Oops, They Fired All Their Workaholics

Wow, quite a firestorm on a weekend over whether startups should hire only workaholics or not. It’s tip #11 on Jason Calacanis’s How to save money running a startup list that ticked off many readers:

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.

The edits show how Jason re-wrote this point after harsh criticism like Calacanis Fires People Who Have A Life on TechCrunch and Fire the workaholics by 37Signals. I don’t think he had to edit it, anyone who had been at a startup, who understands startup dynamics should “get it”.

He is talking about the need to have highly passionate team members, who at a certain stage of their life and the startup’s life are willing to – and happy to – shift their priorities. You can’t force people to be workaholics, all you get is slaves in a sweatshop, and that not only causes burnout, it does not produce quality results anyway. David at 37Signals is right:

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.

Agree. But great founding teams are often made up of workaholics – it has to come from the fire within, not forced. These guys locked up in a live-and-work apartment probably did not have 8-hour workdays, yet didn’t look too unhappy. A year later they are growing, picked up two rounds of funding, have 20 employees and even put TechCrunch in the toilet.smile_wink I don’t expect their 20th employee to be just as passionate as the Founders, but it can’t be a 9-5 type person either. At this stage they still need driven Team Members, not simply employees.

Most startups that grow to a certain point will lose this team atmosphere at some point. They will start to hire more “regular employees”, many of whom are opportunity seekers, in for quick ride, ready to jump ship any time. Too bad, but it’s a fact of life.

Not everywhere, though. 37Signals is still a small team (by choice) but not really a startup anymore. They seem to have found the golden balance between work and life, having introduced 4-day workweeks, funding team members’ passions, be it flight lessons, cooking classes…whatever. I don’t think they whine if (when) the occasional crunch comes. Another “startup” (not really, anymore) I often write about is Atlassian: at $30M revenue and 130 employees they still preserve a unique culture, do a lot of programs together, and generally working there is a lifestyle, not just employment.

The above two have something in common, other than having good products: they did not take VC investment. They can pretty much do whatever they like. Maintaining a great team is no just a means to business, it’s part of their ultimate purpose.

The weekend firestorm comes completes a full circle: in a second TechCrunch article Mike Arrington comes to Calacanis’s defense: Startups Must Hire The Right People And Watch Every Penny. Or Fail. This is a very good article, I wholeheartedly agree with it. And while at it, let me also refer you to Startups: Executive Hiring Challenges or Beware of the Suits.

On a lighter note, the CEO of another self-funded former startup, Zoho apparently heeded 37Signals advice, and fired all his workaholics.

(Not really… Watch out for a major product announcement next week.smile_wink)

Update: This quick rant by Bob Warfield is worth reading:  Startups Need Starters


  1. Everyone who knows me can attest that I positively hate pointless overtime.
    But come on, it is a start up. A heavy, immobile thing you want to set into motion.
    If you ever tried to push a heavy truck when it got stuck in the mud then you know it is possible only if everyone got dirty head to toe, and strains himself to the limits.

    I totally agree with him, if you want to have a peaceful, 9-6 job, then go and work at an established, working company.
    A new company needs people who can lift it, run with it, and at the and make it fly.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Zoil
    that’s not what he said. He said that balance was a bad thing. Passionate employees who give above the fold don’t have to be workaholics with no lives, what exactly is wrong with balance in your life? Also to suggest that I was wrong because anyone who has worked in a startup would understand Calacanis is right is BS and insulting. I worked 20 hours days without pay in a startup for 12 months, but I still found time to take my son to school or spend time with him where I could. The balance level may not have been perfect, but understand that I worked long and odd hours because I wanted some balance. The argument, taken by Scoble, Calacanis and you that someone how passionate means working 18 hours days chained to a desk and god help you that you might want to spend some time with your family quite honestly sickens me. WTF is wrong with you people?

  3. “and god help you that you might want to spend some time with your family quite honestly sickens me.”

    Erm.. I don’t want to be rude or something, but did you read what Calacanis wrote?

    I mean, he *explicitly* wrote down that he *did not* mean what you write here.
    And I read the whole post and he *did not* write such things there.
    Quite the opposite.

    “In fact, some of the most productive folks on staff have families, spend tons of time with them, and ARE workaholics. It seems to me that folks with families somehow get much more focused and do more in less time, or find strange hours to work. I can’t explain it (anyone with kids want to check in?!).”

    If you want Duncan, I can give you the links, so you can read the posts.

  4. Now, rereading, the last line seems cheeky and all, sorry, it was not the intention.
    I mean the link to where I read the post I quoted.

    here it is

  5. Roland
    he backtracked and changed the post several times after the backlash. I read and responded to the original post, maybe I can find a Google Cache link and send it to you 🙂

    As I’ve argued everywhere, balance isn’t a bad thing (and he still thinks ppl who want balance should work at starbucks…unless he’s changed the post yet again). You can work hard and have some balance.

  6. Duncan,

    Maybe it’s my poor grasp of English, but I did not read the balance problem there.
    Sure, I could be absolutely mistaken, and he did not mean it like “don’t take a 10 minutes long smoke break every 20 minutes, don’t spend 30 minutes an hour with browsing the net and don’t expect 8 hours of work a day”

    In his follow up post he clarified it even more.
    Plus, yes, I think a startup is something like the frontline in a war. Everyone working like crazy, trying to “break into the market”.

    Now, I have to confess some facts about me, before people label me a “slavedriver”.

    1) I spent 4 months working 13+ hours each day, plus weekends as a developer.
    2) Since then, I positively avoid unnecessary, useless overtime.
    3) I know that working 10+ hours each day is not the most effective thing in the long run.
    4) Maybe I am stupid, but I share these views with my “hopefully future employers” during the job interviews. No surprises then.
    5) Around here, every established software company works with tons of overtime

    I can accept that my view on the workings of startup is screwed by 5).
    I expect that startups need a lot more work, both in time, and concentration, energy.
    You can win time with concentrating on your work and not spend 1/3rd of the day on the balcony smoking, or browsing the web, and working a few hours in the weekend if necessary.

    But maybe, in the more developed part of the world, US, UK, Canada, France, etc., established software companies don’t demand a lot of overtime, and thus startups don’t need total concentration during the work time, and don’t need people whose only goal is to lift that thing off the ground.

    He wrote workaholics. But he did not write “dump your family, sell your house and move in the office”.

    He wrote about stuff we miss a lot of times – especially the comfortable chair. 🙂
    And when he changed the post he left the original words there crossed out.

    Yikes, it got long.
    All in all, I read him with a favourable preconception.
    The only thing that really supports my take on his post is the response of one or several of the people working for him. (which was promptly labeled as the ‘fear inspired, brainwashed act of a slave’)

    But, if I ever happen to work for him, I will share my experience. 🙂

  7. The reality is many people are passionate about their work. They love it, and there is nothing wrong with that except when its forced on them. Maybe “workaholic” is a term born out of a jealous nine to fiver who wishes they loved both halves of their waking hours as much as that passionate worker.

  8. Ahh, the irony. Its a bank holiday here in the Uk today and I’m sat at my desk at work reading a post about work life balance! Right that’s it I’m off into the city to get a coffee and loiter unproductively for a few hours.

  9. [..]Startups Must Hire The Right People And Watch Every Penny. Or Fail. This is a very good article, I wholeheartedly agree with it. And while at it, let me also refer you to Startups: Executive Hiring Challenges or Beware of the Suits.[..]


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