The Cult of Overwork is Killing Startups

The New York Times has a great article called ”In Silicon Valley, Working 9 to 5 Is for Losers” that examines workaholism in startups. It even quotes one entrepreneur as saying “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” I wonder if he asked his kids if that was a risk they were willing to take.

The piece also quotes from this excellent article by David Heinemeier Hansson, where he points out that startup investors are the main driver of this culture:

There’s an ingrained mythology around startups that not only celebrates burn-out efforts, but damn well requires it.

It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge.

There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.

It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and wellbeing of others like cannon fodder.

These two articles do a great job of exposing the toxic overwork culture in many startups but I just want to add five few quick points on the topic:

1: If hours are all that matter, an entrepreneur working 80 hours a week will be beaten by one working 90 hours a week. Where does it end?

2: Many of the mental qualities that make a startup successful are lost when people are overworked, tired, stressed and unhappy, including networking, creativity and effective decision making.

3: Permanent overwork kills people. For instance, those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke.

4: Permanent overwork doesn’t result in increased output.

5: Pointing to successful startups that worked 80 hours a week proves nothing. What about all the startups that worked 90 hours a week and failed?

Imagine starting your own company and ending up creating a workplace where you hate to work. How stupid is that?

On the other hand, employees of a startup where people are happy to work and have full lives outside of work, will be more productive, motivated and innovative, boosting the startup’s chance of success.

Even if working crazy long hours did enhance a startup’s chance of success (which it does not), it would still be wrong because it hurts employees physically and psychologically.

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2 thoughts on “The Cult of Overwork is Killing Startups”

  1. Hear hear! A good article, Alex. I think it is analogous to the fact that there are no such things as super-profits. Research apparently shows that over time, business’ earnings always tend to average out.

  2. Great article. I work with start-ups in the Middle East (one was bought by Yahoo, and another recently by Amazon) and I totally concur with what you are saying. The hours are insane and the pay is low, it’s really only for those who want to build upon their existing skill sets, gain experiences in many functional areas (because there is no such thing as a realistic JD in a fast-growing start-up, everyone does so much more than their job description), and take on a ton of responsibility. The employee can only hope that ss the company grows quickly, so will their opportunities for career advancement.

    But one has to be tough and resilient to survive in this kind of aggressive environment. Investors want returns and fast. It’s not for the faint-hearted

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