Get out your Bunsen burner! It’s time to do some experiments. In this episode, we talk to two businesses that aren’t afraid to try new things. First, the three founders of The Mad Optimist, a soap company in Indiana, talk about letting customers choose what they pay for their products. Then Natalie Nagele, the co-founder and CEO of software company Wildbit, talks about an ongoing experiment with four-day work weeks and what she’s discovered about productivity, happiness, and deep work.
- The Mad Optimist website | Facebook | Instagram - 00:45
- You can find The Mad Optimist's live revenue number in their Humanifesto under "We practice radical transparency" - 9:43
- Natalie Nagele on Twitter - 16:51
- Wildbit website - 16:53
- Basecamp's entry on Summer Hours in the company handbook - 16:57
- Deep Work by Cal Newport - 18:54
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Have you hired more people or are you taking on more projects next year? Now is the time to fix the communication problems that hold you back. How can you scale your business when things keep getting missed and slip through the cracks? Basecamp puts all your internal communication in one place so nothing gets lost and you can hold everyone accountable. And the best part is it’s easy to learn. Your team will figure it out and start using it the very same day you show it to them. Take a look at Basecamp before the year’s over. Go to Basecamp.com to set up your free 30-day trial.
Mohammed A.: [00:00:37] So we don’t test on animals or anything, but we do test on Anthony.
Wailin: [00:00:41] Mohammad A. Mahdi is one of the three cofounders of The Mad Optimist, a soap company in Bloomington, Indiana. He started the business with his brother Mohammad M. Mahdi and their friend Anthony Dunkin.
Mohammed A.: [00:00:54] So we make soaps for specific skin types. So we have soaps that are for dry skin, soaps that are for neutral skin, and soaps that are for oily skin. And we also make a poison ivy soap. That soap is designed to suck out the urushiol of poison ivy. And so we made sure it works because we tested on Anthony.
Anthony: [00:01:10] These guys were like, well you know you’ve got poison Ivy before and we don’t know if we’re allergic so we should test it on you. And I was like, that’s a bit of a cop out but fine, I’ll do it.
[00:01:22] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:01:21] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:01:28] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We’re calling this episode Lab Week because we’re talking to businesses that aren’t afraid to experiment. We like trying new stuff here at Basecamp. We play around with our pricing models, we test different marketing campaigns, we launch new products. Even this podcast started as a kind of experiment to see if we could find an audience for audio stories told from Basecamp’s point of view.
Wailin: [00:01:48] We’re talking to two companies today. One of them is on year three of an experiment with four-day work weeks that’s led to some discoveries about productivity and engaging in deep work. You’ll hear from them a bit later. First, we’re returning to the soap making business you heard at the top of the episode. The company is called The Mad Optimist. And you could argue that the three founders started with a home science experiment and have never stopped tinkering. Whether it’s overhauling their branding or approaching money in nontraditional ways. Here’s Anthony, the one who had the poison ivy.
Anthony: [00:02:23] We three live together and we just liked trying things out and one day we needed soap. We kind of looked it up and we’re like, well, how is soap made? And did a lot of research and figured out that a lot of soap is made with animal fats. Beef fat or even pork fat. And it’s not usually obvious in the ingredient list, but there’s like sodium tallowate, which is very common in a lot of mass-produced soaps. And we’re all Muslims and we also happen to be vegan too. And so we just really didn’t like the idea of like rubbing those animal ingredients all over our bodies.
[00:02:53] And at the same time there’s synthetic fragrances and other things that we weren’t really into. And so we were like, well, let’s just make our own. And at first we thought we were doing it wrong, like watching videos and reading books and articles. But what had happened was we just accidentally stumbled upon our way of making soap and we call it the volcano method because the soap foams up kind of like a science project volcano.
[00:03:17] Just kind of went from there, tweaked that a little bit to make it more expandable. And then we just slowly grew as a local Indiana-based soap company.
Wailin: [00:03:24] This volcano method that the three guys stumbled upon is documented in a photo that hangs in the Mad Optimist office.
[00:03:31] Can you describe what happened?
Anthony: [00:03:33] Yeah, so Mohammad M is sitting in the kitchen on a chair. He is wearing a big apron and a mask covering and he’s using a drill to mix a vat of oils that’s becoming soap. You can see it’s a bit messy. So that’s one thing of making soap in your kitchen for those first few months at least. It’s pretty messy. And so the soap kind of foams up and spills over.
Mohammed A.: [00:03:58] So with our volcano method, what’s unique is that the soap actually foams up and quote unquote “erupts”.
Wailin: [00:04:04] This is Mohammed A.
