Opinionista Nic Haralambous 16 January 2020

The sacrifice fallacy: You don’t need to suffer to build a successful business

Young entrepreneurs believe that to be successful, all they have to do is work long hours and aggressively pursue relentless growth. They have never stopped to think about what they want from their business and how to go about achieving that goal.

Many people start a business because they want a better life for themselves, or they believe they can regain their freedom from their corporate job. Occasionally, they’ll also try to make the world a better place. Building a business is not an easy task. Anyone who says it is must be lying or has never tried to build a business. A lot of effort, angst, frustration and hard work goes into creating something where there was once nothing.

Unfortunately, a scary trend in entrepreneurial spheres exists that I call the “sacrifice fallacy”, and it has to stop.

Entrepreneurs believe the only way to build a successful business is to sacrifice everything for it. This is simply not true. I know entrepreneurs who are unhealthy, never sleep, don’t have any relationships outside of their company, haven’t taken leave in years and haven’t exercised since they started their company. I know entrepreneurs who have been divorced, neglected their kids, pets, families and everything else in an attempt to build a successful startup and gain freedom from the slavery that is corporate life, and a pay cheque. The irony of building a business at the cost of everything you love to gain back everything you ever wanted is glaringly obvious from outside.

There are different kinds of businesses that exist, they aren’t all made the same and aren’t all trying to achieve the same thing. This is where the problem comes in. Most people leave their jobs because they want freedom and then start building a business without ever defining what success looks like to them, or what freedom means. How do you know when you’ve arrived if you never define your destination? How do you know you’ve succeeded if you’ve never defined success?

I am always shocked at how few people who start a business have thought about what they want out of it.

Are they looking for fame? Wealth? Societal improvement? An improved lifestyle? Often, they don’t know the answer when I ask the question. This leads the entrepreneur down the most hyped path, which today means sacrificing everything in the name of work.

Eighteen-hour days, no weekends, no holidays, no exercise, a terrible diet and worse sleep. This is what many believe it looks like to build a business today.

I don’t agree with this. I used to agree and I worked extremely hard to make this insane method work for many, many years. But the more I work in startups and on businesses that are scaling, the more I realise that sacrifice isn’t always necessary.

Entrepreneurs believe the stories they read in the media are the only path to building a business. They watch The Social Network and think every business is filled with backstabbing politics, co-founders who throw laptops at one another and growth at all costs on the path to becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Young entrepreneurs buy into the hustle narrative that fake entrepreneurs, celebrity entrepreneurs and the crazy few outliers spout all the time. They believe that to be a successful entrepreneur, all they have to do is work long hours and aggressively pursue relentless growth. These entrepreneurs have never stopped to think about what they want from their business and how to go about achieving that particular goal.

Sure, there are times when you need to work 80-hour weeks and hunker down to hit a deadline, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

If this becomes the rule at your company, then there is something fundamentally wrong with your business model. You know who works 18 hours a day, seven days a week? Robots. Machines work those kinds of hours. It’s unsustainable for human beings. If you require your team to ignore their lives and work full-on for you, non-stop, all day, every day, I can promise you something is going to break if it hasn’t already.

Your staff will begin to leave and you’ll find it increasingly difficult to hire the best people as word travels about your company culture. With high staff turnover comes high and increased operational cost, required to constantly incorporate new team members. With a constant need to recruit new staff, you will lose focus on the core model of your business, which likely involves actually making money, not just hiring, firing and hunting for staff.

The sacrifice fallacy, often driven by the leaders in the business, will trick you into thinking that because you are enjoying downtime, you are not working. I want to challenge this flawed theory. The smartest people I know need downtime to rejuvenate their creativity and drive. They need time to be curious about the problems they are trying to solve. They need to meet other people who edify and engage their brains and help them think through their work. The smartest people do not need you to tell them to work 18 hours a day because their brains are constantly thinking about the work that they love.

Basecamp is a shining example of a company that embraces balance and reasonable growth at a reasonable rate. The business launched in 1999 and ever since, has gone to great lengths to promote sane deadlines and good, solid, profitable business practices. They even wrote a book about this topic called It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. Here’s how they describe the book: Chaos shouldn’t be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work — side effects of broken models and “best” practices. This book treats the patient, calls out false cures and pushes back against ritualistic time-sucks that have infected the way people work these days.

To inspire the best people to work hard, you need to give them a difficult and interesting problem to solve, and then leave them to solve the problem. Sure, deadlines are an important part of solving a problem, but insane deadlines are a result of bad planning and bad leadership. I absolutely believe in Parkinson’s law, the adage that, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. If you let sub-par team members peruse the problem with no real deadlines or performance metrics, they will screw around and contribute to Parkinson’s law.

But give your best people a really interesting problem and a reasonable deadline that everyone agrees to, and they’ll work tirelessly to solve it. They’ll work (in their minds), while they play with their kids, walk their dogs, go for a jog and sit at their desks in the office. You just have to trust them to do their best work.

Here’s the thing: You don’t need to sacrifice everything to do the best work.

I predict that companies of the future (and the smart companies today), will urge their staff to take leave, exercise, eat proper meals, focus on mental health and engage with their friends, family, and network because the best companies know you don’t have to sacrifice your life and who you are to build something amazing. The best companies know that it is who you are that helps you solve problems more effectively.

That important, urgent or potentially amazing business you are building is going to fail, or succeed. When one of those outcomes arrive, you will need to be squared away with the sacrifices that you made to get there. Don’t succumb to the sacrifice fallacy. You don’t need to suffer to build something incredible. DM

Nic is an obsessive entrepreneur, global keynote speaker, and published author. Follow Nic on Twitter, sign up to his newsletter or book him for your next event or conference. 

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