We’re introducing a new segment called Last Week with Jason Fried, where Basecamp’s CEO talks about a task or concern that recently fell on his plate. In this inaugural episode, Jason talks about how the end of the company’s lease on its Chicago office leaves him with a big decision on how to design a space for a mostly remote workforce and whether Basecamp needs an office at all. Meanwhile, all work and no play makes Shaun a dull boy.
The Full Transcript
Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to a bonus episode of Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:08] And I’m Wailin Wong. We’re introducing a new segment today called Last Weeks with Jason Fried. Please do not sue us, John Oliver and HBO. On this segment, we’ll talk to Jason about something that recently fell on his plate as CEO. You hear from him a lot on Rework about design and more high-level thoughts on company culture. But there’s a lot of other tasks and concerns that fall to him, too.
Shaun: [00:00:31] It turns out the lease on Basecamp’s office is ending next year and last week Jason was dealing with what to do next. I sat down with him to discuss the fate of Basecamp’s office in Chicago. Here is the inaugural episode of Last Week with Jason Fried.
[00:00:45] You posted last week about dealing with the office stuff. Can you talk about what our office is right now?
Jason: [00:00:52] Yeah, so, we’ve had this office space since 2010. It’s big. It’s like 10,000 square feet. We’ve got a huge theater that seats 37 people. We’ve got a massive kitchen and a massive dining table that used to be a bank conference room table, like on the top floor of an old building. You know, you can imagine like a bunch of suits sitting around it making decisions. Then we have a bunch of private rooms where people can have team conversations. Then we have a bunch of desks. It’s very beautiful, it’s very well done. Everyone who comes in is impressed by it.
Shaun: [00:01:21] How big was the company when you moved in?
Jason: [00:01:23] Oh my God. So, we moved in about ten years ago. Half the size, I’m imagining.
Shaun: [00:01:29] Yeah.
Jason: [00:01:29] Maybe closer to 30 people. We’re about 54 now. So, 30-ish, I think. Maybe even less, possibly. It’s possible it was even less. But, the idea behind the office was half of it is for office and the other half is for, like, public use. Not like it’s open to the public, but we had conferences and workshops and that kind of thing. And a big kitchen. And, it has served us really, really well. And like I said, everyone who comes in is impressed by it. But, we’re also just about to walk away from it. And just last week, I kind of decided that we’re done. So our lease is coming up next year and we’ve been sort of in negotiation a little bit with the landlord, talking about extending it or not extending it. I’ve looked at other spaces over the past year. And it turns out the landlord’s going to sell the building at some point. He’s not going to be the landlord by the time our lease renews.
Shaun: [00:02:15] Gotcha.
Jason: [00:02:16] And so, the relationship there, there won’t be one there anymore. We talked about, well, could we maybe, before you leave, set up a nice little deal? But, realistically, it’s just not worth it for anybody to sign us up at the price we were paying. So, here’s the thing. Ten years ago, this neighborhood that we’re in was nothing, in a sense. I mean, that sounds—it’s not nothing. But it was nothing like it is today.
Shaun: [00:02:39] Yeah, the meat-packers and stuff were still here.
Jason: [00:02:41] Yeah. And it was just really relatively cheap and no one was here. Now, there’s like Google’s three blocks away and there’s hotels and it’s huge. This is like the hottest part of Chicago, but ten years ago it wasn’t so we got a really good deal. If we were to renew our lease, when our lease is up at the market rates, our rent would go from something like—we’re paying about… Somewhere between $16 and $18,000 a month right. I’m not exactly sure of the number. I haven’t looked at the actual bill for a while. But it would probably got to $35, $40,000. And it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it.
Shaun: [00:03:13] Yeah.
Jason: [00:03:13] It’s permanently not worth it because, we don’t use the office enough. So, it’s not that the office space isn’t worth it. It is worth it if we used it the way we intended, or if all 40 people, 50 people in the company came in every day. The neighborhood’s great, lot of restaurants. Like, it’s a great place to work, but we don’t work here. So, that doesn’t make sense. So, we decided we’re going to move on.
Shaun: [00:03:36] What kind of stuff are you thinking about when you’re looking for a new space?
Jason: [00:03:39] Well…
Shaun: [00:03:39] What do want this new office to—or, if there is going to be a new office, what do you want it to accomplish?
