When I’d just started working with my first startup, the COO said something that stuck to me like a burr:
There is no such thing as a work-life balance.
To him, when you care about what you’re building, you don’t set boundaries. Instead, work is always on your mind, no matter where you are or with whom you’re spending time. You will do anything and everything to make it work. You are that round-the-clock hustler, because that’s what it takes to succeed.
That sounds great in theory, especially with all the bootstraps hoo-rah we hear surrounding startups these days, but we took this to severe extremes. I was literally living with my coworkers – 12 people in a 4 bedroom house. We’d wake up and eat breakfast together while checking emails, then work until we fell asleep that night.
If a customer had a problem at midnight on a Friday, I was there. If someone in South Africa had a question about our software, and could only talk during their preferred business hours, no problem, we set the call for 2am PST. If an investor wanted to test our new chat service at 10pm on a Tuesday, I’d respond.
It was a recipe for burnout.
When we finally got an office and started hiring, the team believed there would be some relief. Instead, the only difference was adding in a commute. We’d spend 9+ hours at the office “to set the tone for our new hires,” and when we got home, you better believe we had our laptops open around the dinner table.
We went from a group of 10 to over 50 at one point, but still kept these hours. Most days, the office would open at 7 or 7:30am, and we’d shut up shop by 10 or 11pm. Granted, those who hadn’t lived in the company house weren’t usually doing the same, but the pressure was still there. Every time someone packed up by 5pm, someone would semi-jokingly shout “later, slacker” from across the office.
Even after I moved out of the company house, I was still living with a team member – my at-the-time boyfriend… I know, never again. I don’t believe in dating coworkers and strongly advise against it, but the one time I don’t follow my own “don’t shit where you eat” rule, the relationship outlasted the company. But I digress.
We’d go into the office before 8am daily, head out no earlier than 7pm most days. We’d still pull out the laptops before and after dinner, and we’d work straight through most weekends. There were even all-nighters.
We were adults, dammit. And we were still foregoing sleep in favor of finishing just one more report, or design, or whatever it was.
We eventually talked about it and started to put the laptops away, but there was still this insane pressure to be in that 24/7 #bootstrap mode. If he had his laptop open, I felt like I was slacking off, and immediately ran for mine. It wasn’t healthy in the least.
I was with this company for 3 years. How we all managed to live this way, I’m not sure I’ll ever really know. It wasn’t until I moved onto my next company that I realized that, as addictive as it became, working round-the-clock was unsustainable and downright toxic. I had to wean myself off of working 10+ hour days, and probably wouldn’t have been able to, had my new coworkers not constantly reminded me that I had to leave the office at some point.
I’ve since adjusted to the 8-hour work day (more or less), and while I still feel that pang of guilt if I pack up before 6pm, it’s been so much better for my health – both physical and mental. While I’m still obsessed with startups, I’ll never go back to those bad habits again.