All or something

You can win on your own terms even if you’re not all in.

One of the most pervasive myths of startup life is that it has to be all consuming. That unless you can give your business all your thoughts and hours, you don’t deserve success. You are unworthy of the startup call.

This myth neatly identifies those fit for mission: Young, without obligations, and few if any extra-curricular interests. The perfect cannon fodder for 10:1 VC long shots.

They’re also easier to rile up with tales of milk and honey at the end of the rainbow, or the modern equivalents, “compressing your working life into a few years” and “billon-dollar waves”.

But running your life in perpetual crunch mode until the buy-out or bullshit-IPO fairy stops by your door is not surprisingly unappealing to lots of people.

The problem is that most “exciting new company” lore is intermingled with that of Startup Culture™. This means it’s hard to find your identity when it doesn’t match the latest company write-up of How Those Crazy Kids Turned VC Millions Into Billions!!!

Most people will look at that and say that’s not me. I don’t have 110% to give. I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have other interests. Where’s my place in the startup world if all I have to give is 60%? What can putting in part-time give?

The good news is much more than you think. The marginal value of the last hour put into a business idea is usually much less than the first. The world is full of ideas that can be executed with 10 to 20 hours per week, let alone 40. The number of projects that are truly impossible unless you put in 80 or 120 hours per week are vanishingly small by comparison.

This is of course nothing new. We’ve been playing this bongo drum for years. But every time I see people crumble and quit from the crunch-mode pressure cooker, I think what a shame, it didn’t have to be like that. It’s the same when I read yet another story about someone who won the startup lottery, and the stereotypical startup role model is glorified and cemented again.

It’s almost like we need another word. Startup is a great one, but I feel like it’s been forever hijacked for this narrow style, and “starting a business” just doesn’t have the sex appeal. Any suggestions?


I originally wrote this essay five years ago, but was recently reminded of its evergreen appeal, so I thought I’d repeat myself.

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