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Our favorite recent reads on the web

Emily Wilder
Emily Wilder wrote this on 1 comment

Each week, Know Your Company asks everyone at Basecamp a few questions, including one that helps us learn more about each other. Last week’s prompt was “What’s one great read on the web you’ve come across in the past month?” We enjoyed reading one another’s recommendations so much we wanted to share the results here!

Javan Makhmali, Programmer:
Love People, Not Pleasure –
Dan Kim, All-purpose:
This Paul Graham article from way back in 2007, titled “Stuff”. It’s a great essay on how we have way too much stuff, and how it corrodes our lives.
In my constant efforts to be as minimalist as possible, this article really nailed it.
Chase Clemons, Support:
This story on houses built out of spite was really fascinating.
James Glazebrook, Support:
When picking fonts for a logo, I was blown away by the story told about this typeface:
Feel free to slam me for conflating the terms “font” and “typeface”, but that’s my level of knowledge. This page did a great job of explaining the background of FF Mark in particular, and the broader type trends that inspired it.
Wailin Wong, Reporter:
I liked “Twilight of the Pizza Barons,” a profile of the founders of Domino’s and Little Caesars that Bryan Gruley wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek: Lots of interesting trivia about the two men plus a look at the legacies they’re trying to build now. It’s also a story about Detroit.
There was a line in the story that was so good I read it aloud to my husband (the mark of a really good piece in our household):
“The pizza barons were great at selling pies. Now one wants to save Detroit, and the other wants to save everything else.”
Jason Zimdars, Designer:
I’m fascinated with astronomy and anything that delves into the massive scale of the universe. This piece (from the same site as the popular Fermi Paradox piece the circulated recently) has elements of that with regard to time. It’s light hearted and funny but what I love is how it visualizes time. Starting with a single day the post zooms out again and again to gain perspective. First a week, then a year, then a century, through recorded (and unrecorded history) all the way to the theoretical time before the Big Bang.
I can’t get enough.
Tom Ward, Programmer:
Here’s a long one and a short one, both from the New Yorker:
First, the best ‘guy walks into a bar’ joke ever:
Second, food for thought in this criticism of disruption and innovation. I’m still digesting it:
Zach Waugh, Programmer:
The Fermi Paradox –
I kept thinking about it for days afterwards, going down many Wikipedia rabbit holes along the way trying to read more about it.
Conor Muirhead, Designer:
I really enjoyed reading this post by Nate Kontny on the stories and character that allow us to connect the dots as we look back on great work:

Why we don't speak up at work

Claire Lew
Claire Lew wrote this on 17 comments

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he was thinking about quitting his job.

He said it was because of communication breakdowns between him and his boss. Small moments of poor communication had snowballed into a deeper, gnawing frustration for my friend.

I asked if he’d mentioned these moments to his boss. Maybe his boss had no idea these were problems in the first place.

My friend acknowledged that this was most-likely true. But then he said this:

“Even if I did speak up, I don’t think anything would change.”

His words struck me. I had almost forgotten – I had felt the exact same way a few years ago.

Before I was CEO of Know Your Company, I was an employee at another company. Just like my friend, I was unhappy at work. But just like my friend, I didn’t tell my boss about it.

Why? Part of it was due to personality. I’m an introvert. I didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” to my boss. Another part of it was fear. I was worried that my boss would interpret my feedback as a personal attack.

But those weren’t the biggest reasons holding me back.

The biggest reason I didn’t give my boss feedback is I believed that even if I did speak up, nothing would change. I believed my boss wouldn’t do anything with my feedback. No action would be taken. And if nothing was going to change, what was the point of me saying anything?

My friend had felt the exact same way. This sense of futility is why we both didn’t speak up. We’re not the only ones to have felt like this.

Futility has been found to be 1.8 times more common than fear as a reason for employees not speaking up to their managers. According to a 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, more employees reported withholding their ideas due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%).

In other words, it’s not that we’re merely scared of giving feedback. It’s that we don’t think anything will come of the feedback when we voice it. Futility, more than fear, is why employees choose not to speak up to their bosses.

So how do you help your employees overcome this sense of futility?

If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place – they simply want action to be taken.

Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent work environment, you can’t just talk about being open and transparent. You have to act in an open and transparent way.

Here are three small ways you can encourage your employees to speak up…

(1) Recognize the messenger. How do treat the people in your company who do choose to speak up? Amanda Lannert, the CEO of Jellyvision and a Know Your Company customer, told me that during an all-hands meeting, she publicly thanked an employee who spoke up and gave feedback. Even though she didn’t agree with the employee’s feedback, she wanted him to know his voice was heard and his feedback was not in vain.

