When the culture meets the grind

How to control the chaos, find peak productivity, and not burnout

I thought I was going to die. I was going on consecutive 18 hour days of straight up coding, fueled by caffeine, Doritos, and endless cartons of Chinese fried rice. I was pretty sure I was at my breaking point.

A month earlier, I bombed a demo of an internal sales and customer tracking app I was tasked to build as my probationary period project. Everything that could go wrong did. I could not login. The app crashed when I ran the first search. The UX was clunky. Error prompts kept popping up.

The VP of Sales cut in after ten minutes and laid down an ultimatum, “Get it working in one month or else.” This was my first job in software engineering, and I was pretty sure it would be my last.

I dragged myself bleary eyed into that next demo a month later. While the demo was not perfect, it was good enough to buy me some time. After several more weeks of intense iterating and testing, I rolled out the app to the entire field team and the app became a roaring success.

We all go through these intense periods in our life where our limits are tested. These are our crucible moments that make us dive deep and help shape our future selves. While I would never want to return to that period of my life again, living through that experience forged the path to where I am now.

The story I shared was from an established tech company, but it is one that plays out over and over again in startups. With limited resources, funding, and time, startups are particularly vulnerable to long stretches of intense, non-stop, and soul-crushing work. Every single startup faces the grind.

The constant state of the grind and hustle has huge downsides

I was just at an event this past week speaking with a founder that had not taken a vacation or a salary in two years, and he is only now at the point of launching their product. Another founder shared how she had to call all hands on deck to save a key customer from defecting. Many all-nighters were pulled, and while the account was saved, the team was absolutely drained.

We previously shared how important it is to establish the culture of the startup from the onset. Culture sets the foundation of the startup and how it innovates. A company without a strong culture eventually becomes a free-for-all that lacks alignment, purpose, or collaborative spirit.

The good news is that more founders are recognizing that culture is not an afterthought or a bunch of empty values pasted to a wall. They are embracing their role as chief culture officer and ensuring that the culture is ingrained in all aspects of the business, from hiring to decision making to customer engagement. The result is that employees are more aligned to the vision of the startup, feel included in the workplace, and are empowered to do their best work.

That is until the grind hits. You cannot prepare for it, the grind just happens. Whether it is a customer outage, closing a major customer deal, raising funds to stay afloat, shipping a major new release, losing a critical employee, there are times when most, if not all, the team is impacted. The result is that the team has to operate at an even higher level and put in even more hours.

It can be hard to square the culture you had so carefully crafted with the grind. If the grind happens intermittently, that is to be expected in a startup. That is why having an established culture matters; it is the glue that keeps the startup together during the rough stretches. If the grind is constant however, that may be a signal that the startup is veering towards a toxic culture that priorities the hustle over the well-being of the team, including that of the founders.

Founders should hustle as they are pursuing a bigger vision. You are creating something from idea to reality to prove what’s possible! However, there is a cost to the hustle and at some point, you will have to pay the receipts. Many founders shared with us their struggles with poor health, mental well-being, burnout, employees quitting, and personal lives impacted. There was a notorious Twitter thread from a Microsoft engineer sharing his experience on the Internet Explorer 3 team (the one that finally beat Netscape in the browser wars), where he shared the following:

“Sadly, there were divorces and broken families and bad things that came out of that.”

For a few people, they might be willing to make such costly sacrifices. The overwhelming majority of people, including the hard-charging type-A personalities, however would draw the line at allowing work to destroy their families. Suffering a toxic culture is not worth the price.

As a founder, your job is to ensure that the grind does not become the normal operating mode of the startup. Not only is it not sustainable, it will actually impact your ability to achieve results as you start to confuse activity for outcomes. At Amazon, one of our leadership principles is “Deliver Results”, which means prioritizing our work to focus on outcomes that move the needle for our team and company.

The important word in that principle is “prioritization”. In startups, the work never stops, you will always feel behind, and it is impossible to catch up. Because you cannot do all the things (nor is that your job), you have to be exceedingly disciplined in what work you do.

One simple tool we have used with startups is called the Eisenhower Method. By assigning activities to one of four quadrants, you can begin to visualize where time is spent, measured along the spectrum of urgency and importance.

Eisenhower Method for prioritizing work

Most startups spend the bulk of their time in the “urgent and important” quadrant, because everything seems important. Your goal should be to ruthlessly prioritize and spend more time in the “important but not urgent” quadrant. Shifting focus here allows you to learn, think, and strategize. This also gives you the space to automate or remove undifferentiated work, enabling you to give back time to your team.

This may cause a lot of hand-wringing as first, especially as you start to remove activities that occupy the “not important” and “urgent and important” quadrants. Being able to prioritize work that has long-term impact will become your superpower that leads to better outcomes. As Steve Jobs said:

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

How often does your startup operate in grind? What are some ways that you are helping the team to reduce workload and stress to be more effective?

One bit of good news for startups is that VC funding had a slight uptick in the past quarter. Okay, not huge numbers, but global funding inched up to $84.5 billion from $79.0 billion in Q1*. Total deal volume continues to decrease though, meaning VC’s are taking a hard look at quality and traction. The result is that VC’s are continuing to remain cautious, focusing their funds on supporting their most promising portfolio companies and extending the time to make new investments.

Another bit of good news is that tech IPO’s are back (sort of)! ARM went public and winded up with a valuation of nearly $68 billion on their first day of trading. Instacart and Klaviyo will go public next week, and there is a lineup of other potential IPO’s including rumors of Reddit, Databricks, Stripe, and Chime.

To give some perspective as to why this is such big news, this year has only seen 29 startups IPO, down from a high of 414 startups in 2021. This is welcome news to founders and investors alike as this gives investors more hope of exits (and returns) from their portfolio, an easier path to raising future funds, and freeing up capital to deploy into more startups.

*Numbers based on a rollup of sources including Crunchbase, Pitchbook, CB Insights, and others

Basil was at AWS Cloud Day UAE on September 12th where he shared his thoughts on building your startup with an AI Co-founder and met up with plenty of startup founders. Check out the pics below 😊

Stellar day at the AWS Cloud Day UAE 2023!

We also launched our new AWS Startups Show on LinkedIn Audio this past week. Though there is no recording, we plan to host a regular show and will be inviting startup founders to join us soon.

Catch up on updates for future live audio shows on LinkedIn!

As a reminder, we are back out on the road this month and next, so catch up with us and say hello if you happen to be in any of these locations:

  • Lima – The AWS User Group Peru conference is coming up on September 23rd and Mark will be speaking as well as meeting up with startups that week.

  • Johannesburg – The last summit for EMEA is in South Africa, AWS Summit Johannesburg, on September 26th, and Basil will be there with the AWS Startups Team.

  • Hong Kong – Come join Mark at the AWS Startup Day Hong Kong on September 26th to talk about what startups are doing to innovate in the downturn.

  • Taipei – After Hong Kong, Mark hops over to Taiwan from October 4th–7th for the start of the 42Geeks East Asia tour to dive deep into various startup hubs.

  • Seoul – Part two of the 42Geeks East Asia tour lands in South Korea from October 7th-10th to explore startup innovation and investment ecosystem.

  • Tokyo – The last stop on the 42Geeks East Asia tour winds down in Japan to learn and meet with local startups and investors from October 10th-14th.

  • Dubai – This is GITEX week from October 16th-20th and the whole city will be buzzing with tech and startups! Find Basil at the AWS booth to chat about Gen AI, startups, and strong coffee

  • Jakarta – One of the best tech events in Southeast Asia is the Tech in Asia Conference, from October 18th – 19th, Mark will be onsite to interview founders to share their stories.