My discipline will beat your intellect

I meet 4-5 new entrepreneurs every week as part of my office hours on Go-to-market help for young startups. Most are based in Bangalore, but surprisingly some are from other parts of the world (Chennai, Singapore and Estonia, even, via Skype).

I have an observation about work ethic that I wanted to highlight among startup entrepreneurs from various parts of the world.

Most every entrepreneur will tell you they work extremely long hours. That’s par for the course. Some “older” entrepreneurs (usually over 35 years of age) will share their ability to “strike a balance” between work and life. Practically speaking (I hate to break this to them) that does not exist in a startup. If you have that balance, you are not serious enough about your startup.

I understand they have families and kids, but I have come to the realization that both smart work and hard work are necessary (but not sufficient) to run a successful startup.

For purposes of this post lets define success as a company that’s growing significantly and rapidly, but does not have an exit yet.

The difference between a rapidly growing startup and one that’s growing “well” is productive (smart) hard work, not just long hours.

If you mistake activity (# of lines of code, # of code check-ins, # of customer discussions) with progress (shipping product, usable and must-have features, or # of active users) then you are just doing long hours.

If you mistake milestones (funding secured, new employee hired) for achievement (# of paying customers, churn rate of existing customers) then you are just doing smart hours.

What then makes smart and hard work such a potent combination? And what really is “smart work”? And how many hours make up “hard work”?

I define “smart work” as a combination of 3 things – asking the “right questions“, having a plan and maximizing the number of experiments in unit time.

I define “hard work” as the most amount of productive work time, with limited to no distractions and ability to do it consistently, for years (not bursts of weeks, not months and certainly not just for a few hours).

Lets look at both smart and hard in detail. Smart, first.

The smartest people I know have learned the art and science of asking the right questions. They usually start with asking a lot of questions, and having literally, no or very few answers. Each answer leads them to more questions. Asking the “right questions” is what they derive from experience.They have assumptions that need validation, hypothesis that need testing and results that need to be measured.

They are also willing to conduct a maximum of 2-3 experiments and have a DIY (Do it yourself) approach towards conducting those experiments to see if their assumptions and hypothesis were valid.

Finally they have a plan to approach their experiments. Not just a “lets try this and if not lets try that”. They rarely “wing it”.

Its very easy to spot smart teams. They have a sense and measurement of what “Continuous Visible Productivity” is. They come to me with a list of 2-3 questions that they want to address in a meeting. They dont just come to the meeting and pick up the whiteboard and start to “brainstorm”.

Now lets look at teams that work hard.

Hard working teams dont ever mention “how many hours they did put in last week or yesterday or that they hardly got “any sleep”. They realize and are aware of their physical limitations and are usually well within those limitations. Rarely do I hear from them “We work the hardest of all the teams” or “We have not slept for 2 days”. They keep looking for time they can cut away from unproductive work to do more questioning, experimenting and planning. In other words they dont brag about their long hours. They assume its a given.

Hardworking teams also tend to compartmentalize very well. Some people call this “bucketing” or “chunking”. Just because they work hard, does not mean they dont give their brains a rest and goof off for a while. Rather, they “compartmentalize” their goofing off or exercising to derive the benefits of a relaxed mind and body.

Finally hardworking teams are consistent. They show up day after day, week after week and go through questioning, experimenting and planning with rigor and consistency.

I realize a that being smart at work and working hard as I have laid out is extremely difficult. In fact its rare. That’s why successful startups are rare.

The combination is what I call startup discipline. Which is why I firmly believe one startups discipline will beat another’s pure intellect (given that hard work is assumed) any day.

21 thoughts on “My discipline will beat your intellect”

  1. Mukund, I noticed your art of communicating your view points in a structured article! awesome simple yet powerful.

  2. Great post Mukund – though I slightly disagree on the work ethic and discipline part. In my personal experience I think the constant focus on work ethic and discipline (work hard part) is the completely wrong way for an entrepreneur to go about his work.

    I ran a 24/7 shop the first stint as an entrepreneur for an year and a half and everything crashed and burned. The next time I ran it 8/4 and business grew well month-on-month. Now I do more like 5/3 and feel more in control than have anytime in the past. Please note that these timings reflect mostly the in-office/on-desk time. If you account for the time I think about work outside work – it would be pretty close to 80% of my total awake time – the rest 20% being full of distractions optimized to again get more from the first 80%.

