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Ask HN: Startup founders, would you walk us through a day in the life?
76 points by zackattack on May 31, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments
(Or a week in the life, if a day is too small a sample size to be particularly meaningful..)

How much time do you devote to coding, marketing, sales, support, biz dev, modifying your website?

How many hours a day do you spend working? How many hours a day do you spend on recreation?

These are fascinating questions to many of us.

We had 4 engineer founders, 1 of which volunteered to handle most of the marketing/legal/biz stuff to allow the other 3 of us to code without distraction.

Some background, the 4 of us lived in a house together and took turns cooking meals to reduce expenditure/downtime from eating out all the time. So commute time was a matter of going downstairs. We started off on 'work all the time and take reasonable breaks' for 6 days a week. We burned out really quick on that so we switched to 60hr weeks of flex-time (honor-based work anyday you feel like, send status updates to the team before clocking-out with what you did that day and just get 60hrs in a week)

With the latter schedule: M-F, I would wake up around 11a, have lunch (or cook if it was my turn), work till dinner time, have dinner, then work till maybe 2-3a. After I finished working, I would unwind with a tv/book/games before bed and then hit the sack.

Interspersed would be small breaks/small meetings (maybe an hr or so total of time a day)/phone-calls as well as goofing off on hackernews or reading blogs.

Weekends, unless I was behind on hours, I tended to spend on purely recreation or, if I was feeling the urge to code still, on experimental projects.

In addition, we shared answering customer feedback since we wanted to make sure everyone had at least a little direct interaction with customers. If divided evenly, this took maybe 20-40min a day of everyone's time.

Keep in mind even the "coder founders" were drawn into bizdev/conferences/etc. based on what they felt like attending. Nothing was really off-limits to anyone on the team, it was more about just dividing up priorities to let people get into the zone.

I'm attempting to bootstrap something right now, and here's what I've done so far. Note that I'm on summer break from University. I'm working a job to try and fund myself.

5:30AM Wake up, shower, eat breakfast, make coffee

6:30AM Catch the bus to work

4:00PM Finish work

4:07PM Catch bus home

5:00PM Get home, make more coffee, change clothes, eat dinner

5:15PM Arrive at the local coffee shop. Download all the software/documents/videos/lectures I'll need for the night. Check email, banking, accounts, news. Chat with a few of the regulars and get some relaxation in.

6:15PM Get home again. Code and do work. Note that my apartment has no cable or internet. This is perfect for me, as I just use the coffee shop for the essentials.

9:30PM Sleep

Note that the weekends look a lot different, but I probably still only get 3 hours of good work done per day because I socialize with people from work and other things to relax. Also, because I work 9 hour work days, we get every other Friday off. I go to the store, buy some Red Bull, and try and hack for the entire day. I can't tell you how critical this Friday off has been so far. This is my first time trying anything like this, so we'll see how it turns out!

Good to know that there are hackers who get up at 5:30AM.

Would love to see when you will get up after you leave your day-job. :)

Fun topic.

I wake about 0730. That's 3 hours before I used to awaken (before I was co-founder) so I make coffee and whilst it brews grab a shower. After shower, it's coffee/email/Twitter and kiss girlfriend goodbye.

I get to work for 0820 (cycle) and by the time I'm sat in my chair with coffee I've worked out what my first small task is.

After first task (logs, phone call, send beta invites) I grab breakfast (bacon roll or pastry - a large perk of our company is free lunch/breakfast)

Then it's daily swift chat with CTO and on with my to do list. I split my tasks into thinking and doing. We also use pivotal tracker, which rocks.

I regularly meet with our investors and advisors (over lunch, breakfast or pizza after work - avoid meetings in work hours) and generally power through until about 6.30PM. I spend the final hour of work catching up on email and any missed calls. Home for 1915.

I relax in the evenings and generally be human. I try to squeeze in another two hours work between 1AM and bed.


I do this Monday to Friday. At the weekends I work from home Saturday morning and Sunday evening.

Regular free meals provided by your employer are taxable as income. I learned that the hard way at tax time with another startup...

Do Google employees pay tax on their food? Or does Google pay it for them?

Four and a half hours of sleep hardly makes you the typical human! How do you manage? Genetics?

caffeine, working towards a (common) end goal, having a routine, sleeping lots at the weekend, caffeine, being young.

The book "Founders At Work" is a pretty good read, if you're interested in these questions.