(2) Explain why you’re not doing something. If you receive a piece of feedback that isn’t practical or doesn’t align with the company’s direction, tell your employees that. Expose your decision-making process. If you don’t, employees will wonder, “What ever happened to that idea I suggested?” They’ll assume that you’re not open to receiving new ideas, and they’ll hesitate to bring up feedback the next time around.

(3) Act on something small. Acting on feedback – no matter how small – is the most powerful way to encourage employees to speak up and to create a more positive company culture. For example, Dave Bellous, the co-CEO of Yellow Pencil, learned through Know Your Company that his company needed a new phone service. So he promptly changed their phone service, and saw an immediate shift in his team’s morale. This one unassuming change yielded huge results. All because he acted on something small quickly.

At the end of the day, acting on feedback is how we encourage our employees to give feedback more openly. If we focus on what we do more than what we say, more employees will see that speaking up is not futile.

When I think back to a few years ago when I was an unhappy employee, this action was all I needed to feel comfortable speaking up. And for my friend thinking about quitting his job, that’s all he needs too.

The Distance goes tiki

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 4 comments

I first noticed the Hala Kahiki about a year ago driving north on River Road through the Chicago suburb of River Grove. I glanced at its colorful exterior and quirky signage and wondered, “What’s the story there?” The wonderful thing about journalism is that it’s a professional excuse to be nosy. I contacted the bar owner, Jim Oppedisano, et voilà! Our newest story for The Distance takes you inside the Hala Kahiki, a tiki bar established nearly 50 years ago by a family that’s never traveled west of California.

One of the many fascinating things about the Hala Kahiki is that its founders, Stanley and Rose Sacharski, weren’t trying to take advantage of the mid-century tiki fad. They just wanted to run a bar, and the tropical theme came about largely by chance. I love the role that serendipity plays in the history of the Hala Kahiki, which like many businesses has benefitted from a combination of happy accidents and pragmatic management.

Photo by Michael Berger

The bar is well-known among tiki enthusiasts and certain locals; earlier this year, Time Out Chicago listed “a pilgrimage to Hala Kahiki in River Grove” as No. 9 on its list of Chicago Rites of Passage. The Hala Kahiki is one of the last old-fashioned tiki bars in the region, and it’s delightfully nostalgic and free of irony. This is not a place for craft cocktails and winking nods to a bygone era of American kitsch. This is a place where you drink something called a Sweet Leilani on a leopard print stool while the bartender tells you ghost stories. There’s even a gift shop in the back where I almost bought a vintage Hawaiian muumuu at least three sizes too big for me.

We’re always on the hunt for unique businesses like the Hala Kahiki to write about for The Distance, so keep sending your suggestions to or follow us on Twitter at @distancemag. If you’re new to The Distance, please check out our first two stories on Horween Leather Co., Chicago’s last tannery, and Tina’s Closet, a lingerie store in the Chicago suburbs whose owner is determined to get every woman into a well-fitting bra.

Contest: Two Free 3-Day Passes to Pitchfork Music Festival

Jamie wrote this on Discuss

Our friends (and Basecamp customers) at Pitchfork Media are bringing the Pitchfork Music Festival back to Union Park in Chicago this July 18–20. They use Basecamp to plan and organize the entire event, and we’re giving away two pairs of 3-day passes to the festival to celebrate!

How do you enter? Tweet a lyric, song title, album name, or artist related to “Basecamp”. Add the hashtag #basecampmusic. Here’s an example:

When is the contest over? We’ll be watching the #basecampmusic hashtag on Twitter between today (Monday 7/7/2014) and tomorrow (Tuesday 7/8/2014) at 11:59pm CDT.
What’s the prize? We’re giving away two pairs of 3-day passes to the Pitchfork Music Festival—happening in Chicago on July 18–20. Not included: airfare, hotel, meals…
Anything else? Basecamp is going to have a special presence at the festival this year. Please visit us near the Blue Stage!
We’re excited to see your clever #basecampmusic tweets. Good luck!

Talking with a UbiDuo

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 26 comments

A few weeks ago I spoke at Inc’s GROWCO conference in Nashville. After my talk, I had a scheduled book signing over in the conference bookstore area.

Most people came up, said hi, chatted a bit, bought a book, shook hands, and then moved on.

But one guy came up, put a laptop-like device on the table, unhinged it, spun one side around to me, flipped up a little screen, and then did the same on his side with his half of the device. It took about 10 seconds to set up. Then he started typing.

