We recently chatted with Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals and a well-known innovator in online collaboration tools and techniques over that company’s Campfire chat tool. We discussed lots of topics, including virtual work forces, and how do you keep yourself motivated when working all by yourself. Here is an abbreviated version of that long rambling chat.
Om M. You are one of the early believers in the concept of distributed workforce. Are you surprised by the number of people now working together in far-off locations?
Jason F. I’m not surprised. People are the most important thing. Why limit yourself to just some people when you can work with *anyone*? If I only worked with people in Chicago I’d never have started working with David. Then there would never have been Rails.
Om M. Do you think this is a trend which will continue to gather steam?
Jason F. I absolutely do, yes. Tools like ours, and other tools like wikis, IM, etc, makes it so damn easy. And I also believe people are more productive when they are father apart. Interruption is productivity’s biggest enemy. We have 5 people here in Chicago at 37signals. And we still work apart. We work from home.
Om M. On the other hand, there is something to be said about spontaneity of working together and bouncing ideas off each other.
Jason F. We use Campfire for this. We’re in it all day long. And if I don’t want to pay attention I can put the window away. Unlike when you are in person with a bunch of people – you will be bothered whether you like it or not.
Om M. I am new to the whole virtual start-up thing, and I find myself getting the cabin fever, and missing the company of colleagues.
Jason F. When you are in a chat all day long with the people you work with you feel the culture. It’s better than the real thing. Campfire is our secret to success.
Om M. You don’t miss the physical proximity?
Jason F. Some people can’t work remotely. And if you are one of those people then you shouldn’t fight it. We prefer getting things done instead of bullshitting all day which is what happens when everyone is “hanging around.” And we’ve gotten a ton of things done over the last 2.5 years. 5 products, a 6th on the way, a book, ruby on rails, etc.
Om M. What other tools do you use to stay connected (virtually)?
Jason F. IM and Campfire are key. IM for quick 1-on-1s, and Campfire for the whole company. We use Writeboard, Basecamp, and Backpack all day long. We don’t build things because other people need them. We build them because we need them and then we realize there are other people like us that can use them too.
Om M. Are you going to do a voice application? I see that as a big part of staying connected.
Jason F. The best voice application ever built is the phone. It still is. When you are forced to write instead of talk you are forced to be concise. Since typing a lot [is] tiring. We think that’s a great constraint.
Om M. What about email?
Jason F. We use email, but rarely.
Om M. Really?
Jason F. We post things to Basecamp so they are centralized and then Basecamp sends out email, but that’s just a side effect.
Om M. Tell me, how long do you work everyday?
Jason F. Normal hours, but they are spread out. We don’t believe in 9-5. I get a few great hours in in the morning, then chill a little in the afternoons, and get a lot of work done at night. Work to personal mode can be tough, but that’s because I like to work. Everyone is different. You need to do what’s right for you (and people around you). I don’t think there’s a secret to that.
Photo by James Davidson.