Mohammed A.: [00:04:05] So what’s cool is me and my brother, we like it when it foams up. We like wait until it interrupts and Anthony gets a little anxiety because he’s like, hurry up and mix it so it doesn’t go all over the floor and stuff.
Wailin: [00:04:16] The three guys first started selling their handmade soaps in 2012 at farmer’s markets and local stores around Bloomington, Indiana. Back then they called themselves The Soapy Soap Company. A few years later after going through a startup accelerator program, they decided to refresh their brand. With the help of a branding agency that also became an equity partner, they came up with a new identity, The Mad Optimist.
[00:04:39] That’s also when the idea of customization started expanding. What if someone could not just pick the scent and packaging for their soap, but they could also choose what they paid for it.
Mohammed M.: [00:04:49] In preparation for that branding meeting we actually sat down and worked on like a branding brief, which we had to look up what that even meant. And then what that ended up turning into was us kind of getting frustrated with how certain things in business were done. Like how other companies would sort of mark up products to be a certain price with leaving room to mark them down. Throughout the six years of business, there are some things that just didn’t settle well with us.
Wailin: [00:05:14] This is Mohammed M.
Mohammed M.: [00:05:15] And what I mean by that is that aspect of having sales, here you have to essentially manipulate the customer to invoke them to buy. Like, I mean, I fall for it, they’re just sales and I might not need it, but it’s like, oh, I’m saving money. Why not buy it?
[00:05:33] Just like the whole pricing structure thing, we just never really got our heads around. We kind of gritted our teeth and we had to set prices and make it profitable for the company, but also looking at what customers can afford. Because we’ve also sold direct for many years and had customers tell us like, oh, I can’t really afford this soap often. But then we have other customers telling us, oh wow, your soap’s so amazing. You could sell it for $12. That was a big tension for us.
[00:05:58] We had an email from, I think someone from New York who said, our prices are too low. At that time we were pricing each bar, the custom bar at $6 and they said we should be pricing it roughly like $17 to $18. We just were not comfortable doing that. But it was in the back of our mind of like, okay, well, do people think of a product and consider it to be premium just because of the price point that it’s at. But if you think about it, that is a bit ridiculous. Like you’re judging a product by its price, not necessarily by that quality of ingredients.
Wailin: [00:06:32] The Mad Optimist team came up with something that would get rid of this tension and anxiety around what to charge and whether running promotions was manipulative. It’s a sliding price scale for their custom soap bars. On The Mad Optimist website, there’s a bar with a slider at a default position of $10. You can drag it to the left down to $6 and to the right up to $16
Mohammed M.: [00:06:54] Our break-even is the lowest. So the sliding price scale default to what we recommend to be the price. And so default would be what we would sell at a farmer’s market. We’re point blank telling the public, this is our cost, here’s the break-even point, and then here’s the opposite of that. And you select what you can afford to pay. So if you want to think that it’s a premium product, then slide the price over to a more expensive price. If you want to give yourself a sale, you give yourself a sale.
Mohammed A.: [00:07:24] The other reasons why we started the sliding price scales to have everyone afford body care.
Wailin: [00:07:29] Again, this is Mohammed A.
Mohammed A.: [00:07:30] Because body care, premium body care can be very expensive. We wanted everyone to afford it because we had some customers when we sold direct to consumer at markets and festivals, they would say, look, I really like your product but I can’t really afford it right now. So that’s where also the sliding price scale came in is where if you can afford to pay more than pay more and that offsets the cost for people who need to pay a little bit less.
Mohammed M.: [00:07:52] By you choosing a higher price point, just know that you are helping us as a business to prove this concept and to show that businesses with these sort of ideologies can succeed. That’s what we’re really hoping for, is a community of likeminded individuals
[00:08:08] For us, we found that us adding on the sliding price scale has been mind-boggling for people because they aren’t used to it. They’re used to this model of tell me the price and I’ll pay it. Overall what we see is it ends up being closer to the default.
Anthony: [00:08:23] All orders are, are treated equally. So if you choose the lowest price or the highest price, it won’t affect how the product is made, how it’s packed up. And actually when the delivery, we call them delivery notes, are printed out that they don’t even say the price on them. So the staff member who packs up the item may not even know how much the customer paid for it because we see it as a kind of an equal thing. And also we just have the dedication of if you do pay more, we will do our genuine best to put it towards the values and grow the business in a good way.
Mohammed M.: [00:08:56] It shifts the thought process a little bit. So for us, we have to strategize on how do we still draw customers to the website. So it adds this other level of creativity.
Anthony: [00:09:08] It ends up with us focusing a bit more, genuinely on what the product is, the benefits of the product, and the values of the company versus here’s a 25% off coupon.
