I lectured my university students recently on the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. After rattling off the usual traits – creativity, resilience and passion – I realised the most obvious and important entrepreneurial characteristic had been overlooked: stamina.
Or put another way, the ability to work day and night for months on end, produce the same output as two or three employees, fly high when you are running on one engine, and stay sane.
These days, the ability to work crazy hours seems dangerously old-fashioned and almost taboo in some quarters. There must be something wrong with you if you work days, nights and part of weekends.
In this era of work/life balance, we are supposed to work fewer hours, have more quality time for ourselves and family, and be more productive as a result. Running your own business is often all about better work/life balance, and all power those who achieve it.
Yet some entrepreneurs would feel it was a holiday if they worked a 44-hour week, let alone a four-hour one. Four weeks of holiday each year would be bliss.
Yes, I know you are supposed to hire good staff, work on the venture rather than in it, work smarter rather than harder, and use your entrepreneurial brilliance to clock-off by mid-afternoon. But I just don’t see it in many start-up ventures, at least in the beginning.
What’s your view?
- How many hours do you work in your business each week?
- For those in salaried jobs, how long is a typical work week, including work at home?
- What sort of work/life balance do you have?
- Have you had to work longer hours in the past year or two?
- What is the maximum amount of hours one can work before quality suffers?
One entrepreneur emailed about a work issue the other day at 1am. I emailed straight back and we discussed and resolved the issue as though it was normal business hours (1am was rare for me, common for him). He had worked from 8am the previous day and after a few hours’ sleep would back up to do it all again, and juggle work commitments with the needs of his wife, young family and friends.
You may shake your head at his seemingly pitiful existence, and perhaps think there is something wrong with his venture or management approach.
But like other successful start-up entrepreneurs, my friend is building a fast-growth venture and having to do the work of several staff to cut costs at the start. As the venture takes off, it’s impossible to predict work flows and today’s bushfires.
He has to leverage scarce resources - namely too few employees - to get the venture through the stages of existence, survival and into take-off mode, before he can step back a little and have more of a life.
Critics will argue that truly successful entrepreneurs raise capital, or create early cash flow, hire excellent staff, and focus on rapidly scaling the business. That is the theory. The reality is that most entrepreneurs go through a period, some longer than others, where their work is non-stop.
I have also seen the opposite problem, where people left corporate jobs to start ventures but were unwilling to work beyond a Monday-to-Friday cycle, or very long days. They assumed they could work smarter, not harder, and the venture would grow. They were left behind.
The usual advice for those working crazy hours is to save time through delegation, outsourcing and better planning. That’s all good stuff, but I’d argue that if you want to launch a start-up a venture you need to examine your willingness and capacity to work long and sometimes irregular hours, and often weekends. You need a brutal self-assessment of your work stamina over long periods.
My guess is there has been so much talk about work/life balance and shorter working weeks, and so much glamourisation of entrepreneurship, that some budding business owners might overlook or underestimate the slog that is usually required to get cash-strapped ventures off the ground, especially in this market.
The other advice is to look for big time savings. Working from home is the obvious one; it gives you back at least a few hours each day and removes of layer of stress from having to commute back and forth into town. When working long into the night, a few extra hours saved is gold.
Another tip is having set times to check your mobile and emails – no more than three times a day – and emailing as few people as possible, to reduce unnecessary communication. Say no to time-wasting events and people who want to meet you and offer little in return.
Perhaps the best advice is educating loved ones about the type of hours you may have to work when launching a venture. If you must work 60 hours a week at the start to keep your venture afloat, then let family and friends know what they can and should expect of you. Don’t make it a surprise.
Working long hours means nothing if you build a company and lose your family and friends along the way. The entrepreneurs with real stamina find a way to grow the venture and their relationships at the same time. That is true wealth.