One of the first lessons founders learn very quickly, if they don’t already know, is that getting a company to sustainability is about prioritization.
This is almost by definition: startups have less resources than established companies in manpower, cash in the bank, and relationships; and they also usually have more to do with that less. So startups shouldn’t invest resources in the same way larger companies can. Startups need to invest differently, and need to prioritize where to invest what little they have.
Having talked to founders both in the Midwest and now in the SF Bay Area, one of the bigger differences in the startup “cultures” of these two areas is the ways in which founders prioritize. Specifically, in the Bay Area, I’ve heard far more mentions of “hustle” than I ever did in the Midwest startup scene.
Hustle: the Density of Work
Generally, the more competition exists in a startup ecosystem, the more focus there is on “hustle” — investing more work-hours into the problem at hand to get ahead.
Hustle is one of those words people hijack to inject their own opinions into the conversation, but a lot of the idea goes back to Gary Vaynerchuck, founder of VaynerMedia, VC, and a talented and successful entrepreneur in his own right. He defines hustle this way:
So you need a break? Good. Take your break, but the bottom line is, every minute that you can apply to your game, you need to. I worry that people don’t tap into their strengths. I think that people like to claim that they work hard, but they’re just not putting in the hours to win. A lot of people go home at 6. It’s just not enough. — Gary Vaynerchuck
To hustle is to maximize the number of hours worked per unit time in your life. And that’s certainly one way to get ahead in a competitive ecosystem — invest more resources (in this case, your time) into the problem, and you’ll have a greater chance of success at solving the problem.
But an issue with optimizing for the density of work like this is that this approach assumes all work is equally valuable.
It is not.
Some work creates disproportionately more value per time than others, and this is one of the ways startups can compete against resource-stacked companies — by doing the 20% of the work that creates 80% of the value.
The problem with the traditional “hustle” mantra is that it ignores this distinction, and when founders don’t focus on carefully investing their time into the 20% of the work that matter most, they hustle wastefully.
Hustle is fine, but we need to hustle efficiently.
Efficient work is de-risking work
So what kind of work is disproportionately valuable in a startup?
The existential purpose of a startup is to reach product-market fit. Unless there’s boatloads of funding or other limiting factors like regulatory approval that aren’t bound by the market, a startup’s singular goal should be to reach product-market fit efficiently — using as little time and money as possible.
So, naturally, the most valuable work at a startup is work that moves the company closest to product-market fit. Anecdotally, this tends to be work that tests the company’s biggest failure points.
Eliminating failure points
My favorite stories about this kind of work — testing failure points — come from a talk by Astro Teller, an entrepreneur known for his leadership at Google X. He says about the process of innovation for new projects at X:
We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer, “Hey! How are we going to kill our project today? We’ve got this interesting balance going where we allow our unchecked optimism to fuel our visions. But then we also harness enthusiastic skepticism to breathe life, breathe reality into those visions.
In other words, the best way to make sure a project doesn’t fail is, ironically, to test whether the project would fail early on in development, and if it might, abandon ship or pivot away before it does. Early startups are a pyramid of unconfirmed hypotheses built on hypotheses, and the most valuable work — the kind of efficient work that creates the most value per unit time — is work that tests whether those hypotheses hold up. These tests give the startup a chance to pivot away and try something different if the original ideas don’t hold up.
The effect of this early failure-pointes testing is that it chips away at the mountain of risk that is a startup company, and reduces the risk inherent in working on that project (and investing in it, too, which is important if you’re looking for investors!)
In almost all market-bound startups, this tends to be the disproportionately valuable kind of work: Run at the most fragile, uncertain parts of your project first, and test if they hold up, because if you discover them later, you’d have wasted more time and money to get there in the first place.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of hustle, of investing more time and work into a project to get ahead. But many people tend to spend much of their initial few hundred hours of work on a startup hustling on the wrong kind of work.
Whether you’re “just” working nine to five or “hustling” five to nine, work efficiently. Do the work that gives you the most value for your time. Spend the little time you have on attacking the most fragile parts of your project first.
Hustle if you must, but hustle efficiently.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, How to grow a budding startup community.
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