Wailin: [00:09:22] The Mad Optimist guys have rethought their relationship with money and resources in other ways too. They’re not paying themselves a salary yet, but their handful of employees are all paid exactly the same. Everyone gets trained on every job from soap-making to shipping and fulfillment. And if you go in The Mad Optimist website, not only do you get to choose your own price for soap, but you see a live revenue number for the month. Mohammed M said the idea for that was partially inspired by McDonald’s. You know the signs outside the restaurant that talk about how many customers they’ve served.
Mohammed M.: [00:09:51] When I was younger, I would remember, I was like, wait, we just went through the drive through, but that number didn’t increase. And so that had a little a role to play. But go ahead.
Anthony: [00:10:01] Yeah, so I mean, as we were kind of sitting down [crosstalk] and creating what we called our Humanifesto, the list succinctly describing some of our main values as a company, one of them is transparency. Because a lot of companies tend to be secretive at least until they’re forced to share certain information, like by being public. And even like small companies too, like occasionally at farmer’s markets you’ll see people being a little secretive about what exactly they made that day. And that always confused us.
Mohammed A.: [00:10:30] Everyone or like beat around the Bush and be like, Oh we did okay or we didn’t or we did really good. And to us was like, okay, what is really good? Like, like what’s really good for us might be really not that good for other people. So we’re just saying, you know, why? Why is this? Take the Band-Aid off and just tell people, hey, this is what we’re making. We have really nothing to hide.
Wailin: [00:10:50] As the three founders have worked to grow The Mad Optimist beyond local farmer’s markets into a national direct to consumer online brand, they’ve encountered a lot of skepticism even from the kinds of people who you think would want to reward disruptive, bold, experiments. Again, here’s Mohammad M.
Mohammed M.: [00:11:06] We have a very, very difficult time finding investors who resonate with what we’re doing. In fact, we’ve come across many investors who point blank what would tell us that they don’t think that this will work. And good luck. And you guys are crazy and—
Wailin: [00:11:24] It’s right there in the name.
Mohammed M.: [00:11:25] Yeah, exactly. A lot of times it’s also discouraging because when you go to pitch competitions and you don’t even make it to the top 10 and come to find out, it’s because judges don’t think that this would be a profitable business or it’s too high risk. But if you think about it, like any startup is high risk. For us, what was important is are we doing what we feel to be is the right thing? Does this help humanity? Does this help the world? So our formula is that if our employees are happy, then when they go home, they’re happy with their family, and it just all trickles down and everyone is just happier. Like I said, we’re building that community of likeminded individuals. That also includes investors.
Wailin: [00:12:09] Have you changed your mind on investors and whether you even want investors based on this kind of cumulative experience?
Mohammed M.: [00:12:17] We want investors, absolutely. But we want investors who wholeheartedly resonate with what we’re doing. If investors are just out there to only see a return on their money, those typically aren’t the ones that resonate best with us. They might be highly into wanting us to have sales, wanting us to change the model of the sliding price scale. When for us that is very meaningful.
Mohammed A.: [00:12:42] We’re a business so we want to be profitable and everything, too—
Mohammed M.: [00:12:45] Profitable in a clean way. That’s what is really important. So, we’re all three Muslim and so we’re brought up with really, what we think is really great Islamic beliefs and practices. And so not that many people might know, but in Islam interest is not acceptable. And so if you look at it around here, like for us to get a loan, like, our credit card interest rate is 18% is what we’re paying. And that’s huge. But if you think about like what the Islamic teaching is like, you don’t charge interest. If someone needs money, loan them money, do it because you want to help them. In this day and age, it’s like, oh, you want money here. I need this, if I’m going to loan you this.
Wailin: [00:13:25] The Mad Optimists’ Humanifesto, which you can find at their website, starts with the principle, “We give a shit” and ends with “We’re a work in progress.” That’s something we talk about at Basecamp too, that the company itself is as much a product as what the company makes. Something that can be tweaked, refined, and improved upon.
Anthony: [00:13:43] Capitalism isn’t going to go away. So how can we kind of improve it and make it benefit everyone a bit more so, and one ways to rebuild business from the inside and we’re very small and we’re very new, but that’s what we’re focusing on and hopefully will succeed.
[00:13:59] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:14:00] After the break, Wailin talks to the founder of a company that’s rethinking the relationship between hours worked and productivity. But first I’m going to let Ryan Singer, our head of product strategy, tell you a little bit about Basecamp.
Ryan: [00:14:13] So when you’re small and you’re just a few people in the beginning, you don’t think that hard about how you communicate. You just use some email here, some group chat there and some Google Drive or whatever, you know. And that works fine in the beginning. The thing is that when you start to take on more people and then you start to take on more projects or bigger projects, honestly there reaches a point where you realize like this is going to blow up in our faces. Because people sometimes put things in the wrong place, they put something in the wrong app, something gets lost in translation.
