If you want to build a company it will take a team


Business Insider has a typical teaser headline: The best advice billionaire AOL cofounder and investor Steve Case gives entrepreneurs is a truth about long-term success. I don’t  believe in teaser headlines but I do recommend the article. .

In an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success,” Case said the best advice he can give to entrepreneurs is that building a productive team of people with complementary skill sets is of utmost importance.

It’s got some pithy quotes from Mr. Case, including: the common saying, “If you want to go quickly, you can go alone. If you want to go far, you must go together,” This sums up the cost – need for shared decision making, and the benefit – more brainpower and experience – of partnerships.

Case considers the best advice he gives as, “It ultimately comes down to people and teams, that entrepreneurship is a team sport, it’s not about any one person.” He warns against the ego boost that can come from external expectations of the founder. “The founding CEO tends to get most of the attention, but it really is a team effort,” he said.

CEOs remind me of quarterbacks in football. When the team wins they get all the credit; when the team loses they get all the blame. Well there are 22 players in modern football, 11 on offense and 11 on defense, no to speak of another 11 on special teams, so it’s way off the mark to give the quarterback so much credit or so much blame. And of course pro football teams have squad of about about 53 players plus another dozen on the practice squad. And companies range from dozens, to hundreds to thousands of employees. Here’s another great quote from Case on teams:

If you get the people right, almost anything is possible,” he said. “If you don’t get the people right, I’d argue nothing is possible.

These quotes all come from the This is Success podcast.

I virtually never see a full management team at my mentoring sessions because most of my mentees are at the zero stage and it’s usually just one or two founders. But what I also don’t see is a hiring plan to bring on the balance of the management team and even director level and individual level staff below that. I started my first company with a detailed spreadsheet listing position, hiring date, and projected salary for the first dozen or so hires beyond the management team, so I’m amazed that most of the founders I see have barely thought beyond hiring another engineer!

There are multiple reasons to have a team:

  • Startups are a lot of work. Spreading work amongst a group means the company is not totally dependent on a single individual, which is very risky.
  • No single person will have the engineering, marketing, sales, and support skills and experience to fill all those roles.
  • All founders have strengths and weaknesses. I was taught long ago by successful entrepreneur Bill Warner not to try to strengthen my weaknesses but rather to hire staff with complementary skills to mine and to leverage my strengths.
  • All teams needs a variety of perspective, which only comes from a diversity of teams. Research has shown that diverse teams – men and women, whites and people of color – make better decisions than homogenous teams.
  • You can’t be two places at once! Successful companies are usually national in scope if not international. No matter how smart you are you can’t be negotiating deals in New York, Austin, Beijing, and Silicon Valley simultaneously.
  • Managers only have so much reach, meaning they can only direct so many staffers before they hit overreach. That number varies with the individual, but all individuals no matter how talented and experienced have a limit. The buspeak term is “span of control.” Even if it’s as high as 20, that’s a drop in the bucket in a company of 1,000.

Personally, lacking any individual skills aside from being good at recruiting talent, I love working in a small team. The best ideas always get better, the bad ideas get killed off. And it’s much more fun. That’s a term rarely used in the startup world, but if you aren’t having fun you will burn out. Have some, it’s free.

Unfortunately Steve Case does not go on to provide advice on how to build a team. However, I have a post based on an interview with Julie Larson-Green of Microsoft. There you will find some actionable tips on how to build a team. Another post I can recommend to you is Talent Tracking, which you need to start now, if you haven’t already.

If  you want to build a product you can do that by yourself or with another engineer or two. But if you want to build a company that will take a team. This requires you to know thyself, the absolutely necessary first step for any would-be founder.

Avoiding the big danger in promotions

JeterOnce you are past the startup stage in your venture and you start building your organization there’s a new challenge that you may have run into if you’ve worked in a large organization. That’s how you manage promotions.

The best way to avoid the tangles of promotions is to have a very flat organization: as few levels of management as possible. Each manager has a relatively large number of direct reports – perhaps as many as 15 or 20. This avoids layers of bureaucracy. Managing that many direct reports requires skill and discipline. But with online tools like Slack and Trulio and others it can and is done.

