Startups and Simon Legree

What would the internet be without passionate arguments? The latest tempest in our corner of the online universe was kicked off by Jason Calcanis, who published a blog entry titled “How to save money running a startup (17 really good tips).” A bunch of these tips were the sort of things we’ve recommended ourselves: second monitors and good chairs for developers, use Google Docs and hosted email instead of Microsoft alternatives, allow flex time. But one of his points triggered howls of outrage in the blogosphere (original wording below):

Fire people who are not workaholics…come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. don’t work at a startup if you’re not into it–go work at the post office or stabucks if you want balance in your life. For realz.

There was a bit of a pileup on Calcanis for that sentiment, with TechCrunch and other outlets portraying Calcanis as a modern-day Simon Legree. The folks over at 37signals even published their own list of reasons not to hire workaholics, based on the thought that focusing too much on your work is unhealthy. In response, Calcanis watered down the original controversial point a bit, and posted another blog entry justifying really hard work.

What we’re seeing here is largely a clash of two cultures, I believe. As someone who has been variously a workaholic and a slacker at various points in his life, I no longer find those labels very useful; they’re mostly just ways in which people stereotype and try to cut off debate. In some circumstances (such as being involved with a promising startup) it’s easy to make working long hours a priority because the work is exciting and the potential payoff is huge. At other times, non-work parts of life come to the fore, and work has to take somewhat of a back burner. There’s no magic formula that says “this is the perfect work-life balance for all people and all times.”

As web workers, we’re in a better position than most to resolve this dichotomy in our own lives. Many web workers have the flexibility to turn the computer off entirely, or to arrange work in a “bursty” fashion that combines high intensity with plenty of time for other things. Based on my own history, being passionately involved with your work need not be a negative experience. There’s a surface similarity between working long hours for a startup and being involved in a deathmarch development project that has you sleeping under your desk to meet some arbitrary deadline, but the team attitudes and potential rewards make it easy to tell the two apart.

Startups aren’t for everyone. But if you’re involved in one and finding it rewarding, even though you know you’re being encouraged to work long hours, then there’s no reason to feel guilty because someone on the outside labels you a workaholic. And for web workers, there’s no reason to feel guilty about taking advantage of the flexibility we have to work strange and (when we want) long hours. Figure out what works for you and go with it.


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