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What we did when our investors told us we weren't working hard enough (charliehr.com)
71 points by stereobit 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

> I just don't see the urgency. It feels like a 10-5 culture, interrupted by lunches and coffees.

> To really achieve maximum results, we had to push our people hard so they were constantly out of their comfort zone.

> Fortunately, my co-founder Ben is a culture-building wizard.

> "We need to focus on creating a culture that has "high performance" at its core.

> Our mission was to create immediate results and discernible momentum.

> But we decided we were weak - in relative terms - at creating energy across the business

Are we sure this isn't a parody? It is reminding me of http://paulgraham.com/circling.html. Or say an article from the Onion about startup culture.

Thank you for saying this, I was worried of what I would see once I came back for the comments. The signal-to-hyperbole ratio is near zero.

Parody or satire, comical for its earnestness none the less.

Here's their list of "behaviors", from their PowerPoint. (They could have put this in the article, but no.)

- Be challenged - This could look like: - Challenging and engaging in team and company discussions - Picking up work that makes you feel uncomfortable - Engaging in conversations where you feel out of your depth - Picking up new challenges, not waiting for them

- Give energy - This could look like: - Bringing energy to meetings - Offering solutions to others’ challenges - Starting discussions from a place of possibility rather than impossibility - Finding moments to support others in the business, personally or with their work Behaviour 2

- Drive for output - This could look like: - Always asking others if the quality of your output is what they were expecting - Working until completion, not just to your hours - Looking for ways to be efficient with your time - Pick up more - don’t wait

- Take responsibility - This could look like: - Recognising that if the work isn’t delivered as expected, that is down to you - Owning your fuckups publicly - Pushing yourself, not waiting for others to push you

- Better yourself - This could look like: - Asking for feedback weekly and reviewing it regularly - Acting on that feedback and communicating it with others so they can hold you accountable - Self-reflecting on areas for improvement, “how could I be better”

- Be wrong - This could look like: - Looking to others to help you disprove your hypotheses and assumptions - Flagging if you’re emotionally attached to a decision - Looking outside the business to be challenged on your thinking and for new perspectives


"Drive for output" is a classic speedup.

None of those mention customers.

The company's product is a time and attendance system as a service, along with personnel records. Not payroll, insurance, or retirement, though; they don't seem to do the money functions. There's a "HR as a service" trend, and they're a minor player. It's useful, but not high-tech.

This sort of adds up to "how to look like a tech startup when you're not, really".

Wait, so if the tech isn't "high tech" enough, then it's not a tech company?

The vast majority of "tech companies" aren't doing anything groundbreaking. They are using existing tech and tools to create tech products that people are willing to pay for.

Calling them tech companies is really stretching the meaning of the word, so yes. Unfortunately, the term stuck for some reason.

>This sort of adds up to "how to look like a tech startup when you're not, really".

To be fair, "applying tech start-up mentality to non-tech fields" seems to be the new hotness, after the low hanging fruits of "applying tech to non-tech fields" have been claimed.

My initial reaction was "these guys are crazy and have no compassion", but honestly if this is what needs to be done to make their start-up get to a necessary goal then maybe I can come to terms with that.

My biggest concern is this kind of "push hard" mindset and behavior becomes normal for them even after they are a well established business. Even worse is if this behavior is encouraged for all startups; one size does not fit all and that's something shouldn't be forgotten.

I worked at Intel for a few years, "push hard" was the norm and it was ruthless - they couldn't care less about my physical or psychological well-being. That was the worst work environment I've ever worked in. I was virtually at war with my colleagues every step of the way and no matter how hard I worked or outperformed my peers, it was never enough. Terrible way to run a company.

My main complaint about the article and approach is that there was no discussion of goal setting. Ultimately, goals need to be set and teams need to figure out how to hit those goals. Goals should be aggressive and set with team input.

I went through a similar experience as the article's authors. I headed our company's engineering org and my CEO wanted everyone to "work harder". I challenged her and worked with hear and the team to set some aggressive goals. I also gave them leeway to determine the best way to reach those goals. With only a few exceptions, the teams rose to the challenge.

