You don’t have to make yourself miserable to build a great company

By Andrew Wilkinson , written on April 3, 2013

From The News Desk

By most measures, I’m a lazy bastard. I wake up around 1pm and almost always get eight hours of sleep. Most days, I head to the office in the early afternoon and work around 5-6 hours. Sometimes I put in another couple hours at night, but I take the majority of my time away from work, and I never work weekends.

It wasn't always like this. When I first started MetaLab, I often pulled all nighters and typically worked upwards of 80 hours a week. I rarely saw my friends and spent every waking hour on the business. But then it all broke down. After two years of non-stop work, I was left with a dysfunctional relationship, a dwindling social life, and a shelf full of books I hadn't read. So I decided to give it up. For my own sanity, I decided to limit my workday, leave work at the office, and take evenings and weekend off, even if it meant taking a hit to my entrepreneurial success.

Paradoxically, the more I let go, the more things seemed to take off. Short workdays forced me to focus on the important stuff instead of dicking around in my inbox, and I quickly learned to delegate the day-to-day. I started working smart instead of working hard.

Since then, the company has grown from five people to more than 50. Our revenues have doubled year-over-year, now well into the millions. We’ve built one of the top design agencies on the planet, two successful software products, launched the No. 1 theme foundry on Tumblr. Hell, I even started an online DJ school on the side. All this while working short days, waking up midday, and optimizing for happiness at every turn. And it’s not like I just delegated all my work to a miserable army of 9 to 9 office jockeys -- everyone at MetaLab works when and how they want, and many keep a similar schedule to my own.

I don’t like telling people about my lifestyle. It's almost sacrilegious in an industry where hustling, hacking, and sleeping under your desk are synonymous with success. People love to share stories about ramen-fuelled all night hackathons, but what about the guys who slept in and enjoyed themselves? We’re out there, but apparently Box CEO Aaron Levie isn’t one of us:

I haven't taken a vacation day—the V-word—in the seven years since I started this company. I recently went on my first vacation, but it wasn't technically a day off. It was just a long weekend in Mexico with my girlfriend. She and I met a few years ago at a nonwork party that I really didn't want to go to, because I don't understand the point of such things. My downtime tends to resemble my uptime. Weekends are workdays, but toned down. Over the whole weekend, I may have five meetings, as opposed to six on a weekday. I used to play piano for 30 minutes at night, but I had to pull that out of my schedule. I don't have time for nonwork stuff. - Aaron Levie in a recent profile in FastCompany
I don’t know Aaron -- he’s probably a great guy -- but this sounds profoundly lonely and unsustainable. I meet way too many startup founders who idolize guys like this. They believe that they need to forgo a social life, hobbies, and even romance in order to built their startups, which ironically are often services to connect people, teach new skills, and find love.

Take it from me and dozens of other entrepreneurs I’ve gotten to know over the years with the same story: You don’t have to make yourself miserable to be successful. It’s natural to look back and mythologize the long nights and manic moments of genius, but success isn’t about working hard, it’s about working smart. Most of us combined good timing, a solid idea, and some smart people, and let it cook. Were there some long nights and moments of extreme stress along the way? Of course. Were they the make-or-break events that led to our success? Of course not.

Take a breath, read a book, sleep in, and put your phone on silent. You might be surprised by what happens.

[Image courtesy brycej]