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Jason Fried: Make “Creative Destruction” a Regular Part of Your Routine

About this talk

While a common sentiment is to protect our creative routines, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried urges us to fall madly out of love with the ones we truly care about. “The easiest thing to do is become comfortable and complacent,” says Fried. And the more comfortable you become with a way of doing things, the more willing you are to protect it, even if it no longer is the most effective way to create something. 

In this talk, Jason provides a blueprint to change our work habits. “When there’s a forced change in the way you work on a regular basis, you create moments to look at something fresh,” he says. “If you begin to do that, you will see it a little bit differently and you have a chance at making a change.”

Jason Fried, Founder & CEO, Basecamp

Jason Fried is the Founder and CEO of Basecamp, a privately-held, Chicago-based company committed to building the best web-based tools possible with the least number of features necessary.

Prior to shifting its focus solely to Basecamp, the company was known as 37Signals and was responsible for launching a range of products including Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire. 37Signals also developed and open-sourced the Ruby on Rails programming framework. The company’s weblog, Signal vs. Noise, is read by over 100,000 people every day.

Jason believes there is real value and beauty in the basics. Elegance, respect for people’s desire to simply get stuff done, and honest ease of use are the hallmarks of Basecamp’s products.

Full Transcript

I’m here to talk about what I would call creative destruction, this idea of finding something that you do, that you’ve made, that you rely on, might be your process, might be someone else’s process, something that you’re really comfortable with, and deciding to just blow it up, and say, no. I’m not going to do it that way anymore. That doesn’t make sense anymore. And the reason why I think it’s really important to make this part of your process is because the easiest thing to become is comfortable and complacent. And as your career goes on and as your business grows, if you’re self-employed or you’re an entrepreneur, you’re going to find yourself in these moments when you begin to protect the things that you do and the things that you’ve done versus destroy those things. And the more and more you protect, the more rigid you become, and the harder it becomes to actually do anything creative. Complacency and comfort are poison pills for the creative mind.

What’s especially weird though is that this industry is full of creative people, but the industry itself is not very creative. The business of the industry has been done the same way for a long period of time. When I say industry, I mean the design industry. I mean the way people sell design specifically. And I realized this early on in my career, and I want to share some thoughts about how I came to this realization and show you the thought process that goes into destroying something that you’re very comfortable and used to in the hopes that perhaps you guys can go back to work on Monday and destroy something that you love.

Basically, I want you to fall madly out of love with something that you’re doing. I try and do this every few years at least. So way back when, when I was getting into this industry, it was like ’96, ’97, actually maybe ’95, ’96, I was a freelance website designer right when the web was getting started. And I was doing work for hire and I would somehow find some clients and they would pay me a few hundred bucks to do a website. And it was wonderful. I was pumped. Like, a couple bucks for a website. I was in college. Back then websites were small and easy to do, and the client was usually a sole proprietor, so just one person that I could talk to directly. And these projects were really fun, and I started doing more and more of these kinds of projects. And then as it usually goes, and as it went with me, I started to be a little more well-known, started doing some more stuff, and I started to get on lists for RFP’s. So a few years in, I was getting better and better projects basically, or better and better opportunities to do better and better projects, or so I thought.

So I’d get these RFP’s and I’d be excited because they were thick and heavy and they had fancy companies names on them and they sounded like they were big projects, and that was exciting because that’s what you typically think is exciting, is doing bigger, and bigger, and bigger things as you go on in your career. Well, I started doing, or started responding to these RFP’s and I would get a few here and there. And they would usually get the smaller ones, and that was fine. But after a while, I started to realize that I wasn’t that happy doing these slightly bigger projects, and I didn’t know why yet, but I kept doing them. And then I hooked up with a couple other guys in the late ’90s and started 37signals, which then morphed into Basecamp, which is my current company today. But back before we made Basecamp, the product, we were doing website designs. We were doing website design together and now we had four or five people and we were doing bigger and bigger projects. And I started realizing that again, I was getting– I was becoming unhappy doing these bigger projects. I didn’t know why at the time though, but I kept doing them. And then you get to the point where– maybe you guys are with me on this– where you submit a proposal and you kind of pray that they won’t accept it. [LAUGHTER] And they accept it, and then you go, oh shit, they said yes. [LAUGHTER]

And the reason you say that, or the reason I said it– I shouldn’t speak for you all– but it was because I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to get into another seven or eight month project. Yeah, the money was great, maybe thing or whatever it was at the time. I didn’t want to do it because at the end, I was unhappy with it. And at the end, the client was sort of, kind of unhappy also. I gave him work.