[00:14:42] It’s just hard to hold people accountable because how can you say to somebody that should have been done when it was in a group chat somewhere or it was in some document, right? Like of course they missed it. But as you start to reach higher with your business, you know, you’re trying to do more and you think you’re capable of more, you need to actually set up an internal communication system that you can depend on where you can say, look, I put it there. I know everybody saw it. I know it’s gonna get done. I know what’s going to happen. So Basecamp actually does that by putting everything into one place where everybody sees the same thing and that way nothing gets lost. Everybody knows where to look, and you can just say, hey, it’s in Basecamp. Now I know that there’s not going to be any miscommunication and it’s definitely going to get done when it needs to get done.
[00:15:29] You might have this idea that you should put everything in one place and then it’ll be easier somehow, but most of the time it makes it worse because all of these all in one tools are so gnarly and complicated. So now you’re like, okay, I’ve got everything in this one tool, but you click on it and it looks like you’re trying to operate the space shuttle or something like that, you know? Or you’re looking at some complicated reports all over the place and all you want to do is just know what’s going on and find the document that you need. Right? Basecamp has this very simple folder structure that just kinda hits people over the head whenever they first look at it. They’re like, oh, I get this. There’s, there’s my projects, there’s my teams. You click into your project and then here’s my messages, my tasks, my files. It’s all just like right there and you just dig in to the amount of depth that you need to see and you’re not like kind of lost in all this technical stuff all around the place.
[00:16:15] So other tools might bring all that functionality together, but they do it in a way that’s hard to see through. It’s hard for people to figure out and when you’re asking other people on your team to use this thing, it has to be something that they can just instantly understand. It’s something that they can learn right away.
Shaun: [00:16:34] There’s still time before the new year starts to make a change. Put a stop to scattered information and miscommunications and set your team up for success in 2020. Go to Basecamp.com to sign up for a free 30-day trial.
Wailin: [00:16:49] Natalie Nagele is the co-founder and CEO of Wildbit, which has been experimenting with shorter work weeks. Basecamp offers a four-day schedule in the summer, but while that has taken this even further with four-day work weeks all year round.
Natalie: [00:17:02] I am Natalie Nagele. I’m co-founder and CEO of Wildbit. We’re a 19-year-old software company. We are bootstrapped, profitable. We have three products right now. A product called Beanstalk, which is hosted version control and deployments. We have an email product called Postmark, sends transactional emails for web apps. And then we have a new product called Conveyor, which is kind of our next iteration of Beanstalk.
Wailin: [00:17:24] And how many people work at Wildbit?
Natalie: [00:17:27] We’re about 30 right now.
Wailin: [00:17:29] So your experiment with four-day work weeks is relatively new. Can you talk about what led to trying out four-day work weeks?
Natalie: [00:17:37] So we’re in our third year of the 32-hour work week. Prior to that we had been on a journey of just understanding the impact of work on life and how those two things intertwined. It started with things like a 40-hour work week. And it sounds funny to say, but in our industry it was important to state you are not expected or asked to or even to some degree allowed to work nights and weekends. Like we will create a work environment in which you can be successful in 40 hours. We will set goals that can be completed in 40 hours or we will extend those goals, right? But you are not expected at Wildbit to provide any more of your personal time to the organization.
[00:18:16] We also did things like flexible hours because I really strongly believe that life and work have to be more intertwined. And I don’t mean that from a stress perspective, but from a flexibility perspective. If you work really hard for a couple of hours in the morning, you might need a really good break and it’s nice to be able to maybe go for a long run or you know, we have folks who fly planes and it’s a beautiful day. It’s a good set day to go practice, you know, flying the airplane. So kind of intertwining.
[00:18:41] So we had been creating policies or just a ways of work that would create more of that balance and really optimize for fulfillment outside of work. I had read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. speaks a lot about something that I’m a little obsessed with, which is the ability to have space to do focus work or that deep work that you know that we get paid for. Our unique ability. What our job actually is. I was reading the book and Cal speaks a lot about the brain’s capacity for deep meaningful work and the science shows that you kind of max out at four hours a day and even getting to like four hours of that really deep work of your brain is really hard. Most people can’t get there.
[00:19:25] And so we all had this reflection that was like, well, okay, four times five is 20 so what are we doing the other 20 hours a week? And obviously that doesn’t minimize… there’s other work that, he calls it shallow work. I think it’s a little negative, but you know, the other work is important too, right? We have to have meetings, we have to close tickets and write blog posts and there’s other things we have to do, but is there 20 hours of it? And so we had this real like internal reflection around where is the 40 hours going? What is the value of that time? So naturally it was like, well, let’s figure out if we can do more with less going into summertime.