But eventually you will have a management job opening to fill. Say director of customer support. All job openings should be posted internally first, to give your current staff the chance to apply before you look at recruiting outside the company. Growing your own, recruiting from within, provides a career path for your staff and removes a major risk with new hires: cultural fit.

But there’s a real danger lurking when you promote from within. It’s called the “Peter Principle.”

The Peter principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. The concept was elucidated in the 1969 book The Peter Principle by Peter and Raymond Hull.[1]

I’ve seen the Peter Principle at work in two places: sales and software engineering. Perhaps it is because it is so difficult to manage these two functions that, for example, a very successful sales rep gets promoted to manage a sales territory. Sales people are great at selling themselves, so you have to go beyond the traditional interview to know if they are really suited for the position they are applying for. Otherwise you risk losing a great sales person and gaining a lousy manager! I’ve found a similar problem with software engineering. Not being an engineer I lack the technical background to thoroughly vet an engineer applying for an engineering management job. Microsoft very early in its history recognized why great engineers applied for management jobs and how to avoid the Peter Principle. The reason engineers apply for management jobs is that they pay a lot better, in both salary and stock! So Microsoft and Apple created parallel individual contributor tracks where great engineers could get promoted to “higher levels” and receive the concomitant compensation similar to managers or directors, but didn’t need to take on any management responsibility. Thus great engineers were rewarded  and not lost to management. Besides all engineers hate managers!

There’s a similar phenomena to the Peter Principle amongst the newly rich. The New York Times article You’ve Become Rich. That Doesn’t Mean You’re Great at Everything by Sendhil Mullainathan is a great picture of how new found wealth can have unintended consequences. Just because you have become wealthy in one area, typically technology these days, doesn’t mean that you have the skills and ability in another. 

A hedge fund manager who buys a newspaper has the power to decide what constitutes news. A rich app developer who starts a foundation can decide which philanthropic projects are worthwhile. A real estate developer who donates heavily to a local theater may have considerable influence over which plays will come to life.

People tend to think because they have been successful in one area, playing a sport for example, means that this great talent can be applied in another area, running a restaurant or even a sports team. And there are many examples of the latter, the best known being basketball player Michael Jordan, now owner of the the Charlotte Hornets basketball team, which has yet to reach the heights of success Mr. Jordan achieved on the court.

If you really want to dig into the Peter Principle you can read the journal article by three academics, Promotions and the Peter Principle.  Or just read the Times article.  We all enjoy watching the rich and famous stumble, right?

And may your startup be so successful that you run the danger of the Peter Principle yourself!

No one with experience need apply!

jobs and woz

Earlier this year Business Insider had an article entitled The idea that most successful startup founders are in their twenties is a myth — the average entrepreneur is much older. 

The article states that:

… the average age of entrepreneurs who started a company that went on to hire just one employee was 41.9, and the average age of founders who started a high-growth company is even older, at 45 years old.

The study also examined the age of entrepreneurs in sectors like specialized tech employment, venture capital investing, and patent firms, which yielded similar results: The average age of these people, too, was somewhere in their early-to-mid forties.

“Our primary finding is that successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not young,” the study reads. “Founders in their early 20s have the lowest likelihood of successful exit or creating a 1 in 1,000 top growth firm.”

The study contradicts everything I’ve every read about high tech startups, starting with Microsoft, which was founded by two college dropouts in the 1970s up to Google and Facebook and beyond.  VC like their founders young – the younger the better! Young people aren’t married, don’t have mortgages, are happy to sleep in the office, work in a bullpen, and will trade off salary for equity. They can work long hours because often they don’t have any one to come home to, certainly not children.

There’s a reason why virtually every high tech company’s offices look like college campuses – these companies want to recreate the campus atmosphere for students they hire fresh off of a college campus. It makes their transition from student to employee seamless. And with the rising cost of health insurance, young healthy hires in their early twenties are so much cheaper than middle-aged breadwinners with a spouse and kids, whose insurance cost can be four or five times that of a single recent college graduate.

