To My Founder Friends: Take a Break When You Need One

The first real break I took since starting a company — 4 days in Bali with my bestie

Reading TechCrunch’s post from last month, At Burning Man While Your Startup Burns, left me feeling frustrated. If you haven’t read it yet, author Josh Constine’s basic stance is that CEOs whose companies are having a bit of trouble shouldn’t be allowed to take certain kinds of breaks — ones that are too long or in places that he doesn’t think can “clear your head” well.

Judging from the outside, he pulls a multitude of examples of CEOs behaving badly to make the claim that only established, secure CEOs (whatever that means) are entitled to even a semblance of work-life balance. The rest should know what they signed up for and remain chained to their business 24/7, good times and bad, if they want to be taken seriously.

When starting my company, I worked for three years straight, saying no to every social call — events, parties, family and trips. So maybe I shouldn’t be as mad as I am about this post because I generally did follow his “rules”. But the more experience I gain, the more I realize how wrong imposing any sort of restrictions on how I should or should not have spent my down time really is.

Just because I made the crazy decision to set up a company doesn’t mean anyone has the right to judge me for how we choose to work. CEOs work long hours and want to be able to take a breather just like any member of our team or any employee in the world for that matter.

While the author insists that you can’t take a break if “everything is already on fire”, often, that is how the best ideas come about… especially if you are in a pickle. “Being out of a contact for several days to a week since there’s no reliable cellular connection [at Burning Man]” can be just what you need. And no one knows better than you if that creates a “decision-making bottleneck that can slow down your company”.

The fact is, CEOs have a lot of responsibilities that keep them up at night, and coming to terms with these duties takes hard work. You have to answer to your investors, keep your team motivated, and above all stay sane, while often eating instant noodles and sleeping 4 hours a night.

Most founders don’t take breaks or take a salary for years, and if they do, it’s close to nothing. In fact, research shows that startup founders, on average, make less than what they would make at a regular job. Often founders don’t take a break until they burn out because they run on their passion for the company.

When the company’s in trouble, founders and CEOs even skip paychecks or take second jobs. David Elkington, founder of the SaaS company InsideSales, at one point famously took a second job as a janitor to make payroll. Blowing off steam should be mandatory for them and everyone else for that matter!

Also, if you do take any money from investors, you also acquire them as your boss of sorts. It becomes very similar to having a job — you feel on overwhelming sense a responsibility, knowing that you have to work for their money and provide a return. Investors are not known to be easy going and can be yet another reason you might need to take a break.

I, as a founder, (and I am sure I am not alone in this) already feel guilty every time I take a break. Whenever I visit a friend, or go to a wedding, or god-forbid attend a concert or anything that is not business-related, I end up in a corner typing away on my phone anyway.

Don’t forget, this is part of the culture of the so called go-getters, and that culture is brutal. I mean, we bring work to the beach, to holidays… If my phone worked under water, I would probably write emails while I am scuba diving. (And with the Samsung 8 being able to survive half an hour fully submerged, that day is coming closer and closer.)

The CEO culture to always appear strong takes a toll on even top company leaders. In 2015, BMW’s CEO Harald Kruger fainted during a car show. He had previously said he was not feeling well but went up on stage anyway.

So, even though we try, there are never 100% real breaks. Don’t confine us to meditation or a paltry single evening with friends. If a CEO thinks it’s time to go to the dessert and burn some stuff down, then it’s time.

It took TINT’s CEO, Tim Sae Koo, 2 years of 18-hour days and zero social life to realize that burning out is not the way. He had since taken a step back and found a new, healthier and less stressful outlook on his company and lifestyle.

So, if there are hardly any real breaks, why be a CEO at all? For me, I started a company so I didn’t have to have a job in the classic sense. Aren’t most founders rebels that refuse to fit in and always challenge the status quo? I wanted to make my own schedule and design my own fate without working or living according to the same old rules.

I do work more hours than what the classic definition of a job implies. And more is an understatement — double the hours or even triple sounds more like it. But I take breaks when I need them, because I know best what’s good for me and my company.

And wanting to be in control of my own destiny means I would tell anyone setting rules about my break time….

If you are an employee who works hard and loves their job, you still look forward to a break. You want to see your family. You want to explore the world. Why shouldn’t founders and CEOs, the hardest working people in the company, be able to take a break too?

