Startup Culture Shock: Is Startup Life Life?

So I think somebody struck a nerve. So what do you think of this tip to save money:

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 Starbucks if you want balance in your life.

That’s from Mahalo founder Jason Calcanis, late last week, on his blog. He titled his post How to save money running a startup (17 really good tips). So he’s the one calling his tips "really good," not me. Some of them are pretty good tips, but I think they got lost in the storm.

Responses came fast and furious. 111 comments by Sunday morning. Other blogs reacted too: one of the best of them was from 37 Signals, titled Fire the Workaholics, which concluded:

If your start-up can only succeed by being a sweatshop, your idea is simply not good enough. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something better that can be implemented by whole people, not cogs.

That one has 90 comments on it. Two posts about it — one by Michael Arrington agreeing and another disagreeing –  have about 350 comments between them.

Jason, meanwhile, got hit hard, with some strong words. He quickly toned down the original, striking out a couple of the more quotable phrases. And, to his credit, he shows the edits too, in the post you’ll find when you go there.

Fire people who are not workaholics. don’t love their work… 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 Starbucks if you’re not into it you want balance in your life. For realz

What’s going on here? I think it’s culture shock; war between worlds. These are not simple disagreements. There is a whole lot of aggression and anger in the comments.

There was a joke I heard first in Mexico City. Maybe you’ve heard an English version, but this is a translation. It’s related to all of this.

A man walks into a crowded cantina and starts shooting two six guns in the air, getting everybody’s attention. He draws a line across the middle of the bar and issues an order: "I want all the fools on one side of the line and the jerks on the other."

"Wait just a minute," says one man in the crowd. "I’m no fool."

"Then move to the other side of the line."

That’s what this controversy is trying to do to startups and people running startups. It’s pretty much either or, if you believe the flow and direction of the comment storm: fool or a jerk.

And I don’t think it’s that simple. I see at least two other issues rolling around vaguely in the middle of this. And perhaps a way to bring them together.

First, how do you define success? Every so often somebody reminds us that it’s an important question. But we get lost in the startup tension, or maybe that’s the startup culture. I think all we have to do is ask the question, as a reminder. There are so many shades of gray between the back of plain old failure and the white of fabulous billionaire success. Some people want to have a life, and they want the people around them to have lives. And it’s not like there aren’t examples of startups that respected people and balance. On the other hand, there are lots of stories around. One person’s obsession is another’s passion. You can paint that picture how you want. Do you want to be coach the kids’ soccer team or (have a very small chance to) be on the cover of magazines?

The second issue is founders with blinders. They want the whole team to share the obsession but they forget that only a few of the top founders actually stand to share the pot of gold at the end of that very-hard-to-catch rainbow. Sometimes its leadership, sometimes its selfishness. It’s insisting that everybody buy into their private dream, which sometimes is shared, and sometimes not. I’ve seen that kind of driven-and-driving-founder at work. The younger Steve Jobs was like that at Apple during the Macintosh gestation in 1983. Philippe Kahn had a lot of that when he build Borland International in the middle 1980s. I saw it again from a comfortable distance in the late 1990s, with dot-coms and their hard-driving work-is-everything atmosphere. That reminds me of the late 1990s in Silicon Valley. Back then it happened all over. I knew a company that raised $45 million venture capital in its first year, hired more than 100 employees, nobody over 30, and brought in dinner almost every night and offered video games and ping pong in the office. The 12-hour days were the norm. The long hours, the lack of balance, the obsession is supposed to be shared by the whole team, but, in many of these cases, the supposed rewards at the end of that long trek won’t be shared by the whole team.

It can be a bit like the one-size-life-fits-all syndrome, except in this case it’s the one-size-no-life fits all. Does that work? It didn’t for that company I knew, which (because a legal settlement so required it) shall remain nameless. It did for Apple and Borland. I don’t think that works very well for very long for anybody, at least not for any extended period of time. But then again, some of the people who say that it works have a whole lot of money. 

And how do we bring it together? I think it might be value. Believing in what you’re doing. I’ve known companies, and teams within companies, that believed that what they were doing in the business mattered, to them and to the world. There’s a very special feeling that you get when you walk out the door at the end of the day with the feeling that you’ve spent your time making the world better, not worse. Some companies are built on making things better, while others are built on getting money out of people’s pockets. Some companies respect their customers, some companies bilk there companies. You know who you are. Does that make it better?

