Hard Work is Essential for Startups. But How Much is Too Much? (Part 2)


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the brain’s metabolic efficiency. I twisted my ankle running early in the trip and thereafter got little exercise beyond my short walk to work. Paul Erdos famously said a mathematician is a machine for turning caffeine into theorems; I became a machine for turning caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup into code, and I was hardly alone.

Our motivation to work hard was very simple: succeed or die. Those of us who were foreigners had some chance of escaping the country should it slide into civil war, but most of the people there were South Africans, and legitimately felt they were working to save millions of lives and quite possibly their own. The country was looking to us to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power. While there were many means by which peace might fail, we were informed that our failure would all but assure a civil war costing an estimated 10 million lives. It would be difficult to imagine a startup with a stronger sense of purpose than the people I worked with.

The environment facilitated hard work as well. Most of us were away from home and family, in an unfamiliar city with few amenities. We lived in hotels and ate prepared food, so we had no household responsibilities. Perhaps most of all, we had the mother of all hard deadlines: the election date was set in the interim South African constitution and was absolutely unmovable.

But this effort level was not sustainable. Physical and mental breakdown under the strain of this effort was fairly obvious in me and my coworkers. Wounds healed slowly. Colds and minor illnesses were common. We all became irritable, histrionic, and more than a little paranoid. In the last days of the project, the organization began to disintegrate. Worse, we were far more impaired than we realized, as many studies of fatigue have shown, including a notable one by author John Caldwell.

Also, we made mistakes, many of which would have been avoided by people with more sleep and perspective. These mistakes added to our workload, of course. We also had a lot of near-misses. For example, I ended up in charge of the Administration Directorate operations center the first night of counting. We had to drop our connection to the outside world to reboot a crucial server, or else endure deteriorating performance. A noticeable outage would have fueled rumors of malfeasance. I had to make the decision. It was a completely freaky situation, and I was glad I’d had a decent night’s sleep about 16 hours earlier.

We were strongly motivated both by desire to succeed and fear of failure. Did fear for our own well-being reduce the number of hours we worked? Hardly. Work was the easiest way to ignore the anxiety caused by the literal anarchy and acts of terrorism around us. But while fear did not limit our work hours, it likely made those hours less productive than they otherwise would have been.

We met our deadline, of course, at the cost of an organization depleted of intellectual, emotional, and physical reserves. The organization continued to function, performing winding-up operations and finalization of results, but any bad surprise at that point could easily have … Next Page »

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Erik Nilsson is president of Seattle-based Insilicos, a biotech company developing diagnostics for cardiovascular disease. He will address the topic of this article at a WBBA Healthcare IT Panel on August 25, 2010, at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond. Follow @

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14 responses to “Hard Work is Essential for Startups. But How Much is Too Much? (Part 2)”

  1. An interesting article. Looking back, how many people wish they’d worked harder, rather than less hard? Conventional wisdom is that on their deathbed, most people wish “less hard”. I’m sure the answer is more nuanced than that. Anyone know of surveys made among the elderly?

  2. “The country was looking to us to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power.” Whilst you and your team may have believed this at the time Erik, would you say that this was really the case? in hindsight? Under-resourced efforts always devolve into these work harder, longer efforts, and while perhaps useful as character building exercises, are never truly worth the price, nor do they achieve anything exceptional, in my estimation.

  3. @Chris Stergiou “…would you say that this was really the case…the country was looking to us to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power?”

    Yes. I chose the word “orchestrate” carefully. We didn’t set the tune, and we weren’t the main players, but we did something that needed doing. South Africa had a peaceful transfer of power because nearly all elements of South African society decided they’d rather not settle their differences with a massacre. We were a small but indispensable element in making that choice possible.

    Regardless, Chris, your other points are well taken. I’d even go further and say the experience might have been equally character-building at half the effort level.