Definitely my favorite book about startups, but it really doesn't talk that much about the day to day reality of running a startup. Most of the stories are over months or years. Documentaries would be a great way to see what it's really like. Unfortunately, I don't think there are very many about well run startups. I guess Aardvark'd was a decent glimpse: http://www.projectaardvark.com/movie/

Startup.com was a well-filmed documentary: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0256408/

I saw it before I embark on the startup lifestyle, and the story rings true on many levels.

Yeah, but it's about a horribly run startup. It's only a lesson of what not to do.

I would love to see a documentary on IMVU. Their continuous deployment strategy seems like it works very well.

I'd bet they innovating in other areas too, and it'd be cool to hear more.

I actually just bought it yesterday, and am going through it.

Work, social life, sleep: choose two.

Every day is different if you're the "business guy"; if you're the "tech guy," the mechanics are the same, but the problems are different. How different are they? Depends on how good you are - the faster you deploy, the sooner you get to tackle new problems. The better your automated testing, the less you're squashing bugs.

It really depends on what stage you are in.

In the beginning we drew up diagrams for database tables, wrote out what made us different from competitors, why people would like us, wrote a version of the site, then scrapped all of it and rewrote everything multiple times over in several months. At this point it was just us doing this in our spare time.

As time went by, I realized my cofounder wasn't going to give up as much as I was willing to, and that's when I realized I need a backup plan or two. My cf is a great hacker and decent at design, so one plan was to go solo, but my design sucked. Another plan was a different site where design didn't matter, so I decided to work on this second site while waiting for my cf to switch from a second job freelancing to rejoining the project. Lesson here is simply have backup plans.

Finally his girlfriend broke up with him and we are bros again. He put down the framework for our new attack plan and I started hacking away on the meat of it. He refused to keep working until we talked with clients, so I set up some meetings. Now I'm hacking half the time, doing the business side the other half, and maybe a couple hours for eating and spending time on HN and so on. After meeting with clients to find out what they want, I was sure he would be into it. Wrong. Now I have to handle clients which means a lot of socializing and a lot less hacking, yet I have to code the four or five features that the clients requested.

You may think get another founder, but you guessed it, I tried. I know several people who would make great founders. The problem is that they can't give up their social lives and that's really what you have to do until you can hire people to take some of the weight off your shoulders. Specifically, girls are a major interest to them. And as most of us know, having a girlfriend (or wife in one case) is a full time job.

So be prepared to multitask and try to account for losing your founder (I never thought it would happen: I've known mine since 1st grade). Also have a backup plan and maybe learn what you are weak at (design in my case) to a reasonable competency.

I think you're perhaps expecting your cofounder to approach problems exactly the same way you do. You shouldn't be looking for someone just like you to be your cofounder. Differences are often strengths.

What you need to be doing is looking for someone that delivers on the things you need them to deliver. Not someone that works in the same way and to the same exact schedule you do. My cofounder produces a helluva lot more code than I ever could, and he's always been part-time in the company (but he has equal stake, for a number of reasons beyond being an absolute monster at producing code).

That's not to say you don't need someone who will be all-in. You do. You definitely need dedication. But, it doesn't necessarily look the same as your dedication.

I did at first, and you are right that it is a mistake. The key problem is inconsistency. Nothing wrong with working differently, taking weekends off or whatever. But girls and freelancing are higher priorities to him. Why shouldn't they be? From a perspective of psychology immediate rewards drive behavior; distant rewards have little effect.

So absolutely not true. I've been at this awhile, and have had my fair share of success (and failure as well).

The idea that you have to go, go, go to the detriment of your social life is just silly. It's part of the myth of the startup, not the reality. Founders love to talk about how hard they work, but in my experience the good ones find real balance between work and life.

I work a 50'ish hour week. I don't kill myself. I take the weekends off. I spend time with my wife and friends on a regular basis. We get things done, we ship early, and we have really made huge headway on all facets of company building... and have done it while maintaining our friendships and marriages as well.

Working a ton of hours isn't going to make you successful. Hell, the most likely outcome is that the stress and demands of that pace will do nothing but limit your ability to make good decisions.

Just a bit of friendly advice.

So absolutely not true. Ben Franklin would have issued you a pecuniary penalty.

The reality is that it varies. You can't claim just because your startup is working out fine with 50 hours a week of work that other startups don't need more attention. The complexity of each startup is different; the number of founders is different; the amount of time a founder commits varies; and so on.

