The work-life illusion: for entrepreneurs there’s no such thing

Work life balance
Kai Nodland
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“I promise you,” wrote the entrepreneur and investor Blake Robbins on Twitter, “your competition isn’t beating you because they are working more hours than you. It’s because they are working smarter.”

It didn’t take Keith Rabois, another VC, long to brusquely riposte: “Totally false.” From there the situation devolved into some degree of nastiness (It’s Twitter, after all), but the spat did crystallise an underlying tension within starting up. 

After a debate in the BusinessZone newsroom, we launched a Twitter poll asking our readers a simple question: How many hours do you believe an entrepreneur should work when building a business?

The response, overwhelmingly, was ‘as many as it takes’; just over a third said 60 hours plus per week and only 13% said a normal working week of 40 or fewer hours. Admittedly, a Twitter poll isn’t exactly scientific - but the question clearly resonated. Are long hours an inevitable part of building a business? And at what cost does success come?

The government’s working time directive states that you can’t work more than 48-hours on average, averaged over 17 weeks. There are numerous exceptions to this, of course, most relevant to entrepreneurs is: “where working time is not measured and you’re in control, eg. you’re a managing executive with control over your decisions.”

Control over your decisions is a key point here. The problem of working hours in startups is actually a dual one. For funded startups, with VCs that have a vested interest in a lot getting done in as little time as possible, the pressure to work long hours can be overwhelming. 

But clearly the problem of startup working hours is more complex than that. Many founders work herculean hours without being compelled by an investor.

The success I have achieved has led me to be in a position to do what I want and provide a great life for my children and partner.

Mark Pearson, the founder of MyVoucherCodes, for instance, put in the graft on his own accord. “I didn't have investors, I self-funded my business with minimal investment. The pressure was from myself and my ambition, when you begin to see something working and becoming successful it can be like a drug, you want to keep doing it and see how far you can push and how much you can achieve.”

“When I first started my business, and for the first few years, I was working very long hours, as I'm always a big believer in working harder and smarter than your competition if you want to win,” Pearson explains.

Burnout: the cost of building a business

It’s tough to argue with Pearson about how he built his business: he made £60m from selling MyVoucherCodes. And he stresses the long hours were, in his view, a critical part of his success. And not just his own working hours, but that of his team as well.

“I used to work long hours so I could achieve more – the more I did the more successful the business became. I used to work until I was tired, sleep and then begin working again as soon as I woke. I did this for at least three to four years until I grew a good team, who also followed my lead.”

Indeed, many entrepreneurs wouldn’t argue against Pearson - but admit long working hours pushed them to the brink. Ash Phillips, the founder of YENA, a network for young entrepreneurs and ambitious professionals, worked arduous hours until a realisation last Christmas.

“I had a mentoring session,” says Phillips. “He asked me how many hours I’m doing, told me straight out I was mental.” As he hustled to get the YENA off the ground, Phillips says he was doing 70-to-90-hours-a-week, not counting the cognitive load of strategic thinking and a racing entrepreneurial mind.

I believe if you truly want to be a successful entrepreneur it’s about work-life integration.

The hours had become routine, but that yuletide conversation brought the situation into relief. “I didn’t know what the effect was but I definitely felt it. In hindsight, I was close to being burnt out,” he says. “There’s a generational thing with these videos from people like Gary V. saying, ‘work 24-hours!’ and ‘non-stop hustle!,’ all of that, it makes people feel like they need to work those hours.

“But when I had that meeting, I just felt like something wasn’t quite right. I just wasn’t happy - but I wouldn’t quite call it depression. I felt sluggish, something like a seasonal affective disorder but it wasn’t in line with any season.”

The exhaustion that Phillips refers to isn’t just a lack of shuteye or sleepiness. Burnout and exhaustion, research shows, leaves objectively measurable changes in the brain. One particular study from Umeå University in Sweden found affected individuals demonstrated “impaired memory and attention capacity as well as reduced brain activity in parts of the frontal lobes” and “altered regulation of the stress hormone cortisol”.

The study also found a direct link between “being ambitious, fastidious, and overachieving” and being “more prone to exhaustion syndrome”.

John Styring founded the book publisher Igloo Books in 2004. Alongside his wife (then partner), Styring shepherded the business for 12 years before being bought out for an undisclosed sum.

“You teeter on the edge quite a lot,” says Styring. “In publishing, there was a lot of travel. I would do two-three week trips where, for example, I’d fly to the US then, the same day, get back on a plane fly to another American city. Do that for two weeks and then go on to Australia. The day you come back you’ll be back in the office. You can be mentally exhausted.”

Are the hours necessary?

Since the conversation with his mentor, Phillips has recalibrated his working day. He still works long hours (compared to the average working Briton), but the balance is healthier. “I have shorter days - but they’re not nine-to-fives.”

The bigger change is a more meditative approach to work: “Now, I’m more than happy, if I feel I’m not being productive, I’ll switch off and go read a book. I understand that I’m recharging my batteries.”

That said, the shift to a healthier balance isn’t the same as remorse at the frenetic hours spent building YENA. “It would be nice to be blue sky about it, but I do think it was necessary,” Phillips admits, “those long hours, they were vital.

“Firstly, I was so passionate at the start that I was always going to work so long on it. If someone asked you to do something else it won't be as exciting as that project and you won’t want to do it. So, naturally, you’ll want to do it. Secondly, you have to. It takes all your time. If you grow a plant and you only water it once-a-month, it’ll probably die. But if you take care of it every day, it’ll grow into something nice.”