Yup, and there's an actual business cost to that burnout. Turnover can be brutal and if you push your key people too hard they'll leave and/or start making more mistakes. You're also limiting your perspective to the subset of people who can swing that sort of work/life balance.

There's a healthy balance to be found for sure but I much more subscribe to DHH's[1] point of view than what was presented in this article.

[1] https://basecamp.com/books/calm

Yeap. There's only so much people can or will give without feeling used, resentful, bitter and/or bored of being overworked and told to work harder. It's also another example of why not to take on investors: their interest aren't ever aligned with the founders. Their goal is to make lots of money soon, and they don't care if they stress and burn-out 1000 people to get there. If you want sanity, move with some impatience but workaholism isn't healthy.

I'm not sure the people doing the actual work would agree with the CEO, author of this train wreck of an article. Not that anyone would tell that directly to his face.

> Our team are ambitious. They want to learn and grow quickly. By not pushing them we felt like we were letting them down as well. And they knew it too.

Yeeeeeeah, I'm just going to go ahead and disagree with you there, Rob.

Indeed, the lack of in-line comments from the do-ers is telling!

I get what the author is going for though. I’ve been a dev in do little, coffee break, nerf gun shooting, drone flying office. That company never changed the culture and fired almost everyone. Squandered a $30M investment.

It’s a hard hard change to pull off. The author is trying to sugar coat it, but someone’s got to be a hardass at some point.

In their slides:

> Work until completion, not just to your hours

Sorry, but no. If I wanted to work more, I'd get paid hourly.

I'd take it, so long as it cut the other way too. Done with the week's work by Thursday lunchtime? See you Monday morning, have a nice long weekend.

It rarely seems to cut the other way, but I understand in some companies it does.

Yeah that doesn't happen because then they'll just give you more work.

What tech job has work that can be "finished" anyway?

I can think of software that was finished well before the latest version was released. If the people who were paid to work on that were simply sent home (with pay) instead, they'd be better off, the software would be better and the users would be happier.

Also, for creative work, I do believe this produces worse results. Too many breaks are bad as well, but the brain needs downtime between larger chunks of work to come up with better ideas.

I’m currently development manager (or whatever the proper English title may be) of a small team putting the last touches on a niche BI product. We have our first relevant customer and of course had to do some crunch time for a week away from our companies office to some parts. Other than that I don’t WANT us to work overtime but to stay healthy in every way, that means if you have a burning you can of course check in something in the evening, but I’ll message you, thanking you for your work and reminding you that you are supposed to spend the evening with your kids / mso. We may need to work overtime for a while to fix some fuckup one day, but until then I‘d consider it a bad sign.

The poor dumb author. Sounds like both of the conflicting work setups he's torn between are terrible.

1. Silicon valley style enforced fun. eg lol we're crazy here look we have a ping pong table.

Its hard to get anything done in these places, constant distractions, meetings, open plan etc. + I'd be happier if they just payed me the money they wasted on frivolous crap, cus getting paid is absolutely the main reason I show up to work on your thing, and not just work on my thing.

2. Putting in the hours.

As a programmer I personally reckon I have c. 4 hours per day of really really high quality focused work in me (depending on the day) Forcing myself to code when I am not in the zone would just result in worse code, more bugs, more regressions, more work to do later. I would lose time overall and have a worse product. (Aside from the effect of just the longer hours) it would also hurt my motivation as the codebase would begin to become nasty + a chore to work on.

Ive found doing a reasonable amount of top quality work every day, and never crunching, is what gets stuff out the fastest.

"To really achieve maximum results, we had to push our people hard so they were constantly out of their comfort zone."

Sounds like a great way to increase burnout/turnover...

Yeah, I stopped reading at that point.

Investor: "Your employees are only working 10-5. You need to crack the whip on your slaves so they work harder and make me more money."

CEO: "Ok, how can I spin this so my employees don't get angry at me. Oh, I know! I'll make a presentation and write a blog article!"

The article represents just about everything wrong with the startup world and the cult of workaholism. The toxicity and brain washing is real.

Yeah right "startup culture". It's not like tech industry is systematically affected by this problem from smallest startup to largest Mega Corpo. It's not like if you're a software eng it's seen very normal to work 9 to 6 and occasional overtime plus weekend work. When I work in a startup at least I can talk to my manager as a friend and say "I'm under the weather today, won't make it to work"; whereas in Mega Corp big managers are unreachable aliens living in Saturn managing their assets and "this is company policy".

We used to like it especially when management referred to their employees as "resources" .. you know.. "we have 5 resources devoted to this". So we started referring to ourselves as meat bags. "We have 5 meat bags on this project."

In an effort to fool us meat bags companies have moved to the term "Human Capital" in place of "resources".

Maybe in an IBM megacorp but Facebook and Google at least are totally cool with people working 9 to 5 and taking sick days (outside a few bad managers).

Either you have urgency or you don't. If you need to figure out how to feel urgency, you made a big mistake raising money.

> "I just don't see the urgency. It feels like a 10-5 culture, interrupted by lunches and coffees"

> Fortunately, my co-founder Ben is a culture-building wizard

It sounds like you've concluded that there's nothing they could do at this point, and should just pack their bags.

How did you reach that conclusion?

Told them to start acting human or sod off? I can wish, can't I?

Trying harder is never the answer to anything. People already are doing their best, whatever that means in a specific context. And however far from whatever expectations.

Pushing harder might very well lower productivity overall, since everyone now likes working there even less than before. And it's very difficult to regain trust and loyalty.

I like a lot of what was said here.

What I liked a lot was that this was a culture about not wasting time instead of working more. I don't know if the culture shifted to one where everyone works more or one where everyone works while they're at work and meets the goals they set forth in a higher expectation team.

I didn't read all 4 posts but I couldn't see where they talk about working longer but mostly about focusing on being cognizant of what they are working on and how they are working. This is super important on a team. You can love coming to work and being PUSHED to work harder and more efficiently. For some people that's great. I love the competition with myself of getting better at something and I really struggle in an environment where I'm not being pushed.

Anyway it's a good read and while I didn't see anything about working more hours I might have missed it in my scan, so please lemme know if that was in there because I feel like that's a serious mistake for a company. They should push people to work as a better team and individual not longer to make up for a miss on the expectations of management.


Homer: (in his new role as supervisor) Um, are you guys working?

Employee: Yes, sir.

Homer: Can you . . . work any harder?

Employee: Sure thing, boss! (tapping of keys increases)

I love [1] how his reaction was “We instantly knew that he was right.” Rather than pushing back a little responding with something like “What particular business goals are at risk, and how does a ’10-5’ working culture result in this risk?” Or “Are the downsides of pushing people beyond their comfort zone (burnout, attrition) worth the potential upside?”

Hopefully he at least provided that little probing against this investor’s observation. Otherwise it was simply like he was talking to God: “We instantly knew he was right!”

1: (sarcasm)

They went for the short term. To me a "high performance team" is one that can win the marathon, not the sprint (unless the boat is drifting towards the waterfall!).

I kept expecting this to be satire.


Such weak management advice. Measure performance on outcomes, not on inputs. Telling people to work harder just isn't effective in software development contexts. In fact, it's often counterproductive because you'll get people shipping poorly thought out, little-desired changes that have to be supported on an ongoing basis.

Seems to me like they are asking the wrong questions here. In my experience people work hardest when they are coming in every day really excited to work on a problem. If nobody is feeling that way towards the product then that in and of itself should be a big red flag. I'd be skeptical you can pull enthusiasm out of thin air with forced culture changes.

Good fucking lord, I kept waiting for the punchline but it just never came.

Make sure you read the whole thing - it’s a treat. Sounds like every terrible Valley culture post squeezed through a Markov chain.

It sounds a lot like someone failing a psychopathy screening as well. The crushing lack of insight and stilted writing style though, makes me wonder if this isn’t some kind of parody.

Please be a parody.

In Part 2 they brush off the fact that "a few people left the business" immediately before saying "everyone was much happier".

10 to 5 is fine, if there's intensity. I think that's what the article essentially concludes.