I was reminded of the study recently when I read a New York Times Corner Office piece on inventor James Dyson: The Public Wants to Buy Strange Things, subtitled He made billions selling vacuums. Now he is backing Brexit, building an electric car — and making antiquated comments on ‘racial differences.’

james dyson

I can see Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg nodding in agreement reading these quotes:

The point is, here’s this longhaired art student in the mid-’60s, getting asked to design something he knew nothing about. Then he’s told to set up a company, which he knew nothing about. That’s what I do today with my people. I try to recruit everybody as a graduate, because they have no baggage, they have enthusiasm and curiosity. I think experience can be fine in certain situations and with certain companies. But when you’re doing something very different, it’s often best done by people who have done nothing before.

Yes, this is just one data point, but it totally jibes with my experience of seeing hundreds of startups founded by college students, college drop outs, and recent graduates who, surprise, want to hire people who look just like themselves (which is why young white males and young Asian males dominate the management and employee population of tech industry growth ventures.)

James Dyson may be in the mold of British genius eccentrics, but from my experience all these accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, and startup companies are populated by young people. If you are older than 25 and looking to found or join a startup, be prepared to demonstrate your enthusiasm, curiosity, and evidence of doing wild and crazy things!

Recruiting lessons to be learned from Tesla


For high growth startups recruiting is literally the lifeblood of the company. In the many startups I’ve been involved in my deep experience and expertise enabled me to hire numerous “A” players to helped our companies succeed. But today, about a decade after my last venture capital funded startup the competition for engineers, scientists, and top gun sales and marketing talents is fierce, as the barriers to entry for starting a company have dropped by at least an order of magnitude.

How do you win the brutal competition to hire and retain top drawer talent? There are a number of excellent lessons embedded the The Wall Street Journal article Tesla Is the Hot Spot for Young Job Seekers. As usual, the Journal’s editors do a superb job of adding
sub-titles to their headlines that summarize the article takeaways in a single sentence: Despite long hours and frenetic pace, a job at Elon Musk’s electric-car company is a career break many idealistic engineers find impossible to pass up.

Here are the lessons every fast growing startup should pay attention to, though not all will be within your reach:


As in real estate, startups are all about three things: location, location, and location. In this case location is Silicon Valley. Despite serious efforts being made to catch up by other metro areas Silicon Valley dominates the start up world like the New England Patriots dominate the NFL; both are perennial winners. If you can’t move to the Valley then shoot for another hot startup area: Boston, New York City, Austin, Boulder, and L.A. to name a few.

A magnetic founder

Elon Musk is a generational talent. Your odds of being another Musk or partnering with someone like him are nil and none. However, having a charismatic front man is highly valuable, especially when that front man is a woman. Sigrid Reddy, one was one of those charismatic leaders that everyone loved to follow.  The first charismatic front man I knew in the tech world was Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, developers of 1-2-3. Mitch was highly confident, personable, funny, and magnetic – people were attracted to him. If you are an introverted engineer look for an extroverted founder. I always played Mr. Inside to Miss or Mr. Outside and that division of roles and focus worked well.

Work on a product that has both market and social impact

Not only are Tesla’s cars beautiful, incredibly fast, and economical to operate they are the spearhead of breaking away from employing polluting fossil fuel as fuel. Like have a truly charismatic founder, having a double bottom line of profit and social impact is very rare and hard to achieve. But as I used to tell my teams if they complained about how hard their tasks were, “Look, if it was easy everyone would be doing it. It’s really hard and we need your talent to do it.”

Per yesterday’s post, the company needs to have many short term measurable goals, leavened with ample feedback. Tesla sets weekly production goals which keep ramping up. This pace can wear out many people, while others find it exhilarating. The art of the startup is creating stretch goals, not impossible- to-meet goals.

A simple and compelling mission 

Mission equals the company’s reason for being, its purpose. Tesla’s Accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy is a fantastic mission in several ways:

  • It’s short, simple, and in plain English
  • Like all great missions, it can never be fully achieved, it will continue to drive the company throughout its life
  • Social benefit is built in
  • The mission global in scope, not confined to a single country or a single industry

Tesla’s stated mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy appeals to many of its 45,000 workers, some of whom are willing to work 100-hour weeks and eschew the common perks of tech companies, such as free food. Instead, some employees say, they run on adrenaline, stock options and a shared passion with the company’s leader to change the world.

