10 Dec

Can you build a successful startup in 40 hours per week?

A tweet by Justin Jackson started a debate about building a startup on only 40 hours per week. Can it be done?

On one side Jason Cohen from WP Engine made the case that you need to put in more time to get a successful startup off the ground. Then, representing the other side, DHH from Basecamp made the case for balanced work hours.

So who is right?

They are both sharing from their own personal experience and observations. Neither side conducted extensive research on how many hours the founders worked at most successful companies. Jason sees just how hard it is to build a startup and he is encouraging everyone to set expectations properly. David was able to build Basecamp in under 40 hours per week (initially as low as 10-15 hours per week), so from his perspective it is completely possible.

This debate isn’t binary. There’s another factor that isn’t being discussed.

The quality of an hour

If I measure something and say it is 6 feet long, we all know exactly how long that is. If I say I’ll be somewhere in an hour, we all know how much time will pass until I arrive.

But if I say I’ll work on something for an hour, you have no idea how much work will be completed. Simply because not all hours are equal.

Can you build a great company in 40 hours a week? Absolutely! But only if those are high quality hours. Don’t kid yourself that your time bouncing between Twitter, Slack, and Hacker News counts towards the 40.

Don’t confuse hours as an equal measurement for results.

Focus on output

When I was in high school I went with my dad to a church volunteer project. We were helping a family who had been dealing with medical issues landscape their yard. The task for the day was moving a giant pile of landscaping bark from the driveway to spread over weed fabric in the back yard.

I didn’t want to be there.

But I loaded my wheel barrow like every one else and casually brought it around and dumped it. Everyone was working at the pace you’d expect a volunteer group to work on a lazy Saturday morning.

After a few loads I looked at the massive pile of bark and noticed that we’d actually made a dent in it. Interesting.

I asked my dad, “Are we doing other projects after we spread this bark?” He looked at his watch and replied, “No, this will take all the time we have and is the last project they need done.”

Seeing my opportunity I filled my wheel barrow faster. Then quickened my pace around to the back yard.

The other volunteers noticed. They weren’t about to be outworked by a 14 year old, so their pace quickened. The group in the back yard started a mini game to see if they could spread the bark faster than we could get it to them. It was on!

We had estimated it would take four hours to finish. Instead we were done in just an hour.

The group was tired, but had a lot of fun. Everyone was impressed with how quickly we’d finished the work.

All it took was someone to set the pace. Which I only did because I wanted to leave sooner.

Don’t confuse hours worked with progress.

How long have you been working on your startup?

Before you tell me, I want to share a quick story.

In college I took ballroom dance classes. They were really fun, a great way to make new friends, and I was actually decent at it! One of the teachers started a ballroom dance team and I immediately signed up. There were plenty of better dancers on the team, but I kept learning.

For a few years after college Hilary and I would go to ballroom dance events each month to practice, see friends, and learn new skills.

Then my friend James, who lives in Los Angeles, mentioned he was getting into ballroom dance and taking lessons each week. That soon increased to twice a week, then three times a week. With dedicated time to practice what he was learning. Within a month he had mastered the basics and even stepped in to teach a beginner class when there was a scheduling mistake.

After six months he was teaching classes regularly and dancing competitively. He was already far better in six months then I was after five years! The difference is he was methodical, persistent, and practiced regularly.

Don’t confuse the passing of time with progress.

Back to your startup

Now, back to your startup. How long have you been working on it? A year? Two years? Five?

I worked on ConvertKit for nearly two years before getting meaningful traction. During that time I worked, learned, acquired customers, built features, lost customers, traveled, spoke at conferences, remodeled a house, wrote a blog, ran another business, wrote books, and a lot more.

ConvertKit was not my primary focus. So while two years passed, someone else could have achieved the same results in six months of focused time and resources. I worked a limited number of hours. Time passed without meaningful progress.

I tried to grow ConvertKit on the side. It didn’t work.

That’s not to say it couldn’t be done—I’m sure there are people who could have pulled off better results than me in fewer hours. But I didn’t.

When I couldn’t get the results I wanted working part time, I went all in.

Building a company is a long journey. I’ve now worked on ConvertKit for 2,170 days.

Even when I can’t give quality hours, I can give consistency over time. I know the incredible amount of effort it takes to grow a successful company and I don’t kid myself that I’ll be able to do it with a small quantity of hours or low quality time.

Now I work continually to improve the quality of each hour I dedicate to my company. Tracking focused time each day is the single biggest improvement I’ve made. Quality and quantity together isn’t a pipe dream. But the combination takes great habits and discipline.

Is it possible?

Is it possible to build a successful startup on 40 hours per week? Absolutely!

Is it possible for you?

Probably not the way you work right now.

You’re not the productivity professional. You may not have the relationships to shortcut closing deals. You probably don’t have the audience to kickstart a successful launch. But what you do have is the ability to work.

Figure out the schedule that works for you. Be honest with yourself about the quality of your output. Then work continually to make the most of the time you have.

Now go create.

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7 Responses to “Can you build a successful startup in 40 hours per week?”

  1. Michael says:

    As with all things in life, the answer is “it depends.” I’m not sure if it plays a big part of DHH’s view but he used the Ruby on Rails web framework, which is quite revolutionary for it’s time. In fact many other successful web frameworks was inspired by it Django, Laravel, etc.

  2. I totally resonate with your perspective on this, Nathan. I think this is the key differentiator between entrepreneurs and employees (even those who are self- or semi-employed).

    Employees are accountable for input, entrepreneurs for output.

  3. Josh Haynam says:

    Love this, there’s so much praise heaped on “the struggle” which leads to so many people including myself spending years working long hours for no reason other than thinking that’s the answer.

    I thought you put such good words to the difference that can be made by setting a goal and working towards it and the story of setting a pace while moving a pile of dirt – focusing on output instead of hours spent changes the entire lens of how work is viewed and eliminates the possibility of lying to yourself saying that you’re “working hard” when it reality most of the time is wasted doing meaningless things that don’t move the needle.

    One thought that came to mind reading this post is how you go about measuring the effectiveness of hours spent working, particularly when it comes to tasks like creating blog content or doing sales in the earlier days when it’s harder to measure the exact impact. How do you go about choosing what tasks will make the most impact given limited time? and then how do you measure to make sure they’re actually making the difference you set about to make? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on that in a blog post

  4. Great post! Couple of thoughts… Depends on whether you spend those hours strategically, on the right things. Also, do you read Laura Vanderkam? She’s done research that shows people tend to overestimate how many hours they work.

  5. I think it totally depends on priority, doing all at one time does’t work the way it should. I am currently doing 9-5, writing book (authored 3 books in past), building a side product and working on blog. But if I would be just doing blog or any other task only then of course outcome would be good.

  6. This is real food for thought! A most enjoyable post.

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