We all kind of just finished the thing and you give it to him and they’re like, yeah, this is great, but they don’t use most of it, and you know how it goes, right? Now I thought that maybe I just sucked, that maybe I sucked, is why they weren’t happy at the end. But I consulted with some friends who I knew did not suck and they said the same thing, that these long-term projects suck. They’re expensive, and they take a long time, and there’s just so many things to deliver, and it’s just complicated. And again, I didn’t know why we all didn’t really like it, other than those points. But I didn’t do anything about it, which is what most people do, is they don’t do anything about it for quite a while. Luckily though– this is a weird segue– but luckily, at the time I was having my bathroom renovated. [LAUGHTER] And I went to get some bids. Before I had my bathroom renovated, I went to go get some bids from some contractors. And I got a few different bids and they were sort of fairly long-term projects, three months, tens of thousands of dollars on the low end, maybe 15, 20 grand actually at the time, which is a lot, a hell of a lot for me at the time, still is, for a bathroom, which is ridiculous. But anyway, it is what it is. [LAUGHTER] And I couldn’t pull the trigger.

I couldn’t sign the contracts, and I was very anxious about the process. And then another contractor came by and he said, hey, let’s go look at some stuff together. Let’s go walk over to this place in Chicago– I’m from Chicago– this place called the Merchandise Mart. [CHEERING] Which is where– thank you– which is where– [LAUGHTER] Merchandise Mart or Chicago? What are you excited about? Both? OK, Chicago. [LAUGHTER] Went to Merchandise Mart, which is like this place you go to see all these bathroom things, tubs, tile, fixtures, whatever, and more than that too, kitchens, the whole thing. Anyway, we went and we looked at stuff. And we looked at stuff and I got to see some faucets, and some tiles, and some tubs, and some stuff. And I was like, OK, OK. Good. And then I said, when will I get your proposal? And he said, a few days. So he sent me it a few days later and I signed with him.

And I realized I wasn’t anxious at that moment. And I started thinking about why was I not– why was it so easy to sign with this guy versus these other people who were very competent, they were all referred by friends of mine who had bathroom renovations. Why was I anxious about them and happy about signing with this guy? And I realized that it was because I knew what I was getting. When I went and saw the quote at the end, whatever it was, let’s call it and I knew how long it was going to take, I knew how much it was going to cost– I thought it was going to take longer, but anyway. Roughly, there’s a time frame, there’s a price. And the line items were like, new tub, tile, whatever. I could connect those dots in my head and understand what I was actually going to be getting versus the other guys where it was just like tub, tile, fixture, shower, paint. I didn’t know what that meant. And so this hadn’t set in, but on the next project that we did for a client, I had the same experience where it was sort of a long one and unhappy, but I paid more attention to it along the way. And what I realized was that the reason why long projects aren’t fun usually– they aren’t fun for you and they aren’t necessarily fun for the client, primarily for the client though– is because there’s so much anxiety tied up in not knowing what you’re buying.

And this industry that we’re in, for people who sell design– luckily, I’m out of this industry now, but when I was in the industry– I’m out of it because I make software now instead, but anyway– sorry. So the reason this industry, I think, doesn’t get selling design is because they don’t think about what it’s like to get a proposal for X amount of dollars, a big amount, for a big period of time, for a big unknown. We talk about– I’m going to do a website redesign for you. We’re going to do an identity for you, whatever it is. The client doesn’t really know what they’re going to get. We have an idea in our head of what they might get. We understand the process, we understand the product, we understand the output, but they don’t actually know. And so right from the beginning of these long processes, these long projects, you have a lot of anxiety. You have people paying a lot of money for something they don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take and they don’t know what they’re going to get. And I realized that I would not want to buy what I was selling.