Jason: [00:03:43] Yeah, and really the next step was not to think about what do we replace this with, but what if we don’t replace this at all?
[00:03:50] So, that’s where the—and that’s still on the table. Do we need an office? Most people in this company don’t have an office. Most people work remotely, in a bunch of cities around the world, so what is it about Chicago? Why should we have our own office when most people do not?
Shaun: [00:04:05] Right.
Jason: [00:04:05] So, we’ve been thinking about… there’s some things like, let’s just never get another office. Or, let’s take a year off from getting an office and just see what it would be like to just not have an office. Or, let’s find a really small space that’s kind of right for us, relatively in the same area, because the area’s kind of nice. But something that’s maybe a third of the space. A third of the size and much cheaper.
[00:04:26] So, currently, I’d say two things are on the table. One is probably skipping an office for a year. The other one is signing a lease—relatively short-term lease, perhaps in a space not too far from here that I’ve looked at that is about… it’d be about 3,000 square feet, something like that. But a third of what we’re—a little bit less than a third of what we have now.
[00:04:49] And we would basically, if you think about what our office looks like now, we’ve got half of it’s public, half of it’s private? We’d keep the private side and jettison the public side and still shrink the private side a little bit more. But we’d have some team rooms. We’d have some desks, although I’ve been thinking a lot about… I’m curious of your take on this… I’ve been thinking a lot about, we talk about our office like a library. It’s like library rules and the whole thing.
Shaun: [00:05:13] Right.
Jason: [00:05:13] What if we designed like it looked like a library. Like, what if we had open tables, not desks, but open tables, work tables with a little green jade like library lamps. Low lamps. And had this notion of having a set of these tables throughout the space where people could just pick a space for a day and work there versus actually having their own desk.
Shaun: [00:05:36] Having a desk, yeah.
Jason: [00:05:37] Some people, like you, you kind of need something more permanent because you do recording and you do heavy lifting with a computer so you need a desktop. And so, you could just camp out at one and that would be your permanent place, basically. But a little bit more of a collaborative thing, because I’ve noticed when people come in, only a few people come in anyway, and it’s kind of like, well, when you come in and let’s hang out for lunch because no one gets to see each other that often. So, it’s more of a collaborative space than it is a quiet office space with individual desks. We still have team rooms, we still have a recording studio like we have here. We still have phone booths. But it would all just be compressed and the spirit would be more about the camaraderie of the space, and more like a… but still more treating it like a library and actually being more literal and making it look like a library.
Shaun: [00:06:19] Would you like to see more people come to the office?
Jason: [00:06:22] I don’t care. I think, like, to me, if you want to come, it’s here. If you don’t, it’s not. Or, it is, but you don’t have to. But I think that… I wouldn’t want to force it on anybody but what I would want to create is an environment—
Shaun: [00:06:41] Oh sure, I’m not saying force it, yeah.
Jason: [00:06:42] I think that, like, if we were to redo the office and make it more of this, first of all, smaller. Because one of the things, you come here pretty much every day. And you’re like, one of three.
Shaun: [00:06:51] Yeah.
Jason: [00:06:52] And, to sit in a big empty open space is not very cozy or welcoming.
Shaun: [00:06:56] It’s a little like being the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.
Jason: [00:06:58] Right. Exactly.
Shaun: [00:06:59] Just typing on my typewriter.
Jason: [00:07:01] Exactly. And so, it’s not that appealing to show up here if you’re one of three in a 10,000 square foot. It feels empty. I think that if we make—if we get a smaller space and kind of design it in a slightly different way, I think it might attract more people to the space. More people might come because it will feel less cavernous. It will feel a little bit cozier, and a little bit more collaborative, in a sense. And I think that that might be something that people use differently than the way they use it now. I think. What do you think? Do you think if the space was smaller and a little bit more intimate in a sense, more people would come, or not?
Shaun: [00:07:36] I’m not sure. I’m trying to think. Because we used to have more people. I mean, there used to be more people living in Chicago, I think. But, we used to have more people come. And I don’t know what, exactly, changed.
Jason: [00:07:48] Happened, yeah.
Shaun: [00:07:49] People got over it. Commuting’s been harder.
