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SocialCam - launching hard and painful  

Before commenting on this article, I'd like to tell you a little story.

While I still worked full-time for Accenture, I spent a year working my ass off to start my first startup. I woke up at 4am for 9 months, working for 3 hours first thing in the morning, before having a 1-hour nap and then going to work at a stressful, challenging investment banking consulting job for another 9 hours. I ingested copious amounts of caffeine and Modafinil just to stay functional during the day. I discarded most of my social life (I was in bed by 10:30).

At the end of this period of running a consistent sleep deficit of 3 hours a night, I was, predictably, burned out. After finally quitting Accenture, it took me two months before I returned to a decent level of productivity - two months during which my startup's ill-conceived product (it was the first, after all) floundered, failed to get the growth we hoped for, and went into decline. Then, the startup finally exploded due to a disagreement with my cofounder a few months later.

In hindsight, my drive to work harder rather than smarter caused me to make a number of very costly mistakes: jumping full-time into the startup too soon; using a slower development platform (PHP) because I didn't have the time to learn Rails (took me about 2 weeks when I finally got around to it); and many others. I'm still paying for some of these mistakes today.

So, I have some strong opinions about the story that Justin Kan, of YC success justin.tv, shared, about working his team to the bone to launch for SXSW:

The team commits to working as hard as it takes, and they do indeed. 12 hour days, six or seven days a week. Sometimes far beyond the point where it is still productive.

I'm not even programming; all I'm doing is trying to make sure that everyone on the team experiences no roadblocks and figure out how we can possibly move faster. It still takes time, though, and I'm spending 90% of my waking hours and 100% of my mental energy at the office. In the most cliche startup moment of all, my girlfriend leaves me the day after Valentine's Day; I guess I saw that coming for a few weeks.

The problem with these kinds of stories is they make it seem like this should be the way to launch your startup. They get across the impression that if you're not pushing yourself past your limits, you're not working hard enough. Stories of this type are like the boss who works until 11pm every night, forcing everyone else to stay late so that they don't look bad.

Justin is an experienced, successful entrepreneur. With his clout, connections, funding, etc, SocialCam has a fair chance of succeeding (at least in some way). So I won't pass judgement on whether it was right for the SocialCam team to push themselves like that. There are no rules in this game, and sometimes, yes, you have to give it all you've got.

But, taking a wider view, many startups do not have someone like Justin Kan (a successful YC founder with 5 years of experience of running startups in the Valley, and all the wisdom and connections that implies) multiplying their chances of success. Would this team have worked this hard if SocialCam's chance of achieving any success whatsoever was only 5% (a generous chance for the typical first startup)? What if it was only 1%? Does it make sense to sacrifice everything for such a long shot? Having done so in the past, I take the view that no, it's not worth it.

The founding team is rarely capable of objectively estimating their own chances of success - they're far too optimistic. The most conservative will suggest they might possibly have a 50% chance of failure, if everything goes wrong. Everyone thinks they're different.

People who sacrifice everything are rarely successful. That's even more true when they sacrifice everything for something with the slimmest chances of success. Successful businesses, in turn, flow out of successful people.

My advice: work hard when it makes sense (no one can stop you anyway), but don't get into the mindset that it's a good idea to sacrifice everything for your startup.

More from the library:
Investment as a cushion or a springboard
Tools to find available startup domain names
How to use PR firms at startups