For MyVoucherCode’s Pearson, it’s a very similar story. As he shattered milestones in his professional life, the initial, colossal working hours have yielded somewhat to the demands of love and family but not completely. “My work-life split is now different to when I first started out, though I still class myself as very hardworking.” It helps, he points out, that his partner supports him with saintly patience.

And Pearson is resolute about what’s required to build a successful business in those initial phases. “Being a young, driven entrepreneur, in my opinion, takes dedication and commitment to become very successful.

People will turn around and ask ‘why haven’t you settled down?’ or ‘why don’t you go travelling?’ - but I love what I do.

“Sacrificing time with family, friends, your partner (if you have time for one) can be tough, but working a few years of your life like some won't lead to you creating immense success and being able to enjoy that later.

“Yes, I missed out on a few years of social events, but I get to live the rest of my life doing more or less anything I want. This can be tough for friends, family and loved ones in the early days. I recall my first relationship failed because of my work-life split, but I don't look back with regret.”

Pearson, now an investor, seeks this same work ethic in the businesses he backs.  “I only invest in individuals and teams that have the same, or more, drive and ambition than me, it's a conversation we have early on,” he says. “There’s no one way to be an entrepreneur and it's ok if you are not like that, it just means that I will not be the right investor for you.”

What the hell is a work-life balance, even?

The mystical equation at the centre of this all is ‘work-life balance’. It’s a term that has its genesis in what the historian Peter Burke terms the “invention of leisure” in the 1800s. The person became a fractured entity, split between the worker and the ‘true’ self.

But for the entrepreneurs I spoke to for this piece, it’s a societal ideal that’s hard to identify with. Ed Relf, the founder of Laundrapp, goes as far as rebuking the idea outright. In the latest Start / Scale / Disrupt podcast, Relf said: “People talk about work-life balance and it’s one of my pet hates. I believe if you truly want to be a successful entrepreneur it’s about work-life integration.

“If I’m on vacation or it’s the weekend, of course, I’m online. I’m not sat at a desk in the office, but I’m online and I’m working. If you do what is truly a passion you never work another day in your life. When I entered the world of entrepreneurship I found my passion.”

In his years running Igloo, holidays also bore little resemblance to the classic ideal for Styring. “You never go on holiday and forget about your business,” he says. “I wasn’t able, for nearly the first decade or so, to take more than a week off from work.” He did eventually treat himself two weeks off after nine years (but he never went offline).

The lines between work and life are similarly blurred for Pearson. He says: “When you enjoy what you do it is not really work, so adrenaline and drive goes a long way to keeping you going for an important deadline or the next big idea.” He does, however, accede sleep’s importance as a barrier against burnout. “Just listen to your body and know your own limits.”

Parenthood has changed my mindset and my priorities. It means that if I wanted to set up a business similar to the last business, well, to some degree I couldn’t.

The prevailing consensus is that it’s a matter of choosing what impact you want to make and how far you want to go. For Pearson, his appetite could only be sated by something truly big, and he sees the sacrifice as a small toll to pay.

“I'm very proud of what I’ve built,” he says. “The success I have achieved has led me to be in a position to do what I want and provide a great life for my children and partner.” Although not as far along as Pearson, YENA’s Phillips finds a personal truth in this message.

“People will turn around and ask ‘why haven’t you settled down?’ or ‘why don’t you go travelling?’ - but I love what I do,” he says. “At the same time, I know what I have. I don’t come from a poor background but it’s as working class as it gets. I want better than that - not just for me but my family, too. That requires me to work like I’m working at the moment.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek joke but there’s a kernel of truth to it: I don’t want to have kids until I can afford a nanny. It doesn’t mean I want a nanny necessarily but it does give me a yardstick where I’ll be financially stable enough to give my future family a good life.”

Unlike Phillips, John Styring’s family isn’t imaginary. Despite being 44, he is a father to a three-year-old and a one-year-old. As he looks toward to his entrepreneurial life beyond Igloo, he admits things have changed.

“It has changed my mindset and my priorities. It means that if I wanted to set up a business similar to the last business, well, to some degree I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to put in that type of effort because it’s now about having responsibilities as a parent. Then again, I’m fortunate that I don’t have to build a business to the same extent.”

About Francois Badenhorst


Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.


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09th Jul 2017 15:45

What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his/her soul, or family, or life...

Most Entrepreneurs I have helped have been very driven and focused. Nobody is saying that excessive hard work is not necessary in the first 2-3 years. However Centre God resented on the 7th day.. which is a good pattern to follow.

So many workaholic entrepreneurs just cannot rest and this affects their ability to make sound judgements, take advice and help or innovate.

The best entrepreneurs, the really successful ones come back rapidly to work, rest and play and are not losers.

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09th Jul 2017 16:34

I think the key phrase is "work life integration" and this is how many entrepreneurs think about their lives. For me as an entrepreneur I'm often not aware that I'm "working" as other people would see it. But no doubt perception of "working" is probably to do with how much you work "on" your business as opposed to "in" it. I think many entrepreneurs get trapped working "in" their business and feel increasingly frustrated they have no time to work "on" their business, this for sure creates the feeling of "working too hard". And if you're asked how many hours you work a week, don't answer! It's a pointless question and anybody's who is obsessed with this just doesn't get it. Judge people on results. If you answer I can guarantee that whatever you say, somebody will think it's too much and somebody else will tell you it's not enough!

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