I used to joke with my teams that adrenaline was my drug of choice until I discovered endorphins generated by swimming a mile of crawl, that is.

Ship your products and upgrade them frequently

I still remember asking Ray Ozzie, then a newly hired engineer at Software Arts, later a superstar developer and Microsoft’s  Chief Technical Officer and Chief Software Architect why he joined Software Arts, then a small startup from Data General, then a mainstay of the Route 128 minicomputer companies. His response startled me: “I worked on half a dozen products at DG and none of them ever shipped!”

“What really attracts young people to Tesla is instant gratification,” Kiran Karunakaran said. “You see these incredible things you’ve worked on come to fruition, on the road, in months,” he said.

In my experience engineers thrive on both peer recognition and seeing their products being used by millions of people. If you can offer the opportunity for both you’ll be able to out-recruit behemoths like Apple and Google.

Empower your employees to make a difference than makes a difference

Do away with middle management and provide clear paths to the company’s decision makers for everyone, not just senior managers:

Partway through the summer, Ms. Atluri (and intern) spotted a way to tweak a step in the manufacturing line that she thought might speed up production. She put together a PowerPoint presentation for the rest of the team and, encouraged by the response, she suggested following up the next week with management to discuss implementing the change.

“They were like, why not just try it tomorrow?” she said. The process changed the next day, and within a week the line was running more efficiently, she said.

Keep everyone busy and engaged

Boredom and slack time are poisonous for top talent that want to be on the playing field every day, not sitting on the bench watching others play. Soon after entering the high tech startup world I learned I would never finish my work each day, which taught me to prioritize. While at times I was terrified I was never bored. In fact once I started recruiting I always told candidates, “I’m not going to make you a lot of promises about joining our company, but I guarantee you will never be bored.” Such is the case at Tesla:

“Everybody should have more work than they can possibly finish at all times,” the person said. “It forces the person to draw the line on when they give up—when they say, I’m done for the day. At Tesla you have to achieve some kind of comfort knowing you didn’t do it all.”

So while you are highly unlikely to have a founder like Elon Musk or to achieve what he has there’s no excuse for not emulating their best practices. If you are going to shoot, why not aim for the moon?

The cybernetic startup & why delegation is a key skill of successful leaders


I started my professional career in the sound reinforcement business as an individual contributor working first for Bill Hanley, of Woodstock fame, and later for his brother Terry, who was doing the sound for Aerosmith at the time I started working for him. Before that I’d been helping my friend Nancy Talbott of the Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-time Country Music by recording the concerts she put on and eventually doing the sound reinforcement for music greats like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Through my connection with Nancy I ended up working as the chief sound reinforcement engineer at The Performance Center in Cambridge. But there I was thrown into management without any idea of what I was getting into, as The Performance Center had two music rooms, each running seven days a week. There was no way I could handle that myself so I hired two friends of mine to fill out the schedule. But my management responsibilities consisted of simply scheduling everyone and ensuring we had backup in case one of us got sick. I hardly thought of myself as a manager and frankly no one else did either! The word “delegate” wasn’t even in my vocabulary.

I still thought of myself as an individual contributor when I changed careers after getting my M.S. in Library and Information Science. However, my first and only manager as a community librarian/media specialist was a great leader – Sigrid Reddy knew how to get more done with less resources, the mark of a successful entrepreneur, despite being an employee of the Town of Watertown. So thanks to her I ended up managing several professionals we were able to hire through government grants: two photographers, a graphic designer, and a filmmaker. As their manager I saw my role as simply getting them the resources they needed to do their jobs and collaborating with them on the direction of their projects. The word “delegate” stayed dormant in my vocabulary.

I had to learn how to delegate and  learn fast when I was thrown into the deep waters of a successful software startup. Although the leaders of Software Arts – the inventors of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet – recruited me as a product manager, I soon was tasked with growing and managing virtually every function in the company save software engineering. It was delegate or die as my staff grew from one – me – to about 75 marketing and sales people, QA engineers, documentation writers, product managers, accountants, and even facilities management, as we had our own building. Learning to delegate became an incredibly valuable skills in my four venture-backed startups.