    In hindsight, I can see some problems that could have been avoided. But only some. The problem remains that our task was barely doable. But, as I said, we inevitably made lots of mistakes. One of the points I was trying to make is that you really don’t want to get into a situation where this kind of effort appears necessary. It’s plain foolish to deliberately put effort levels like this into your plans.

  4. Jim D. Johnston says:


    A thought provoking article on an issue I have dealt with throughout my professional career. Now older (and hopefully wiser) I devote a serious upfront effort to determine if there is a “work smarter” alternative. Having recently buried a close friend at the age of 50, the “work harder” approach is not justified. Thanks for sharing your insights!


  5. Rob Arnold says:

    I find this whole topic on whether or not people in Seattle work hard to be odd. As Eric points out hard work is tied to motivation.

    Shouldn’t we be asking if Seattle entrepreneurs are motivated to build best in class products and services that can compete on a global stage? And if not, why not?

    Are investors and board members demanding best in class products and services from their portfolio companies?

    We know certain Seattle entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, Bill Boeing, Howard Schultz and Craig McCaw to name a few) have delivered best in class. It can be done.

    Pushing companies out of start up mode to best in class requires something deeper than a fancy web sight and a charming blog.

    With the right mission and the right motivation, hard work is a natural by-product.

  6. I guess I missed where Erik mentions anything about Seattle entrepreneurs or their work ethic and took the article to mean that a well thought out strategy shouldn’t include burning out one’s human resources because one lacks enough faith in his strategy or is too scared to commit/fight for, adequate resources.

    I also thought his very interesting posting, used the mission critical example of helping a nation achieve a peaceful Socio-Political transition; and even under that noble goal, I mentioned that the “burn out” isn’t a very good idea or achieves very much in the long run…. and if that holds true under those “stakes”, I would guess it holds true for more trivial pursuits.

    As for, “Are investors and board members demanding best in class products and services from their portfolio companies?” ; My understanding is that investors and board members are rightfully interested in time lines, returns on investment and exit strategies; they set the floor or minimums to achieve those goals, with minimum inputs, (read as funding).

    But, things might work differently in Seattle I guess.

  7. rob arnold says:


    I believe Erik’s article is an outgrowth of a panel conversation on whether or not Seattle entrepreneurs work hard. (http://www.xconomy.com/seattle/2009/07/31/seattles-lifestyle-keeps-us-trailing-the-bay-area-says-uw-startup-maven-janis-machala/)

    Regarding exits, timelines and ROI (aka better, faster and cheaper), aren’t those simply measurements of relative performance/success compared to competitors?

    My point is more fundamental. If the entrepreneur, board and investors are all committed to deliver “best in class” products/services; the team will be consciously thinking about exits, timelines and ROI relative to their competitors. I find these are the conditions where teams build tighter bonds and naturally work harder toward a successful business outcome.

  8. @Chris Stergiou”…things might work differently in Seattle.”

    I think there is some difference of opinion over whether things in Seattle do work differently, but general agreement that they ought not to work differently than San Diego or The Bay.

    Chris, I think we agree that the point of playing is to win. I do agree with Rob that it’s easier to find the motivation to work hard on a product you can be proud of.

  9. Rob is correct that this conversation began with the question of whether there are enough people in Seattle willing to do the hard and risky work startups require.

  10. I wasn’t aware of the controversy regarding Seattle’s entrepreneurial work ethic vs. San Diego’s or the Bay area’s Erik, so I commented in more general terms. I read your blog links and have caught up, but I still can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Especially since everyone knows that Boston entrepreneurs are the hardest workers in the country.. :)

    Rob’s listing of significant companies founded in Seattle, should put all that to rest though, especially when you consider that the companies he references are of global and significant leadership. So, perhaps if there is a detectable “laid back” atmosphere in Seattle, it might mean that under those conditions, the companies that are started there, while perhaps fewer in number; achieve more significant goals or heights? Perhaps, even making the point that it’s the quality of the number of start-ups and entrepreneurs that matter; more than the quantity?