[00:19:58] And we said, why not experiment with a 32-hour work week? So we’ll have summer Fridays, but they’re not going to be four 10-hour days, which is I think fairly standard.
Wailin: [00:20:06] Yeah.
Natalie: [00:20:07] They’re just going to be four regular eight-hour days and then Fridays are off. It kinda became this combination exercise of what’s going to break, right. I’m a big fan of just trying stuff like I’m a big fan of not overanalyzing the possible outcomes of things and saying let’s just try it and see what happens. I think one of the beautiful things of being bootstrapped, profitable, remote, small, all those things that we are, it gives us a chance to do whatever the hell we want, right?
[00:20:33] So we kind of on the one side wanted to say, what’s going to break? You know, what are we going to lose? And then on the flip side was what are we going to gain? Because I really, in my heart, I believe that that rest and that ability to spend an entire day, not on work, but also not necessarily in the rest of the world where people don’t work, right?
[00:20:54] There’s something so unique about that fifth day being a quiet day, but maybe you have a partner who still works or maybe you don’t, and you’re able to spend time together. Your kids maybe are in school or you know, things are just different. It creates a different type of day, right? It’s not a third weekend day. It’s just, it has something different. I wanted to believe that that extra day of rest would actually create better quality work.
[00:21:16] You can ruminate on problems, you know, in the back of your mind while you’re working on the deck or going on a long run or taking your kids on a camping trip, whatever those things are. So that was kind of the hypothesis. We threw it in there and you know, obviously it’s been a success from there.
Wailin: [00:21:31] How did you set it up for your staff? Did you lay out some guidelines of how they could reorient some of their work during the remaining four days and then what they should or should not be doing on that fifth day? You know, did you have to say please, please don’t check your email or login and do anything, that kind of thing.
Natalie: [00:21:51] I think what worked for us was breaking it out into quarters. So the first quarter we set really basic guidelines. Definitely don’t work on Fridays. Keep track in your head of how you’re feeling so that we can understand what are the pressures, what are the positive pieces so that we can then kind of change policies. So at first we didn’t change much. We didn’t change our PTO policy. We actually, in the very beginning, now that I think about it, we let people take any day. So if they wanted a Tuesday, they could take a Tuesday instead of a Friday. That first quarter that we ended up changing, that didn’t work very well. But we kind of just said, pick your four days.
[00:22:24] The big thing in the early, that first part of that test was just to keep track of how you’re feeling. I don’t really believe that it’s super easy to measure the success of this in very explicit terms, but we can understand that we can feel and we can sense a lot of the success of this work. And then over time you can see that we’re doing better work and more work. That’s different. So it was a lot of touchy feely stuff in the beginning and that was how we kicked it off.
Wailin: [00:22:49] How did you spend those days off that first quarter?
Natalie: [00:22:53] I live in a city and I have two little kids. And so one of the things that I was most looking forward to is the ability to just walk, like walk around the city and just be really free of tasks, errands, things to do. I love to just be able to pop into a little store and explore and things like that. And I had found my life to get, as it does with young children, to get a little bit more time-crunched. And I was most excited honestly about just wandering. It was summertime, or, spring into summer. So we’d grab a book, go sit in the park or just wander for a couple hours, take a lunch. Really just giving myself a space to be, and that was in the beginning and it was really, really, really special.
Wailin: [00:23:33] Did you feel the benefits of that time off pretty immediately? For you, as you were documenting your feelings, did it seem pretty clear from the outset that it was good for your soul?
Natalie: [00:23:49] For me 100%. The nature of my work, I’m a manager by my job, right? I have people that I need to help untangle things and hopefully help them do great work. So my day is much more scattered. And so that day of rest was really, really empowering to me. And one of the things that’s gotten interesting, we talk about four-day work weeks a lot with the rest of the team. It’s not the same for everybody, right? Some of the engineers on my team don’t actually, they don’t have the same kind of day. Right? It’s different. But for me it was apparent immediately that I ran to work on Monday. I felt so genuinely refreshed and empowered and excited that Monday was like, I couldn’t wait. Like Sunday night I would start sketching out like what’s my week looking like? And I was excited about it, you know, I was like, oh, I can’t wait to get to work.
[00:24:36] And that’s sometimes hard when you’re working off, Monday through Friday and then Saturday you have the kids in Sunday you have the kids and you’re like weekend warrior. And then Sunday night everybody goes to bed and you’re like, I don’t know what I did this weekend. So I think there is, at least in my world, it was really impactful very quickly.