Jason: [00:07:51] I mean, yeah, it’s not like people moved. It’s not like it became more inconvenient or something. I don’t know what happened, if anything did happen. Maybe it’s just schedules changed and life changed, and who knows.
Shaun: [00:07:59] Yep. Yeah.
Jason: [00:08:02] But I think a refresh and opportunity to do something new would be nice. Also, we would have with this other space I’m thinking about, which, again, is just nowhere near final, but… it would be on the first floor so we’d have outdoor space. We’d also have a roof deck.
Shaun: [00:08:15] Very looking forward to that.
Jason: [00:08:15] So, it’d be—you know, we’d have some room. You could grill. You could smoke, whatever you want to do. Outside and on the roof, so I think it might be more, especially in the summer months, might be just more of an appealing place to come and hang out and work. And then take some breaks where you go outside, that sort of thing. But, I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see how it shakes out. We’ll probably use the same architect that did this space, so, sensibilities would be similar. But we haven’t made a decision. So, I’m currently, in fact at 5:30 today, I’m going back over there to take a look at it again.
Shaun: [00:08:45] To the new space?
Jason: [00:08:45] Yeah. To just get a sense of it. And do a walk-through again, and I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. The other thing we would do, slightly different, too, if we did this space that we’re looking at would be, we would actually divide the space essentially in half and we’d—there’d be two companies in there. So, it’d be us and another company.
Shaun: [00:09:05] Okay.
Jason: [00:09:05] Private offices, but this building is kind of, about 6,000 square feet so we’d kind of take half, they’d kind of take half. And we’d have a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms. So, we’d have some shared common areas versus right now we have a big kitchen, which, like, it’s weird to sit at the lunch table by yourself. It’s really eerie, in fact. So, we would have—and this other company’s about 15 people. So, it’s kind of like two size companies—I mean, we’re bigger than 15, but in Chicago we’re about 15.
Shaun: [00:09:30] Yeah.
Jason: [00:09:30] But, it’s a friendly company. A friend of the company, let’s call it. And we’d all have our private spaces but there’d be some communal spaces that we would share together. And so, that would be kind of fun, too, because you can go eat lunch and there would be some other people there that maybe, eventually you’d get to know. But it would be a little bit more social and less just like, again, empty. So, I think that might be nice. Also, as part of the building, there might be some more tenants that are going to go into the building that are really interesting, too. So, there’s just… it’s a good vibe. Right now, I feel like we don’t really interact with anybody else in our building.
Shaun: [00:09:59] No.
Jason: [00:09:59] At all. There’s kind of nowhere to do it, first of all. And also, it’s just like, different kind of companies. So, I think there’s just some stuff going for this. But, again, it’s really early. It’s really really early.
Shaun: [00:10:10] What are you most, or more excited about? It sounds like you’re more excited about this new space than going office-less.
Jason: [00:10:16] Partially because I like architecture and space.
Shaun: [00:10:18] You get a chance to design a new space, absolutely.
Jason: [00:10:19] Planning, get to design a new office. I think, David and I haven’t talked about it, I think David probably would come out on the other side of this argument, which is like, we don’t really need it, why are we spending the money on it, and a totally fair argument. Part of it is David’s not in Chicago anymore. I am, so, there’s some of that. I do,though, think that even if I wasn’t here. I feel like because there are 15 people here, in Chicago, it feels like that is a home base. And because there’s 15, it feels like there should be some place for those 15 to get together that’s reliable.
Shaun: [00:10:51] I mean, people come in. I mean…
Jason: [00:10:52] Yeah. People come in from out of town.
Shaun: [00:10:54] They always come to the office to work.
Jason: [00:10:55] And it’s nice to have some private space—
Shaun: [00:10:58] It’d be weird to expect them to go find a hotel conference room or something to work in.
Jason: [00:11:01] Totally. Although, we wouldn’t have meet-ups here. Actually, we still could have meet-ups here. So, one of the reasons we have this big office space now is for our meet-ups, we have 50-some-odd people come and we fly everybody in, and we spend a week together in this office. There’s enough room for 50 people in this space. There would not be enough room for 50 people in the new room.
Shaun: [00:11:17] There’s barely enough room for 50 people, though. It’s this weird thing where it’s way too big for 360 days out of the year and then for five days or ten days, it’s way too small.
