Working with a sense of urgency may be your real unfair advantage

(This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Go here to see it and engage in the conversation.)

This whole ‘work smart, not hard’, ‘it’s about output, not input’, ‘work less, achieve more’ stuff has just gone into it’s own reality distortion field. There are very few successful people who don’t have high pace, lots on, and consistently produce results.

I remember watching an interview with Elon Musk where he was asked how he competes and gets more done — and being the pragmatic fact based person he seems to be — he boiled it down to raw hours worked math. Just think about it — if you work 80 hours a week, and your competition is only doing 40, on simple math you are achieving 100% more than them every year, and compounded that means you will leave them in the dust — presuming other factors are mostly equal.

Mike Moritz wrote in the FT that Silicon Valley startups should be concerned about their competitiveness given Chinese counterparts are out-working them probably 3:1 (so — faster and more capital efficient). The emotional backlash he has caught, for pointing out facts, is phenomenal.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think 100-hour weeks are insane and unreasonable, or that work-life balance is super important — both of these things are true. What matters is that if you want to create something from nothing, trying to achieve this while ‘balancing’ (when your competitors are all-in) at a minimum reduces your odds of success. It’s not really about what the best structure is, it’s about who’s going to win — and you can’t control what the competition does, you can however influence the result.

Remember the ‘what’s your unfair advantage’ question most VC’s ask? In US and European technology companies — working with a sense of urgency may now be that unfair advantage.

I love the word Urgency. I recently read John Kotter’s book by the same name but was disappointed that it was written with large companies in mind. Urgency means getting stuff done, lots of stuff, consistently, right now. People with urgency are great prioritizers. Someone like Gary Vaynerchuk is probably the human embodiment of urgency! You can sense when a company has high urgency. It’s bristling with energy, excitement and enthusiasm. Everything is an opportunity and everyone is having fun.

Urgency does not mean working 100 hour weeks, sleeping in the office or never seeing your family. Sometimes urgency means working the weekend when your service suddenly went off-line. Other times it means going for a run or a beer with a team-mate to blow off some steam. Urgency should not be confused with raw-hours, but more with raw-energy.

Startups have so many barriers to success already, that every moment you’re not focussed on it, just increases the barrier that little bit. If you want to create something, use common-sense in place of policies and procedures, be able to point at something and genuinely say ‘I did that’, and commit to something as a core part of your life — join or create a startup.

But if this sounds overwhelming (and it should!), there are fantastic career growth and high-learning opportunities in large companies. We’d be doing better as an industry if we made it more obvious what the pros and cons of each option were, so people could self-select the right path for them.

Lack of urgency isn’t only Silicon Valley problem — I think it is a technology company problem. Founding a software company (vs an energy or pharma one) has become exponentially faster and cheaper than ever before, and so has attracted a lot of people that don’t realize how high the bar for success is — because the bar for getting started (and raising some money in the current environment) has been lowered so much. There’s a reason some of the most successful companies were founded in downturns.

Harder times require more grit.

Why is work-life balance so important anyway? What’s wrong with tap dancing to work? The ‘work-life’ phrase makes ‘work’ sound like such a negative event that ‘life’ is the rescue mode for it. I’ve no idea how many hours a week I work, it’s certainly nothing like the workers that Moritz mentions, but I definitely do not watch the clock so I can end ‘work’ and start ‘life’. I truly love what I do — it’s my hobby.

I admire well rounded people that have multiple hobbies and interests. No doubt it makes them more interesting conversationalists! But to say they are more successful at ‘life’ than someone who ‘works’ a lot is nonsense. If you are going to climb Everest (i.e. start a new venture), you have to put all your energy into it, and you’ll want your team to be fully invested in your success too.

The long and short of it is this — from my perspective: startups are hard, winning requires insane drive, and joining a startup is not for everyone. As an industry we should work to deromanticize startup life; we should stop trying to meld work-life balance while creating successful new companies. It’s very hard to have balance while trying to do the impossible. Urgency needs to come back to the absolute top of the list as a factor for success.

People with urgency will beat people who ‘work smart’ 9 times out of 10.



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