Why do startup founders kill themselves work themselves to death? They shouldn’t, according to Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO.
Guy Smith: Hello everyone in podcast land. My name is Guy Smith. I’m your guest host today for the next episode of the Tough Things First podcast, where we’re going to a chat with Ray Zinn, longest serving CEO in all of Silicon Valley. And we’re talk about subject that’s near and dear to my heart, which is being a founder and working your butt off, which oddly enough is probably not a good combination. It’s almost doctrine in Silicon Valley that founders need to kill themselves at their desk working the 80 hour work week, and Ray Zinn has been very vocal about how that’s kind of nuts. So good morning Ray, how are you doing today?
Ray Zinn: Doing just fine, Guy. How’s it there in North Carolina land?
Guy Smith: Well, I can’t complain. The view from my office is an unobstructed view of the Smoky Mountains and it’s a pleasure to come to the office every day.
Ray Zinn: You’re in the office, aren’t ya?
Guy Smith: I am, yeah. So let’s talk about founders. You have been on record on more than one occasion saying that a founder and a CEO on average does not need to work more than 40 or 50 hours a week. Why so?
Ray Zinn: Well, you know, for one thing, the body needs rest. Studies show that you need somewhere around seven to eight hours a night rest, no matter how old you are. In fact, the younger you are, the more rest you need. Even as a new entrepreneur, the more rest you need as opposed to the more work you need. What happens is that if you are just putting in many, many hours with the desire, with the effect to show everybody how hard a worker you are, you’re going to be less efficient. You can only put in so many effective hours a day. Most studies have shown that we’re only productive about four hours a day, which is only half of a workday basically.
Trying to put in 12, 15 hours a day with only four hours of productive work, that means you’re putting in 10 hours of unproductive work, and that’s not good for your people, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your family. What you want to do is work smarter, not harder, as I say. The most time you really need to spend… You have to be open a certain number of hours a day, as you would, is in that eight to 10 hours is his max. Your body needs rest and your body includes your mind, and so you needed a diversion. So that’s why I say working more is not better. It’s worse.
Guy Smith: Well, I think you touched upon one thing, which now that I’m thinking about it, I have seen is that founders believe that their employees need to be committed and work desperately hard in a startup, so they’re working the long hours in order to encourage their people to work the long hours.
Ray Zinn: Yeah. Well that’s what they think. I had one founder tell me just the other day actually, that he wants his family to know how hard he’s working for them. In other words, he wants them to know that he’s killing himself for his family. Getting up early before they do and coming home late after their all eaten and ready to go to bed, he thinks is a good example for his family about how hard you need to work for your family. And I said, “You’re wrong. You’re saying the wrong message to your family. What you’re telling them is they don’t want to be an entrepreneur, because they see the damage that is doing to you as a person as well as to your family.”
He sat there for a minute, he looked at me, he says, “Really?” I says, “Really.” You’re sending the wrong message. If you’re getting up early and coming home late, you’re sending the wrong message. Now look at my great grandparents. They did work 14 hours a day, but that’s what it took because they didn’t have a lot of immigrant labor to help them, and it took that many hours for them to finish their chores. They had to get up early and milk the cows and feed them and then put up the hay and then milk them again and feed them again. The day ended up 14, 15 hour days. But that’s back in the day when the family actually worked together on the same in business. But in today’s environment, people want to work less, not more.
In fact, people are pushing for a 32-hour work week rather than a 40 hour work week because they really want to work less and there’s more for them to do when they’re not working, with all the different social events. Can you imagine if we were all working 14, 15 hours a day, what would that do then to the sports industry? Nobody would be watching TV and nobody would be using Facebook or any other… We wouldn’t have time for anything else. Those business would go away. What we’re doing is we’re finding more time to spend other than at work because those things are available to us. Sports events or social media and so forth. We are finding substitutes for our time, not all of them are good and I would recommend that we… In moderation we get involved in that. Spend more time with your family, your wife, or your spouse and your family, your children, and help them, develop them, nurture them like you would your employees of your company.
Guy Smith: And that story that you just told about the founder that you were talking about, what impressed me about that is that he’s more concerned about building a fortune for his family than building a life with his family.
Ray Zinn: Exactly. That’s a good way to put it. He was not saying he’s trying to build a fortune. What he’s trying to do is show his kids… He thought he was setting the proper example about how hard you have to work to provide for your family. It’s looking at what side of the coin he’s referring to. His feeling is that he felt comfortable working these very long hours because he wanted his family to know how hard he was working for them. Now he’s not a citizen… Well he is citizen now, but didn’t grow up in this country, grew up in another nation, another country, and and so he would just… Saying this is the way we work. My culture is work long, hard hours. I said, “But you’re making a mistake in doing that because not only are you running out of gas, but you’re putting your family at risk.”
