Is work-life balance an oxymoron for startups?
Many people would suggest – Jack Welch comes to mind – that you are either successful or have work-life balance – and he wasn’t even talking about a startup!. So does this mean as a cash-strapped, competitor-chasing, crew-challenged startup you have no option but to give up your life till you reach some major milestone? To make matters worse, said milestone may each quarter either appear to change or move further away.
Yet others – such as the crew at 37signals and FogCreek software – strongly advocate fewer working hours and working smart. For many of us struggling in the trenches this may sound like Warren Buffett telling us “Money doesn’t buy you happiness.” Yeah right! We’ll believe it once we’ve have made some money!
An equally important question to ask is can you afford to not have work-life balance?
So can startups and entrepreneurs achieve work-life balance? And if so how do they do it?
My own experience is that it depends. It depends on what we mean by work-life balance and the choices we make. The extremes are easy to identify and agree upon.
- You haven’t let your office for four nights, can’t remember when you last had a non-pizza meal and can’t recall the name of your first born, or if single, when you last called your girlfriend | mom ][pick your loved one]. And this is when there isn’t a crisis at work. You probably have only work (and likely no girlfriend).
- If you clock in by 10AM (you have “flex” hours) – are out each evening by 455PM, take your lunch diligently between 12PM-1PM, and turn off your phones on Friday at 6PM, you are in the wrong place, working in a startup or even in a job!
But reality each day rarely appears in one of these two extremes, but in a whole slew of gray areas.
In a startup context, to me, work-life balance can be achieved by moving the goal posts to a realistic settings with two simple steps. I can hear some of you saying that’s cheating, but aren’t all successful startups about changing rules and sometimes definitions themselves?
- 15-day to 30-day cycles Measuring and working towards a semblance of balance over a longer period such as a month or week (depends on whether you have kids, girlfriends or other commitments). Simply put, be they chores such as doing your laundry or paying your bills, even filing your expense reports (all stuff I continue to have problems with) or having a life such as calling Mom or going on a date (one that’s prepared to be flexible) set a frequency – I will do this once a month or twice a month. So rather than beat yourself up, that you haven’t called your mom (which you can never do enough of, according to her) or paid your bills, because you are so busy you know that at any time you are unlikely to be more than a month/week/fortnight behind.
- Emergencies - make the right call in emergencies – that means family/friend/life comes first in an emergency. As a startup you intuitively rush to a client, when they have a line down (or these days cloud down) situation, spend the four days/nights to get the application/system/production line back up or ship two guys to a small village in Japan. Similarly when the “done” deal seems to be slipping away at the last minute you spare no effort to get it back – regardless of the debasement required. Use the same judgement or gut call, when your spouse calls to say the kids running 102, or your best friend’s in a bad car accident or your dad’s having chest pains. Don’t Blackberry, multitask or manage – drop the other stuff and get over there. Your startup will manage, your employees/partners would better appreciate you and your actions will speak louder than any number of TXT messages or emails to your family/friend/life!
Now quit reading this blog and get back to busting your rear – you are in a startup Joe!