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March 20, 2007

Morph of a Nerd CEO – How Hard Will You Work?

Nerds are used to long hours.  But the long hours you spent getting a program to work are nothing like the hours you’ll have to put in if you start a company and have employees. If you’re not prepared to work twelve hours at least six days each week – or if your family is not willing to have you work these hours, don’t start hiring employees.  The greatest demands on your time come in the period when you’re between two and ten employees; but it doesn’t let up much after.

The motto of Fractals of Change is that “nothing great is accomplished without irrational enthusiasm.” That’s in a large part because you need the irrational enthusiasm to get you through the unreasonable amount of work you’ll need to do.

As I posted previously, management is harder than doing everything yourself. But, when you hire the first employees, you’re still doing a lot yourself AND you’re managing them. In the good old days (as you’ll soon think of them), you could go on a 72 hour programming binge and then sleep it off for twenty four hours. Can’t do that when you’re also a manager because you have to be available to your people. Can’t lock yourself in your room for long periods of time and brook no interruptions. Can’t disappear to recover.

You hire the first employees because you want to do more than you could do by yourself and/or you want to build a “real company” – something that accrues value beyond just the earning power of a sole practitioner.  So you take on more work to capitalize on (and support) the new employees.  If you stop doing everything except managing, the company will have less actual capacity than it had before you made the hires unless you had enough funding and enough chutzpa to hire a dozen new people and some middle management all at the same time.

So you have to do solo work in an atmosphere which brooks interruption, you have to plan the future of your company, and, hardest of all, you have to manage. Moreover, unless you can afford to be in a pure development stage, you have to sell more than you ever did before because there are more mouths to feed.  Even if your product is not ready to go to market, you have competition to keep track of, shifting technologies, and you should be preparing the market for your entry.  Oh yeah, and you may have investors and/or bankers to deal with.  You’re very, very busy and you don’t get any long vacations either.  Email and even more instant communication assures that you don’t stop working even when you leave the office.

This post was triggered by a correspondent asking how hard a startup CEO should plan to work and what hints I have from my experience on relieving the workload.  There are a few workload management techniques which are important but they don’t substitute for long hours, they just make the long hours more productive. Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Make decisions fast.  You’ll never have all the information you need.  You can’t spend time going over the same arguments again and again.  Just decide and move on to the next subject.
  2. Never waste time justifying past decisions or trying to rescue failures. If you were wrong (it’ll happen often if you obey rule #1), admit it, correct it, and move on.
  3. Get rid of ineffectual people immediately (really a subset of #2 since you made the decision to hire them).  At startup phase you must make time to mentor the best but you can’t correct the rest.
  4. If you open an email, answer it or dispose of it in some other way (the modern equivalent of the clean desk rule).
  5. Seek out – don’t hide from – bad news. The longer a situation goes uncorrected, the harder’ll it’ll be for you to fix.
  6. Delegate (note that this is only #6 but maybe that tells you something about me). Don’t let people delegate back to you the hard parts of what you delegate to them.
  7. Always check both that instructions are understood (repeating them back is good) and that they’ve been followed. You don’t like to be checked up on but you need to check up on everybody else.
  8. Give others leeway to make their own mistakes (needs to be balanced with #7).
  9. Ruthlessly triage prospects and opportunities.
  10. Be scrupulously honest.  Even exaggerations and half-truths are hard to remember and end up taking more time to correct than it would have taken to tell and perhaps defend the truth. Moreover, once people trust you, they won’t waste your time or theirs checking on what you say.

More posts in this series:

Sick Days are Sick

The Power of Silence

First Sole Practitioner

Yuk, Selling

The First Employees

The Close

When Free is the Right Strategy

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