Power Players

Basecamp founder on becoming a millionaire overnight: 'A mild crisis of faith ensued. Is this it?'

David Heinemeier Hansson (C) as he celebrates on the podium after finishing third of the Le Mans 24 hours endurance race, on June 18, 2017 in Le Mans. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
Damien Meyer | AFP via Getty Images

David Heinemeier Hansson remembers the moment he became a millionaire. He grew up "lower middle class," so the moment was significant, he said.

It was also a let down. 

"The euphoria I felt when it was finally real lasted the rest of that day. The inner smile remained super wide for at least the rest of the week," Hansson wrote in 2015 for Observer.com, nine years after he became a millionaire. 

"Then a mild crisis of faith ensued. Is this it? Why isn't the world any different now?"

Hansson became a millionaire when he sold "a minority, no-control stake" in management software company Basecamp (well known for operating entirely remotely) to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos for "a few million dollars" in 2006, Hansson said.

His overnight windfall was the kind of wealth that Hansson, now 40, dreamed about as a kid. 

"I remember playing the 'What would you do if you won a million kroner?' game with my brother many times," Hansson, who grew up in Denmark, said. "We could spend eons making fantasy purchases. Comparing and contrasting choices and possibilities."

Those games were imagination play because in real life, Hansson lived in a home provided by an affordable housing association on the outskirts of Copenhagen. His mother, "a damn magician at making impossible ends meet," did things like bike an extra 15 minutes to find the least expensive milk, he said.

(Hansson is clear that Denmark's social support networks kept him from feeling any desperation or fear: "I never went hungry to bed. I never feared getting shot. I never worried whether the end of my future prospects would be as a store clerk working minimum wage. The Danish experience shielded me from all those concerns of basic safety and comfort," he said.)

But Hansson always believed that having more money and more material things would make him happier.

"There's always an appetite for more, and a belief that just a little extra was going to be the tipping point for eternal bliss," he said. "Dreaming of an Amiga 1200 (a personal computer released in the early 1990s), making it happen, and then thinking that, oh, what I really needed was that Amiga 4000. Somehow the repeated treadmill never seemed to bare its underlying truth, no matter how many times I took it for a run," he wrote.

When it seemed to finally be happening thanks to Basecamp, the anticipation of becoming a millionaire was intense. 

"I remember the weeks leading up to that day when the numbers in my checking account suddenly swelled dramatically. They were anxious. I stood at the doorsteps of The Dream," he wrote. "A lifetime of expectations about how totally, utterly awesome it would be to be a millionaire. I'd be able to buy all the computers and cameras I ever wanted and any car I desired!"

And Hansson did buy things, like a large screen television and a yellow Lamborghini.

"While all very nice, very wonderful, it didn't, as we say, really move the needle of deep satisfaction," Hansson said.

What did give him satisfaction, was continuing to build Basecamp, as well as writing, photography and computer programming. 

"If anything, I began to appreciate even more intently that flow and tranquility were the true sources of happiness for me all along. It was like I had pulled back the curtain on that millionaire's dream and found, to my surprise, that most of the things on the other side were things I already had. Equal parts shock and awe, but ultimately deeply reassuring," Hansson said. 

That's not to say that Hansson doesn't use his financial security to live a good life. He has a house in wealthy Malibu, California, where he lives with his wife and three kids, according to The Information. He also he races cars and has an expensive photography habit. (He told Tim Ferriss in 2018 that he bought a $10,000 Leica camera and lens.)

Hansson has also been known to use his position of wealth to be a fly in the ointment of Silicon Valley culture. "What's the point of having 'f--- you' money if you never say 'f--- you'?" Hansson told The Information for a story on Tuesday.  

But despite the trappings, coming into money wasn't as life-changing as Hansson thought it would be. Something he'd heard others say was true but couldn't relate to until he experienced it. 

"I remember rich people trying to tell me this before I was rich. Not necessarily in person, but through clever or modest-profound quotes and interviews," Hansson wrote in 2015. "And I remember always thinking 'yeah, that's easy for you to say now — you got yours'. It's not lost on me that most people reading this will probably feel the same. It's just the natural, instinctual reaction."

That, and it's hard for most people to admit that they already hold the key to their own happiness. 

"I think it's scary to think This Is It. This is what I got. Changing the numbers on my bank account or the size of TV or the make of the car in the garage or the zip code isn't going to complete me. I have to figure that shit out on my own," he said.

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