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Does startup imply burnout?


Most people, when they learn that I work in a startup, give me a knowing nod and somberly go, - ‘Long hours I am sure’. In fact, this has happened to me so often in the last two years that I had completely stopped noticing this. Recently in a lunchtime conversation with some folks we know ‘the insane work hours being an unspoken culture of a startup’ came up again. Suddenly all those conversations with all those friends came back to me and made me want to write this out.

Given my strong affinity for science, I decided to run an extremely scientific survey with a huge sample set. As usual though, laziness stepped in and in the end all I could manage was a two minute conversation with my wife! Well, that was still better than nothing, so, I asked her this (extremely leading) question:

‘If you are one of the first employees of a startup or you are the technical lead in a small startup like division in your company, what do you think your life would look like?’ I also wanted her to think not just about work, but about everything she would have to do.

Interestingly, the first thing that came to her was ‘Oh, I am sure I will be working crazy hours’. QED, yo!

The reason I want to write this is because there a lot of people outside and a good number of people working inside the startup ecosystem who still think that startups are all about working 80 hour (Fine, 60 hour?) weeks, week after week, with a ‘Victory or Perish’ attitude! There are so many things wrong about it, that I am not even sure where to start!

Tldr; - The only certain thing at the end of a death march is death!

When thousands of ideas meet a few focused individuals

If you ask any startup founder, she will probably tell you that they have a big enough backlog to keep a 20 people team occupied for the next 3 years. And its probably true too. They most likely do have that many ideas and somewhere in that backlog is that next big idea that will make the difference between a slow painful death versus a 10% week on week growth for the next three years! And its to get to this that everyone is working so hard, or so it seems.

Sadly though, it’s invariably the case that most startups are severely resource crunched. If they are not, they are doing something wrong! So, the seemingly inevitable conclusion that a lot of people come to is that life in a startup is a perpetual death march. Lets just do this only until the next milestone - be it seed funding, series a or may be that killer acquisition.

Whenever I think about this I think of the Persian army on one side and the 300 Spartans on the other side. OK, maybe a bit too far fetched, but the odds still seem the same.

What can we ditch?

In my experience, the dearth is never when it comes to ideas. The trickiest thing in a startup is actually figuring out what not to do. Most ideas in the backlog are usually worthless. When that is the case, brute force way of beating a 99.9% failure rate is just plain wrong.

The whole process of making a startup successful has already moved towards a very scientific way of figuring out what works and what doesn’t very quickly. While that doesn’t necessarily mean lesser work hours, it definitely hints towards smarter ways of using time instead of brute forcing one’s way towards success.

The ‘Fail Fast’ camp has been professing this for a while now - ‘How quickly can you fail?’ inherently means “Don’t waste time building anything fancy. Instead quickly find a way to validate your hypotheses”. In my opinion, this is one of those ideas that needs to be taken to an extreme - how can I reduce the amount of work I do while still figuring out what works?

Ultimately answering - “What can we afford to not do? Why?” is vital for a successful startup.

Empathy anyone?

Burnt out employees are terrible to have on your team. They lack productivity, enthusiasm, creativity and just suck the positivity out of an organization. While this itself is reason enough for people running the show to make sure they don’t burn out their team mates, there is a more important reason to do so - Care about your team mates! A lot of people running successful shops today completely get this.

At some point you should start feeling bad about asking your people to work on weekends, late nights, early mornings etc. Seeing someone who works for you get wasted away because of such indiscriminate work hours is just wrong. The motivation to get some work life balance in place should be more because you actually care about the people that work for them. Instead what I have seen is people being asked to leave after they become bitter because they are no longer pulling their weights and are a negative influence on the team.

With the goal of a logical conclusion in mind and a full on traction race in progress its but obvious that everyone has to work their butt off all the time and get shit done. After all the end will be so sweet that this will all be worth it.

In our experience at MavenHive, the thing that has worked the most for us is trying to work as less as possible. Despite being a consulting shop where number of hours worked equates to revenue, we always try and find reasons to reduce the amount of work we need to do. Watchout for the next blog from Hari where he explains how we have started realising the ‘Less is more’ aspect of consulting startups.