One of my heroes is Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, the project management system we have used for over a decade.
Like us, he and his company have been working almost entirely remotely for years, and he’s written a book about it call “REMOTE: Office Not Required” that is full of experience and wisdom.
Jason and his partner David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH to the tech world) believe in a no-bullshit simplicity and a high level of personal accountability that has driven all their decisions since the beginning. They are self-funded, smart, opinionated, articulate and successful.
And they have just published an e-book on how they do it. It’s called “Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters“.
If you want to see how the sausage is made — the beautifully simple, no-frills sausage that is Ruby on Rails and Basecamp — you’ll enjoy this.
from DesignToast, the AIGA/LA e-magazine aimed at fellow designers
My job has disappeared.
My IBM PC is in the trunk of my car. It’s August 1993.
Somehow, the 90’s recession has taken a while to manifest in the design industry. Major firms are now struggling and smaller ones are tanking. The past year has been hell.
My own studio has folded after watching a ready-to-start $600,000 project evaporate — right after I moved my staff into a beautiful new 2-story, remodeled office. I had taken on too much overhead at a very bad time.
I’d gone to work for a fellow AIGA LA board member. But he’s been going through the same financial horrors. Thankfully, he has just managed to sell his business and has gotten out from under the crushing debt and pressure. But my role isn’t part of the sale.
So here I am stuck in traffic thinking, Now what?
I know I don’t want to take on another big office with a big staff, and the big monthly nut that goes along with it. But I know that, after running my own (previously successful) firm for years, I really don’t love working for someone else. Can’t I just work from home for a while until I figure things out?
Sure. I’ll need to spend $10,000 or so ($18K in 2019 money) for a Mac Centris 650, a color CRT monitor, a scanner and a LaserWriter.
And I guess I’d better get a dial-up modem.
A modulator-demodulator. A noisy electronic box that buzzes and burps crazily until it connects to another modem over a phone line, and then fills the air with hissing static as it slowly transfers a small file to someone at the other end.
That was the genesis of my current firm, FreeAssociates: a collection of independent designers and writers working together, associating freely with each other while free-associating. And using technology to stay connected.
Before the idea of a distributed workforce was a thing, we were one. Still are.
How was that possible in 1993? And how have things changed?
In the early days, we’d simply get together. If a file was small, we might send it to one another to review. But more often than not, there’d be a lot of hand-sketching, model-building and printed comps to look at. We’d meet over lunch, or at one of our homes. Then we’d follow it up with phone calls. Over time, we built trust.
As a creative director, I’ve never felt the need to breathe down my colleagues’ necks. I believe in hiring the best people I can find, then letting them be amazing. I realize that they will often see a problem differently than I do. Their fresh approach might be equally valid, and sometimes wildly more original, than mine. And that’s a good thing for our clients.
These days, we meet less often. Instead, we use screen-sharing to look over each other’s shoulders as we develop ideas together. In many ways, it’s better. It feels like a shared process, but with more directly usable outputs. Our tool of choice right now is join.me, which we use for meetings and presentations, too. But we’ve used Zoom and Slack to share screens as well.
While we love getting together as a group when we can, everyone is very comfortable working on his or her own most of the time. I suppose we’re all at least part-time introverts.
The other side of that coin is that we do make great personal connections in our phone calls. And we’re finding that’s true of our clients as well. We’ve had clients all around the U.S. As they’ve gotten more comfortable with remote workers in their own companies, they’ve become more comfortable working that way with us. We travel to see them occasionally, and they travel here. But we find that, even with our L.A.-based clients, we just don’t get together as often as we think we’re going to.
FreeAssociates did acquire a physical office for a while. It was a central hub for project management and sometimes for designers who were local. And we had a nice conference room. Which I think, in over a decade, clients visited perhaps a dozen times.
Meetings were almost always at our client’s offices, and more often we’d send PDFs and talk on the phone. Or, eventually, we’d do screen-shared presentations. The conference room got used for our own internal meetings — and for lunch.
Now, no more central office. No more conference room.
One thing we’re good at is critiquing each others’ ideas. Gently but clearly, communicated with humor and a light touch. We know we’re all smart, talented and well-meaning. So there’s no harshness. We’re on the same team.
And, by the way, so are our clients. They have their own pressures and craziness going on. So we try to understand that and be responsive without letting them entirely run the show. And when things get intense, we’re there for each other. At odd hours or on weekends, we’re a team and we help each other succeed.
Overlaying too many systems and software solutions often messes things up. Trust is the key, along with clear communication. So we do check-ins periodically. But not constantly. I look at work once or twice while it’s developing, not every few hours. The whole idea is not to drive each other crazy. To be responsible for our roles and our projects. To own them.
We’ve used Basecamp for a very long time to manage our projects. Their philosophy of keeping things simple meshes well with our style. It keeps progress and revisions documented but mostly stays out of the way. We use Slack for more casual, conversational communication. For emergencies, we text. Or talk. (Novel concept, I know.)
Obviously, this just scratches the surface. For more on managing a distributed creative workforce, I highly recommend Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book “Remote: Office Not Required”. They’re mere babies at doing this compared to us (they started in 1999) but with 50 employees in 32 cities, they know their stuff. And they have a nice list of other materials you can read here.
