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Startup Working Hours: Burnout, Pacing, and Hustle Culture

Karl L. Hughes
Former startup CTO turned writer. Founder of Draft.dev
Originally published at karllhughes.com on ・8 min read

When I joined my first startup almost ten years ago, most of the prevailing wisdom about startups said that you should be ready for an 80-hour per week grind. So, I made it my mission to work longer and harder than anyone else on the path to success.

At that time, I didn’t have a family, significant other, or many hobbies outside of work, plus I liked my job, so it was relatively easy to put in long hours and work weekends. While I did a lot of tasks in those early days, looking back, I realize that I didn’t actually accomplish much.

After working for three early-stage startups and founding my own in 2020, I’ve talked to countless founders about startup hours, pacing, burnout, and hustling. I’ve since seen a lot of founders fall into the trap of working more hours instead of working smarter, so in this post, I’ll give you my perspective on why this happens. Finally, I’ll share a few things that I’ve learned about maintaining balance in a startup from both an employee’s and founder’s perspective.

“Typical” Startup Hours

One of the challenging things about joining a startup is that there are rarely “typical” work hours. Some startups expect employees to be in the office from 8 am to 8 pm every day and answer emails on the weekend, while others might allow complete flexibility with very little concern over hours worked.

While it’s a myth that every startup requires you to work overtime every week, most startup employees put in 50-60 hours per week, and many founders put in 60-100 per week.

The problem with long hours is that they’re counterproductive:

“John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours.” - CNBC Report on Standford Productivity Study

Bored and Brilliant book cover

Your body ultimately needs sleep, food, relaxation, and even boredom to function properly. This is especially true for those of us who do high-concentration, creative work (like writing, programming, and strategic thinking).

One of my favorite reads in 2019 was Bored and Brilliant because it reminded me of the need to put down my phone and just think every once in a while. Regular introspection leads to clarity, focus, and prioritization that is extremely valuable as a startup founder.

Looking for more good startup books? I’ve listed a few dozen of my favorites here.

Why Are Startup Hours so Long?

So if the research is against long hours for most people, why do startup founders work so much? And, why do they, in turn, expect their employees to do the same?

There are four factors I see at play in defining startup working hours:

1. Hustle Culture

“I don’t think it’s fair for people to say that they work 100 hours. That’s just a PR move, like when Elon Musk sleeps on a hard couch in a meeting room. Why couldn’t he have a nice bed delivered to his office?” - Anonymous opinion on Quora

You might think of startup founders as original, free-thinking, creative people, but most of them are just as vulnerable to peer pressure and cultural norms as any of us. So, when high-profile startup founders report that they slept at the office, other founders see this as a template for success. Some even lie about the number of hours they work because of the cultural pressure to put in more time.

2. Work-Life Separation is Dwindling

It’s even harder to “unplug” from work when your office is six feet away from your bedroom, and your phone goes to bed with you at night. Now that more companies are going remote, employees are working longer hours and having more meetings in what would be off-hours.

The problem is even more pronounced for startup founders. They are often betting their financial future on their new business or so wildly passionate about the problem they solve that it’s next to impossible to “turn it off.”

3. External Pressure

Building a business requires making promises to a lot of people. As a founder, you’re telling employees that they’ll have a job, you’re telling customers that you’ll deliver value, and you’re promising your family that all this sacrifice will be worth it someday. These pressures are amplified when startups raise money because venture-funded startups have a board who might watch the founders closely to make sure they’re working as hard as possible to get them the return they expect.

Once these external pressures are internalized, companies tend to build a culture that encourages long hours. Managers then reward employees who put in the most time, and employees come to expect these working conditions. You can see this vicious cycle most prominently in law and consulting where billable hours are a badge of honor.

4. Gatekeeping

This might be controversial, but I believe that part of the reason startups tout their commitments to long hours is as a form of gatekeeping.

When you require everyone in your company to work 60+ hour weeks, you exclude people who have a family at home, kids they need to pick up from school, or mental health issues. This disproportionately hurts minorities, single parents, older workers, and women, and it’s part of the reason we see fewer underrepresented groups in startups.

