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 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.


Paul Morriss December 1, 2011 Reply

“We aren’t looking to sell the business.” That would be a heartening to see on the websites of more online products/services. It’s hard to make a strategic decision on tools or services when you’ve no idea how this newish company which makes a great product is going to do in the future. Knowing they aren’t going to get bought is encouraging when you see what people like Google and Yahoo do to their acquisitions sometimes.

Laura Kalbag December 1, 2011 Reply

WELL SAID. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels sorry for those people saying they’re working all weekend or all night.

It’s good to put the work down at the end of the day, I think it also helps you enjoy your working time as you don’t have to resent it stealing all your time away from your loved ones.

MartinMc December 1, 2011 Reply

Nice article. The best advice ever given to me by a Prince’s Trust mentor, (a senior B.T. Director), 10 yrs ago was to work hard during work hrs, get your job done and go home on time guilt free and switch off. The people he often worried about more were the people hanging around late who obviously couldn’t get their work done in normal hours. I’ve found that to be true wherever I’ve worked. I’m both self-employed and part of a startup and find a healthy balance makes you more focused when it is time to fire up the laptop.

Anon Delivery Manager December 1, 2011 Reply

Posting Anon because, well, I hope it’s obvious.

There are only a small subset of things you can burn out people in building. And all of them are (at time of building) trivially inconsequential.

Let me give you some examples that my team and closely related ones are working on.

An infrastructure for a national Financial Services sub-industry. If it falls over, so does that industry within a day or so.

The entire technology ecosystem by which a national chain takes in money. Kill that, kill the company.

An infrastructure which, if it fails, takes the global financial system down in under 10 minutes.

The systems that run all billing for a global telco.

The systems that enable much of sub-Sarahan Africa to make non-cash payments to each other. Paypal’s a tiny player by comparison.

When you’re working on things that really put a dent in the universe, you cannot, cannot have the people building them anywhere but right at the top of their game.

There’s a reason for the 40 hour week y’know – people aren’t productive working much more than that for a sustained period (read: more than about 3 in a row). After that, it’s just machismo, but the measurable output doesn’t really change much, despite the bullshit about ‘Internet Time’.

Chucking out a lightweight demo that works like crap (but better than nothing) is possible under that pressure. Doing it right isn’t.

Kristen Grote December 1, 2011 Reply

We work in an industry that is built around the concept of interacting with others remotely, and yet so many businesses still cling to the antiquated idea that all employees need to be physically present at an office. There is an ever-increasing need for jobs that people can do from home. Not only people with families, but folks with disabilities as well. And with all the soldiers coming home with physical or mental handicaps, it’s essential that businesses become more open-minded about where their employees work and how.

All the technology exists, from laptops, email, and smartphones to webcams, Skype, and screen-sharing. So what’s stopping us?

room34 December 1, 2011 Reply

Thanks for this post. Your story is remarkably similar to my own, which I was compelled to write about on my blog as well. I’m just at a point now with my freelance business where I’m planning to push it to the next level (i.e. more than just me), and it’s great to see examples of people achieving their goals on the same kinds of terms and with the same values that I have.

P.S. I love your site’s background graphic.

Tim December 2, 2011 Reply

Excellent post! This pretty much sums up my own experiences. As a cancer survivor, quality of life has become super important to me with my work now, so if I get offered work in environments like I used to work in in my past (loooong hours, bad working conditions), I just turn it down point blank now.

I love what I do, I’m just not prepared to make myself ill (again) doing it. Interestingly my most successful client is one who treats their staff extremely well. In the 4 years I’ve been working with them, they’ve grown from 6 to around 80, sustainably, without VC, and they have the lowest staff turnover of any company I’ve worked with. they go out of their way to make the company a nice place to work, and they really are 9 – 5, crazy late nights are the very rare exception there, which makes a really nice change!

Its good to see you guys doing so well!


Gordon McLachlan December 3, 2011 Reply

Great article, Rachel, one that really strikes a cord with me, mainly because we are a bootstrap business too. We work hard to sustain ourselves through bespoke service work whilst developing our online products to eventually (and hopefully) generate predictable and sustained income. We work hard but we don’t kill ourselves doing it.

And that’s how it should be. I figure that there’s something wrong with a business model if you can’t achieve what you’re trying to do within a reasonable amount of hours per week. Yes, we have to work on weekends and evenings but it’s not like we’re sleeping under our desks and destroying our families and social lives in the process.

Personally, I think it boils down to two things: working smart rather than ‘hard’ and being modest in our ambition. We never went out and tried to find hundreds of thousands of pounds investment so we could hire lots of staff and kick back in big offices but then we don’t want to make billions like Zynga either. We want to enjoy our work, our lives, contribute to the web industry and run a great company. And part of that ethos is having a balance to our lives.

Soo December 7, 2011 Reply

Well said! And who ever said that working more is equal to working well? Keep it up Rachel!

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