The screen was split in two horizontally. At the top was what he was typing. On the bottom was what I was typing. No explanation was necessary – it just worked all in real-time.

We started typing back and forth. I wasn’t sure what was happening at first. Why was I using this thing? What was this thing? I knew how to use it, but what was it for?

Then he explained that he was deaf and that he was using this machine so he could communicate with people without an interpreter or without the other person knowing how to sign.

I was moved. I’ve been in a billion chats before. But this was different. This wasn’t about convenience, this was about necessity. I was able to communicate with someone who couldn’t hear me. He was able to communicate with someone who didn’t understand sign language. We were face to face. It was an amazing moment.

We chatted like this for about 10 minutes.

Turns out, this guy’s name was Jason Curry and he was the inventor of the UbiDuo.

The company and invention was born out of frustration. Back in 2005 he was sitting across from his father at Perkins restaurant for breakfast, but they just couldn’t communicate as freely as he liked because his dad doesn’t know how to sign. That’s where it all started.

Check out this video to see how it works.

You can find out more about the UbiDuo on their site.

Crossing Streams

Jamie wrote this on 16 comments

When I switched to Android a few years ago, I promised myself this: I’d switch back the minute Apple added smart notifications, app data sharing, widgets, and a better keyboard to iOS.

Apple’s WWDC keynote yesterday was exciting. Craig Federighi is super awesome (I wanna hang out with him). iOS is finally getting the Android features I love. Yesterday I was ready to switch back, but now I’m not so sure.
Some iOS fans have pointed to Google’s Android as being a poor copy—thermonuclear theft. On the surface there are similarities, but conceptually Android started from a power user’s perspective. Where Android had power features it also lacked in the simplicity and obviousness of iOS. Simply because iOS did far less.
Yesterday Apple showed iOS doing a whole lot more. Apple is refining iOS by layering on functionality. They’re adding features to the simple iOS foundation. However, the more features there are, the more complicated it becomes—and the harder it is to use.

Meanwhile, Google has done something interesting with Android. It started out as a very power-user complex platform, but they’ve been refining it in a different way than Apple. Instead of adding features, they’ve pruned them. Historically Google hasn’t been afraid to nix apps or services in an effort to focus and simplify. You can see these efforts in Google Now. With Google Now you don’t interact with apps or widgets. Their “cloud” knows what you want to know and tells you. No interaction needed.

It’s always harder to take away features that are already there. But, I have no doubt Apple will try to continue making iOS easy-to-use while they layer on new power user features. At the same time, Google’s not afraid to take away features. Maybe Google will keep simplifying Android, pushing all you need to know from their sentient “cloud”.
I’m curious to see what happens next. But, I’m not switching back to iOS just yet.

One-hit wonder

David wrote this on 15 comments

It’s incredibly hard to trace the success of any business, product, or project down to the skill of the founders. There’s plenty of correlation, but not much causation.

That’s a scary thought to a lot of people: What if my success isn’t based solely on my talent and hard work, but rather my lucky timing or stumbling across an under-served market by happenstance? What if I’m just a one-hit wonder!?

And I say, so what? So what if you are? I, for one, am completely at peace with the idea that Basecamp might very well be the best product I’ll ever be involved with. Or that Ruby on Rails might be the peak of my contributions to technology.

What about my life would be any different if I could truly trace down the success to personal traits of wonder? Even if I somehow did have a “magic touch” — and I very much believe that I don’t — why would I want to leave those ventures, just to prove that I could do it again?

Yet that siren song calls many a founder, entrepreneur, and star employee. The need to prove they’re not a one-hit wonder. That they’re really that good because they could do it again and again.

For every Elon Musk, there are undoubtedly thousands of people who left their one great idea to try again and fell flat on their faces, unable to go back to the shine and the heyday of that original success, and worse off for it in pride, blood, and treasure.

Life is short. Move on if you don’t love what you’re doing. But don’t ever leave a great thing just because you want to prove to others or yourself that you’re not a one-hit wonder.

What Jamis left behind... for us.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 15 comments

A few weeks ago, Jamis Buck, a programmer who had been with us for nine years, asked to meet with me and David. We grabbed a conference room, and I immediately felt something heavy in the air. Jamis told us it was time for him to move on. He’d had an incredible run, but recently he’d felt stuck. He wasn’t sure yet what he would do next – which terrified him – but he had to follow his heart.

Naturally, it was hard to hear. We love Jamis. Everyone who’s ever met Jamis loves Jamis. The guy is a model of honesty, hard work, and humility. But we knew deep down it was time. As he poured his heart out to explain, we offered no resistance, only support.