Running a remote workforce is challenging. But also rewarding. You have access to a huge talent pool and your people have a wonderfully flexible way to integrate work with the rest of their busy lives. We’ve found ways to make it work for 26 years, first with “ancient” technology and then with the cool tools available today. But at the core, it’s talented people and mutual trust that make a distributed team flourish.
Advisory Board Member and Past President
AIGA Los Angeles
Why is it so damn scary to ask for referrals?
What if you don’t get them? Is it because people don’t like you? Because you’re lousy at your job? Because people are afraid themselves, with their own reputation on the line? Is it because they’re lazy? Because they’re afraid you might get too busy to work for them? Maybe they just don’t know anyone else like themselves who needs what you do?
We create so many stories in our heads, all of which end with “….so I suck. I’ll never work again. I’m gonna die.”
Letting the lizard run the show
Our lizard brain has a hard time differentiating between the fear of crossing a street full of fast-moving traffic, and the fear of being rejected. It thinks any perceived threat can kill us.
Sometimes fear is helpful. But more often it’s just a waste of time — and of our lives (same thing).
I was lucky enough over the weekend to be a guest at a writer’s group where Erica Jong (the author of Fear of Flying) shared some of her creative process. She talked a lot about getting out of your own way as a writer. About self-acceptance and honoring your own thoughts, and your own talent.
The truth is, we are most afraid of ourselves, of that voice in our heads. (Yeah, the one that just said, “What voice?”) Our own judgments are the harshest. Especially if we’re good at what we do.
So if we feel like a fraud, then of course we’re afraid to ask for a referral. We’re afraid we’ll be found out.
It’s not just you
And it wouldn’t surprise me if the people we are asking to let a colleague know about us feel a little bit the same way. Maybe their friend will discover they’re not so smart. Maybe it won’t work out, and they’ll feel ashamed, embarrassed or stupid.
But guess what? Asking for a referral won’t kill us. Being rejected won’t kill us.
Sure, “No” feels terrible and terrifying. Unless it’s a way to learn. To get to “Yes”.
“Yes, you’re right. We’re not a good fit. Let me point you to someone else who might be.”
“Yes, it’s true you can’t afford us right now, but maybe we can work together in the future.”
“Yes, you already have an agency, but keep us in mind. Because things change.”
“Yes, we’re expensive, but we’re well worth it because of the impact we’ll have on your business.”
And really, it’s not so painful.
If I can just tell The Lizard to shut up so I can stay present, listen, serve and create it all works out just fine.
Lizard in traffic photo by Eric Anderson from Unsplash
“After analyzing 2 million pieces of financial data and 100,000 design “actions” —deliberate attempts to make design a more prominent part of business — for 300 public companies over a five-year period, McKinsey found that those with the strongest commitment to design and the most adept execution of design principles had 32% more revenue and 56% more total returns to shareholders. This finding held true across three separate industries: medical technology, consumer goods, and retail banking.”
In case you had any doubt, now you know. Design pays for itself, and then some.
Go tell your CEO.
The brilliant Seth Godin (how many times have I typed that phrase?) explored the issue of trust in one of his blog posts about a year ago, and he raised a fascinating point.
All the ways that we think we — individuals or companies — need to act in order to build trust might be wrong.
They’re not wrong in the sense of creating mistrust. But they might not be very effective compared to the shorthand heuristics we actually use as consumers, voters or friends to decide whom to trust.
Why do we trust brands like Apple or Google or Evernote? Have they been so transparent, so altruistic, so consistent, so authentic that we should hand over our most sensitive data to them? Do we know enough about them in order to truly trust them? And would we even be willing to take the time to find out?
No, probably not. Our lives are just too complex, too fast-moving, and there’s too much information to evaluate. Instead we trust online reviews, Consumer Reports, MSNBC or Fox (your call), or even Seth Godin himself, to tell us the truth and help us make decisions. The world is so large and we are so small and fallible, there’s no way we can know the future or predict the kind of complex behavior of which humans and their companies are capable. So we jump off the cliff in good faith, using our best guess, and hoping we’re right.
What are the clues we use? For people, it’s body language, choice of words, a look in the eyes, a sense of the familiar. For brands, it’s product design, packaging, graphics, warranties, a voice, a website. And for both it’s referrals. Other people’s experiences are the biggest touchstones. Making sure their experiences are good ones— keeping your promises, correcting your missteps, treating people with respect — all are indicators that trust is a safe choice.
Unfortunately, charlatans know how to play us. We trust our gut instincts and sometimes those instincts are wrong. But mostly, I think humans have evolved to have pretty good bullshit detection systems. We can be suckered to a point. But if we trust our antennae, we usually head down the right path. Eventually.
Want to read more? Check out Seth’s blog.
Almost 2 million people have watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk on leadership called “Start with Why”, including me (several times). If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and spend 18 minutes finding out about the difference between manipulation and inspiration, and how great leaders understand that it’s not about the What. It’s about the Why.
I’m finally reading his book, and it’s enlightening and engaging. I’ll write more about it once I’ve finished it. but the core idea is nicely summarized right here. Check it out.