Book Review: It doesn’t have to be crazy at work

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What images leap into your mind when I say, “high-tech startup?” For many people, it’s Silicon Valley, lots of stress, free laundry service and meals (because you’re spending 18 hours a day at work), and Dave Filo sleeping under his desk. It’s Mark Cuban talking about the great sacrifices you must make and the hours you must put in before he thinks you’re worthy of his investment. Well, that’s one version of a high-tech startup.

There’s another one, too. It’s Basecamp. Basecamp isn’t in Silicon Valley. It’s in Chicago and the people who work at Basecamp toil in over 25 cities. There aren’t any gourmet meals or laundry service, either. There are other benefits, like paid vacation. I don’t mean that the company pays for the time you spend on vacation, though Basecamp does that. Basecamp also pays for the vacation.

If you buy the prevailing mythology, there’s no way that Basecamp can be profitable. It’s not in Silicon Valley, it’s not venture-funded, and it’s not crazy at work. But they’ve been in business for almost two decades, and they’ve been profitable every year.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are founders of Basecamp and the authors of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. Their book is about creating a profitable business fit for human habitation.

In the book, they contrast Basecamp and the way they do business with most companies, high-tech and otherwise. Again and again, they come back to the theme of a calm workplace versus a crazy workplace. Early in the book, they tell you why they think so many workplaces are crazy.

“There are two primary reasons: (1) The workday is being sliced into tiny, fleeting work moments by an onslaught of physical and virtual distractions. And (2) an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost sets towering, unrealistic expectations that stress people out.”

This is a great book to read if what you want is an idea of what the future workplace should look like. Like many of the other workplace models, such as W. L. Gore or Netflix, Basecamp strives to be people-friendly. Like most of those workplaces that have been around a while, Basecamp didn’t plan a great workplace and then execute. Instead, they tried stuff. They kept what worked. They ditched what didn’t. After 20 years, they’ve got a model you can learn from.

This is a book about common sense and tested solutions to real workplace challenges. Read it to get ideas about things you can try and to learn how cultures develop.

Usability Warning

This is a great book. It’s common-sensical, real-world, and it’s easy to read. That’s great.

The problem comes with whether you can implement the things you see here. I divide that into three buckets.

If you are a solopreneur or individual contributor, then you’ll get ideas here that will help you be more productive. Some ideas aren’t about individual work, but about how to make teams more effective. If you’re a team leader, no matter what your title, you’ll find plenty of good ideas here that you can use. But some things must be company-wide. If you’re a founder, CEO, or top executive, you may put these things into practice. Otherwise, you need to store them in your “someday” file.

Profanity Warning

If profanity in a book is a problem for you, pass on reading this one. The “f word” is there in all its glory, and the full written-out version of “BS.”

Bottom Line

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is a great book about how a workplace can be profitable, productive, and human-friendly.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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