This isn’t always the case though. I remember meeting a CTO at another startup early in my career who quit work at 3 pm every day to pick up his kids. This set a culture at the company, which was totally different from my experience.

Long hours is a form of gatekeeping

You Need Appropriate Pacing

All this pressure will eventually lead to burnout somewhere within your startup. Whether the founder cracks under pressure or you can’t retain employees because of the rigorous pace, it often hurts the organization in the long run.

Short sprints of long hours are possible - and in my experience, often necessary in a startup - but growing a successful company takes years, not months. No number of hours worked can shortcut this fact.

“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.” – Steve Jobs

The problem is that many founders get pressured into thinking short-term. Whether it’s investors pushing them to show traction required for future funding rounds or unfulfilled promises to customers, founders often overcommit themselves to a point where a sustainable pace is impossible.

Tips for Startup Founders

At different stages of a company’s life, different levels of commitment are required. But, no matter what you’re working on, it’s not productive to keep grinding away month after month without giving yourself a break.

Similarly, if you have employees, you can’t expect them to selflessly spend their lives working long hours and holidays just to help you fulfill your dream. You can push people to a certain point, but learning how to do so in a productive and worthwhile way is one of the best things you can learn if you want to retain your best employees.

Here are four things I’ve learned about startup work hours and pacing as a founder:

1. Don’t Push People Without a Purpose

It’s tempting as an entrepreneur to always want more from your employees, but just because you feel a sense of urgency in managing your business doesn’t mean every one of your employees will feel the same. One of the most frustrating things for employees is being pushed to work harder, longer hours without a clear purpose that ties directly into their performance.

Similarly, if you do expect employees to work 60+ hours per week, be upfront with them about this expectation. There are plenty of young go-getters (I was one of them) who don’t mind putting in long hours but be aware that you might be missing some highly-qualified, experienced candidates with this approach.

2. More Work is Not a Solution to Poor Planning

If one department in your company is behind on a deadline, figure out how you can work with them to either adjust expectations, change their requirements, or estimate better next time. Just because you or someone in your organization planned poorly does not mean it’s a good idea to push everyone else to the breaking point.

3. Listen to Your Employees

Even more important than avoiding situations that stress your employees is listening to them when they are feeling the pressure. If you’re cultivating the right atmosphere at the office, don’t be surprised when someone shows up to tell you that they can’t keep up the pace for another 60 hour week.

4. Trust Your People

Finally, as an entrepreneur, you have to be able to trust your employees. If you don’t, you need to ask yourself why you hired them or find a way to replace them. When you trust your employees, you’ll know that when they insist they’re working too much, they really are.

Note: I’ve added a few books on this topic in my list of the best startup books for founders here.

Questions for Potential Startup Employees

While the bulk of an early-stage startup’s culture is defined by the founders, employees and managers have a lot of influence on working hours and pacing too. If you’re being hired by a startup and you’re not sure about what the culture is like, here are some questions you can ask to get a better sense:

1. How Many Hours Per Week is Typical?

You can ask this question without sounding lazy. I always tell employees this expectation, but if you’re in an interview with a startup and they don’t say it explicitly, it’s better to know what they expect than to be surprised on your first day.

2. Do You Have Typical Working Hours?

Again, with more companies going remote, many are also giving employees the option to work their own hours. I have customers in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the US, so even though I try not to work more than 40 hours per week, I don’t have a very “typical” schedule.

3. Do People Hang Out Outside of Work Much?

I asked this question in interviews with startups because I wanted to know the dynamic of the team. There’s no right answer here, and I’ve been with startups on both extremes. If you’re young and early in your career, you might like hanging out with your coworkers at the bar after work. If you have a family and established friend group, you might prefer to clock out at 5 pm every day.

Working hours are an important part of deciding if you’ll be a good fit at a startup. Some startups are built off the expectation that everyone should put in 60+ hours per week, but many aren’t, so focus on the kinds of companies and culture you want to be part of.

This post was first published in 2014 but was updated thanks to 6 more years of startup experience in 2020.

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