Wailin: [00:24:53] Did you have to do anything differently Monday through Thursday or for the remaining four work days? Did you make an effort to, I don’t know, stretch out deadlines or cancel more meetings or do anything like that?
Natalie: [00:25:07] Definitely. We’ve always been very conscious of meetings but because we’re a remote team in different time zones, we’ve had to make sacrifices. You know, somebody’s morning could be somebody’s afternoon, it could be somebody else’s evening. And when we went to a 32-hour work week, one of my mandates to the team was as you’re kind of feeling your way through, it only is going to work if we have really dedicated focused time, if we’re really working those 32 hours. Right? This isn’t like we’re shooting the shit for 25 hours and then trying to get 12 hours of work. This has to be real work because otherwise that’s why people end up working 60 hours, because they spend 40 of them doing, God knows what.
[00:25:46] One of my mandates was like, I need you guys to pay very close attention to how much focused work you’re getting done every day. Nobody’s gonna get punished. That’s not the point. But the point is to look and reflect and then start figuring out what are the things that are distracting you and how can we change them. So one of the first things that happened was we dropped a bunch of meetings that we felt were unnecessary, moved even more stuff to asynchronous communication.
[00:26:06] And then we also looked at timing of meetings and became really, really specific around how does that meeting at, you know, 10:00 AM Eastern impacting somebody in Europe, impacting somebody on the west coast. What does that do to their individual days, not just the folks in the EST time zone. And that was really important because if you have a meeting at 11:00 AM, that’s kind of your morning’s lost, right?
Wailin: [00:26:31] Yeah.
Natalie: [00:26:32] Maybe you can get a little bit of work done before 11:00 AM, you know, maybe. So you basically walk into that day thinking, I’m not going to get any work done till the afternoon.
Wailin: [00:26:38] Totally.
Natalie: [00:26:39] For me, sometimes I have these really important meetings. I know that that actually drains me and so if I have a meeting in the morning, I need a couple hours to recover. My brain is kind of exhausted from that really deep work and I need to do something that’s more shallow. So I’ve reorganized my schedule to try to maximize a couple of days a week where my mornings are really quiet. You can’t book with me.
[00:27:00] Everybody just was able to reflect and really own their own schedule. I’m a big fan, and I know Jason Fried is too, like empowering people to own their schedules. That their calendar belongs to them and we need to be very cognizant of that. And so, we have a lot of rules around Slack usage, you know, like DND. I mean that we’ve had those for a long time. I personally think chat systems are terrible, right? Because they just… we have this beautiful thing of remote work where everybody’s supposed to be allowed to focus. And then we threw Slack in there and try to turn it into an open office. I’m like, guys, this isn’t working. Like that’s not the point.
Wailin: [00:27:35] Not the future we wanted.
Natalie: [00:27:37] No, my goodness. But so, we dropped a bunch of meetings. I mean, that’s a long way to say we dropped a bunch of meetings and we were really intentional with even the meetings that we maintain to make sure that we understood the impact on folks and try to really minimize that as much as possible.
Wailin: [00:27:52] Yeah. And then what was the range of reaction you got from your staff after that first summer of trying it? Well, everybody assumes it was very positive and it wasn’t. I mean, it was overwhelmingly, I would say, yes, this is great. But there was a lot of buts like, but are we getting enough done? But are we working on the right things? I feel a lot of pressure on Wednesday and Thursday and I don’t know how to deal with that. I’m blessed to work with people who really care about each other and care about the work that we’re doing. And so nobody on my team takes advantage of it. I’ve talked to other people who’ve tried 32-hour work weeks and felt very much that the team is taking advantage of them. That’s not my team. So it was a lot of almost shockingly like, are you sure this is the right thing we should be doing?
[00:28:32] And I pushed back all the time. I’m like, well it feels right. Why don’t we just address the individual issues and not the actual less hours worked? Because I just truly believe that we do better work. So we spent a lot of time discussing pressure and where’s that pressure coming from? Are we assigning too much work? We don’t really have deadlines, but are plans too constrictive? Are we adding too much on our plates? You know, diving into the actual individual issues and seeing if we can unpack them instead of just saying, hey, it doesn’t work, everybody’s stressed out.
Wailin: [00:29:02] Did you end up deciding to dial back the level of work that you were scoping out to address those issues or how did you tackle them?
Natalie: [00:29:10] That’s what’s been really tricky and I wish I had a better answer. I’ll say that in our first year without really making many changes, when we reflected a year into the experiment, we were on retreat, and we looked at what we had accomplished in that last year and overwhelmingly the team agreed that we had done more in that year than we had in previous years in memory.
