When I moved out to Silicon Valley, I heard it was the best time in my life to take a risky decision, work insane hours, and do something stupid, like start a tech company. Among tech entrepreneurs, there is a strong bias towards the single lifestyle for the sake of focus and an
obsession pride of working 80 hours a week, but the data suggests these biases are wrong.
Last year, it was hotly debated among VCs and the tech media whether or not there was an optimal age to start a company, similar to how professional athletes plateau (lets pretend Jordan and Jason Kidd don’t exist). The mid-twenties was proposed to be the optimal age to start a company. At 25, entrepreneurs can give “everything to their company”, suggesting that founders should not be “hamstrung” by families and non-business related commitments. They can take as much risk as possible. While heuristically this may feel true being stuck in the Silicon Valley bubble, there is convincing evidence to suggested the opposite is true.
Kauffman surveyed 550 successful entrepreneurs across multiple sectors. Success was determined by profitability and being named a “high-valued” business in their sector. Their data suggests that most successful founders are in their mid-thirties and married with children:
Founders tended to be middle-aged—40 years old on average—when they started their first companies. Nearly 70 percent were married when they became entrepreneurs, and nearly 60 percent had at least one child, challenging the stereotype of the entrepreneurial workaholic with no time for a family.
To expand on Kauffman’s research, there was an international study done in 1998 (latest study I could find) on the number of working hours by gender and family status. Researchers found that a greater percentage 30 - 39 year olds work longer hours; however, this increase in hours is most likely attributed to the common transition from entry-level to middle management.
What was more fascinating in the study was the number of hours worked by parental status.
Consistently, men will work more hours when they have children, than when they do not. A sense of responsibility to their family drives them to work harder and longer. When you are single, who are you responsible for? Typically, no one. A sense of “something to lose” and “providing for your family” drives family men to work more hours. I should note that women are less likely to work more than 50 hrs a week when they have children (though my mom would beg to differ)
But, does working more hours translate into greater output? Probably not.
Jason Fried and David Hasson provide a good framework in considering hours to work during the week in Rework , "Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done." The goal should never be more hours but quality output.
Anders Ericsson studied the best violinists in the world to figure out how they became the best. He determined that the pathway to success in any field is dedication over a significant time period. His work inspired Gladwell’s book Outliers with the 10,000 hours principle to become the top 1% in your field. What was left out was how much time these violists spent not playing the violin. On average, these masters of the violin practiced in 90 min spurts, three times a week, and slept 8.6 hours a day. That definitely does not sound like an entrepreneur’s schedule, but the essential need to be at the top and to be creative as a leading violinist is a valid metaphor for an entrepreneur.
Sleep is often the first thing to go when working long hours but less sleep can have damaging effects on productivity. Surprisingly, only 1% to 3% of people can effectively and consistently operate at 100% with 5 or 6 hours a sleep a night. Typically, these people can stay up late and wake up early without any change in energy or behavior. Despite knowing that only a small and select few can sleep 5 to 6 hours a night, approximately 1/3 of all Americans have this sleeping pattern. Sleep experts call these Americans the “sleep deprived”. The typical side effects of being sleep deprived are slower reaction responses, lack of patience, inability to quickly problem solve, and attending hack-a-thons.
Being an entrepreneur requires you to constantly be on your toes and creatively problem solve 24 hrs a day. Two books that change the way I looked at innovation and creativity, Power of Pull and Imagine, encourage entrepreneurs to step outside their “worldview” and challenge their assumptions on a consistent basis, also known as “taking a break”. Ideas come to us in the shower and while driving because of our lack of focus on the problem. For me, ideas come when I am reading, driving, or just about to fall asleep. New ideas and the ability to find a solution typically comes when we are unwinding because our mind is subconsciously solving the problem. It pays off BIG TIME to take breaks and remove yourself from your company.
There is little connection between single status, age, and the number of hours worked translating into business success. If any, entrepreneurs above the age of 30 with a “balanced” lifestyle are more likely to succeed. Still, consider that there are hundreds factors that determine business success: execution, competition, external market forces, etc. Boiling success to life stage and number of hours worked is a reduction to the absurd.
My advice would be to not stop working crazy hours but understand that your business will not die and fall off a cliff if you take a break. It is okay to pursue people you love. Don’t feel guilty about hanging out with friends. “Balance” is determined by your work style and your needs outside of work; however, I know several entrepreneurs who, out of compulsion or fear of failure, work for 80 hours and ignore life. I hope my post sets you free.
My memorial day resolution: take a break and find my wife. :)
In preparation, I am learning from the best.