Silicon Valley's Joan of Arc complex: Why startup founders are working themselves to death

Startup founders are prone to work themselves to the bone. Are 'startup martyrs' something we should celebrate, or caution against?

 Image: iStockphoto/bowie15

Americans are no stranger to working too much. Some would go as far as to argue that Americans work more than any other country in the industrialized world. That's the American dream, though, if you want something, you work as hard as you possibly can to attain it.

We celebrate the people who put in the long hours, as it is often a measurable, physical representation of their dedication to their profession. This devotion can be found in every industry in the US, but the pinnacle of reverence to the overworked is found in Silicon Valley.

"There is something inspirational about someone working hard and sacrificing to achieve their own vision. It's a demonstration of faith that juxtaposes refreshingly against the cynical symbol of corporate toil," said Adam Rich, co-founder of Thrillist Media Group.

For many startup founders, the bags under their eyes are a biological mask of success — self-aggrandizement of their commitment every time they look in the mirror. "This is what it takes," they tell themselves. "It's all going to be worth it." And, it can be worth it if you hit it big with a multi-million (or billion) dollar acquisition or IPO. So, it's understandable to chase that success

Nearly every personal endeavor that has potentially life-changing consequences will require some sacrifice. The point at which sacrifice becomes martyrdom is subjective, but it's often lionized as the point at which a person becomes truly recognized as an entrepreneur.

Celebrating martyrdom

We celebrate startup martyrs because we want to believe that hard work will ultimately become success, but that just simply isn't true. The equation for success requires much more than just hard work. Founders who are especially well-versed in humility will often point to luck as one of the deciding factors. But, while hard work doesn't directly translate into success, it is still a major part of the process.

"Chosen at random, the chances of an individual startup succeeding are extremely low. Subsequently, our community understandably celebrates those individuals that put literally everything they've got into improving their chances at success," said Fueled founder Rameet Chawla.

As much as failure is lauded as a rite of passage for founders, the truth of the matter is that we don't stand behind failures as readily as we stand behind those who have experienced success. Failure is death, and Americans are not fatalistic enough to truly embrace failure as a valuable experience. According to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, 75% of all startups fail. He went on to say in an interview for that article with the Wall Street Journal that VCs, "bury their dead very quietly," adding that, "They emphasize the successes but they don't talk about the failures at all."

Startup ecosystems are generally insulated, meaning that they have a lot of people and ideas to protect from outside forces. While that protection can be valuable, the insulated nature of a startup scene can also breed imitation and mimicry; seeing a founder follow the crowd instead of carving his or her own path. Anthemos Georgiades, CEO of Zumper, said that celebration of startup martyrdom can stem from entrepreneurs wanting to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing.

"Much of it is self-preservation - creating an internal dialogue for your own sanity that those 16 hour days you pull as an entrepreneur or an early joiner are ultimately going to be worth it," Georgiades said.

Consider the complications

For some entrepreneurs, living the life of a startup martyr is not an exercise in martyrdom at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For those with a stereotypical Type A personality, long work days and missed lunches are a matter of efficiency, not a matter of sacrifice.

"Many conform to the classic 'insecure overachiever' stereotype. These are people who command very high IQs and who are often consequently insanely restless and always trying to improve, no matter how successful they have already been. They're often trying to prove as much to themselves as to anyone else, if not more," Georgiades.

For these founders, the martyr lifestyle is not one they subscribe to solely on the road to success, it is something that defines their lives. Entrepreneurs that fall into this camp will continue with the 16-hour days even after they have achieved conventional success. A prime example of this is Elon Musk, who works 80-100 hours a week even after coming close to a nervous breakdown. His advice to entrepreneurs: "Work like hell." I would argue that Musk is not, in fact, a startup martyr; but people like Musk can turn other people into startup martyrs.

When asked what he thinks startup martyrs are trying to prove, Adam Rich responds, "Hopefully nothing. Martyrdom for its own sake is deeply self-indulgent, while hard work and laser focus are about getting things done. Successful startups are about results not posturing."

This is where a clarification needs to be made on what, exactly, constitutes a startup martyr. A startup martyr is a founder who makes sacrifices that he or she deems painful, in order to appear better positioned for success in the future. For folks like Musk, it's a matter of feeding a constant necessity to produce, for others it can be much more dire.

Self-examination is key in determining whether your individual working style and how life as a martyr would affect you. But, according to Chawla, martyrdom is often unavoidable, especially in early-stage startups.

"By nature, some startup martyrs find it difficult to just 'call it a day' when there are still tasks left to be done, when a time-investment is the only thing preventing an opportunity for improvement or advancement from being capitalized on," Chawla said. "Startups are oftentimes limited in terms of bandwidth and manpower - consequently, some startup martyrs choose to take it upon themselves to see that particular progress is made."

Gaining traction in the early days of your startup will require elbow grease, but it is up to you to determine just how much. As you make that choice, you must also consider the effect it will have on your business and the people who are close to you. It's all about setting expectations so that your co-founders and your family know what they are getting into.

If it's going to take one year of 16-hour days, seven days a week, your employees need to understand that. Clarity of the reward is also key, as misappropriated shares can breed resentment among early team members if they believe they put in more work for less compensation.

If you can follow the regime while remaining healthy and maintaining your relationships, you have nothing to lose by martyring yourself for your startup. But, if you have more to invest in outside of the company, you might want to stick to 10-hour days. Consider what you are putting in and what you are, or are planning to, get out of this, and ask yourself how they stack up.

The main struggle for an entrepreneur trying to maintain a work/life balance is coming to grips with the fact that startups are a game of short sprints, not long marathons. Martyr or not, make sure your startup is something you believe in.

"One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying." - Joan of Arc

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Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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