[00:29:30] And that was without doing anything in terms of readjusting scope, but it was very much because we readjusted our view of how important those 32 hours were. Dropping meetings, making sure everybody’s productive, talking about focus work a lot, creating new ways to plan and strategize, things like that that were important because we were working towards becoming a more organized highly functioning team. But not changing the scope. But I don’t know, you know, last year we’ve had a year where we weren’t as productive and I don’t think I can point that to 32 hours. I can point that to a bunch of other things. So I don’t know that I’m the right person because I don’t measure it so distinctly that I would be able to say we extended things. We just work on the things we want to work on and if it takes longer we just take longer.
Wailin: [00:30:13] Did you get a sense that anyone was coping with the pressure they felt by working more on those other days? And did you have to kind of address that directly?
Natalie: [00:30:25] You know, we use Basecamp’s, automatic questions, and one of the questions, I hijacked it, and I asked on Friday, I said, “Are you working?” Just to see. And I got all these like, is this a trick? What’s going on? Maybe a little. And I was like, it was obviously more funny than anything else and I really struggle with this. I don’t want to hinder people’s abilities to be creative. And the work that they do, they like the work that they do for the most part. And if somebody is really inspired or wants to really like got an idea or solve something and they want to jump in on a Friday and clean it up, I’m not going to say no.
[00:31:04] There used to… there was definitely a time where if I saw somebody online on the weekend, I would like get really mad. I’m like, stop it. You can’t do that. And then I got the feedback from the team that was like, but Natalie, that’s kind of the flexible working time. Like I’m excited, it’s not impacting my personal life. You know? It doesn’t happen often. So I try not to be as paternalistic. I’m not your mom. I think I reflect more on is it because we assigned too much work? I think I look at it more from that perspective and so the conversation I’ll have somebody is more around, is it pressure because you feel like we assigned too much work? What did your week look like this week? You know, just really trying to address that and understand. A lot of times what you’ll find is people work really hard and work a lot less during the week and actually prefer to be done earlier during the week and put a couple of hours in on a Friday for example, because it just fits better with the way they work.
[00:31:55] This is kind of my new, not new, but I’ve been marinating over this. A four-day workweek isn’t necessarily the optimal way for your brain to function either. Right? I mean four eight-hour days, those are long days and for a lot of us, by hour five, six, we’re pretty spent, you know. And there’s tactics and things we can do. We can take walks, we can, you know, regroup, change direction, get some fresh air. I mean there’s things we can do to reinvigorate, but four eight-hour days is actually really long days for the brain.
[00:32:23] So you kind of start really hitting diminishing returns much sooner than people think. And so I’ve talked with the team a bunch about shorter days, but you know, extending them into Fridays. And the feedback I’ve gotten from the team has been, we want to be in control of that a little bit. Some of us can really function really well in four eight-hour days and some of us prefer to have shorter days and work a little bit on Friday. And I’ve made that an open choice.
[00:32:47] So we’re looking at it more like 32-hour work weeks and you’ll hear me say more, more often, 32-hour work weeks than four-hour [day] work weeks because I do want to give the team the flexibility because everybody’s brains do work, you know, theoretically differently.
Wailin: [00:32:58] Yeah. Well that seems like the beauty of taking your time with an experiment like this where you’re now in year three so you probably needed all of that time just to see these issues percolate and see how people adapted and dealt with all these things that come up, right?
Natalie: [00:33:14] Totally. And one of the things early on, the team was like, well how do we know if this is working? And I had done interviews about this early on and people were like, well, what are your measures of success?
[00:33:25] And I said, honestly, my measure of success is how we’re feeling. As long as the products are growing and our customers are happy and well supported. And that’s one thing I should say, like we still support our customers on Fridays. Our support team alternates Mondays and Fridays so they can still get three full days, like three consecutive days. But you know, as long as our customers are happy and the products are growing at a rate that’s good for us, which is obviously a very sustainable long-term rate, not an aggressive crazy rate. And we’re happy, and it’s where we feel fulfilled, then that’s a success. But it’s an iterative process because I’ve had people leave in the last two and a half years, right, to go to companies where they’re going to end up working 60 hours a week. So I know that this is not the end all be all for people. They still need fulfillment in their work. They need fulfillment in their ability to do the work that they get excited about. Those things still matter.
[00:34:11] So you know, we have to keep looking at it as this iterative process around what’s the best for our team and how we work and how we want to build product and what’s meaningful for us.
Wailin: [00:34:21] Can I ask you, what does it feel like for you personally to be in that deep work mode? How do you know when you’ve gotten there?
