Why Sleeping Under Your Desk is Hurting Your Startup

Working on the Floor

If you believe your startup’s success depends on keeping people at work for long hours seven days a week, you may have it all wrong. That approach could be working against you.

“It absolutely hurts a startup to have a 24/7 grindstone pace. People are more likely to make mistakes and catastrophic bugs at 4 a.m., than 4 p.m.,” says Venky Ganesan, managing director of Menlo Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif. “You would rather people work consistently hard and smart than do extremes.”

While there may be an occasional need to perform heroics to get a job done, doing so consistently is a sign of poor planning and poor management, Ganesan believes. “Good teams and companies know how to prioritize and plan and will not have this culture,” he says, noting his firm would have concerns about a company that operated at a frenetic pace.

And it can be done. Treehouse Island, a technology learning startup in Orlando, Fla., operates with a four-day work week. Chicago-based tools developer Basecamp – formerly 37Signals — operates four days a week from May through October. So, it can be done.

Sleeping Bags and Sleep Deprivation

While many stories have been written about the grueling life at a startup, only about 25 to 30 percent of new companies actually have such a culture, Ganesan estimates. “I think it’s highly correlated to the age of the founders. The younger the founders, the more likely you have the sleep-at-the-desk and work-all-the-time culture,” he says. “It’s probably also correlated to gender – young males are more likely to be part of this culture.”

He also believes that founders on their second venture, or those launching an enterprise startup, tend to move away from the crazy lifestyle. “They realize it’s not sustainable and, more importantly, not productive,” he explains.

Hitting the Wall – Hard

If VCs aren’t pushing entrepreneurs to work their staff to exhaustion, the perceived need often comes from within. It’s based on the notion of survival.

In a blog post, Pascal Finette says his nights on the floor of his first startup had nothing to do with being hip or cool, nor was it about “happy, endorphin-fueled hacking.” Rather, he was driven by fear of being on the “brink of bankruptcy … [and] forced to fire the people who I hired with the promise of untold riches at the end of the rainbow and because we needed to get this deal done.”

Others who’ve lived through the craziness point to similar drivers, where they were paid in equity and understood that the sooner they could launch their product, the sooner they could get paid in real money.

Trent Lapinski, founder of CyberChimps, a San Francisco-based WordPress themes designer, launched his company in a two-bedroom apartment in Long Beach, Calif. After eight months of working 80-hour weeks, he bought out his partner because he was burning out and not completing projects. Lapinski himself struggled to work 60- to 80-hour weeks for another four months or so before the business began to take off. “Now, I try to keep my computer time down to 35 hours a week, but sometimes it goes up to 45 hours,” Lapinski says. “I live a healthier life now, so I can avoid burnout.”