The Lazy Lie of Startup Hustle Culture
You don't have to go very far to find people evangelizing late-night work and all-hours hustle. Yet there's a huge oversight in hustle culture.
A lot of work advice normalizes working overtime through side projects, side-hustles, and all-or-nothing mentalities. You don't have to go very far on the internet to find people evangelizing late-night work, weekend work, and all-hours hustle.
The problem with hustle culture is that it’s already proven to be quite toxic—and the assumptions behind hustle culture are often wrong. Humans need sleep and rest, and rest isn't something that's easy to sacrifice. The people who do boast about sacrificing sleep and rest often end up burned out or sick.
It's also not very interesting.
In grade-school, we used to play a game called "Would you rather...?" The idea is to pick between two options. In this case, would you rather work at a startup that works 80-100 hours a week, for half pay, with little organization or thoughtfulness, and leaders that don't know how to set boundaries and edges—
Or, would you rather work at a startup that sets boundaries around their most precious resource (human labor—aka time and energy), and focus on the best things to work on? Also, would you rather be paid double, because you're working half as many hours?
I think it's way more interesting and challenging to build a company that also has a humane ethos and celebrates the fullness of human life. If I had to pick between a startup that worked 100 hours a week and one that works 40 hours a week and was successful, I know exactly which one I'd pick.
I think it’s harder to build a startup on limited hours, and guess what? I like challenges.
Hustle culture asks us to push harder, work more, and “use up” all available hours we have in front of us. It tells us that we’re lazy if we’re not working until we drop, and says that it’s our individual fault if we can’t get things done.
Believe me, I love working nights and weekends. And when it’s a passion project, or an idea… it doesn’t even feel like work. Lest we be confused, I LOVE working. I don't mind hustle culture when applied appropriately. There are times and seasons to hustle. But when you do it all the time, you lose the variety of life rhythms that are essential to innovation and productivity.
Hustle is like a dial: let's say you can dial up your work energy between level one and six. Your goal is not to drive at level six 100% of the time. You will operate most effectively if you have a mix of level three and four, with sufficient time at level one, and occasional bursts at level six.
I'm not saying you should never hustle—I'm saying that hustle when done at all costs and all times, doesn’t work.
Hustle as a way of being is just a fast-track to burnout. The people who benefit from burned-out employees are the ones who don’t mind cycling through and hiring lots of new people to replace you.
When I became a parent, it became so clear how toxic the hustle noise is. As a caretaker, your time freedom completely disappears. That’s why so many parents today are being vocal about normalizing reduced work hours & escaping the lazy side of the hustle mindset. Especially as Millennial and Gen Z men think about becoming fathers, many of them are focused on doing work and family life differently—they don’t want to be absent fathers. They want to be equal parents.
Jay Acunzo, a brilliant creator and storyteller who is also the parent to two young kids, told me that as both his work and parenting challenges increase, he now searches for people who have stronger boundaries around when work gets done.
“I used to tinker on my side projects at night,” he said, “and the weekend? I could do SO MUCH with a weekend.” Now that he has an almost one-year old and a three year old, that space is just not available anymore. Did that stop him from working on projects? Not at all. But it did shed light on how much work culture defaults to assuming people will work nights, weekends, and any other time we have available.
Work wants all the time you can give it, and then some.
Startup culture has become synonymous with "hustle culture," but that's become an ill-defined excuse to work all hours without any limits.
“I used to endorse hustle culture,” Alexis Grant, the founder of They Got Acquired shared, “Until I became a parent and learned that working parents don’t have time for side projects.” Instead of running yourself into the ground trying to keep up with everyone else, parents can remember that they already are hustling—they are keeping children alive and healthy 100+ hours week over week.
“I used to endorse this—long work hours—until I became a parent and learned that working parents don’t have time for side projects.” — Alexis Grant, founder of They Got Acquired & four-time member of The Wise Women's Council
“When someone says they operate like a startup, often they mean they’re working all out, putting in lots of hours,” she says about our assumptions of what “startup culture” is supposed to look like.
“But it can also mean operating lean and scrappy, strategically working to gain customers and revenue, [and] prioritizing shipping over perfect.” Building a big company on fewer hours means being even more lean and focused, and it’s a skill that parents are well-equipped to learn.
Operating like a startup can also mean being lean and scrappy, and being very intentional about what you're building on limited resources. One of those limited resources might be the number of hours you have to put towards the startup.
Grant has been really vocal lately about the ways that hustle culture doesn’t work for parents. She’s been a client of mine, and has been in the Wise Women’s Council for four years now, so we’ve talked about this A LOT together. (Also, Startup Parent is a sponsor of her podcast—we’ve been supporting each other for years, and her new media company is all about building companies that sell, but aren't traditionally covered in the media.)
“You don’t have to work yourself into the ground to build a successful company,” — Alexis Grant, founder of They Got Acquired
She speaks up about the reality of being a working parent, talking openly about the limited time hours and focusing on what can be built instead.
Startups are about building new visions, new ideas, and new projects. They can also be about doing things in new ways—including building successful companies on fewer hours and dollars.
Today, Grant is working on a new media company focused on businesses that aren’t often seen in the media—companies that grow well, that make big revenue, but aren’t necessarily the glamorized unicorn tech companies that get almost all of the media coverage.
They Got Acquired is redefining startup success by telling the stories of online companies that sell between $100K-$50M. How she does it is just as important as why she’s doing it: “I’m building this startup on 30 hours a week, and I pick up my kids up from school at 3pm three days a week,” she says.
Not every company needs multi-million dollar rounds and thousands of employees to get to work. Not every company has to be venture backed. And not every company needs to embrace the toxic side of hustle culture that grinds its employees into the ground.
Being a parent doesn’t mean you can’t get things done. It means you get things done differently.
It might not feel like it, but today's parents are on the leading edge of redefining what work culture looks like, because kids are a forcing function. They limit your hours and ask you to think differently about how work and life fit together.
Work culture IS changing, and the more vocal parents are about ending workdays at reasonable hours, the more we can keep this change coming.
Normalize flexible work, reduced hours, and the idea that big thinking can still happen with tiny teams or fewer hours.
Ignore how fast everyone else is moving, and ignore most of the startup-hustle mania that saturates the news.
Remember: It doesn’t matter how "fast" you move. A lot of companies out there are spinning their wheels and look busy, but they aren't doing the work that matters. If you’re putting one step in front of the other, your revenue is solid, and you’re growing a building a little bit each day, you’re doing it.
Onwards and sideways—kids, interruptions, sick days, and all.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
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This is a great riff. Thanks Sarah.
Totally agree! When I became a parent, I knew my evenings and weekends would be spent with the tiny human. I ended up deciding to find a way to leave my full-time job so that I could build a more flexible arrangement and "hustle" when my tiny human is in daycare - instead of trying to find time around her. It is nice to hear more people talking about the downside of hustle culture and to remind myself that I shouldn't feel guilty for not working more.