Jason: [00:11:30] It’s true. It’s not properly sized.
Shaun: [00:11:33] Yeah.
Jason: [00:11:33] I think what we would do is, we haven’t decided, but one option is to have meet-ups in other cities. Which we used to do a long time ago. We might return to that, or we might still have everyone come to Chicago. It’s an easy city to get to for everyone around the world. We have people all over the place, like a lot of flights into Chicago, it’s very easy. Plus we have 15 people here that we don’t need to fly and put up in hotels. And then we might just rent a venue for like, two of the days.
Shaun: [00:11:59] An event space, yeah.
Jason: [00:11:59] Yeah, an event space. Perhaps just for two of the days, maybe like for the big talks. And then, the rest of it, people can bounce in out. They can come into the office, they can go hang out at SoHo House. They can go hang out at the hotel. They can just kind of do their own things. But the office would be open. It’s enough room for people to hang out, but not all 50 at the same time. So, we might do that. I don’t know, we haven’t really thought about that. That’s kind of the next step. So, I’m actually more excited about doing something in a space. I think it’s a good—I think it’s fun to do these kind of projects. We would be a lot cheaper than the first time we did it. So, we’d be responsible about it. But it feels kind of like the right next step for us, versus going completely cold turkey, essentially, and having nothing.
Shaun: [00:12:37] Yeah, cool.
Jason: [00:12:38] I’m trying to think if there’s anything else I could share about the process. I would also say that over the past year and a half, we’ve been looking at other spaces. We looked downtown at the Loop, which is a whole ‘nother discussion we had. Which is like, could we just go downtown. That would be a totally different thing. We’d be near the lake, be near everything that’s going on in Chicago, you know.
Shaun: [00:12:55] Going downtown to the cool vibe, too.
Jason: [00:12:57] You used to work downtown, right?
Shaun: [00:12:57] Yep. Mm-hmm.
Jason: [00:12:58] It’s a totally different vibe. It’s very busy. We looked at this one space that overlooked Michigan Ave and the Apple Store and the river. It was an amazing view. That was really appealing for a while, but then I went down and—I drive, so I went down and drove there. And it was like, fuck no. I’m not going to do this have to drive every day.
Shaun: [00:13:14] It would make my commute much easier.
Jason: [00:13:15] You would love it, totally. Anyone who takes CTA would love it, but like… it’s a pain in the ass to get downtown by car. And I also don’t think a lot of people would end up showing up. I think it’s just—it’s enough of a hassle for a lot of people to deal with the citythat it might not happen. And also, it just… it was a big building. The build-out would have been very expensive. It just—it felt like a big project in an unknown location that I wasn’t sure we’d—like, I feel like we’d love it for six months and then be like, oh my God, what did we do. You know? And you have to sign a long-term lease at those places.
Shaun: [00:13:46] And people would stop coming in, and yeah.
Jason: [00:13:48] Yeah, and the same thing would kinda happen. We looked at that, we looked at some other kind of spaces. We looked at—I’ve always wanted to buy an old two-flat or something and convert it into an office.
Shaun: [00:13:58] Yeah, that would be really cool.
Jason: [00:13:58] Or, an old building or something. And there’s been a few I’ve looked at that I would just have bought. I don’t think the company would buy it. Maybe it would. I would just it and like we’d rent it from me fairly. Whatever, I don’t know what we would do. But I looked at that kind of thing, too. And this other opportunity just came up a few weeks ago. This guy’s like, hey, I got this building. We’re gonna move our office, you want to move in? And like, yeah, maybe. Let’s go look at it. I looked at it, and I was like, this is kind of interesting. And then, it was like, small and appealing and the location’s pretty cool. And the other companies are kind of cool, so we’ll see what happens.
Shaun: [00:14:27] Cool.
Jason: [00:14:28] That was last week.
Shaun: [00:14:28] Awesome.
[Clip from The Shining plays]
Jack Torrance: [00:14:30] Mr. Grady. You were a caretaker here.
Delbert Grady: [00:14:43] I’m sorry to differ with you, sir. But you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.
Wailin: [00:15:13] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. If you have a question for Jason about how he runs Basecamp, we are collecting questions for an upcoming mailbag episode. Leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850. Again, that’s (708) 628-7850.