Working past the point of diminishing returns


As readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves is that founders not only measure the wrong things, they brag about them, like how many employees they have or how many hits their homepage gets – metrics which have little to do with productivity and generating revenue, profits, and market share.

I can understand why founders of pre-revenue companies do this – I did it myself – as nature and founders deplore a vacuum, so they feel they have to measure something. If you are a early stage startup you may want to read my post 12 KPIs you must know before pitching your startup.

But the subject of this post is one particular destructive metric that founders seem unduly attached to: the number of hours a week they work. I was glad to see the article Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is taking a stand against “hustle porn” by
Leah Fessler on Quartz. While “hustle” has become the operant term in Silicon Valley vocabulary, Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit and Initialized Capital, considers the obsession with hustling to be a waste of time, and a dangerous one at that. He made this abundantly clear at Web Summit one of Europe’s largest tech conferences, held Nov. 5-8 in Libson as Nicholas Say reported for MoneyMakers:

“This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough … this is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now,” Ohanian said, according to Say’s report. “It’s such bullshit, such utter bullshit. It has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your wellbeing.”

Ohanian’s frustration is supported by psychological and scientific research, which repeatedly proves that getting insufficient sleep and exercise is among the worst things you can do for your memoryheart health, and general health. Alternatively, when entrepreneurs domake time for sleep, they’re calmer and more focused at work.

One downside not mentioned is my observation that I believe is born out by research is that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to hours worked per day, hours worked without a significant break, and hours worked per week – all metrics that are often humble-bragged by founders. When it comes to software engineers that point of diminishing returns not only results in lost productivity but in an increased number of bugs in their code.

Ohanian also points out another serious problem of the hustle porn ethos:

… the “hustle” ethos discourages entrepreneurs from reaching out for help when they’re struggling, for fear of looking weak or unsuccessful in the eyes of investors. The key to entrepreneurial success, he said at Web Summit, is overcoming this anxiety and engaging in hard conversations with co-workers. “When you’re struggling, talk to someone. It can be a professional, a family member, or even a stranger can be helpful in getting you into a better headspace.”

Founders are the tone-setters for their companies. If they constantly brag about working 100-hour weeks everyone else will feel intense pressure to meet or exceed that metric. Pretty soon your company reaches the inflection point of overwork: burnout. Remediating burnout is not a simple matter of getting everyone to cut down their hours to a more reasonable fifty to sixty hours. The physical and psychic toll of constant overwork over an extended period of time may require professional intervention and weeks to overcome. So founders, set an example for your teams by working reasonable hours and talking up your work/life balance, not your 100-hour work weeks.

There are some HR guidelines that can help, such as not allowing people to carry over vacation time – use it or lose it, and your people organization needs to remind everyone periodically of how much vacation time they have accrued and what their balance is. Managers may need to nudge or even prod their teams to take some time off, if only for a long weekend.

In startups there may well be times when in order to meet an important deadline, such as demoing your product at a trade show, everyone needs to floor it for a week or so. But keep these sprints down to a minimum and bear in mind: startups are not a sprint, they are a marathon.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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