Guy Smith: So how does a founder know that he’s gone too far? What are the warning signs he should be watching for in his own life or in the operation of his company that says, “Okay, you are just seriously overworking yourself.”
Ray Zinn: Well, you can tell by your family. If you’re having difficulty at home, if you’re not getting along with your spouse, if your children are having difficulty in school or in the community, or they’re asking for more of your time and then you’re spending too much time away from home. That’s, I think, one of the red flags. The other one at work is if you find your people are working long hours but they’re not being productive. In other words, they’re not getting any more done. They’re looking tired, they’re looking haggard, and they’re not happy. They’re discontented and they’re showing some degree of anxiety that they just can’t keep this up.
Guy Smith: That’s an interesting point. I had never actually pictured watching your employees as an indicator of how you might be overworking everybody as well as yourself.
Ray Zinn: I remember this one company, this one CEO, was already divorced. He had a terrible marriage. He was actually sleeping in his office. In other words, he had built a little room off his office and he had a bed in there. I think he maybe even had a microwave and a couple of other things in there, a little refrigerator. He actually slept in his office and he would call meetings at two o’clock in the morning because he couldn’t sleep and… Seriously. He would call his employees or his staff to a two o’clock in the morning meeting because he couldn’t sleep.
Guy Smith: That is beyond the pale. I once had a boss who would call 8:00 PM dinner meetings and I thought that was pretty atrocious, but 2:00 in the morning is just way outside of the boundaries. What is the best way to handle overload? I have my own opinion about this, but if a founder or CEO finds that they feel like they’re putting in obscene hours and that they’re working too hard, what is it that they can do to offset that? What’s the best way to handle that kind of overload?
Ray Zinn: In my book Tough Things First I talk about… As soon as you get up in the morning, find out what it is you don’t want to do. The things that are going to be the ugly frogs in your day, and you eat those first. As they say, eating the ugly frog first. So tackle those tough things. Get those nasty ones off your list and you’ll find that the rest of the day is very productive. You’re actually going to be a happier and more pleasant person. That will then prevail in your company, and they will become happier and more productive because you’ll get them to focus on doing the tough things first.
Guy Smith: Well, let’s talk about one aspect I’ve seen about founders and there’s no polite way to say this. I’ll say that occasionally they just don’t trust their employees to do things either the right way or at least the way that they would do it. Because of that, they keep retaining more and more of this work for themselves because maybe they’re perfectionists. How does, first, a founder recognize that defect in themselves, but how do they let go? How do they relax and say, “No, other people really should taking care of this work?”
Ray Zinn: I’m not sure it’s that they don’t trust their employees. I think it may be some of that, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they just like doing it. They like doing that part themselves, and they’ve gotten a habit of it and it’s hard for them to break that habit. It’s a difficult habit to break. If you’re so focused. Maybe you’re a financial… That’s your background, you’re a good financial [inaudible 00:12:19], so you tend to focus on the financials and you’re doing it yourself and you’re not letting those people who normally do that do their job because you’re actually the one running the financials.
Or maybe the marketing. Maybe you’re a marketing guru and so you won’t let your marketing people do it. You tend to do the marketing yourself and that makes you feel productive because you’re doing things that you like to do, things that you’re good at. That’s the first sign, I think of an individual who just can’t let go. It’s not just a matter of trusting your people, it’s also a matter of you letting them also enjoy their job and what they can do, but do well and you go off and find something else that that company needs rather than just where your expertise is.
Guy Smith: You know, you just hit home with me because before I got into marketing inside of the high-tech industry, I was actually a mainframe guru. To this day, I don’t bother to go hire the computer technician for $15 an hour. I always roll up my sleeves and do all of my own IT work myself simply because I can’t let go of it.
Ray Zinn: There you go. You’re a perfect example of I’m talking about.
Guy Smith: Okay, you sold me. I’m going to go rent a geek from now. Well anyway, to the Tough Things First podcast audience, if you’re looking to manage your organization correctly without killing yourself, first order of business, get a copy of Ray’s book Tough Things First, because there is no better single end to end management, leadership and organizational manifesto on the bookshelves, and with a degree in management, I read more than my fair share of business books and this is evidently, or in my opinion, just the top of the heap. So by all means, get a copy of that. The other thing to do is to rate and review this podcast, share it with your friends and join us next week when we’ll be talking about even more in depth topics in terms of how to succeed in your business.