    I think entrepreneurs are better served getting completely rid of the work ethic and discipline part and instead replacing it with a flexible schedule designed to follow your instincts.

    Case in point – a monday morning and the entrepreneur doesn’t ‘feel’ like working. Instead of forcing yourself to be disciplined and report to work – the entrepreneur probably needs to think about why she doesnt ‘feel’ like working. Typically, this instinct is a result of the last nights mental computation which questions the entrepreneurs current reality of her business – maybe a better understanding of the markets in which she operates in or a better realization that the current operations are suboptimal.

    In my limited experience the best ideas about business will come outside your work place – in the shower, when you are running or driving – typically activities which have relatively low amount of subconscious effort and demonstrate visible progress (distance being covered in the case of running). The subconscious effort results in free mind-space to focus on the business and the visible progress feeds the ‘reward’ regions in the brain helping it focus more on the bigger business problems.

    Going back to the example above, I think the entrepreneur is better of in actually taking ‘of’ work and ‘re-calibrating’ his brain to account for the new understandings. This is also critical because most humans need to very clearly see the link behind their daily actions and the long term goals. A high confidence link propels work efficiency probably to 2x to 3x levels of normal. So even though the entrepreneur looses out on the ‘productive’ monday in the short term, the resulting efficiency gains resulting from the ‘re-calibration’ will more than offset and land the entrepreneur much ahead.

    However, a lot of times the ‘feeling’ of not working might not just be a need to re-calibrate – it could be a result of a burn-out or an occasional health/personal problem. In either case, I think the entrepreneur is better served in figuring out the root cause and taking it head on, rather than trying to wish it away and follow the path of ‘discipline’ and ‘work-ethic’.

    On the contrary, still there are times when the only way to countering this issues is to actually follow a path of discipline and work-ethic – but this has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Broadly speaking, the current institutional and social focus on following discipline and work-ethic does more harm than good to most entrepreneurs.

    1. This is a great alternate point. Very similar argument to scientists who do incremental work versus those who make a difference (albeit better accepted and understood).

  3. A must read blog post for all entrepreneurs in India and elsewhere. Having worked for a few in recent past, this strikes a chord straightaway. Every word rings so true. Often startups confuse “hard work” with “smart work” with people working all 7 days a week for months on “wrong” deliverables and focusing on the “in-probables”; eventually resulting in frustration, failure and the top talent leaving soon. Defining clear SMART goals is fine, but defining these in terms of “revenues” and actual deliverables is where most companies miss out on. In other words, I need X number of email ids by spending Y amount of money is fine; but how were these X number of email ids useful to push the bottom line, where there any repeat buyers from these, did the acquisition push down the CPAs, did collecting email ids from a specific region or demographics perform better in revenues and pushing down CPAs than other regions – is where most companies miss the bus. They work hard, but lack the aptitude and skillset for stressing on ‘smart work’.

  4. Now this post is a stimulants of sorts : This is JUGAADONOMICS for Indian startups:

    Between smart and hard work – i would put the startup work as Jugaad work, which typically addresses our day to survival efforts.
    How do we achieve our purpose conversions?
    How do we derive efficiency in various spheres like finance, operations, HR / Admin,
    How do we manage mundane irritations that bite us like ants
    How do manage and our network? and
    How do we survive?
    Drive our actions everyday with purpose conversions in smaller chunks/ mile stones and as you have said compartmentalize work

    Think there is a scope for us to redesign our ways of working and build a model here.

  5. Mukund great commonsense outline on running a startup! Entrepreneurship is not for everybody, and for those whom do it on a daily basis, week after week it doesn’t feel like work. You do it because you want to make something not because there is money involved. In any great endeavor you need to focus and make sacrifices, you simply cannot have everything at once. Schedule time to relax, be with the family, to clear your mind etc. Finally, don’t complain this is what you wanted to do, so stick with it!

  6. Nice post. Would be great to see such a critical analysis about angels/investors of India too. Something like Bothsidesofthetable thing. It seems totally worthwhile to reveal the difference between desirable and actual behavior of these so-called angels/investors on the forum.

    There is very little content to help the second most important stakeholder and make the eco-system better. Probably because of schmooz up!

  7. Beautiful article! Always wondered what great achievers meant when they said ‘hard work’. This definition applies not only to entrepreneurs but rest of the ‘commoners’ as well.

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