How realistic is ‘work-life balance’ if you’re running a business? Can you successfully grow an ambitious enterprise on 40 hours a week?

Alborz Fallah

ExpertMedia founder, CarAdvice founder and Entrepreneur in Residence at The University of Queensland

LinkedIn  |  Instagram

In order for an ambitious enterprise to be successful, it must be built on a foundation of perseverance, determination and a relentless desire to succeed. If you are concerned about having to work more than 40 hours a week, don’t work for yourself. That attitude is not that of an entrepreneur, but an employee.

I am of the opinion that if you’re running your own business, it should be your passion and therefore you are doing it because you have a burning desire to do so, not just because you have to. Those two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but they are fundamentally different.

In that context, some weeks you might work 60-70 hours and some weeks you may work 20. You do whatever it takes to succeed. Don’t keep count of the hours. As a founder and business owner you are not being paid by the hour, you are building financial freedom by doing what others are not willing to do.

I have personally always found it extremely difficult to balance my work with my family life. In the startup phase of my businesses, I would estimate that I worked at least 60 hours a week on average. But I never kept count. I did not spend as much time with my kids or my wife as I should have. 

It’s much easier to find a healthier work-life balance after you have achieved a certain level of financial success. However, I am yet to meet a single successful business owner who does not pick up the phone when a client rings at 6pm on a Friday.

Manuri Gunawardena

HealthMatch founder and chief executive

LinkedIn  |  Twitter

I think balance is essential, but it’s your definition of balance which is crucial to making both professional and personal life work.

Where I think that most conversations about work-life balance get derailed, is the belief that there is this perfect rule that is going to reflect every day of every week, assuming that workload, personal commitments and everything else in life is constant and always under control.

Whilst I’ve been travelling in the US in recent months, I’ve heard a lot around a concept called ‘work-life harmony’. It’s the idea that you might need to duck out of work, during your normal working hours to take care of a personal emergency or maybe an errand, but you may also have to jump on your laptop at 11pm at night to fire out a few quick emails to keep a deal moving.

In my opinion, it’s a bit more realistic about what is achievable, especially in the realm of startups.

I think the most important element regardless, is that people do need to find what works for them. In an early-stage company, it’s just the reality that often you have far too many things to do and far too few hands so it does become a real crunch and it puts pressure on to work long hours. In the same sense, no one wins if you or people on your team burn out.

I don’t think any entrepreneur will say that consistent 40 hour weeks was how they built their company to great heights. Consistency and balance probably are words most entrepreneur’s struggle with, but there are no prizes for burning out and making terrible decisions because you haven’t given yourself a break. It’s important to find a rhythm that works for you.

Lucy Liu

Airwallex co-founder and president

LinkedIn  |  Twitter

Anyone working at a high-growth startup will tell you that the boundaries between their professional and personal life will inevitably blur. It is becoming increasingly difficult to completely separate work and life, especially in a hyperconnected world where information is instant and constant. This especially applies to a founder, who is often at the epicentre of critical business decisions, sometimes at all times of the day. Running a global business also requires a founder to be accessible to other teams across different timezones.

Building Airwallex from a small startup in 2015 to a fintech unicorn today has been an incredible journey. The success was not achieved overnight. It did, and still does, command long hours and serious commitment. I have had to work very hard, and while I love what I do, I also try to integrate my personal responsibilities into my work schedule. For example, flexible and remote working has allowed me to continue to pursue my love for travel, and to also spend quality time with my 17-month-old daughter.

The best advice I can give to other founders is to be flexible and accept that work will often intrude on your free time, and that the reverse is also true. When you launch a startup that you are truly passionate about, your work and personal lives will naturally blend into one.

Adam Schwab

Luxury Escapes co-founder, angel investor and former corporate lawyer


Can you grow a successful business working 40 hours a week?

 It depends, although almost certainly not.

That said, there aren’t too many professional jobs that are 40-hour weeks. Most lawyers, bankers or doctors work double that (this isn’t necessarily a good thing, but an unfortunate reality).

The difference is though, with a startup or your own business, working 80-hour weeks doesn’t feel so bad as you’re building something, especially if you’ve got a co-founder working towards a common goal.

And if you’re lucky enough to create a business that employs hundreds of people or establishes a genuine brand name and legacy, you’ll be able to make a (hopefully) very positive contribution to society in general. It’s hard for a lawyer to say that. (Lawyers, of which I was one, are little more than a tax on society.)

One of the key characteristics that I look for in angel investment is grit that is, the ability to overcome obstacles and problem-solve, even during times of great adversity. The corollary to that is it’s pretty rare a gritty founder isn’t also working 60-plus hour weeks.

We all speak from experience, and my experience as a very hands-on chief executive and founder for almost a decade was one extreme. I didn’t have a day off for almost 10 years — that includes Christmas, NYE, my wedding day, my honeymoon. That doesn’t mean I worked 14 hours every day, but there wasn’t a single day where I didn’t do at least a few hours work. (That’s not to say all my work was useful; a lot of it probably shouldn’t have been done.)

Some founders would be able to work less for sure, some no doubt worked a lot more, the main point is don’t expect starting a business to be easy it’s almost certainly not. 

There are plenty of founders who worked for years only to have their company fail, so hard work is only one part of the equation. You need lots of luck, good timing and a great team.

NOW READ: From revitalising retail to liquidising almonds: Nine breakaway Aussie success stories of 2019

NOW READ: The meaning of success: Five business leaders on whether they feel successful, and what the word even means


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