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Startup founder hierarchy of needs

Last week I was on a panel discussion at an internal Seedcamp “people summit” event to help their portfolio companies think about their teams. My panel was titled “Employee Wellbeing and Sustainable Leadership” and I was asked to talk about some of the experiences I had creating and running the HumanOps community, a series of events I helped start about managing the people side of technical operations.

Within the startup community, there exists a dangerous culture of overwork. This has been dubbed “hustle porn” and includes minimising sleep, working excessively, constant travel at unsociable hours, always being available (usually on chat) and no holidays.

I’m not sure exactly where this non-stop culture has come from because it is the opposite of what successful CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Ariana Huffington have talked about, but things are starting to change.

Tweet by @dhh
Tweet by @dhh

The final question on the panel discussion was to give one piece of advice to help startup founders run their companies more effectively.

No doubt you have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My answer was an adaptation of the psychological element of Maslow’s hierarchy to suggest four core needs that must be satisfied before the startup itself. I certainly didn’t follow them all myself to begin with – it’s easy to get caught up with the pressure to deliver, and survivorship bias is a real problem – but these are crucial to developing a sustainable work ethic.

Startup founder hierarchy of needs #

The Startup Hierarchy of Needs
The Startup Hierarchy of Needs

These are the core needs that every founder must satisfy, in this priority order, before they can be effective at their startup.

  1. Sleep – without good quality, uninterrupted sleep, everything else suffers. Bad sleep is linked to poor mental and physical performance. Everything else is based on this core foundation. Recommended reading: Why We Sleep.
  2. Nutrition – finding the perfect, evidence based diet remains difficult. However, the basic principles are easy – reduce meat, eat a variety of vegetables and avoid processed foods and sugars, especially in liquid form. It is not difficult to buy good quality ingredients to cook at home, but travelling does make it more of a challenge. Hotels have surprisingly few healthy options and you can quickly get bored with salmon every night! Recommended reading: The Diet Myth.
  3. Exercise – cardio and core strength training make up the third and final key physical need. Sitting is hugely damaging to health and regular exercise a key recommendation from every health advisor. Walking meetings are a good idea which also reduce unnecessary participants. When travelling I tried to always pick hotels with a pool so I could swim daily, or at least get on a bike in the hotel gym.
  4. Family (floating) – ideally the best way to look after your family is to look after yourself first, but sometimes you have to shift these priorities depending on age and need, which is why this is labelled as “floating”! Nobody is indispensable and if things break when you have to unexpectedly step away from work to deal with an emergency, you have failed as an executive. Hire senior people who know their brief and delegate key tasks – nothing day-to-day should rely on you as the founder. One of the great things of owning your own business is flexibility, so if you cannot use that advantage to help family in need, what is the point?
  5. The startup – only once you have satisfied the above four needs can you work effectively on your startup.

There are many other things that could be included in the list above. Friends and social interaction are important, as is having a calm work environment and regular breaks and holidays.

Exceptions are also allowed. Aiming for 100% compliance is unrealistic. There will be the occasional early flight or late evening conference call. But these should be rare and saved only for true emergencies or during those few critical times in the life of a startup such as an M&A transaction.

However, these are the foundations everything is built on. If you focus on these four needs then not only will you increase your chances of success, you will enjoy the journey as well.