Chapter 10: Balance
(Draft of John's new book: Your comments are welcome)
Balancing life is fundamental to the startup bicycle rider. In fact it spells the difference between winning and losing.
Startups are marathons. If you try to run the race as a sprint, you will die. In person. That is the cold reality of a new enterprise.
First time entrepreneurs do not understand that. The kid out of school expects do all nighters and triumph. The first time founder thinks he will climb Mount Everest in tennis shoes and claim victory. The experienced corporate executive plans to work harder than ever and thus succeed. They will learn the hard way.
Yes, startups are a lot of work. And yes, they do demand enormous amounts of energy. They are very intense and stressful. It takes fire in the belly to do them. Serial entrepreneurs understand that because they have been there before. Even veterans do not avoid such burdens. But experienced startup leaders behave differently and lift the burdens in a special way. Understanding their methods will help you succeed where others fail.
· Marathoners get sleep. Sprinters skip sleep. The long term runners know they are much sharper with enough sleep. They are more innovative and creative. They negotiate better deals. They are a lot more fun to work with. They see tomorrow with delight, not dread. I find startup veterans getting six to eight hours a night of sleep. Life science sleep doctors have found we burn brain cells as we problem solve intensely each day. Synapses fire and zap living grey cells. We grow brain cells only when we sleep. And only in the deepest sleep, the fourth level known as REM (random eyeball movement). REM sleep occurs at the end of an eight hour night. So sleep deprived sprinters are tired by Friday night and try to “get caught up” during the weekend, sleeping deeply for the first time in the week. The quality of their decisions drops daily during the work week.
· Marathoners are realistic. Sprinter try heroics. Veterans set realistic goals but first-timers blurt out “Sure, we can do it!” without regard for what can be done in a hurry by a very tiny company. You can spot this behavior quickly by monitoring the actual delivery of short term projects: they are constantly late, yet the people do not acknowledge that. They simply say they have to work harder. And around the cage they run, again and again. They take great pride in not sleeping and in doing 100 hour work weeks, week after week. They love to be suffering heros. But soon the dragon catches up with the knight in shining armor. And the knight gets fried to a crisp by the dragon. In fact, veterans know they can call on their employees for only a single heroic 100 hour work week. After the people recover, they burn into their memory banks “Never again” and update their resumes, just in case it does.
· Marathoners are courageous. Sprinters are driven by fear. It takes courage to leave the office at 4:00 p.m. to be on time for your son’s birthday party when the rest of your people are up to their ears in work and troubles, expecting to go home late that night. Yet that is what veterans of startups do. They take vacations in the middle of big projects and return energized and creative. I remember well how a founder and chief technology officer did that and told me when he returned “That was the best thing I have ever done!” Sprinters fear the worst will happen if they are not in the office. They do not trust themselves or their people to accomplish the great things they are working on. So they intensify their work and increase their stress as a result.
· Marathoners adjust. Sprinters cling. When things happen that were not planned, bad or good, the experienced marathoner accepts it and adjusts. This includes events such as your key engineer suddenly leaving the company, a stealth startup pops up with a press announcement that shows they are six months ahead of you, or a big customer wants ten times as much as you can produce on a month. The sprinter clings to his plan and tries to undo the hard news in an attempt to force the company into delivering the impossible.
Burnout is the result of sprinting a marathon. No one is immune to it. Burnout catches up with the naïve leader. It is powerful. It can kill people and companies. So respecting how to run the startup race will avoid the dangers of burnout. Serial entrepreneurs lived to run another startup because they respected their human limitations. They know how to run the race as a marathon, not as a sprint.