How Hard Do Company Founders Really Work?

Published
01/29/2015 by Karen Firestone HBR

I’m a passable golfer. I enjoy the sport. I have clients who like to play golf. And I often get asked to hit the links. Yet I really have a hard time tearing myself away from the office to play.


That may be because I am a founding CEO.  The operative word in that sentence is “founding” or in my case “co-founding.” My partner David and I developed the idea for our company 10 years ago, and I took over as CEO several years ago.  While the literature suggests that entrepreneurs work very hard, it doesn’t exactly say that they never get out of the office to relax.  And yet one of the better pieces of advice I received when we started the company was from a successful small business owner who said that nobody else would be as concerned with solving my company’s problems as I would be.  Of course, a CEO following that approach is less likely to delegate and more likely to be entrenched in work all the time.  So how much devotion to the job is “normal” for a founder? And does this level of work wane over time, as the company becomes successful and stable?


To answer that question, I decided to do a survey, asking other entrepreneurs how much they work, how they measured their own commitment to their company, and about their ability to take personal time out of the office.  Over eighty founders or co-founders of health care, technology, social media, retail, and financial services firms responded.


The average CEO reported working close to 12 hours a day, including work done at home.  In this regard, there was very little difference between the men, who accounted for about two-thirds of the sample, and the women.  Surprisingly, but perhaps consistent with my own situation, the number of hours worked per day did not fall as the company aged, which didn’t make me feel very good about the future of my golf game.  While two thirds of the founders of companies over five years old said that they had cut back their hours since the first few years, when I examined the hours they currently work, none were below 11 a day.  I see a few possible explanations for this: they may have originally put in very long (e.g., more than 11-hour) days; they might be fooling themselves; or they may be more than a touch work-obsessed. (These are not mutually exclusive options, of course.)


The only people who really did seem to spend less time on their companies as time went on were entrepreneurs who had previously started other firms, this being at least their third venture.  A few commented that they had learned to delegate and to be less compulsive about every aspect of their enterprise.


I also asked all the respondents how their work effort compared to the next-highest ranking executive.  84% of responders said that they themselves worked more hours than their No. 2, by an average of 17%; 16% said that their next-in-command worked equal hours. None were outworked.  (Although, to be fair, I did not survey these deputies, so I don’t know if they’d agree.)


I also asked each executive to rate his or her level of commitment to their enterprise, relative to other aspects of their lives, on a scale of 1-10. The average rating was 9.26, with the women slightly higher than the men.


When I asked whether this commitment affected their ability to take personal time, two thirds said yes. But here, the gender breakdown was stark: 86% of the women agreed that their commitment to work affected their ability to take personal time, but only 52% of the men did.  Does this mean that female entrepreneurs are more devoted to their start-ups (or, conversely, that men are less devoted to their personal lives), that women feel they have more to prove, or does it just reflect a bias in the women who completed this particular survey?  Perhaps all three.


Whatever the reason, the vast majority (88%) of the entire cohort agreed that the lack of personal time was related to being a founder.  Across the entire survey population, when asked whether founding CEOs have more trouble disengaging from work than subsequent CEO’s, 73% said yes.   Although there were no questions that requested commentary, this is where I got many thoughtful replies from the participants.  Simon, a software entrepreneur, said “no one cares like founders do….. starting a company feels extremely personal.”   Several described their firm in similar familial terms.  Naseem, a high-end retail CEO, said “It’s your baby to nurture, your reputation at risk, and often your name on the door.”  At least 10 other CEOs referred to their enterprise as their child.


While children, obviously, require tremendous time and energy, you rarely hear from parents who regret that commitment.  I found the same in my survey.  Henry, the founder of a transportation logistics company, shared that “I care so deeply about my company. It’s an extension of me” while Abby, a cloud networking CEO, told me “I am very proud of every step we take.”  I know how that feels.  I also know it might not be helping my golf game — but I’m okay with that.