Home Articles Why “Work smarter and not harder” is crap advice for entrepreneurs

Why “Work smarter and not harder” is crap advice for entrepreneurs


sahil_merchant_iconWe’ve all heard this before. I wonder if you can guess my perspective on this pearl of wisdom?

How is it that I can disagree with something that sounds so obvious? Very few people challenge what many consider to be almost a truism.

Does size really matter?

As an ex-management consultant, I can understand how “working smarter” appears to sound. I may have doled out this advice on the odd occasion myself in my former life. Using the 80/20 rule, prioritising, smart delegation and employing critical path workflow all seem to make perfect sense when trying to squeeze more out of the average number of working hours per day.

Here’s the problem: I am not a middle manager. I am an entrepreneur. I am trying to build a company with limited resources and limited funds. So are all the other entrepreneurs out there. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the really good ones are pretty damned efficient and intuitively do all of the above things even if they don’t articulate it in the same way. If I want to compete against other highly motivated entrepreneurs, and I am highly efficient for nine hours a day, while my competitor is highly efficient for 16 hours a day, who gets more done each day?

You might respond that I am not in competition with other entrepreneurs. My competitors are supposedly larger industry incumbents. However, I still indirectly compete for capital with all others searching for funding. Also, as the MD of a growth business faced with larger incumbents, I have to compete against entire management teams. Can I really do in 9 hours what a bunch of people do each day?

I work ridiculous hours. It is currently 1am Saturday morning as I write this. I have not blogged in ages for Anthill for the simple reason that shit happens. I am working on the biggest project of my life, one that could be game changing for my company. Yet at the same time, my Operations Manager is on honeymoon and I am answering customer queries and jumping back into the day-to-day running of the stores. And, I am gearing up for Christmas sales, overseeing all our new online initiatives. And we just opened a new store in a new city (Sydney). The big project and the operational responsibilities are extra to my normal workload. Yet, I couldn’t have predicted that the big potential project would come about now, just pre-Xmas and just when my right hand guy is away for an extended period. Shit happens, hence, I haven’t blogged. I’ve been working 24/7 for 5 weeks straight now.

The amazing thing looking back over the last five weeks is that I have managed to keep everything moving. And there is no way I could have done so working nine to five. I think I work pretty smart, but smart for nine hours per day isn’t smart for 16 hours per day.

An analogy pops into mind at this point. It is somewhat risqué, but what the hell. How many of us guys like to believe that “it is not how big it is but how we use it that counts”. Makes us feel better about ourselves. But who could refute that big and well used is not the best option? (I really hope you are following the gist of this analogy!) There is so much professional talent out there, and talented people work smart. It is almost a hygiene factor. The truly successful people, in my humble opinion, work smart as a matter of course, but work harder than everyone else.

If you’ve read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, this sort of fits in with the theory of success that he puts forward. Putting in the raw hours according to this fascinating book is a massive component of success.

Working harder at the coal face

I have a number of shop floor team members who I consider to be really excellent. But when it comes time to clock off, they leave. Nothing wrong with that you might think. Maybe, but I too worked university-type part-time jobs. And I worked much harder than my peers at the time. Even when I was photocopying at law firms in their document management centres, I was the guy staying back late to finish off jobs that were required for the next day. I got more done as a part-time student worker than the other full-time document management dudes. I am pretty sure this has something to do with why I haven’t spent my life in the photocopy room while some of those guys have.

I look at a couple of my retail staff members and think how good they are. And how much potential they have. And how these particular individuals could do so many things. They have their daily roles, but an extra hour per day (paid of course) could allow them to take on so much more responsibility and carve out new and exciting roles for themselves. But these particular individuals don’t seem to have this motivation. And all power to them for having found their work/life balance. That said, no one should then begrudge the one person who does put in the extra time, bends their back, and gets the rewards.

Who said killing yourself is not in the interests of your company?

Tell that to my shareholders. They know I can operate on four hours sleep a day. I am sure they prefer me to work than to spend time with my kids. The long-term-investor view should be that Sahil needs to maintain his family priorities because if his family implodes, he will be less effective as a leader of our investment. Then again, not many investors have a truly long-term view. There is an unfortunate direct correlation between the hours I put in and the likely success of mag nation.

Despite there being diminishing returns on my time beyond a certain point, there are still positive returns. To elaborate, if my first 10 working hours per day are worth $10 per hour to the investors, the 11th hour may be worth $9, the 12th hour $8 and so on. Still my 19th working hour would still be worth $1 to the investors. As long as I am not destructive and my work produces value, and I can function the next day back at the $10 an hour mark, there are real benefits to my company for me putting in my time.

Some final context

I am not saying that working smart is a bad thing. That would be a tad silly of me. Rather, my experience so far tells me that working long, hard hours has been a pre-requisite for any successes in my life.

I am sure a bunch of sickening geniuses will pipe up telling me just how amazing and successful they are and how they have not killed themselves to get there. I hate you all. But when people ask me about starting their own business, I will continue to make mention of the need for copious amounts of hard work.

The only substitute to really hard work that I have found is incredibly good luck.

Sahil Merchant is founder of mag nation. Follow him on twitter: @sahilmerchant. His launch post can be found here.