Basecamp Is The Ultimate Example of Startup Management Hubris and Delusion

So the Basecamp situation accelerated rapidly last night. If you didn’t read my blog (how dare you), Basecamp’s co-founder and CEO Jason Fried announced that they would be banning political and societal discussion from Basecamp internal comms. DHH, the other co-founder, went into more detail about the logic behind the changes. Lots of people didn’t like the changes because the idea of silencing political and societal discussion is generally bad, and open to a multitude of interpretations, especially considering we didn’t at the time know what caused this.

Casey Newton over at Platformer then did some journalism, discovering that the reason that the situation occurred was that an internal list of “Best Names” existed for years, a problematic document that made fun of customers’ names. Apparently, political discussion was otherwise not a huge deal:

“At least in my experience, it has always been centered on what is happening at Basecamp,” said one employee — who, like most of those I spoke with today, requested anonymity so as to freely discuss internal deliberations. “What is being done at Basecamp? What is being said at Basecamp? And how it is affecting individuals? It has never been big political discussions, like ‘the postal service should be disbanded,’ or ‘I don’t like Amy Klobuchar.’

To summarize briefly, the idea of a worker-led diversity effort gathered steam, and eventually a 20-person group began evaluating Basecamp’s entire operation. The Best Names list came up, and two people stepped up, apologizing specifically for their involvement, including the ADL’s pyramid of hate, which shows how small acts of racism and bias can enable much larger ones. DHH took responsibility for the List’s existence, but got upset that the pyramid of hate was posted on a work-based channel, claiming to Newton that it was “catastrophizing” to link the list to, say, genocide, which is not what was happening, but is generally the kind of bad faith read that an asshole does when he reads something and doesn’t like it. Because he viewed the ensuing discussion as unproductive, he claimed that people had ‘become the person they were complaining about,’ versus having a real discussion about a real thing.

An employee disagreed with him directly, talking about the ways in which the treatment of names can lead to racism and violence. DHH responded by going through old chat logs to see if the person had made fun of a name, then posted the message to the entire company, doing a classic “this you?” to try and dismiss the substance of an extremely substantive complaint.

The Aftermath

DHH has now responded with a long blog post that, he claims, includes the post in question, but somehow said message he’s included does not include the aforementioned chat logs that he dug up, vaguely mentioning it, but clearly having chosen to either edit it out or reframe a post he made internally. I hope someone leaks the thread (with redactions of people’s names).

In any case, even if you were to take DHH’s post at face value - that this is what was said, it wasn’t edited, it didn’t leave anything out - it is a profoundly oafish and shitty response to people’s sensitivities over racism. It’s written specifically by someone trying to sound egalitarian, thoughtful and empathetic, but can’t help but turn into the actions of someone trying to stretch a single ballon to cover his entire ass. Without going through the entire post line by line, DHH attempts to break down the reasoning behind making fun of names, which everybody understood, and then the etymology of said names, which nobody cared about and does not matter to the discussion if, as DHH said, the list was “wrong in all sorts of fundamental ways.”

His annoyance with the specificity of the ADL’s pyramid ironically proves exactly why the pyramid exists. While on some level, yes, when something bad happens it isn’t the most productive thing to go on about it over and over, this isn’t one of those cases - these are the actions of the Diversity and Equity side of the business, and thus it needs thorough, public consideration that they control. The pyramid exists to show how structural movements - the enabling and allowance of small acts of cruelty and bigotry - eventually builds a structure of cruelty and bigotry in which acts of cruelty are part of the foundation, which enables actions informed by the structure, which, as mentioned, are cruel and bigoted. By saying “ehhhh, you’re overreacting, let’s stop talking about this” and specifically directing his ire at the pyramid, he is taking Basecamp from the lowest tier (biased attitudes) and going up to acts of bias (though one could argue that they were already there with “biased jokes").

DHH’s actions show no actual interest in a conversation about diversity, nor any interest in seeing a diverse or thoughtful outcome. His argument is that it’s not “proportional” to suggest that a list can lead to genocide - which is not what the suggestion or use of the pyramid suggests - and as a result that the conversation has “taken a wrong turn,” which eventually led to them outright banning politics and society from the office. Not because societal and political discussions were diverting from work, but because he didn’t want to hear about diversity anymore. It is, at its core, an anti-labor and discriminatory act of cowardice, one born of selfishness and privilege - the very foundation on which discrimination is built upon, where the tough conversations are not too hard, they’re too annoying, and are swept under the rug.

The obvious question is “what would you have them do?” to which the answer is “more than nothing.” The answer was to, if anything, talk to the people volunteering to help the company be more diverse and say “okay, what do you think should happen here? What would the policy be, and how would you word it? Should we retroactively punish those involved, or use this as a lesson to inform future actions?” As usual, batting around ideas with Kasey, he brought up what the “okay, what would the “if you don’t believe these you’re an asshole” rules would be, framing a few obvious ones - “Black lives matter, brown lives matter and trans rights are human rights.”