I should have been more blunt about my co-founder: full time job, girlfriend, side work freelancing, drinking with friends on weekends, and a startup. Do you really think it is possible to juggle all of that?

I get up in the late morning, read the news for a few minutes, drink coffee, and start coding. Sometimes I have breakfast, which can be cereal, bacon and eggs, or chicken wings cooked on the grill.

I work on the code all day long, except when I'm talking to my co-founders, board, or sales prospects. I also like to monitor all the various stat feeds I get - log tails, Google analytics, affiliate sales, etc. - and correspond with people on mailing lists and social networks. I Twitter whenever I push a visible change to my site, which is everyday.

I eat twice a day, usually with my co-founders, who are also my roommates, and I snack. After the sun sets, I eventually watch some tv shows and fall asleep. Then I wake up the next day and do the same thing.

We work all the time, until we get tired. Then we strap on some backpacks and go hiking for a while. When I can't code any longer, I'll do something fun like hike, play go on the internet, or play with my dog. We live in sort of a rural mountain area with lots of mountains and trails.

I'm not sure which part I like the best, the work or the play.

Interesting to actually look at this.

6:20am - One year old wakes up. Grudgingly, I do to.

6:25am - Change diaper, PJs if they're wet, make a bottle, feed the boy, try to keep eyes open.

6:40am - Catch up on email on the iPhone while the boy plays on the family room floor. Can't use the MacBook because he'll want to play with it.

7:20am - Make coffee, clean the boy's bottles, change his diaper.

8:20am - Wake up wife so I get to shower. Shower.

8:45am - Send replies that were too long for iPhone. Review where last night left us. Review what I want to get done today. Start working.

10:30am - motivate to the subway to go to the office. Pleasure read on the train.

11:15am - get to the office. Talk to office mates. Get situated, try to get back into the groove. Put off lunch as long as possible.

Lunch - try to find something cheap. Generally fail.

Rest of the day - work, have sessions with our mentors. Maybe get some dinner.

9:45pm - head home. Pass out on the subway.

10:30pm - Catch up with wife until she goes to bed.

11:00pm - 1:30am - Work.

Rinse, lather repeat and never second guess giving up that good 4 day a week job I used to have to start my own business.

7 wakeup

8 breakfast while going through google reader, email, twitter

10 work time

12 lunch (away from computer)

1 work time, intermittent google reader and HN breaks when my mind wanders or I'm waiting for something to process

5/6 try to workout

7 dinner

8-10 wind down by watching tv, emailing, and working

Work time just depends on what's on the plate. In general, try to keep to a normal schedule to be in sync with my wife's hours.

At this time, for me personally, I'd say probably 50% coding, 5% biz dev (mostly handled by someone else), 30% marketing (analytics, coordinating interns, ads, etc.), 15% support (email, troubleshooting).

If my wife isn't working weekends (medical field), then I'll try to keep work to emails or minor bug fixes.

Monday's are slightly different since we do about a 2-3 hour conf call in the morn to sync up (3 of us).

Get up between 6 and 7am, check email and go for a work out or a long walk while the city is still sleeping. By 8 am figure out what absolutely must be done today by me and what should the team be doing (I am the "businessy" guy). Work until 7PM, take "re-charge break" until 9PM, work until midnight, go to sleep.

I wake around the crack of noon each day. (This moves around, actually. Sometimes I'm waking at 9-ish, every day, while other times it's later than noon. Right now it is about 11:30.)

I stumble into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Dump a cup of food into the dogs bowl. Dump some cereal into my bowl or put a boiled egg onto a plate. Dump milk over cereal or salt/pepper onto egg. In the winter grits or oatmeal may replace cereal. By the time I finish my cereal, the kettle is boiling, so I make jasmine green tea. This is pretty exciting, so far, isn't it?

I spend about two hours on most days reading and responding to customer email, tickets, and forum posts, before getting down to other work. Customer support is about 50% of my work day, though I'm trying to figure out ways to make the ratio go down. I also check reddit and HN during this time (way too much time goes to reddit and HN).

Then I try to spend an hour or so on some sort of development before I break for "lunch". An hour is rarely enough to do much useful, but I can sometimes get some bug fixed, or an install issue figured out. Right now, "development" means "work on migrating the website from Joomla to Drupal", and doesn't actually touch our products at all.

Working lunch. Answer more emails/tickets/forums. Read reddit and HN.

