“Being your own boss is great. You get to choose which 18 hours of the day you work.”
It was a throwaway remark made to me by an entrepreneur during an interview, but its gentle sarcasm is lost when you realise that for a lot of new business owners it reflects reality.
It’s also the reason why work-life balance is one of the hottest topics in entrepreneurdom.
On the one hand, entrepreneurs are told they need a healthy balance, that being ‘always on’ leads to burn out that could impact their business. On the other…is it even possible when you are starting up?
I put the question to some of those who’ve been there, including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
He said: “Many people associate an ‘always on’ culture and an increasingly connected world with burn out, but I take the opposite view. Mobile phones enable people to get out from behind their desk and go out into the world. Meeting people face-to-face and sharing new experiences are crucial for innovation. It might be advisable for us all to spend a little less time checking emails from day to day, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.”
Instead of separating work from life, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh believes the two should converge. He once told me: “Work is life, life is work. When work is something you are passionate about it’s not about work or life; it’s just life.”
But these are two seasoned entrepreneurs. What about those still in the early stages of business growth?
It was photographer John Bentley who provided the ‘18 hours of the day’ quote. Still in the throes of building his studio business FourTwoGraphs, he agrees with its sentiment.
He says: “Some days I struggle with being my own boss and not always having someone to be accountable to, but I also like the fact that I can choose to do the hours any time of the day.
“I’ll be honest, every six or seven weeks I do burn out. I know when it’s coming, so instead of filling that weekend with work I’ll catch up on films and or even marketing stuff that I may have missed. Dreams only happen if you work, rest and play. Even when I am taking a break from work I am really still working on a dream. I don’t think you ever stop creating dreams, be it for you or for others, as long as you are enjoying the process.”
Creating a clear boundary between work and life is another well-intentioned piece of advice offered to new business owners by the wellness lobby. But when your ‘customers’ are in your home 24/7, that’s easier said than done. Entrepreneurs Dave and Anna France have been running their doggy day care business, Best Paw Forward, from home for three years.
They take just two weeks holiday a year. For the other 50, they have canine company virtually around the clock.
“In spite of the fact that it is a 24/7 business, we are more relaxed now than in our previous full time jobs in the postal service,” says Dave. “As a manager I felt could never switch off, even on holiday. Now I don’t worry about work.”
“The business can be tying, and we have to make the most of the occasional dog-free evening, “ added Anna. “But the fact that our home life and work life are so closely linked has never been an issue. The point is, we love what we do.”
Branson agrees. Having a passion for your business is key.
He says: “If you’re an entrepreneur the chances are you’re going to be working long hours at certain points in your career, if not for the duration. But there’s also a fairly high chance that you will love what you do, and that’s the reason we choose to put ourselves through it. It feels a lot less like work when you’re doing something you love.”
One thing that gets overlooked in the work-life balance is the role of digital technology. It allows you to be “always there” without always being there.
While they are away on holiday the Frances stay connected, checking emails and social media. They share the view of many business owners; taking a few minutes out of your downtime to respond to a potential new business lead is less stressful than returning home after a week to find you’ve missed one.
It’s fair to say that for tech entrepreneurs, the digital age has been the making of work-life balance.
When Col Skinner grew tired of the five days a week, 233 days a year treadmill as a marketing agency employee, he quit and set up his own consultancy Profoundry.
He says: “My goal was to form a lifestyle business where I was in control of my own office hours, which start at 10am and end around 4:30pm. Outside of that I still answer calls and respond to emails immediately.”
As a digital startup, he can do business anywhere he can get online. Observing lifestyle business hours has, so far, lost him nothing in the way of client work. But potentially, such a connected digital world can be a poisoned chalice.
“You have to know when to turn off the work phone and email notifications,” adds Skinner. “It is too easy to let the mobile leash pull you back into work and away from quality time with friends and family.”
And that is one thing that Richard Branson refuses to accept; entrepreneurs resigning themselves to not spending enough time with friends or family.
He says: “I hear people talk about missing out on special moments with the children due to work pressures or commitments, and it’s hard to understand. You can always find the time if you make an effort.”
I’ve to meet an entrepreneur who hasn’t described the slog, sleep deprivation and stress of starting up as more than worthwhile for the buzz of seeing their business flourish.
I’ve also met many entrepreneurs who say they work long hours because there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.
Maybe conventional definitions of work-life balance don’t apply to startups. Maybe Tony Hsieh is right. Work-life balance for true entrepreneurs only works when they are one and the same thing.