Sacrifice your health for your startup

December 7, 2009 | Jason Cohen
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The Internet is full of good advice about how to lead a healthy, balanced work and home life:

If you don’t have your health and your family, nothing else matters. On your deathbed, will you wish you had worked longer hours or been a better parent? Will you wish you had spent more time Twittering or more time exercising, extending your life by five years?

Compelling. And, yet, in my experience, this attitude is not the path to success in small business.
Maximizing your chance for success means sacrificing health and family.

This sounds controversial, but it’s not just me:

Jeremiah Owyang of Web Strategist:

“How do I Keep Up?” This is one of the most common questions I get from folks, or a variant: “Do you sleep?” or “Do you have a family?” I can answer succinctly: “I don’t, in shifts, and yes… I think.” … I’m lucky I fell into my passion. It comes with costs however, I’m out of
shape, stressed, I don’t sleep well, and my blood pressure is up.

Mark Cuban, self-made millionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks on how he acheived success:

“I slept on the couch or floor … Because I was living on happy hour food, and the 2 beer cover charge, I was gaining weight like a pig. But I was having fun. … Every night I would read [software manuals], no matter how late. … I remember sitting in that little office till 10 p.m.
… I would get so involved with learning that I would forget to eat …

More from Mark in an interview with YoungMoney Magazine:

Question: “Did you have to sacrifice your personal life in order to become a business success?”  Answer: “Sure, ask about five of my former girlfriends that question. I went seven years without a vacation. I didn’t even read a fiction book in that time. I was focused.”

Penelope Trunk (yes, she has insights on both sides of this issue) on how all-consuming her company is:

“I’m desperate. … You’re always sick, but not take-a-day-off-work sick. … So I suffer with the pink eye, because it’s not having all that gross green discharge yet, so I think I can deal with it after funding. … I diagnose my [temporary] blindness as stress related. … I say, ‘My eyes are nothing compared to the pain of raising money.’ … There’s no time for family.

“So what,” you could argue, “just because many successful entrepreneurs are workaholics doesn’t mean that’s the only path to success.”

Indeed, study after study has shown that “working more hours” doesn’t translate into “accomplishing more shit.” If you’re not getting enough sleep, for instance, working extra hours doesn’t make up for your foggy brain.

Also, optimizing how you spend your time can increase productivity several times over — an increase you couldn’t possibly match by working more hours.

Yeah, but here’s the problem.

The “Rule of Closets” is that the amount of crap you own will expand to fill all available closet space. You can create more space by adding shelves and organizers, but then you’ll soon discover you have more stuff.

Well, I have a “Rule of Time in Startups”: How much time does a bootstrapped company take? All of it.

Even ten people could hardly keep up with everything you do in small business — creating, consulting, designing, fixing, self-promotion, blogging, networking, bookkeeping, taxes, customer support and cultivation, reading startup blogs for ideas and inspiration (!), and all those little crappy things like losing an afternoon troubleshooting your fancy outsourced IP phone system that was supposed to let you “work from anywhere.”

One, two or even three people can’t do everything, so, of course, it takes all your time. If you’re working a day job while starting something on the side, of course you don’t have time to exercise or play with your kids before bed.

It takes obsession to make a little company go. Forget “passion” — everyone’s favorite word — it’s “obsession.” It’s not just that you love working, it’s that you can’t stop working. You’re putting your entire self on the line — your finances, your career, your ideas.

The obsession is there even when you’re away from the office, having lunch with a friend or reading to your kids. As my wife would frequently point out in the early years of Smart Bear, my “mental and emotional bandwidth” was entirely consumed. You’re physically there, but you’re not really there.

Read those quotes above again and you’ll see not just passion but self-destructive devotion. You don’t put yourself through this meat grinder just because you “like something a lot.”

“If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”


Of course, those life-coaches are still correct: This isn’t a great way to live your entire life. You need to accept that this is going to happen and ask whether it’s OK to incur this penalty right now. For me, I did all this in my 20s when I had no kids, I had enough savings to risk everything for a while, and I had a wife who had her own business and who, therefore, understood how much work it took and why I was spacing out over dinner.

Bottom line: Every successful bootstrapper I know puts work before self. (Until financial freedom is achieved.) I did too.

Let’s discuss this! There are more arguments for both sides. Join the conversation by leaving a coment.

This post originally was published June 29, 2009, on Jason Cohen’s blog, “a smart bear.” Check there to see comments and more tips from his readers!

Jason Cohen founded Smart Bear Software, maker of Code Collaborator, a tool for peer code review and recent winner of the Jolt Award. He took Smart Bear from start to multiple millions in revenue and 50 percent profit margin without debt or VC, then sold it for cash. He also is a founding member of ITWatchdogs, another bootstrapped startup which became profitable and was sold. He’s also a mentor at Capital Factory (like TechStars or Y-Combinator in Austin). And, he’s the author of Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review, the most popular book (35,000 copies) on modern, lightweight methods for doing peer code review effectively without everyone hating life. He blogs at “a smart bear.” Email him: jason (at) asmartbear (dot) com

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