Then I tend to spend some time figuring out what people are saying about our products (mostly) and our competitors products (only in passing) on the web. I get Google Alerts, and I have Twitter searches setup on my iGoogle home page. Sometimes folks will post frustrated messages on Twitter and I'll try to point them in the right direction.

More time reading reddit and HN (I need to do something about this).

More development.

More email/tickets/forums.

Maybe send out an email to a hosting provider that I think would benefit from our software (because they currently offer Webmin, but would be better served by Virtualmin). They might then want to become a reseller, so I'll spend an hour or so getting them setup and informed about the process.

Lately there's been a lot of "reboot the damned computer again because the new video card caused another lockup", and wait while the idiotic and unreliable ASUS motherboard takes 5 minutes to go through its bootup checklist and maybe fails or freezes. I think maybe a new machine is in my near future.

Walk/run with the dog for about an hour. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. But, we walk every day. This is probably better for my productivity than anything else I do.

Special days:

First day of each month is billing day, where I invoice and process payments for our resellers. This is a nuisance, and I hate it. But, the proceeds average out to a couple of really good days worth of normal sales (and it's growing faster than daily sales, now that we're focusing on signing on resellers), so it's a nice chance to see real monetary gains from our work. This takes a few hours, because I usually have to contact at least one or two resellers to get them to update their billing info or correct something or ask questions about usage. Refinement of processes is important here...we need to do more work on this. I get nothing else done on billing day.

Friday is Rock Band Taco Night. I usually stop work early on Friday, and get together with friends for something fun.

Weekends used to be "catch up on email" days, but I've been successfully doing inbox zero for a couple of weeks now, and the "catch up weekends" might be a thing of the past. I don't think it's actually increased my productivity, in general, but at least I'm not always running two or three days behind on some emails. Customers seem to be happier about this.

So, now weekends are more leisurely, and spent doing research and more development.

About the HN and reddit problem, I found it helpful to add this to my /etc/hosts file to prevent the timesuck: reddit.com www.reddit.com news.ycombinator.com

Of course I comment it out during weekends, and permitted "play time".

Wow, this is brilliant.

I am definitely going to try this. And will also add facebook.com and techcrunch.com to the list!!

Awesome idea. Why don't you use a cron job though?

I have a 25 hour work day.

Does "0 * /25 * * *" work?

I was inspired by your post to find out what startup you worked on.

Virtualmin is totally awesome and I use it on a near daily basis. I've bought a pro licence and have also been blown away by your support.

Rock on.

Thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad you're finding Virtualmin useful! We certainly try to provide the best support in our industry, and when we screw up we apologize and do whatever we can to make it right. The bar for support among market leaders in our industry is pretty low, but I think in an area this complex, great support can be a very good differentiating feature. So, we're never tempted to think, "Well, we're providing way better support than Plesk or cPanel, so we can rest today."

I've got a todo list a mile long for things we could be doing better, but we're getting there.

I hope an iPhone app is on that list. :)

yum install wbm-virtual-server-mobile


apt-get install webmin-virtual-server-mobile

Magic happens. Not an iPhone app, but an iUI based theme that works really well on iPhone, and pretty well on Android. We do actually have plans for standalone apps, but it's an area where we're not particularly experts...so it might be something we have to outsource (which we tend to avoid for programming stuff). I've just bought a Mini 9 for Hackintoshing, so I'll soon have an iPhone dev environment, so might give it a try.

7:00am wake up - shower + breakfast

7:30am read rss feeds

7:45am do "most important task"

8:15am get dressed for day job

8:30am get on train to day job, read economist on train

7:00pm leave day job, read economist on train

7:30pm arrive at home, decompress + eat dinner

8:00pm respond to emails escalated by virtual assistant for company

9:00pm do another company growth / admin task

11:00pm respond / read all remaining emails

1:00am sleep

Been on this schedule for ~3 years. Grew company from 1 to 6. Leaving the day job at the end of the year to pursue start-up full time now that start up revenue is > day job revenue.

I would be interested to hear about what gets everyone in a productive mode.

For me, it's having an agenda with one item on it prepared the night before. The last hour before bed I review the code, screens, and notes from that day and decide the most important thing to work on the next day. Then I lay it out in detail including a red marker on my code. When I get to my computer the next day, I'm ready to go. Sounds simple, and it is. It's also very effective.

Coffee. It's like turning on a light switch.

Completing a small but significant task first thing in the morning often sets the tone right for the day and imbues a feeling of satisfaction.

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