Startups need to work smarter, not harder
You’re sitting at your desk slogging through a queue of emails trying to reach inbox zero. It’s only when your phone chirps with a reminder that you realize it’s already 7pm — looks like you will not be attending the 7:30pm yoga class you signed up for.
That’s when you ask yourself the question that looms at the end of most days: what exactly have you been so busy working on? If you’re an employee at an early to mid-stage startup, chances are you spent roughly 70% of your day doing impactful work that you are proud to put your name on.
The other 30% of your time was spent navigating a web of operational blind spots that silently leeched away critical hours. The manual data entry you had to do before sending an email to a specific customer segment, the Looker query you wrote to double check if there was a discrepancy between a customer’s invoice and your internal billing system.
These little workarounds can seem minor in the moment, but when you add them up they start to account for significant amounts of your day. Your manager expects you to produce a high volume of work but doesn’t seem to account for all this wasted time. Seeing no alternative, you put your nose to the grindstone, rack up more hours at the office, and try to forget that this is the 5th yoga class you’ve cancelled this month. It’s a startup, this is what you signed up for, right?
One of the key lessons I’ve learned in the 6 years I’ve spent working at startups in Silicon Valley is that startups do not have carte blanche to waste employees’ time. Startups need to shift their focus to building out operational efficiencies that allow employees to be more productive.
Inefficiency weighs on companies and employees
For early stage companies getting off the ground, it makes sense to follow Paul Graham’s oft-cited advice to do things that don’t scale. Whether it’s founders of food delivery startups delivering the meals themselves, or getting a room sharing service started by listing your own apartment, these early founding stories often take on a mythical quality when these startups succeed.
An often overlooked follow up question is when should you focus on scale? If you’re working at a company that’s growing quickly, investing in headcount, and focused on gaining traction in the market, the leadership team should be looking at how to more efficiently manage employees’ time.
People do not have an endless supply of productivity, even if you can convince them to work 12 hour days.
A recent study suggests that working more than 25 hours a week actually impairs an employee’s intelligence. “Work can be a double-edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time, long working hours and certain types of tasks can cause fatigue and stress which potentially damage cognition,” says the study’s lead researcher. What would you work on if you knew you could be productive for only 25 hours in a week? Skilled employees less likely to be satisfied by mundane work and are more likely to get burnt out or produce lower quality output.
Perhaps as a result of this burnout, the glamour of working for a startup has started to fade. Lines like “everyone here is an owner in this company” and “we could be the next Facebook” have become hollow from overuse and lack of fulfillment. Employees are learning that the equity they’ve been granted might never be liquid. In short, people are starting to wonder what they’re slaving away for and are seeking more fulfilling work with more realistic expectations.
Empower employees to do excellent, meaningful work
Are you providing an environment where your employees can be successful within a standard 40 hour work week? I am not saying that there will never be an element of “work work” in our lives, but good managers look for opportunities to optimize their team’s efforts.
I see the increased prevalence of “ops” roles as a recognition that having people own this type of work can make teams more efficient- from Sales to Engineering and Product Management. Another common strategy is for companies to have a junior person take on these tasks. When that junior person is given an opportunity to grow and expand their role over time, startups can also build a valuable talent pipeline. The introduction of Sales Development roles is an example of how Sales teams have started to specialize while create a pipeline of new talent.
Shifting perceptions of “work”
Do your performance reviews revolve around how employees perform on projects that matter to the leadership team and the company? Or, are you rewarding employees that might not produce excellent work, but who constantly look more “busy” or “available” than their peers? Moving past a “butts in seats” mentality will allow employees to do their best work on their own time.
Almost every company I’ve worked at has had a “martyr” on its roster. This person seems to take pride in appearing to not have a life outside of work. They’re the person who responds to emails over the weekend and plays a game of chicken with you every night to see which of you will leave first.
I find myself wondering what exactly is this person doing all day? Is their goal to produce impactful work, or just to appear busy? People are smart and over time will identify ways to game your rewards system. One study found that managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. If these people are not producing more high quality work, why are managers encouraging this type of behavior? Especially when it’s been shown that taking time to cultivate hobbies and passions outside of work has a positive impact on your 9–5.
Working at a startup has the potential to be a rewarding time of constant growth in ways you couldn’t imagine. Unfortunately, some companies also use “being a startup” as an excuse to overwork their employees and to pair challenging and exciting work with a high volume of trivial and unskilled tasks that underutilize people's skills.
Good companies recognize that they need to make employees more productive and shift their focus from working harder to working smarter.