I developed a rule of thumb for delegation: delegate everything someone else could do better than I. That was the key to gaining leverage as my management responsibilities grew. Not having any individual skills – I wasn’t trained in engineering, sales, marketing, finance or administration – made delegation a lot easier. I was never tempted to try to do anyone else’s job myself. But I did see other managers who had never learned how to delegate and I watched them reach burnout as they vainly tried to do more and more themselves rather than delegating to their staffs.

Thus the Inc. article 5 Reasons That Entrepreneurs Fail to Delegate–and Fail to Succeed caught my eye, especially the very wise subtitle: Success in a new venture isn’t about how much you can do yourself.

Let’s take a look at each of the five reasons and as usual I’ll annotate them from my own experience.

1. Thinking only you can implement your dream idea

Most founders I mentor are bonded to their startup idea. And very few even think about building an organization, let alone delegating. I learned from VCs that they were investing in the team, not the idea, and building a team was job one for founders. Thus every business plan I ever did, starting with the very first one for Course Technology in 1989, carefully mapped out our hiring plan for the next three years. In knowledge businesses the vast majority – as much as 75% or more – of the operating budget goes to personnel, recruiting costs, salaries, benefits, and overhead. Yet it continually surprises me that founding teams have a DIY ethos. I can understand why founders who come up with a great idea are frankly afraid to delegate, thinking only they can implement their idea. But they are missing out on, and what I learned early on, is if you hire only people  who are better than you are they will not only implement your idea but do a better job than you ever could. I was taught by the VCs that “A “players hire “A “players, but “B” players hire “C” players – out of fear of losing control and being shown up by their “subordinates.” Delegation means letting go. And counter intuitively, only by letting go can you transform your idea into a business that scales.

2. Being unwilling to take the time to explain and delegate needs

Unfortunately many founders operate on the old saw “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” They  are unable to trust their staff. Not only do they lose out on the incredible leverage that hiring great people gives you as a founder, by micro-managing they demoralize their team and can end up not only losing great people but by never actualizing their business idea. I found the best way to develop trust was to assign a small task that could be done fairly quickly with minimal resources , starting with job candidates. Great people rose to the challenge and were hired, others didn’t and were not. But the pattern was set: as their manager I would help them set goals, would get them the resources they needed, and would provide feedback and guidance when asked, but basically they were on their own to achieve their goals. And thus they owned the job, they weren’t just renting it from me. If employees act like owners your venture will succeed! The time you invest in setting goals, providing resources and offering feedback will be paid back 10X by teams that see you as their leader, not their boss.

3. Not trusting key team members to get required results

When we hired Howard Diamond as our VP of Marketing and Sales at Course Technology he built his organization around peer-to-peer management. Each sales territory had an inside sales person, a field sales person, and a customer support rep. The teams were compensated based on the results the team achieved. There were no individual goals. He used peer pressure to deliver great results. In the rare occasions when he hired someone who wasn’t pulling their weight the team let him know immediately, because they knew that hiding that fact would hurt them in their pocketbooks. Giving his regional sales teams autonomy delivered amazing results, but of course required delegating traditional sales management to his teams. They knew the results they had to deliver, but it was up to them to figure out how best to do so.

4. Having a lack of your own clarity about what it takes to succeed

Most of the founders I mentor are engineers. They like to build stuff. They know how to build stuff themselves. What doesn’t come naturally is helping others to build stuff. I find engineers often need a lot of coaching to learn how to provide their teams with the “what” and “why” of their goals, leaving the “how” to the teams. This requires focusing on results, not activities. Too many inexperienced managers focus too much on process and not enough on results and on the metrics they need to help their teams become self-managing.