That’s a pretty crappy thing to say. Hey, give me a bunch of money for something you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that was the root of the problem. And that was the process that I was following because that’s what everyone else in the industry that I knew was doing, which was like they were getting RFP’s, they were writing long proposals, and they were charging a lot of money, and they were promising a lot of things, and they would deliver this big stuff to the client. And then we’d be sort of upset with it. So what I decided to do was, I said, this is not making me happy, or us happy. Clients aren’t really thrilled about it, even though this is just how the industry works. But I’m going to blow that process up. I’m going to destroy it. I’m going to tear it apart, because it does not work for me or for them, I don’t think.

So what we decided to do instead was to sort of think about eliminating, at each point, the uncertainty and the risk around big projects. So the first thing we did was we said, no more big projects. We’re going to do micro projects, which was one week. Each project we would take was only one week. We said, we’re not going to do full-site redesigns, which is what we were specializing in. We’re going to do one page at a time. And we’re not going to charge a lot of money. So we’ll start the project on Monday and by Friday the client will get the one-page redesign. We would also eliminate the stuff we hated about client work, which was feedback. [LAUGHTER] So we were just simply delivering the work on Friday, and that was that.

And if they wanted another revision, they could buy another revision. If they wanted another page done, they could buy another page. If they wanted 10 pages, they could buy one at a time, one a week, see as we go. And it’s actually a chance for us to prove that we were good. It was a chance to get comfortable with the client. It was a chance for the client to feel comfortable with the process. And it was a chance for them to also think about the value of the work that we were doing and how we were doing it for them, because they might decide that they don’t need 22 pages redesigned. They might just need eight. And something I realized too was that this– the web-design industry specifically, was pitching very, very big projects, pitching redesign, entire redesigns. Most people don’t need an entire redesign. They need like, let’s make the product page better. Let’s make the check out page, shopping cart, better. Let’s make the search results page better.

Let’s just make the home page better. Let’s make the job, jobs available page, better. One page at a time. Let’s make this so easy to say yes to. That makes sure everyone feels good, because they know on Monday it starts. Friday, they get it. So we started doing this. I didn’t know if it was going to work. It didn’t take long to try it. But it was a very refreshing moment for us when we began to do it this way and saw that a lot of clients really started to like this. And it was a moment when I realized– it was the first moment in my sort of career that I realized the way it’s done doesn’t matter. It does not matter how it’s done. It doesn’t matter how my friends do it. It doesn’t matter how my competitors do it. It doesn’t matter how anyone else in the business does it. It doesn’t matter what this magazine says I should do. You don’t have to do things the way other people do them.

And the most important advice I could give to people in their career was some advice someone gave to me. I asked him for his advice, he said, don’t be like me. And I said, what do you mean? He said, you’ve got to be unique. You’ve got to be original. If you want to stand out, you’ve got to do something a little bit differently than everybody else. And so this was the first time I tried to do that, something that shouldn’t have worked, and it worked. And we started doing more, and more, and more of these single-page redesigns, which we called express– 37 Express Projects at the time.

We started doing a lot of these, which led to another opportunity, which was we were starting to do so much work, short projects, but a lot of them, that we had a lot of variety that we had to manage, find a better way to manage our client projects, because we were doing too many of them at once and we were dropping the ball and the whole thing. And so eventually, we ended up building this product called Basecamp. And I want to take you through, really quickly, this application of this idea, which is creative destruction, destroying a process, and moving over to the product side of things. something called Basecamp. Hopefully many people in the audience know what that is, I hope. I’m not going to ask you, because I’m a little bit self-conscious about it if they don’t. [CHEERING] All right. There we go. Thank you.

I’ll just imagine everyone said something, so that was great. know what was going to happen, started to take off, got more and more popular, more and more successful. 2012 rolls around– so we’ve been doing it for eight years– and we’d reached what you would call a local maximum. And this is very common in product development and business development, which is that you’ve optimized something so much that you can’t make big leaps anymore. You’ve just like– you’re only able to make small leaps. It’s built on top of old technology, it’s built on top of old ideas.

And we had to decide what to do. Were we going to just continue to iterate on this product that we’d put out, that at the time, millions of people had been using and now there’s over 10 million people who use it, but back then it was about a million? What are we going to do? And so I thought back to this moment when we said, we’re not going to do what everyone else did. In our industry, what everyone else does is they continue to iterate. And they might roll out a big huge update and then piss everybody off because they’ll change the whole product in a huge massive way, which is a good idea, but they’ll force the change on people. And when you force change– people don’t mind change, but they do mind when they’re forced to change. That’s the problem I realized.

