The startup landscape can be incredibly competitive. Not just between early stage businesses trying to grow into the ‘next big thing’ – but also amongst the founders and employees who work in them, who often take a Monty-Pythonesque approach to work.
“Yeah, I’m flat out at the moment. Haven’t left the office before midnight in weeks.”
“I haven’t had a holiday in 18 months, or spent time with my family all week.”
“Don’t have time to scratch myself. So busy!”
At some point, being “busy” seems to have become deemed not only necessary for those working in startups, but a prerequisite for success. Alternatively, anyone who admits to aspiring to a 40-hour week or any form of work-life balance risks being shunned as unambitious, and potentially not “doing what it takes” to succeed.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve tried working crazy hours in previous careers in consulting and finance (I once spent 44 out of 48 hours in the office). And I’m never doing it again.
As anyone who’s ever worked too late, or pulled an all-nighter, knows, at some stage the quality of the work falls away substantially. At this point, activity and achievement are two very different things. This is never more obvious than early the next day, after a late-night work session, when I’m simultaneously exhausted and realise half of the previous night’s output is nonsense.
I’ve come to learn I have about six “great” work hours each day. Another three hours are “still useful” for work. After that, I’m at risk of needing to completely re-do things at a later time (at best), or making one or more stupid decisions (at worst). I’ve learnt that any time outside of my productive work window is better off spent doing something else.
As a co-founder of our startup Found, I’ve found that making poor decisions (or even just postponing them) not only leads to undesirable outcomes, but can jeopardise the very survival of the business. Great decision-making under pressure at high-velocity is probably the single hardest thing in any early-stage company.
If I come to the office tired, odds are that I’ll either rush or postpone things, or just generally make poor choices. So, now I prioritise a full night’s sleep – it’s more valuable than those extra lines of code, PowerPoint slides or spreadsheets.
There are few things in life which are as enjoyable when taken to excess as they are in small doses. Too much of anything will often leave you disinterested, craving variety – and put you at risk of hating it.
Time after time, I’ve seen startup founders who are incredibly passionate about their idea become cynical and jaded from being “nailed to the perch”. So my advice is this: get out of the office (whether that’s working from a café or a park), leave early to play sport, or take the occasional “work from home” day. Variety is truly the spice of life.
Finally, remember that startups are a marathon, not a sprint. It’s 15 years since Atlassian was started in a Sydney garage, Salesforce is 18 years old, while Adobe is too old to be a millennial (35 years old).
To have a great career within an awesome business, you need to be productive, decisive and passionate. No-one can do that for 100 hours per week in the long run. So be kind to yourself and find a way to make your professional life sustainable. You won’t regret it.