80+ Hours a Week: The Follow-Up

It's difficult to describe what the verdict is on the article I wrote about How to Work 80+ Hour Weeks.  I think there are a few things I should have probably mentioned a little better, and it's the subject of a lot of debate.  Most of it is opinionated, but it's still important to see both sides of the argument so you can call your own shots.

For clarification: most of this is just freely written as I think of it, and you shouldn't take it too seriously.  I'm just writing my thoughts out, and I'm not the authority or expert on this topic.  I don't understand all of the underlying dynamics, like the psychology and statistics and all of that.  I also don't spend a whole lot of time researching this stuff, I take the approach of throwing something out there and seeing what sticks from the conversation.  I've seen a few patterns from people who follow up, so I'll point out the 3 major responses:

#1: All you'll have at 30 years old is a wasted life and a lot of money. That's a legitimate point, although I see this as being pretty opinionated and subjective.  It's true, a lot of people would feel terrible if they woke up one day and realized their friends from high school and college had moved on because you were always wrapped up in your own entrepreneurial endeavors.  You would look back at your college experience and wish you had gone out a little more, met more people, or had more fun.  The bars, the parties, the games, the movie nights, hanging out with friends, going to the mall, road trips, you wish you would have gotten to experience it all.  But you're 30, you have a lot of money, and you've got no life.

Here's why I think part of this argument is weak: you won't get the money or the success until you've made it through your startup.  What happens in the mean time?  You'll most likely run into a lot of interesting people who share your interests while you're working on your startup.  What about all the people you met through your startup?  Your customers?  Your employees?  Your co-founders?  Your investors?

What happened to all of those entrepreneurs who decided to take the plunge and work 80 or whatever hours a week?  They also have no friends from college or high school who they've stayed in touch with, so don't you think at the end of the day you'll have a lot of very hard-working, highly-driven, somewhat crazy people without many childhood friends?  Don't you think those people might be interested in getting to know each other, understanding well in advance the complex dynamics of a startup and the intense schedules?

Entrepreneurs like to network with other entrepreneurs, which is part of why I take an active role in building that sort of network at my own school.  We thrive on positive energy, so we have to find people out there who are positive and workaholics, just like us.  It's actually harder than it sounds because those people are few and far between.

Most college entrepreneurs I know don't want to wake up one day at 30 and have nothing to show for it.  They don't want to be labeled as a failure by their friends, or whoever is left from high school and college that has the patience to stick around.  They don't want their investors, their parents, or their own team to see them as failures.  So the reason I think we find working so hard now is not just so we can stop "treading water" as Paul Graham puts it, but so we don't wake up some day and realize that we haven't contributed anything useful to society.  Entrepreneurs have a code written in their DNA that says "make the world a better place than it was before you came here."  That's what drives us, and if we can't do that, we feel like failures, and we look like failures.

What people will define as a "wasted life" will vary from one person to the next.  We all want to avoid being bored, we want to live.  It's all part of what your definition of "live" means.  If it's to be social and have fun, then go be social and have fun.  If it's to make a contribution, then start popping some anti-depressants because it's going to be an interesting journey.

#2: Why 80 hours a week? 40 hours could be just as productive. I think we all have weeks where working nothing at all would be more productive.  Some weeks can be bad for me, and I'm not saying every entrepreneur should work 80 hours every week of every month of every year.  I haven't done that, and I know it gets thrown around quite a bit that entrepreneurs put in a lot of hours.  But not all of those hours go into coding, for example.

If you're in a seed startup, and you're a college student, you usually can't get a full team together to build an idea out.  It's usually just a few friends, add a few more if it's a project for a class.  Between a few people, there's an overwhelming amount of work to be done.  Someone on YC news responded that you almost need one person who can be willing to take on the business responsibilities full-time.  There goes one of your developers while you're fundraising.  Unless they're really good at jumping between fundraising and writing code, you'll probably be going 50% slower on product development, assuming you have just one partner of course.

I don't know many people who spend 80+ hours a week, every week during the year, doing nothing but coding.  That is, nothing but coding.  Coding by itself is a mental task, and it requires a bit of deeper thinking at times.  You have to take breaks, walk around, and stare out your window.  You have other stuff you're doing, like optimizing, scaling, debugging, learning new frameworks or libraries, etc.  Not all of your time will be spent on just coding, but if you're anything like me, you write your code and you still have a database to normalize, a site and logo to design, copy that needs written, elevator pitches that need rehearsed, and funds that need raised.

And that's not to say your obligations are only external, to your company, and your product, and your team.  You have to stay motivated, which isn't something you "will" and it happens.  It's not as though entrepreneurs wake up and say "today, I will be motivated and I will work 18 hours!  And I'll be ecstatic for every one of those hours!"  I remember Steve Pavlina saying how he would finish college in half the time it usually takes by overloading courses in a given semester, and on the way to his classes he would listen to motivational audio CDs (back before the iPod existed and we walked around with the dreaded Walkman).  Staying motivated requires a fair amount of work too.

You also can't fall off the map completely because you still need your friends and their friends to help test your applications out and offer some immediate feedback (although depending on your friends, they may tell you only what you want to hear, so I recommend telling them you know someone who made it and just wanted to share it, get their feedback, etc).  You of course should stay muscular, like I do, and exercise to keep in shape, all while building your empire.

Anyway, you can see why having a team could be a luxury.  You don't have to pin all of the work on any single person, and nobody is expected to put in 80 hours a week.

#3: What are you going to do when you retire in 10 years? I was referencing to Paul Graham's 'economics of a startup' when I said the purpose of a startup is to condense 40-50 years of a 9-5.  I didn't want to imply that I was doing it in order to retire early.  More than likely, I'll do another one if I have enough anti-depressants to get me through it ;)

To wrap up my stream of consciousness, I think there's a simple heuristic you can use to test this out.  First, you should ask "should I work 80 hours or more a week?" Nobody really knows, you can probably find out if you sit yourself in a quiet room and ask what your priorities are, and see if you have enough people involved where you can distribute the work.  You also need to figure out how fast you have to move, and how big you're going to scale.  Moving faster and scaling up are the two biggest things that I can think of which will require more of everyone's time.

Assuming your first question is answered by a yes, you may be thinking "how do I work 80 hours a week or more?"  It's harder than it sounds, especially with the amount of distractions that exist today and considering the amount of discipline it will require you to continuously turn them off.  Goodluck.