Whether or not you agree with Kasey - and you should, and if you don’t, the unsubscribe button is right there waiting for you - he has officially put more effort into this discussion than DHH or Fried has.

DHH’s screed specifically said that “[he couldn’t] in [his] most critical reading find evidence or origin for the charges that this constituted protected-class discrimination or harassment,” because he is unable to see outside of his ass, where he stores his entire head. Marginalizing people usually starts by disregarding and downplaying the significance of their pain, and that’s all he’s done here, blog after blog - instead of learning a single god damn thing about this, he has welded himself forcefully to the idea that not only is he right, but the many people he’s hired are wrong and whiny. He referred to the discussion as an “acrimonious devolution” (it’s cool that you can sound really stupid while trying to sound smart) that “pitted employees against each other” (which he has not cited one example of). He handed it off to “external labor lawyers” who concluded that it was, in fact, not discriminatory, which does not mean it isn’t, and does not mean that people feel discriminated against.

Faced with a discussion like this, there are basically two options - the empathetic and the conservative. You can choose to react to employees “hurling angry words at each other” by managing them and finding out why people are angry, and making decisions based on that. These decisions will reduce these conversations, because there won’t be a discussion - there will be a decision, ideally controlled by those handling diversity. Someone will still be mad, but the decision will have been made based on trying to have empathy with those hurt, even if you do not share their background or ethnicity.

There is also the conservative decision - the one that seeks to reduce the conversations by restricting their existence. This does not solve a single problem - it is putting a carpet over a pile of vomit and hoping it doesn’t seep through. What it does do is reduce the visible issues, which makes management happy and means nobody has to do any extra emotional labor or make any actual decisions. It is the coward’s way out.

The Startup Hubris Masters

As with a lot of these situations, this entire negative press cycle could have been avoided if the founders were not arrogant, ignorant morons. There is no doubt in my mind that when Jason posted his original “we’re banning politics” post he expected to be applauded for the decision - a guy cutting to the quick of management, a pioneer, and so on - with an incredible level of ignorance of how poorly this went for Coinbase. The shitty decisions had already been made behind the scenes, and had yet to blow up in their faces, but because Jason thinks he’s the publicity master, he thought that people would go absolutely nuts and love him for it.

Wrong!

DHH assumed that his follow up would calm everybody down, and potentially make people happy by suggesting that people were allowed to discuss politics…not at work. In a confusing followup, he chose to tell everybody some of his opinions, again I assume because he thought it would help.

What rocks about these pieces is that they show a complete and utter ignorance of the world around them before we got to see how ignorant they were behind the scenes. By posting these things - by making this situation public - it is blatantly obvious that Fried and DHH consider their decision both morally and ethically solid, and that the world would appreciate their perspective. So confident in his brain power, DHH also spoke with Casey Newton, giving up a bunch of details that definitely do not help his position (though one might consider this an attempt at damage control as Casey had talked to employees), then proceeded to add more details, which, again, did not help.

This is a classic managerial problem, but is so much more apparent in the actions and horrors of startup culture. Brian Armstrong at Coinbase and Fried/DHH at Basecamp both have filled their skulls with a sense of moral and intellectual superiority - that because they have succeeded at work, they understand society better than others, and can only perceive the world through that lens of privilege. Their actions exist in a bubble of delusions - they are the protagonists of this reality, and their surprise and scrambling to pick up the pieces comes from a surprise that the world does not simply accept the rules that they have created in their heads. DHH, a guy who has externally exhibited many political opinions I agree with, clearly deep down believes that the pain and suffering of minorities is something that is unacceptable, but ultimately not his problem.

This is the magical thinking of the startup community - creating products that fail because the majority of people don’t need them, and making public moves based on an imagined sense of moral clarity, fueled by the privilege of having and making money. Basecamp, from what we’ve seen, appears to “exist for David and Jason's enjoyment” (to quote Newton’s source), and this policy appears to be an exercise in that same narcissism. The decisions they have made and the ways in which they publicize these decisions betray a total lack of regard for people other than what they can contribute to their success and bottom line. This is very much the definition of capitalism, but the constant need to publicize and be talked about for their decisions is a very startup thing, as is their constant ability to step on rakes and bonk themselves in the nose when their neurotic and myopic decisionmaking comes to light.

There’s every chance that this situation simply dwindles into nothingness when the next challenger arrives. But this is not going to be the last time a popular “startup” (Basecamp is not remotely in the “start” stage anymore) community produces another public crisis because they lack the counsel or self-awareness to deal with the world in an empathetic, thoughtful way.