I’m reluctant to write this article, so I’ll start with the acknowledgment that comparing the devastation and loss of life in Houston to industry is in many ways completely inappropriate. But this New York Times article made me think of how it is an extreme example of a common pattern in startups and entrepreneurs: borrowing against the future to finance rapid growth.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of technical debt, it is a type of debt that accrues in software products when developers build feature after feature without occasionally refactoring (going back and improving the code). Think of it as adding many buildings and residents to a city without improving the drainage systems. You can get away with it for a while, but someday you have to pay the debt, and the longer you let it go the bigger the bill is.
It isn’t just technical debt that we should be thinking about. Entrepreneurs often put so much pressure on themselves to build a massive business that they forget to build a good business. So often the Silicon Valley way is to achieve scale before profit. There is a strategy behind it, sure. But we need common-sense business leaders like DHH and Jason Fried to write books and articles that remind us it isn’t the only way to succeed in business.
Taking this idea further, there’s even more at stake than technical and business debt. Many entrepreneurs literally risk their lives to grow their businesses. I see so many of my fellow entrepreneurs give up their health and relationships in their twenties and thirties to try to build massive companies. I have intrapreneurial clients inside of large organizations doing the same, sometimes into their forties and fifties. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but think of the personal anecdotes of entrepreneurs sharing their battles with depression, and some of the great people that we lost when they decided to take their own lives under the pressure of their work stress.
So to those of us with a tendency to push ourselves hard, let’s take a brief moment to think about the costs we pay to grow. Most of us won’t lose our homes or our lives, but for some the stakes of growing a company are the same as a natural disaster like Harvey. Let’s keep those in check. And once in a while, take the time to refactor your code, business, and life.