Business Advice for the Entrepreneur

When you become an entrepreneur, you realize you never really worked that hard for your boss. You probably feel you need to spend every spare moment working on your business. But are all those hours actually productive?

How much are you willing to give to your business enterprise? I keep hearing people say they are giving 110 percent. This gets stretched up to 1,000 percent. That’s a lot to give. We all know that there is only 100 units of percent in 100 percent. I think. But I begin to wonder when I hear about these new multiples of effort. I realize that it’s hyperbole, but even so, repeated falsehoods become part of the language, and before you know it, reality begins to comply.

There is a larger point in these mathematical distortions. What entrepreneurs are really saying when they insist their effort is 110 percent is that they work harder than they expected to work. Heck, they worked harder than they thought themselves capable. On that score, I understand completely. When you start a business, whether it’s a small accounting practice in your den or an aircraft engine manufacturing enterprise, you’ll put in more effort than you ever did for your boss.

Part of the shock that comes with owning a business is that you find out you never really worked hard for your boss. You thought you worked hard, but admit it, you were giving about 45 percent. “Oh, no, no, no, no,” I hear you thinking. “I gave a lot to my boss.” Well, tell me this, when you worked for a boss, did you plow through paper work while on hold? Did you answer emails at the same time while you were discussing intricate contract details on the phone. Nope, when you were getting a regular paycheck, you spent some time each day giving your thoughts on how Renee Zellweger saved “Cold Mountain” from its dreariness.

When I first launched a business, I found out what it means to really work. I had been a good employee, by comparison to other employees anyway, but I had never worked so hard in my life as I did when I first started a company. I was convinced I was giving the fledgling enterprise 110 percent effort. In reality, I was probably giving it a good 75 to 80 percent. Something funny happens when you dig in and really work. Your capacity to work expands. What seemed to be an extraordinary effort at first, becomes routine.

Then you get into the number-of-hours per week game. You convince yourself that it takes 60 hours per week to run a new business. You talk with a fellow entrepreneur who says she puts in 80 hours per week. Someone else tells you 120. And so it goes, right up to the 168 hours that actually are in each week. Then more.

When I started, I put in 60 to 70 hours per week. Real hours, week after week. In reality, my effective effort level was probably 80 percent, and the number of hours it took to do the things that really moved the business forward was probably 30 or 40. In all fairness to my younger self, when you first start a business, you don’t know which of those 60 hours actually moves your business forward. And likewise, you don’t yet know that some of the effort you put in during those 60 hours either has no effect of moving the business forward or has the effect of moving the business backwards.

Knowing which hours are actually productive takes time and wisdom. Forcing yourself to not work the hours that are not productive takes discipline. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. I now put in a 35 to 45 hours each week. In the past it would take me 60 hours to get the same results. I’m probably giving a 90 percent effort. Compared to my young self, who put in 150 percent.

Entrepreneurs out there, be careful with your work and effort. You can really make a mess of your relationships and health working 60 to 80 hours when 40 hours will do, or putting in 150 percent when 90 percent will do. And yes, Renee Zellweger did save “Cold Mountain” from its dreariness.

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