5. Being afraid that delegating means losing control

Like any green manager I had this fear myself, but because it I was endanger of drowing in work if I didn’t delegate I was forced to give up control. Through my initial experience managing media professionals I learned that while I needed to hold my staff accountable it was up to them, not me, to get the job  done. The real trick is NOT to set goals for your teams but to help your teams set their goals in the context of the venture’s goals. Collaborating on goal setting is far more effective than dictating goals as teams will buy-in to goals they set with you.  Delegation requires trust and giving up control, but you will find that if you hire “A” players their drive and ambition will deliver results beyond what you ever imagined. Your management role may well become pulling your team back from setting unrealistic goals, not pushing them to achieve stretch goals you have set for them. Pull works far better than push when it comes to managing your staff and in selling to customers.

Delegation all boils down to leverage. You can get much more done through others than you can by yourself, which can be thought of as the defintion of management. Startups are expected to scale and grow rapidly. To do so you need to focus on what you and only you can do and delegate everything else. It’s scary, so start small with very short term projects to build trust and autonomy. Don’t expect that you can just hand your team their year-end goals and walk away. Create short term projects with accompanying feedback – I call this cybernetic management – courtesy of Norbert Weiner. I’ve taken his term  beyond communications and control in the enterprise to encompass communications, creativity, and collaboration. The cybernetic organization appears to manage itself, with a minimum of friction. Management thus can be “management by exception” leaving founders free to set strategy, manage their Boards, and otherwise focus externally.


Jony Ive on creative vs. problem solving modes in product development


It’s a given in the world of tech startups that you must solve a customer problem in order to succeed. That seems very straightforward, but Jony Ive presented the paradox in which he and other creative developers work at a talk he gave on the occasion of being awarded the Stephen Hawking Fellowship at the Cambridge Union.

The speech was filled with tiny gems, like the importance of listening to the quietest voice in the room during the creative process.

But what interested me was how he described ideas as not a response to a particular problem as he discussed the development of the touch interface at Apple.

“Nobody asked us to solve a problem. They were not in response to a technological opportunity. These ideas, they weren’t vulnerable or fragile for a couple of weeks or for a couple of months, these ideas were fragile for years.

What Ive enjoys is the unpredictability and surprise in the product development process. He described the paradox in the way he works:

“There is a fundamental conflict between two very different ways of thinking. It is the conflict between curiosity and the resolve and focus that is necessary to solve problems. Curiosity, while it fuels and motivates, despite being utterly fundamental to the generation of ideas, in isolation just culminates in lots of long lists, perhaps some ideas, but alone that’s sort of where it ends.

Ive made me rethink my relentless emphasis on focus when mentoring founders:

“The necessary resolve to find solutions to the problems that stand between a tentative thought and something substantial, that resolve and that focus very often seems in direct conflict with most creative behaviour. Honestly, I can’t think of two ways of working, two different ways of being, that are more polar. On one hand to be constantly questioning, loving surprises, consumed with curiosity and yet on the other hand having to be utterly driven and completely focused to solve apparently insurmountable problems, even if those solutions are without precedent or reference.

My successes in the startup world have virtually all come from helping instantiate a founder’s vision. The two occasions where I founded a company to realize my own ideas, Throughline and Popsleuth, were both non-starters.  As Jony Ive points out, successful developers can switch between curiosity/idea mode and problem solving mode not just once or twice in a multi-year project but “I find it happens to me once or twice a day and that frequency of shifting between two such different ways of seeing and thinking is fantastically demanding.”

So my takeaway from Jony Ive’s talk is that relentless focus is all well and good, and it’s necessary to build a successful product, but not sufficient. The creative/curious side plays an equal or even more dominant role. But as Ive points out, this shifting is “fantastically demanding.”

This is yet another reason why founding a company and driving the development of a product is so very hard for a solo entrepreneur. Almost every successful entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg had one or more co-founders.  And in retrospect, the reason why I was recruited onto the founding team of several startups was not because I was an idea man but was someone who could focus and bring the founder’s idea to life. Much as I’m fascinated by the creative development process I learned the hard way to stay in my lane as an operations manager, leaving the creative side of things to my

If you are intent on starting a venture, as so many are these days, you might want to look in the mirror and see if there’s an image of the curious creator or the focused problem solver. If you are clearly one or the other then start that search for your complementary co-founder ASAP. But if  you appear to yourself as ambidextrous, you just might want to test that appearance on a small project you take on yourself before tackling the start of a new venture and owning both the creative and operating side of things.

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.