Natalie: [00:34:29] I get an immense sense of almost like adrenaline. I’m not going to say the right things because I’m not a scientist or a doctor or anything like that, but I get this true sense of like running. For me, a lot of that deep work is writing. I think by writing, so I write a lot just to think through my thoughts. And so when I get really pumped and excited and I can feel it, that’s how I know I’m like, I’m in flow, I’m really doing the thing that I’m good at. There’s just this energy and it’s also exhausting. So I’ll hit a wall at some point and I’ll be like, alright, that was good.
[00:35:02] And there’s this amazing thing, this thing that I’ve been trying to help my team feel. I think knowledge work, it’s so hard cause we never have, our work is never done. You know, we don’t have a conveyor belt where we can put a hundred widgets on and then go home and be like, I’m done with that. Right? They’re finished. When I have that experience where I’ve written something really great and I feel really good about it and I’ve given myself time to think and iterate on it, I can walk away and for the almost the rest of the day I’m like, I did something really great today.
[00:35:26] Like, I’m done. I could check some more emails, I can have a couple more calls, but I feel so accomplished and I’m trying to help my team get to those points as well so that their days feel shorter and feel less stressed out because there is that. I don’t think we’re good at helping each other understand what’s enough, what’s done. It’s that personal accomplishment of putting that behind your mind and opening your mind for whatever’s next and not having it linger.
Wailin: [00:35:50] Do you sometimes feel like one of the lone voices in the wilderness when you talk about examining more critically how work feels? Because I’m having more of these conversations now, but I sometimes I can’t tell if the needle is actually moving there.
Natalie: [00:36:03] I don’t know either. I feel so… it’s a great question because I’m also having a lot more of these conversations and the reason I do these interviews and I get really excited and I… it’s not necessarily selling my products right? This is just a really have a strong desire to show that you can be really successful pushing a little bit more against what we’ve considered, the way you work. We work 40 hours, but that’s not a natural law. It’s not, you know, like this isn’t the rule. We can change that and we can adapt.
[00:36:35] I’ve had so many more conversations with people who get excited. There’s books being written about organizations that are experimenting with shorter work cycles or work weeks and things like that. So I’m hoping that it’s not just me because I’m small and I’m 30 people and I don’t think… I want to share that, but I also want to convince the bigger organizations. And I tell this to my team, but eventually they’re going to get new jobs. I want them to have more places to go that understand and respect their ability to work well.
Wailin: [00:37:01] I sometimes wonder if, especially at larger organizations or more bureaucratic ones, if there’s this kind of light layer of denial where no one is willing to own up to the fact that we’re not all actually working 40 hours a week.
Natalie: [00:37:17] I think it’s denial. I also think it’s the unfortunate reality that we haven’t taught people how to evaluate success, not by the hours they spend in their chairs. Big organizations, they promote people, they don’t train them, they don’t have true ways. And I’m generalizing, this is talking about averages, but they don’t have this performance-based, way of measuring people.
[00:37:43] So it’s much easier and cheaper to say, well they showed up 40 hours. So, that’s cool. Or worse, right? They show up for 60 hours, they must be a really hard worker. That’s the more toxic, horrible one, right? Oh I’m everybody self-congratulating themselves cause they work 60 hours. It’s like come on, my dad, my own dad, so proud of himself and I’m always like, dad, you’re killing yourself. Stop it. Like that’s not good for you.
[00:38:05] But I think that’s, that’s a bigger issue. Because I think the reason it works at Wildbit is I have so much trust in my team that they’re gonna accomplish the things that they set out to accomplish. We set goals together, we review them together, and I always said my ultimate goal, my secret goal. It’s not so secret, I guess, is I want to work way less than 32 hours. Ooh. I don’t want to even measure how long we work. I want to work based on outcomes. And sometimes we work more, sometimes we work dramatically less. It depends on what we’re trying to ship and depends on why we’re shipping it. And I just want to work based on results.
[00:38:35] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:38:41] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art. You can find show notes and a full transcript of this episode at rework.fm. And we are on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.
Wailin: [00:38:54] You can find The Mad Optimists at TheMadOptimist.com. They’re also on Facebook and Instagram as The Mad Optimist. Wildbit is Wildbit.com and Natalie is on Twitter at @NatalieNagele. That’s N-A-T-A-L-I-E N-A-G-E-L-E.
Shaun: [00:39:13] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. When you’re working with a group on a project, everything gets scattered across email chats and whatever you use to track tasks and things can slip through the cracks. Basecamp centralizes it all and it’s easy to use so everybody sees everything about the project in one place. The holidays are a perfect time to fix any communication problems holding you back. Learn more and sign up for a free 30-day trial at Basecamp.com.