Startups, lack of sleep, and finding better ways to do business
Earlier this week I was privileged to be invited to speak to a group of young people who are on a programme with The Prince’s Trust. I had been asked to do a short talk about my own experiences as a business owner – this being particularly relevant to them as I was helped to found edgeofmyseat.com by the Prince’s Trust – back in 2001.
Rather than just talk for half an hour about myself I tried to base the presentation around advice that I think has been particularly important for me in my business, and give them an honest and realistic account of what it is like to run a business. One of my points was to “work hard” but another was to “look after yourself” – to get enough sleep, exercise and eat properly. You are no use to your business if you try and work all night or don’t take time to get to the gym, go for a run or have a decent walk. Running a business, particularly at the start, is hard work and you should work hard, but balance that with enough time to recharge before you burn out.
Then, I read this post by Michael Arrington. I’ll avoid unpacking all of the nonsense, although I’m not convinced that the company behind Farmville are really “putting a dent in the universe”, and the programmer quoted in the article has already spoken out about his name being used to support Arrington’s argument. What I will say is that this is a horrible, horrible example of how to do business well. Glorifying bad working practices, expecting people to work ridiculously long hours and berating them when they object not only flies in the face of common sense but is an incredibly bad example to set. You can read Amy Hoy’s excellent post on the matter on her blog, Unicorn Free.
If you have a “startup culture” that glorifies long hours and complete dedication to your cause then you are essentially stating that you don’t want any person who has a life, any other interests or (heaven help them) a family working in your company. You rule out a lot of older people, really those over the age of about 25 or so, who have figured out that working all night isn’t something worth bragging about, you rule out anyone with a health issue or disability that makes working long hours difficult and in particular you rule out a lot of women. The dot com culture that I escaped to run my own business in 2001 was very much the same as the startup culture of today. As a woman with a small child, I needed to hot foot it out of the office every day at 5.30pm on the dot or risk annoying my lovely childminder, and not getting to spend a bit of time with my daughter. I quite frequently then worked at home after she went to bed – but then felt bad at work the next day hearing the team talk about how they had been in the office, “most of the night”. It was never said to me openly, but I always felt sidelined in that culture because I couldn’t be part of it as a single mum. There are of course fathers in the same position, either as single dads or as dads who take on the majority share of the childcare. However, due to biology, there is a certain amount of time where the woman is likely to be the one doing the majority childcare and so this kind of culture does effect women more than men.
Why is anyone encouraging this behaviour? I am all for hard work, I am all for putting in the extra hours when they are needed. If you are running your business well however, those late nights should be the exception not the rule. You are doing something wrong if you need to expect yourself or people working for you to work long hours as a matter of course. You will not get the best out of yourself or anyone else if you are exhausted and you will not attract experienced team members if you expect them to give up their entire lives for the company. There are other ways to do business. There are more sustainable ways, with less risk to your health and sanity, to run a company and develop a product. There are ways to bootstrap your products, and at least then if you are putting in the long hours you are doing it for YOU, and not to line the pockets of your funders.
As I explained to the young people on Monday, when I started the company it was just me, and it was a service business. It is very hard to scale a service business as you are swapping hours for money, adding an extra person allowed some level of scaling as the admin work didn’t double so the amount of billable hours we could work between us more than doubled. This allowed us to bootstrap our product, Perch, out of the income from the consultancy business. Perch is completely owned by us, and we’re sure that our customers will be pretty happy to know we aren’t looking to sell the business, that’s not our model. We intend to keep doing what we love – developing Perch, helping our customers and doing a small amount of consultancy and development work for clients – in places where we think we can really make a difference.
There are other ways to do business. I’d like to see the bootstrappers, the tiny service businesses doing great stuff for their clients, the parents combining business with a successful and happy family life, the small companies treating their employees with kindness and compassion held up as great examples – not those who think sleeping under their desk makes them better than the rest of us.