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Hard Work Is Essential for Startups. But How Much is Too Much? (Part 1)

Xconomy has seen a vigorous discussion of work/life balance in Seattle. Is Seattle slack compared to the San Francisco Bay Area? If so, does the difference matter? Janis Machala of UW TechTransfer brought up this point during a recent panel discussion, and it has stirred debate. I personally don’t think work/life balance is the most important question facing the Seattle startup community. But, it’s a very important question to entrepreneurs. Everybody should know that startups are hard work, but is there an optimal level of hard work? And anyway, is hard work more than just long hours?

During the ’90s dot-com boom, it became popular to talk in terms of all-consuming, total-commitment startups. When many companies were going from pitch to liquidity in less than two years and when every idea seemed to have five well-funded companies chasing it, there was an unprecedented and understandable emphasis on speed of execution. People worked like mad for a year or two, and the company made it or didn’t.

But even if Total Commitment was appropriate for that environment, it isn’t best for other places and times. Most biotech startups have to persevere for many years. Even today’s web companies have to be ready for the long haul. So while there may be periods of all-consuming effort, almost all startups now last too long for sustained effort at the human maximum. Nobody sprints a marathon, after all.

So when we talk about the intensity of startups, we need to distinguish between what people may do for a few months, compared to what they do for the longer haul.

It usually makes sense to work quite hard in a startup. If everyone works hard, then the team can stay smaller for longer. This means more upside for the early players, but a more important benefit is that a small team can communicate more efficiently than a larger one. A small team is also easier to manage, and startups are often short on management experience.

But when a small team is strained to the limit of human effort, quality of judgment declines, along with attention to detail and the sheer ability to care enough to do one’s best. The point is not to work hard. The point is to win. Depending on the situation, you might best win by drowning your adversaries in your own sweat. But even so, a good night’s sleep will sharpen your wits and might allow you to formulate a better plan, or else just appear more cheerful and personable to a potential collaborator.

I think most people who work in startups do so because they want work that feels important, and adds meaning to their lives. We work hard because we like working hard at things we care about. We work for startups because they can be about big ideas worth caring about, and they can disproportionately reward hard work. No matter where I’ve been, I’ve worked hard, but I generally find the hard work of a startup more satisfying than hard work in other kinds of organizations.

Tomorrow, I plan to expand on these ideas a bit more with some lessons I learned about “cranking” through a short-run effort to meet an extremely important short-term goal. It was when I worked in South Africa in 1994 on the election commission during that country’s historic transformation from the era of Apartheid to a new period of free elections.

Continue to Part 2

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The Author

Erik Nilsson is president of Seattle-based Insilicos, a biotech company developing diagnostics for cardiovascular disease. He will address the topic of this article at a WBBA Healthcare IT Panel on August 25, 2010, at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond.