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The lifestyle business bullshit (2009) (37signals.com)
102 points by wslh on May 30, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

Some people don't realize the implications of hours worked on effective wages. If you work more for the same income you are giving yourself a pay cut, and worse a free time cut. If you work less then you are giving yourself a raise, and increasing your free time as well, a double whammy.

Most people have trouble thinking like this though. They lose themselves in their work, filling up their time with trivial and menial work (or even, as is typical, spending a lot of time in the office not actually working very much) instead of trying to maximize their effectiveness. They think that somehow they shouldn't work too little because of some sense of a work ethic based on economic systems that are now outmoded. And too they think that earning a high income while working only a little is too much like being actually "rich". Nobody likes being rich these days, they like the money well enough, but they don't like the idea, they want to justify their wealth with long hours at the office.

There are still many menial jobs that cannot be automated (not cost effectively). Encouraging people with menial jobs to seek higher effective wages increases everyone's cost of living.

Until robots can do all the menial work, and build themselves too, a lot of people are going to have shit jobs. I don't see any way around that.

Philosophically, is it better to have more people each doing X hours/yr of menial work, rather than fewer people doing X+n hours/yr of menial work?

In the spirit of the recent thread about EVE, it seems to me that the impulse which game makers depend on to keep people playing games, particularly MMOs, is similar to the impulse that keeps people doing menial jobs. Both involve long hours spent doing uninteresting work, and rare random rewards. People are conditioned to feel good about getting through tedious real work as long as they get occasional random high-value rewards (salary or praise or both).

I don't think it isn't that we can't build robots that can do menial work (mcdonalds casheers, farm laborers, road workers) it is that the investment to get the return is not worth the cultural wall to replacing dead end depressing work for people who would otherwise have no jobs due to limited education or drive for excellence.

Automation is only one way to get things done faster. In truth, many jobs would take less time if people would just stop wasting so much of it — no automation required. As they say, work expands to fill the time available.

I wonder if we are actually evolved to enjoy menial labor with the occasional pay check.

I think it's mostly investors that make fun of lifestyle businesses. Other entrepreneurs, not so much.

Very true in my experience. And as recently as 4-5 months ago, I was listening.

Really not far from "brainwashing" as DHH called it. The 37Signals message is a very, very welcome and refreshing signal amongst the noise of investments, valuations, and exits.


Amen. There's more to life than business.

If you want to devote your life to creating and running a world changing business, do it.

If you want to devote your life to your family and kids, and use a "lifestyle business" to fund it all, do it.

Just remember one is not better than the other. To each his /her own.

I don't think it is that clear, businesses that people to devote their lives to also get called lifestyle businesses. People that aren't taking big rounds of funding, only reinvesting profits. People that don't intend to IPO or be acquired, rather are building a sustainable business.

Whether that is the official definition or not, that seems to be the distinction I have seen around here.


My point is simply that either way is fine. There is no right answer here.

> It’s been a long time since there was a direct correlation with the number of hours you work and the success you enjoy. It’s an antiquated notion from the days of manual labour that has no bearing on the world today.

It has never been true. Success has always been primarily correlated with the circumstances of your birth. This is not an antiquated notion so much as a fabrication invented to trick the less fortunate into putting up with it.

In that sense, it is as relevant today as it has ever been.

I have no data on this, but my spidey-sense says you're both wrong. If I had to put money on it, I'd say:

- success is correlated with hours worked (though it's by far not the only variable)

- education is more strongly correlated with success than birth is

- education is strongly correlated with birth

What do you reckon?

I have read on here several times that many entrepreneurs want to squeeze their entire working lives into a few short years, banking on the big payout that will set them free.

37signals, on the other hand, was in business for a long time before Basecamp was even released to the public. It has been a slow road, relatively speaking.

I respect what 37signals has done. It is the way I would want to build my own business. However, have they really worked fewer hours to reach some arbitrarily high income threshold? I would suggest probably not. It has just been spread out over a longer period of time.

But perhaps one could argue that this resulted in those hours being more productive because they were more spread out. So assuming what you're saying is true, they could have gotten more productivity out of the same number of hours as another business that condensed its work more.


The problem is you don't really end up knowing what's valuable if you don't indulge in that variety.

A startup will consume your life, and it doesn't really leave any room for trying new things. There is more to life than work, even if you enjoy your work. An optimal time investment strategy leaves room for serendipity.

I have clients at large companies who respond to email at ungodly hours. What for? It's not the equity.

The problem is that we tend to over glorify the work-your-ass-off approach.

First of all, "lifestyle business" is a terrible name. I'd like to know who coined that term?

To my main point - With risk of getting downvoted. Why not think bigger? Building business is hard. Be it local publishing house or web based product serving millions of customers all across the globe. It requires same amount of (to quote Churchill) "blood, toil, tears and sweat". Then why not to swing for fences? In smaller markets chances of survival might be higher but survival doesn't equate to success.

Seriously? There's loads of reasons why not, and while I agree that it requires similar amounts of blood/toil/tears/sweat I'd say there's a bunch of differences.

[Background: 12+ years as an early employee in fence-swinging tech startups, also started and ran/run a modestly successful wedding photography business with my wife]

Our wedding photography business is definitely a "lifestyle business" by the usual HN definition. What a silly term and a silly set of ideas. For one thing, it's profitable. That makes is more profitable than the vast majority of startups. It gets old spending other people's money and I have to say that one of the things I found most informative and invigorating about the photo business was that it really re-reminded me the value of profit and the fundamental idea of being in business in the first place.

[It's also craaazy educational to be any kind of founder. Honestly, standing up the photography business might be the single most valuable thing I've done in my tech career]

Beyond that, our business (really my wife's business at this point.. I'm so busy with another startup that she does everything nowadays) makes a couple of dozen couples incredibly happy every year. I can't tell you how satisfying we find this. My wife shoots their weddings, becomes their friend, shoots photos of their children's first years.. It's a really incredible gift. The assumption that scaling up/out to serve a larger market would be such an obviously better idea is short-sighted and frankly kind of sad.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really glad that there are loads of people swinging for the fences and tackling huge problems that have huge markets. So many awesome things come out of that! But don't fall into the trap that ultimately leads to thinking that it's the only way to go.

That's awesome.

And the best part is that you already realize how awesome your business is and why it makes more impact on the world than any of the hundreds of random social-photo-buying-contact-managing startups that come out of the Valley every 6 hours.

> Why not think bigger? Because the happiness can be bigger. Also thinking bigger the chance of success go down, how many medium and small companies exist?

Thinking bigger requires working harder, not working longer.

I Agree. Working longer != Success. Its working harder as well as smarter.

Lifestyle businesses are awesome if it is your business (ownership as in equity, not 'responsibility for all the bugs'). Be careful if you are joining someone else's lifestyle business and make sure you know what you are getting into. Depending on the person, there can be nothing worse than only being employed to maintain the founder's lifestyle with no plans for growth, company or career-wise.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.

The only people who use "lifestyle business" as a way to downplay, minimize or trivialize a business are often people who have the "lifestyle" and are saying it to people who don't have the "lifestyle".

The best lifestyle to me? Being free of time and obligation to bills to truly chase any crazy idea you want and any funding that may or may not come it's way.

There's a lot to learn from building any business seen as a lifestyle business, namely, you pick up the end to end business skills you didn't have to go big.

The alternative? Get funded and pushed out when you don't have the business chops to grow.

Go hard or go home? Get real, I want to create great things forever, sustainably, not try, fail and go back to finding a job. The part of being successful that makes you a well rounded person is non-neogotiable. Maybe folks here are still in their 20's with no real other responsibilities or obligations or priorities. This is my second internet boom and I can say as much as I've enjoy every second, I enjoy living for a living just as much.

You would think that this article is obvious to the point of not really being necessary to even write. But, I think hanging out on tech forums like HN you read about billion dollar buyouts, massive IPOs and basically I think it gives the impression that is the only way you can consider yourself successful is if you are a part of one of those deals.

I kinda equate it to wishing you were a rock star. It's a lot of show, but in most cases it doesn't result in any particular happiness. And it doesn't even result in a lot of financial success except in those extreme cases - and only for the early employees. There is a perception of excitement but even the day-to-day working long hours is sometimes not that much fun either.

On the other hand there's a lot of businesses out there that don't get much attention. Unfortunately it's not all that exciting to read about on HN with a headline like "I make a decent salary at a no-name company and have a nice, comfortable life"

I work from home and I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with my kids. I've built a successful startup and am launching another without compromising anything. It IS possible and our breed of entrepreneur is more common however underrepresented in the startup community.

"I work from home and I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with my kids."

That's crazy impressive. I tried working from home and was only ever productive if I worked till early in the morning. Daytime productivity was terrible with 2 little kids detracting me... perhaps my house is just too small.

That's awesome.

Keep speaking up. Your voice needs to be heard. :)

Yes, you can work very little and be very successful if you play your cards right. And there is nothing wrong with that, certainly. But hard problems are hard. There are a lot of easy problems I could work on, and probably get funding and then flip the hypothetical company for a quick profit, but I am more interested in the risky, hard problems that most people wisely would not invest in. If you look at the names that history remembers, they all worked their asses off to achieve something great.

We're building an online business while traveling. We're 3 months in Mexico this time. Tomorrow we'll go for a month long trip by car around Mexico and we'll spend those long hours on the road talking about the next feature, enjoying the scenery or stopping for some tasty tacos somewhere. The million dollars may come one day but I don't take any chances: I spend my time capital wisely as you can't buy time. Once it's gone, it's gone. A

I think the main point is, 37 signals runs a bit like a lifestyle business - agile, low stress, no overtime; because that's what they think is the most profitable way to run a software business. Even if they wanted to do overtime, or were in a more cut-throat niche (i.e. taking on Facebook) they would run their shop the same way..

They aren't doing things the way they do because they think it's glamorous, or because it's easier.

This is pretty trite nothingness, even for 37signals. I am not sure why it's been upvoted either as it's not even recent either.


All work and no play makes Sally a dull boy. Or whatever. But seriously: don't over-work yourself. I mean if you really want to, go for it, but the quality of your work will decline with you. Meet some new people, go hiking, go outside, eat better, live better, work better, and your work will look better with you.

Lifestyle business is just a business that is not scaled. That can be either because of its nature or by choice.

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