Now that Jamis has moved on and time has pushed some emotions out of the way, I’ve been thinking about his legacy here at Basecamp. On the one hand, losing Jamis means we’ve lost a cultural touchstone. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience: A key team member takes with her a piece of the company’s soul. But the situation also presents an opportunity to make sure that the person’s values stay with the company, so I sat down and tried to identify the principles of Jamis’s success. I’m not sure yet how we’ll formalize some of these things, but just reflecting on his impact will, I’m sure, help carry it forward. So here it is, the Jamis Doctrine…

Respect the Work

Jamis wrote code that was concise, clear, and thoughtful. He coded the way a great writer writes prose, which is to say he did it lovingly and invested himself in the work. Because Jamis was the second person ever to touch the Basecamp code base, his example is all over the place, and every programmer gets to learn from it. I hope his example will resonate with people in other departments, too. It’s never enough just to get the work done.

Take Time to Teach

Jamis always did. Whether that meant helping another programmer or showing someone in customer service how something worked, he was always available and eager to explain. When people wrote up their goodbyes to Jamis, many of them mentioned things he’d taught them. What a great example to follow—it’s the kind of thing that turns co-workers into a team.

Stay Hungry

Jamis took on an interesting new hobby every year. One year, he learned to make bow ties (and made some for all of us). Another year, he mastered the art of marshmallow making, and another he learned to draw (and started hand-illustrating his presentations). This past year, he decided to write 1,000 words a day. Jamis’s deep curiosity – and willingness to share it – was one of the reasons we instituted a continuing-education benefit years ago. I hope we can continue to help everyone at Basecamp pursue personal interests, because an intellectually satisfied employee is a happy one.

Do the Right Thing, Not the Easy Thing

Jamis always put what was correct before what was convenient. In nine years, I can’t remember talking to him and not feeling as if he gave me a straight answer. There’s a difference between aiming to please and aiming to please properly, and he did the latter. In many ways, it was that quality that inspired me most, and it’s especially important for me, as the boss, to embrace it.

Spread Sweetness

A box arrived today at work. In it was a short story that starred two characters named Basil and Fabian. Over the years, Jamis had written a series of weird little tales that starred these two. This time, Basil and Fabian were talking about marshmallows. There was a personal note from Jamis in the box, and nestled below that was a bag of his chocolate-covered coconut marshmallows. I ate one – OK, two – and smiled. I think everyone at the office did.

(Note: this article was originally published on

It's OK not to use tools

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 54 comments

Recently I did a little side project to improve the website for a non-profit animal shelter in our town. The existing site was an outdated Microsoft FrontPage menagerie, so basically anything I did would be a big improvement.

I spent around 20 minutes creating a simple design in HTML, and then several hours editing, rewriting, and refining the copy. In the end, I reduced a scattershot 25-page website down to about 8 focused pages written in a friendly tone.

My next instinct was to apply our great modern web toolset to the site. Let’s add a static site generator or a CMS! Let’s add Sass and a grid system! Let’s do more fashionable things!

Then I started looking at those tools critically. A static site generator usually requires knowing Markdown and esoteric commands and configuration. A typical CMS will need setup, logins, security patches, templates, and maintenance. Even hosted CMSes have a lot of cognitive overhead, and the content is trapped away inside someone else’s system.

These are tools made by geeks, for geeks. Why do we need a CMS for an 8-page site? And for that matter, why even bother with Sass? Regular old CSS can do the job just fine.

Who knows who will take over the site in the future. I’ll hang with it for a while, but someday someone else might have to work on it. It would surely be easier to do that with 8 simple, straightforward HTML files than with some custom WordPress installation that’s several versions out of date. So what if I have to repeat the navigation markup 8 separate times? It’s not that hard. We used to do it for much larger sites!

Today, a basic HTML/CSS site seems almost passé. But why? Is it because our new tools are so significantly better, or because we’ve gone overboard complicating simple things?

As builders, we like tools and tech because they’re interesting and new, and we enjoy mastering them. But when you think about the people we’re building for, the reality is usually the opposite. They need simple designs, clear writing, less tech, and fewer abstractions. They want to get stray animals adopted, not fuss around with website stuff.

Remember when the web was damn simple? It still can be. It’s up to us to make it that way.

My brother made a video tribute to one of my favorite artists: Elwood T. Risk. Woody worked as a construction worker for many years before “giving himself permission” to become an artist. Now he’s had work featured all over the place, including the show Californication. Great guy, great story, great art.


I really like Jeep’s text-based 7-bars + headlights subject lines in their marketing emails. Fun touch.

Jason Fried on May 14 2014 3 comments