We’re not superhumans. We’re individuals — just like anyone else. We have our own needs, struggles and challenges. Being a CEO doesn’t mean giving up the right to choose where, when and how is best for us to relax.

After witnessing friends and colleagues being hospitalized and ruining their marriages, Ryan Sanders and Ben Peterson, co-founders of BambooHR, introduced an anti-workaholics policy in their company and do not allow anyone to work more than 40 hours a week. This is the kind of supportive approach that should come from the top of any company.

Constine acknowledges that “Everyone deserves a semblance of work-life balance, but startup leaders knowingly forgo some of that gambling for an outsized portion of the startup’s upside.” That is true, and some founders indeed fall in that category, but there are also those who do not. And those who don’t need more than just a “semblance”.

Let’s not forget that most company founders are truly passionate about what they do. They often start on that path because they find happiness in the flow of solving challenges. But they burn out — they put their health, relationships, and families on the line.

Caren Merrick shares how she used to rarely take a break but later realized that vacations with her family enrich their relationship. She writes that she has “found that taking time to recharge and spend time with loved ones is NECESSARY for [her] success.”

I, too, have put in the hours and have felt the burn. During Pixc’s development, I lived in a parallel universe due to all the time I put in, and I did it all to build my company. I love the journey and I would do it all over again, but that experience showed me timely breaks are vital.

I had not seen my extended family in the UK for more than 5 years because there was always something more important to attend to. Social calls seemed like obstacles to the success of my business, not opportunities for much needed perspective.

This year, I started to realize that running a company is a marathon, not a sprint. And if I take a weekend off to go away with my friends, my company will still be there on Monday and customers will still be using our product. The world will keep spinning.

My personal experience with timely rest aligns with research that indicates breaks make you more creative and focused, while improving idea generation. You have to know your breaking point and take care not to reach it. Don’t feel guilty for wanting to take a break and even if you do, take time anyway. It is vital, and if you do it right you can find answers to challenges and riddles in your company.

Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove, rethought his and his team’s time off policies after a significant drop in productivity due to burnout back in 2014. After the initial fear and guilt of taking personal time, he took a break and later closed the company offices for a week after Christmas. The result was incredible boost in productivity.

Time off frees up bandwidth in your mind for new ideas and solutions. It clarifies issues and makes for a better product. The sooner you realize that and drop the guilt, the faster you will get back on track and go on building. As social entrepreneur Bryant McGill writes, “Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges. So relax.”

Another good example is Basecamp SEO Jason Fried, who is strongly against the Silicon Valley intense burnout culture. He promotes quite the opposite in his company and even allows his employees to work 32 hours (4 days) per week in the summer.

Constine writes that if “you’re failing or in the thick of rapid growth,” you should stay disciplined and focused and condemns even conferences as “ways to escape responsibility”. While he points out some reasonable downsides of the conference culture, he also downplays the very real benefits of a productive networking event.

I believe most startups have the right degree of automation to allow their leader to attend a conference. And a lot of even early stage companies have a good deal more.

As CEO, your role is to put the right people in place and make sure that you have enough cash in the bank while growing to get to your end goal. If you can do that while being away — good for you! You have done a great job.

I do agree with Josh Constine in one respect: Running away is not the solution to your problems. If, like Rothenberg Ventures CEO Mike Rothenberg, you’re wasting company money on lavish parties and cars instead of paying your employees, then yes, you are doing a bad job. You may choose to close your eyes and ignore the burn out for a while but you are just setting yourself up for more trouble.

But one person’s poor management does not negate the real value of extended breaks.

Constine’s also right that, as a visible public presence, you need to be mindful of ostentatiously parading your vacation on display, or, as he wrote, “Openly blasting social media with [your] far-flung adventures while employees worry about their next paycheck.”

But that doesn’t mean you avoid those breaks entirely. Or that you should only take them according to the duration, style, and situational precepts he defines. Maybe Burning Man isn’t the best place for you if you do leave the event “distracted” or “exhausted”, but maybe it is just what you need. No one knows that better than you, so you should still be allowed to choose it without the assumption that you’re wasting your time.

Running a company is not chess, there is no end-game or a point where your responsibilities diminish. The more successful you are, the more they pile up.

So run your company like a marathon. Take breaks in a sustainable way, where you and your employees enjoy a balance that works for everyone.

Do you feel guilty for taking a break? How do you recharge from your company? I would love to hear ✌️

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