    And yes, if we are playing, presumably we are playing to win, but working “hard” still isn’t a substitute for innovation, good planning or a good idea. No amount of hard work is going to make a bad idea work.

    My point was that investors and other planners shouldn’t count on hard work as a strategic input; instead they should demand rigorous thinking and once sold on the idea, don’t play games with the funding at the expense of the human resources.

  11. @Chris Stergiou “No amount of hard work is going to make a bad idea work.”


    “investors … shouldn’t count on hard work as a strategic input….”

    That’s one of those places where equity and management have divided interests. Working harder increases the risk for the team, because it’s a bigger commitment. Investors, on the other hand, are pretty well insulated from the personal risks the team undertakes. Optimal effort, if it exists, lies on a risk/reward curve, so optimum effort for investors is higher than it is for the team.

    This is IMHO why it seems so problematic for investors and the team to lack clarity on how hard the work is going to be, and to what ends.

    Surely, there are times in every company’s life when the only way forward is to beat a hole through the wall in front of you with your bare hands. But only fools try to meet every quarterly target that way.

  12. herve says:

    A great topic. Let just me quote Hegel in “Reason in History”:

    “Passion is considered as something which is not good, which is more or less bad: humankind should not have any passion. But passion is not exactly the right word for what I just designated here. According to me, human activity derives in general from individual interests, from special aims or, if one prefers, from selfish intents. I mean that mankind puts all the energy of its will and of its nature to serve its goals, while sacrificing any other ambition, or rather while sacrificing everything else. […] We shall say therefore that nothing was ever done without being supported by the interest of those who collaborated. This interest, we shall call it passion when, while pushing back all other interests or goals, the entire individuality projects itself on its objective with all the inner fibers of its will and concentrates on this goal with all its strengths and all its needs. With this meaning, we must say that nothing great in this world has ever been accomplished without passion.”

    This explains why so many entrepreneurs could not balance their private life with their work. If you are passionate about something, you may not even see you work too hard.

    So may be the question is not so much about entrepreneurs and founders but more about teams and employees, who may not be passionate to work as much. Money is a nice incentive but when you are exhausted, it is tough…

  13. Robin says:

    If there was a task that I could apply myself to for a month and work like a “maniac”, and know that at the end I would be compensated exponentially for my work, I would do it in a heart beat.

    However, it is seldom the case and it looks like the manager or venture capitalist is simply looking to take advantage of people that don’t seem to understand the risk to begin with, which is why startups work so hard and have such a poor success record.

    Its simple once you bring the product to market, Microsoft/IBM/Sun/HP delegates 50 engineers to reverse engineer your product posts an ad that the new feature is coming soon and wallah.

  14. Robin;

    By definition, a start up requires hard work and on a sustained basis; most often involving a series of failures until the “eureka” moment when/if it all comes together. That point of it all coming together isn’t knowable, but try to explain that to a guy with an Excel spreadsheet who has his exit strategy all planned out, down to the day.

    Too often, the leadership (financial and technical), believes that hard work should be part of the input equation and is often used as a substitute for good planning and to make up for inadequate resourcing of the project; hence your accurate statement “….Microsoft/IBM/Sun/HP delegates 50 engineers to reverse engineer your product posts an ad that the new feature is coming soon and wallah.” The reason they can do that is because they don’t “mickey mouse” the project with micromanagement of risks down to the last penny level. Product development isn’t an on the job training process for them.

    In my estimation, the reason most start ups work so hard and have relatively low success rates is because too often we have bad leadership which believes that having the team bouncing around in a darkened room constitutes a development effort…. and the team members often pay a heavy price for that lack of leadership.

    I re-iterate …

    … investors and other planners shouldn’t count on hard work as a strategic input; instead they should demand rigorous thinking and once sold on the idea, don’t play games with the funding at the expense of the human resources.