A lot of companies aren't really that intense during work hours but instead just want more hours. At my workplace I often feel that the workplace is set up to constantly interrupt work so the only way to deal with this is to spend more hours.

An incredible amount of work can be done in a week if the workplace is set up correctly.

I've had jobs where there's an expectation that you'll do 8 hours of work a day, but they'll also put 4-6 hours of meetings on your calendar. Most people end up staying late or getting in early to try to get some time to do uninterrupted work.

This to me is a toxic culture.

I hate to use the old adage "work smarter, not harder", but I've seen so many places where people are working hard--but not really making a lot of progress. It's almost like you have to take the good parts of Taylorism and religiously eliminate waste.

> "Overall, and I don't know a nice way to say this, I just don't see the urgency. It feels like a 10-5 culture, interrupted by lunches and coffees. Our best teams work like crazy."

No, that says to me that they specifically don't like the 10 to 5 culture. It's not "10-5 culture, which is fine except for the coffee breaks". It's the 10-5 culture that's part of the problem.

That's not how I read it.

In my mind the only reason to work crazy hours is when you find product market fit: the ball is rolling down the hill and you're chasing it. That is supposed to be what it feels like. Customers are breaking down the door because they want your product and you're fighting to keep up with demand. And yes the "best" teams work crazy hours because they already have product market fit.

I've worked at a startup that very clearly had product market fit and one that very clearly didn't. In the former example the early employees worked a ton to scale the product and keep up with demand. In the latter example, the founders felt they needed to work nonstop in the mindset that hard work for the sake of hard work would produce product market fit. I think it resulted in a lot of thrashing. They kept focusing on minutiae in the product when probably taking a step back, letting things simmer, and evaluating from a higher level would have been really beneficial.

I think successful product development requires a lot of creativity, and you don't get creativity by sitting in a seat for 16 hours a day because that's what your investors tell you their best teams do...

I think they've done a pretty good job of codifying their values via the slides at the bottom of the first article:


The content was a pleasant read. The left and right margins on this blog doesn't look right on iPhone 7/8 especially when identifying high performance behaviors were numbered.

His other article about mental health:

"The elephant in the room: how do you balance support for mental health with a drive for performance?" - https://blog.charliehr.com/performance-management/navigating...

I'm surprised by the negative comments here.

The article isn't about creating a burnout culture, or forcing people to work long hours.

Imo, it's not a bad thing to try to cultivate a workplace where people act with a sense that what they are working on is important and are generally trying to improve themselves.

That doesn't mean that everyone has to have their A game on every day and sprint to their bathroom breaks.

The only reason I force myself to work beyond "inspired" hours is reckoning that my clients should pay for average productivity, not only my best hours (I bill by the hour). AND still I feel like cheating and end up not doing that.

Bill by the day and the problem goes away.

Source: I do it; every post on setting contractor rates.

This is the third article Ive read recently on HN where I honestly couldn't be sure if it was parody or not.

> To really achieve maximum results, we had to push our people hard so they were constantly out of their comfort zone


Tldr; Blah blah blah, work harder, give your best, squeeze out all your juice mantra

After 25 years working I've come to terms with the realization that, no matter what I do - even if it's 10 times more than the people around me - they'll _always_ ask for more. They're not telling me that I'm not working hard enough because they don't actually think I'm not working hard enough, they tell me I'm not working hard enough because they're soulless bloodsuckers incapable of human emotion or empathy who are just idly curious if saying "you're not working hard enough" will magically result in even more.

It's not particularly surprising to see that it was the investor going "so... could you, you know, work harder and make more money?"

The cult of hard work, it’s become a religion in the Anglosphere. If I was being really cynical I’d say it’s because working to exhaustion removes any original thought, it keeps the victim enslaved to the system.

I used to call it "startup theater." In the ad industry it's called "struggle porn."

Part of the reason it may be worth it to leave yourself some slack. As the saying goes, "the better you get, the better you'd better get".

In investing / business / etc it's a "virtuous cycle" or "network effect" - the more productive / valuable something (or someone) is, the more productivity/value it accrues (and is expected to engender)

Want to avoid it? Switch to the socialism / union mentality - do just enough to not get fired.

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