There is No Excuse, Basecamp

For the past couple days, I keep coming back to this phrase Basecamp founder Jason Fried said keep getting more and more livid.

I don’t like hearing that someone doesn’t feel valued,” Fried said. “I don’t know what to say … I can understand why [the employee] feels uncomfortable right now. I feel terrible about it. I don’t know how else to respond.

Let me backtrack a bit.

Basecamp is a project management system created by 37Signals (a company founded Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson). We’ve been using this system since 2005 (a year or so after Needmore was founded).

Jason & David / Image via MagazineUS

Over the years, the duo have written a number of books espousing their philosophy of work. They don’t hold back. In fact, they can be downright preachy. One thing is obvious – these two think and talk about business constantly. They see themselves as doing things the right way. They aren’t folks who find themselves unprepared for issues that they care about; their latest book blurb is par for the course:

We’ve designed our company differently. We’re here to tell you about it, and show you how you can do it. There’s a path. You’ve got to want it, but if you do you’ll realize it’s much nicer over here. You can have a calm company too.

Recently, we learned that Basecamp was going through some internal issues. Each day, more information has come to light about what led a third of employees to quit in a single day.

Behind the scenes, Fried had been dealing with an employee reckoning over a long-standing company practice of maintaining a list of “funny” customer names, some of which were of Asian and African origin. The internal discussion over that list had been oriented primarily around making Basecamp feel more inclusive to its employees and customers. But Fried and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, had been taken aback by an employee post which argued that mocking customer names laid the foundation for racially-motivated violence, and closed the thread. They also disbanded an internal committee of employees who had volunteered to work on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

An executive went on:

“I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture,” Singer said. “I don’t believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.”

He was thanked for his input. Thanked. for. his. input.

A black employee spoke up.

The fact that you can be a white male, and come to this meeting and call people racist and say ‘white supremacy doesn’t exist’ when it’s blatant at this company is white privilege,” the employee said. “The fact that he wasn’t corrected and was in fact thanked — it makes me sick.

You know what? It makes me sick, too.

Like Basecamp, we are company run by two white individuals. We don’t have all of the answers. But, we do know that now is a time to sit back and listen the the BIPOC individuals in your community, not shut them down. Listen, even if you were hiding under a rock until that point, even if you were unaware of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, even if you were unaware of the Black Lives Matter movement or any of the numerous calls for equality in our society, we all witnessed the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 (just about a year ago). We all had that moment to wake up. We’ve all had this year. A year. A year is too long to still feel comfortable with a feeble “I don’t know how else to respond.”

We’ve all had time to think about what is important to us. Here at Needmore, we know it is imperative that we sit back, listen and learn. Some of what we learn is hard. Sometimes, we want to reject what we are hearing because we want to think of ourselves as good people and new information challenges that view. An employee at Basecamp brought this up.

“Racism [and] white supremacy are not things that are so convenient that they only happen when full intention is present, or true malice is present,” the employee said. “Evil is not required. We’re not so lucky as for this to come down to good and evil. It’s as simple as creating a space where people do not feel welcome.” The employee continued: “The silence in the background is what racism and white supremacy does. It creates that atmosphere that feels suffocating to people. It doesn’t require active malice. It’s not that convenient.

Instead of supporting the deep desire of their team to grow together, Basecamp’s founders reinforced their superiority (even to go as far as to offer buyouts to anyone who didn’t like their stance). They chose the frailty of their egos over their team. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, explains:

“I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all,” she remarks wryly.) These splutterings “work,” DiAngelo explains, “to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.” She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.

None of this is convenient. Not of this is easy. At this point, though, there are no more excuses. And, seeing where Basecamp’s priorities lie, we will no longer be a customer of theirs.