* * * * *

Tim Berry, Entrepreneur and Founder of Palo Alto Software, and Borland International About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning; and a Stanford MBA. His main blogs are Planning, Startups, Stories and Up and Running.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

13 Reactions
  1. I measure success by how well, healthy and happy my family and other people around me are, not by how hard they are working for me. Wow, good thing I hadn’t read his article and gotten in on the comments early. I would certainly have given him a piece of my mind. This type of thinking has always made me crazy. Just like women can’t have a career and raise a family too!

  2. I think Vicky has made a good point here. Success is the measure of your happiness. What you consider a success – others may not, and feel you could’ve done better. And being that driven can certainly produce success – for you. But what about the people that work for you? Can you really expect them to put as much into it as you have – when they will only receive partial awards for doing so? Requiring workaholics only? Seems like in that case, expectations are VERY high. And there’s much to be said about being a workaholic, but I think sometimes people don’t realize that there’s also true value in LIFE as well. And balance is important to overall success and happiness – as the perfect mix between life and work truly creates ultimate happiness and success in my eyes.

  3. You have to give people freedom and allow them to take time for themselves. I don’t know that you can require people to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week. They just aren’t going to do it.

    The founder — well, for the founder it may BE their passion to work those kinds of hours. Especially when you believe you are doing something that matters — that the value is there.

    I think sometimes, though, it is hard to convey that sense of value. What the founder values about the business and the mission, still may not be what those on the team value.

    Any tips for people on how to convey that sense of value — that what you are doing matters?

  4. Yes I have a tip, try giving the employee a piece of the action. If they are getting rewarded that way they will work more hours.

  5. I definitely agree that the business owner has more invested than a mere employee. It’s hard to get someone so excited over a plan when so many people have different ideas and expectations of what the business should be. If the business owner has a definite vision, than they need to make that clear. However, you can not expect employees to be driven by your own passions which can clearly be very personal. I agree with Vicky that there needs to be some incentive to keep a high level of enthusiasm.

  6. A business owner must be able to articulate the values of the company before they hire otherwise how is an employee supposed to be in tune with a business owner. Also finding out the motivations of prospective employees will likely show if these are aligned to the values of the company.

  7. We have generous opening hours (7 AM – 9 PM during the week and 10 AM – 6 PM during weekend) at our meeting place for entrepreneurs and business minded individuals, so I have to work many hours when I am at Blue Chip Café & Business Center, and then continue to work from home. Luckily for me, I have colleagues who could step in and then some additional resources from time to time.

    I don’t think you should strive to become and “alcoholic”. Enjoy your time instead and “drink responsible” from the (grape)fruits of your labor. I think on business all the time and and I am open for new opportunities, but I have to stay away from being burned out. I intend to have a long career and happy life, pursuing my happiness by achieving my values.

    I recommend you to read my post, Getting Things Done and To Do Lists.

    All the Best,

    Martin Lindeskog – American in Spirit.
    Gothenburg, Sweden.

  8. ‘Tis real life, I can attest. I think that making use of your available resources can lighten the burden of being small and doing it all. There are a lot of programs that are specifically geared toward helping startups and I think that list should be exploited as part of the process– that’s what they’re for. Sun Microsystems has a program called ‘startup essentials’ that offers discounts on x64 servers, free tech support and free events to meet ‘missing pieces of your personnel’ and we think thats a cool move to lend a hand from the get-go. I’d be interested in seeing a huge list sometime of all of the resources out there but you can start with this one:

  9. I think the bottom line is that each one defines success in a different manner.

    You have to choose the people who fit your perspective of “good workers”-and they have to choose you as the “ideal start-up.”

    It’s all about the fit.

  10. A great leader can keep her/his employees motivated and excited about their work. This is not an easy things to do as witnessed by the many management books out there.

    The CEO of my company, PaySimple, wrote an interesting blog on this topic about a week ago, link here and text below:

    Selfless vs. Selfish: Do selfless intentions in business yield selfish returns?

    April 1, 2008 at 3:18 pm

  11. Nice article about how to weigh the tradeoffs of work/life. Seems like the balance is hard to maintain.