In the past couple of days, I have had the pleasure of reading two thought provoking essays. One by Paul Graham, the venerable programmer / entrepreneur, and the other by Seth Godin, the venerable spokesman for permission marketing in the modern world.
Many connections formed in my mind as I read those essays, and those connections have made their way into this blog post.
What struck me about Paul Graham's essay was his commentary on the nature of the work at a startup. He writes that there are no specialists, and that in a technology startup, he was doing the job of CEO, programmer, customer service representative, and salesman. Further, the work was very intense for nearly 4 years until product/market fit was found and they were finally acquired. In these years, he says that they were working nearly 24/7.
Intense periods of varied work followed by extended lulls seem to be characteristic of an entrepreneurs life. The activity seems to follow a power-law over the course of a career. The following line from the essay sums it up best:
Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four.
The entrepreneurs work dynamic is much more enticing to me than the steady-state drum of the normal salaried career. The reasons for these inclinations run deep, and I will touch on them a bit later.
But first I will write about what I took away from Seth Godin's essay. He wrote that the days of comfortable careers of 9-5 jobs where you specialize and do what your boss tells you is over. The 20th century dream of the American middle class is coming to a close and we had better adjust quickly or perish. Seth's contention is that the Internet is a great equalizing platform and gives everybody an equal chance of being successful at expressing themselves, challenging the status quo, and changing the way things work simply by building remarkable products that solve a problem and then letting customers spread the word through the Internet.
He says that this dynamic is invalidating the assumptions around which large industrial corporations operate. In particular, their byzantine organizational structures cannot compete in a fluid and fast moving new world. It is becoming easier for David to win against Goliath unless Goliath changes. And this change involves giving employees the freedom and incentive to take their own initiative, and to accept failure in these initiatives as long something was learned in the process.
In my books, the essence of what Seth is saying is that for large companies to be successful today, they have to operate more like startups internally. And if startups are characterized by the spurts of brief and intense periods of effort, as Paul's essay mentions, then the days of steady 9-5 days are really numbered.
And this is the connection that really excited me. It fits in with another personal philosophy I subscribe to surrounding human health. This theory, originally articulated by Arthur deVany, simply states that human beings are optimally adapted to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, since this lifestyle was the norm for most of the two million years over which we evolved from primates. Hence, to be healthy, one should try to mimic the activity and feeding patterns of hunter/gatherers, viz. brief periods of intense and varied physical activity (think of the hunt) intermixed with periods of feast and famine. The essay linked to goes into these ideas in detail and is highly recommended reading.
The modern industrial world with its regular hours and with homogeneous specialized professional activity flies in the face of this philosophy. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered whether this industrial-era kind of life is an evolutionary dead end. Now, having begun on my own startup adventure, I feel liberated. It really feels like the natural way for me to live: work really hard doing all the things I like, and if it is a success, take a long break before starting anew. If Seth Godin is right, then this dynamic will become the norm for most people. What a nice thought!