And so rather than continue to iterate on Basecamp to the point where we couldn’t iterate anymore in big ways but we wanted to take a big leap, rather than force that change on everybody, we decided to start over. We made Basecamp 2 in 2012. Whole new version, not a single line of code, not a single one of design. The product is relatively similar, but it was new thinking, new tech, new ideas behind it, but there was still a common theme. Kind of like when a car manufacturer comes out with a new car. Like it’s a new car, but you could tell it was derived from the previous car.

Like Porsche 911 is a great example of this. 50 years of 911, it’s been around for 53 years now or something. From the beginning 911, 1963, all the way through the current one, you can tell it’s the same car even though it’s a whole different car. I wanted to do that with Basecamp. So we blew it up. We left it where it was, left the current version where it was and said, we made a new version. And said, you do not have to switch over to the new version if you don’t want to, but you can. But we’re not going to force you to do this. We’re going to make a new version. And then four years later, which was last year, we made another new version. And so the idea is, we want to make new versions of things on a regular basis without screwing people over who are using earlier versions by forcing them to change to new versions. This is not the way the industry typically works.

The industry typically thinks that new and better are the two criteria that clients and customers want. A lot of people just want consistency. A lot of people just want things to work the way they’re comfortable with them working, and so we never force anyone to a new version of Basecamp. But we blew up the idea that you had to either force people to change with you or that you had to continue to iterate on the exact same line. So these are things we try and do at our company as often as we can. And these are two examples. I’m not suggesting that you should do these two examples, although you can take them and do whatever you want with them. But the idea is that you need to look regularly at things that you’re doing that you’ve become so comfortable with that you don’t even question anymore, and question the hell out of those things. Because I promise you, you’re doing something that if you looked back on it, you’d go, that’s ridiculous. But you’re so close inside of it, you’re so used to it, that you don’t recognize that you’re doing something a little bit too common. I’ll give you one sort of suggestion of how you can come into these moments of realizing that something should really be changing that you’re too comfortable with. This is a little bit of a strange idea but it works for us.

So I’m a big fan of the seasons. In Chicago, we have the seasons. A lot of people have the seasons. Some people who live in Southern California don’t have the seasons, so I’m not really talking necessarily about weather. I’m talking about moments of predictable change, being moments when you can look at something new again.

So for example, when we were all younger, we went to school. And for most people, at least in the US, school would get out in the spring. And you would then take a break, summer break, and maybe you went to camp, or maybe you went on a family vacation, or maybe you got a part-time job, or whatever you did, but there would be a break. And then you’d start up with school again, I think, what is it? October or something. Whatever. I’m not sure, but later in the year, you start up school again. And this was something you looked forward to. You looked forward to the break because you were sick of school by spring. You looked forward to the summer, and then you sort of didn’t look forward to going back to school, though maybe you did, depends on who you were.

But anyway, there was a moment when you would go back into something. And in the professional world, in the world we all live in, there are no seasons. We’re basically doing the same thing all year round with no break. You might have a vacation, but work is the same. There are no moments. And this is why I think a lot of people don’t stop to think about what they’re doing, because there’s no time to stop to think what you’re doing, because there are no natural, forced breaks in what you’re doing. So something we practice at Basecamp is a seasonal change. May through October– this is actually similar to Ryan– we only work four-day weeks, Monday through Friday. Not packing 40 hours into fewer days, but actually working fewer hours. We do this from May through October because we originally started doing it all year round and we found that it became too normal. It was not special anymore.

So we broke it into the summer months, May through October, we do these four-day work weeks, and people look forward to the moment of the change of schedule, and they work a little bit less in the summer, enjoy the outdoors a bit more, and then get back into work in the fall. And when that happens, when there’s a forced change in the way you work on a regular basis, you create moments to come back to something and look at something fresh, and look at something a little bit differently. And if you begin to do that and you create these moments when you’re regularly coming back to something, you will see it a little bit differently and you might have a chance at making a change there. So I’d like to leave you with those thoughts today. Basically, fall madly out of love with something that you’re so used to doing that you can’t imagine doing it any other way, and look for opportunities in the things that you do to blow them up and start all over again. So thanks for having me here. [APPLAUSE] Thank you.

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