Work Hard and Play Just Enough

Image attribution to vamapaull

Image attribution to vamapaull

I read a few posts recently saying that you don’t need to work crazy hours to be successful in a startup. The articles were interesting, but I respectfully disagree.

It all depends on your definition of success. Clearly you can build a company that does millions in sales with a 4-day workweek, just look at Treehouse. And for most people, that’s an awesome success. But there’s different classes of success. Putting it in baseball terms, there’s singles, doubles, triples and home runs. If you want to hit a home run, you’re not making it home for dinner every night.

Think about it. How many billion dollar businesses had founders with a great work/life balance? Not many. Do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs & Jeff Bezos put in a 40-hour workweek? Probably not.

Now admittedly, I’m young (24) and don’t mind putting in the crazy hours. I’m your typical “balls to the wall” founder that will sacrifice all for the sake of the startup. But all the data points I’ve personally experienced reinforce that.

For example, I work out of the VeloCity Garage in Waterloo, Canada. The most recent successes to come out of there are BufferBox & Thalmic Labs. Both are also YC companies. BufferBox sold to Google back in November & Thalmic sold $1.5M in gesture control armbands in 2 days. You know what those companies had in common? They were easily the hardest working teams in the whole workspace. By a long shot.

BufferBox jokingly referred to their work hours as the new 9-5; 9am to 5am. And after rooming with a couple of the Thalmic founders for 6 months, I can verify that they were on the same schedule.

The companies that weren’t? Still toiling away. The notion that you need to work like crazy doesn’t come out of the blue, there’s data to back it up. Are there outliers, like Treehouse, that buck the trend? Absolutely. But startups are hard enough as it is without pushing your luck.

That’s why you need to work hard and play just enough to keep going. Stepping away from work every once in a while is good for you. It keeps your morale, productivity and creativity high. But you don’t need a perfect work/life balance to achieve that. I can work 70 hours a week consistently and be fine. Any more than that and I start to make bad decisions.

That’s my line. It isn’t a balanced life, but historically, it gives me the best chance to succeed. And since I’m going for a home run, that’s the line I need to walk.

  • Scott Lieberman

    Great post – as someone who just took the plunge and started my own company I have thought about this a lot lately. What we have started to do is go on temporary relocations as a team (there are only 3 of us), and do our work from different cities. Our home base is Chicago, but we just spent a week working in SF. Allows us to keep working long hours and stay sane at the same time.

  • deBrice

    Gates, Jobs and others didn’t succeed by working a lot, they were gifted, had a vision at the right time and picked the right partners. IT Companies need to be creative and innovative to standout and succeed. And creativity isn’t proportional to how hard you work.

  • chris

    Working a lot does not necessarily equal working smart.

    • Rodolpho

      Ditto. And… working smart from an individual perspective doesn’t imply into good (business) performance. If your work (catching the ball) is part of a larger process (passing the ball), chances are some other people at different levels of “smartness” may mess up your work.

    • Andrew Cross

      Agreed. Although in my experience, more people use “working smart” as an excuse to cut back hours than those who focus on just “working smart” for the hours they already put in.

    • Nick Sweeting

      Work smart, and a lot.

  • Thomas

    You give no consideration to the quality of their product idea or market conditions that led to their success.

    • Thomas

      Also, perhaps those may have been some of the reasons their project was engaging enough to keep them working so much.

    • Andrew Cross

      Their ideas were great. Absolutely. But ideas are just that, ideas. Their real success came from the execution of those ideas.

  • You Are Being Outworked Now

    Excellent post.

    To the other commenters:

    Where are the examples of folks that work smart but not that hard beating folks that did both?

    Working hard and working smart, in and of themselves, are not enough for huge success on the scale of Zuckerberg. You had to do both, have some luck and that vision/creative thing, etc.