneurs by nature are competitive. But fundraising has become the sport in place of the nuts and bolts of building a sustainable business.

The last time I considered Basecamp’s valuation was nearly a decade ago. We’d been approached by dozens of VC firms looking to invest. But with a solid product, a growing consumer base, and increasing profitability, we didn’t entertain any offers.

Then, in 2006, I got an email from Jeff Bezos’s personal assistant. Jeff wanted to meet. I’d long admired him for what he was building at Amazon, and how he generally sees the world. I took the meeting.

After a visit to Seattle and a few more calls, Jeff bought a small piece of our company. I didn’t take the cash out of some fantastical desire to turn Basecamp into a rocket ship. Instead, his purchasing shares from me and my co-founder took a little risk off the table and gave us direct access to the brain of one of today’s greatest living entrepreneurs.

In the years since, we’ve been approached by nearly 100 private investors, VCs, and private equity firms. They want to put money into our company, but we don’t want it. It’s not hubris; it’s the cost that comes with the cash. I want to deliver a product that our customers want, not one that our investors want. I want to grow our company according to our timetable, not one dictated by a board. For many startups, funding has worked to their detriment—unnecessarily raised stakes, a path to unnaturally rapid growth. Venture capital is not free money.

Years ago, during the investment discussion with Jeff, we had to place a financial value on our company. The process of constructing a valuation was pretty silly, to be honest. We drew up charts, made some educated guesses, negotiated back and forth, and ultimately came up with a figure. We made it up, as everyone does. Let’s just admit it right now: Financial projections are big, fat guesses. They are best-case scenarios. Since they’re hypothetical, why not pull a number out of a hat?

Jeff knows this. All investors know this. Yes, you can look at revenue and profit and multiples, but so many tech company projections these days aren’t based on anything real. They’re based on fantasy. And too often, the more profit you have, the lower your valuation is. Because nothing pops the valuation bubble like reality.

My not knowing how much our company is worth doesn’t affect our business on a daily basis. I know our revenue and our profit. I know how fast we respond to customer service inquiries and how many people signed up for Basecamp last week. Those are real numbers to me. A valuation is an invented number that ebbs and flows on the basis of how much someone else thinks you’re worth. It’s nothing more than a distraction.


Want to see this in print? This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Inc. magazine.

Q: How do you seek out mentors/teachers?

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 10 comments

I’m doing an AMA over at Designer News, and someone asked “How do seek out mentors/teachers?”

My answer:

I’ve never sought out mentors or teachers, because I think they are plentiful and all around us. The person who you think has all the answers probably has far fewer than you think.

I observe. When I walk into a small retail store, I observe how they do business. What’s working, what isn’t? How do they treat employees? Customers? Their merchandise? What can I learn from them at this moment?

When I get my hair cut I observe the salon. Who’s there? Why? If I had an appointment at 3:30, but it’s still 3:50 and I’m waiting, what’s that feel like? How does it feel to be on time and then have someone else who’s not on time? How does it feel to pay for something? To tip? When? How?

When I go to a restaurant I observe. How is the food presented. How does the server communicate? How’s the menu written? How’s the lighting? Is it sufficient to read the menu? Do I have to ask twice for things, or do things just show up on time before I have to ask? What happens if I have a substitution request – how do they handle that? Is it a burden for them or a pleasure to serve? Are they pushy or comfortable? How do I feel about being there?

Every moment is a teaching moment. You don’t have to wait to be taught anything. Don’t delay learning because you haven’t found that magic teacher yet. Everyone, and everything, is a teacher.