The concept of “work smarter, not harder” isn’t new to the business world. It’s all over inspirational posters, coffee mugs, face tattoos — it’s practically scripture. I believe it’s thrown around too loosely. We write it off as another clever proverb that’s easy to say but damn near impossible to implement.
Half of my career was spent chasing this idea yet burning the candle at both ends — that was until I heard a piece of crazy sounding advice from a business coach, which changed the way I view both hard work and business leadership in general.
In 2008, after having sold my shares as a partner in my first design agency, I began a second creative agency focused on the digital space. Just in time for “The Great Recession.” I was young (well, younger) and burning for bigger success, despite the circumstances.
For two years, I pulled 70-90 hour weeks, which was normal to me and expected — I even felt guilty when I did less than that as if I wasn’t being responsible for the business. Then in walks Sue Love, a veteran business coach. We discussed how I was running my business, and in full transparency, I thought she was off her rocker and wholly disconnected from the reality of business ownership. She said:
“If you have to work more than 40-50 hours to make your business run, your business is broken.”
See what I’m saying?? Bullshit!
When I refuted her statement, we began to discuss what it means to sell a business; after all, that’s when the true value of your company is revealed. If, as the CEO, I am spending 80 hours a week to get the job done, what will it cost the business purchaser to replace me? Assuming I make $155,000, the average salary for the CEO of a small business, then the new owner will need to pay at least another $100,000 per year for an employee to cover all the extra work I do. You might say, “Wait, plenty of employees work more than 40 hours a week, what’s the problem?” That’s not how business evaluations work. They are based on legal requirements, which include a 40-hour workweek.
Right out of the gate, my profit is now down by $100,000 (after taxes, that’s more like $117,000), which means the evaluation will go down anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000 — that’s a lot of money!
I’ve spoken with several small businesses recently who believed their companies to be profitable, only to find during acquisition that they would actually be losing money if they were running their company legally.
Yes, I said legally, which leads me to the next point.
“If you cannot run your business legally, your business is broken.”
That’s an easy one to believe. The problem is, we often do not look at working employees over 40 hours as illegal, but it is. At this point, I was beginning to see her point, although it still sounded unrealistic.
“Great Sue, but how? If I stop working 70 hours right now, my business will tank.”
She said: “Yes, sometimes you have to work overtime, but if it’s consistent, you will never solve the problems that are breaking your business.”
For example, let’s say my company of 30 employees is struggling with cash flow. I decide to double down on sales, so my sales team and I get out and hustle. We work an extra two hours every day, sometimes more, just to get more proposals out and more meetings on the books. (people are now starting to fall asleep at their desk) maybe you even pull an Elon and put a cot in your office.
Boom! You finally moved the needle! Yet all you did was solve a short term problem, one that will return quickly. The problem is not cash flow, that is the symptom. The problem is a lack of awareness, leads, marketing training — anything that is hindering sales. Look, this is fine to do once in a while, hell, COVID makes it even more so, but if this is an ongoing issue, then you have a broken business.
“If you’re unable to zoom out to the big picture, your business is broken”
Instead of solving the problem, you burn the midnight oil. And then ten years later you wonder why your company still has limited employees.
This is where the 40-hour workweek comes into play and the part that changed the way I approach business. By forcing yourself to work within that limitation, you are forced to get creative and solve the actual problem, not the symptom. It causes the real underlying issues with your company to rise to the surface, giving you clarity on what actually deserves your attention. As a business owner, you need to look at the big picture — that’s not possible without brain space, and brain-space requires just that: space.
This philosophy completely changed my business in less than a year, and two years after that, I was able to sell it. In challenging myself to work only forty hours a week, I had solved the problems keeping my company in a hamster wheel, and I proved both our stability and profitability. The buyers saw a company that could virtually run on its own. It was a machine.
The bottom line
Problems must be solved, not overpowered. Hard work is a tool, not a solution, don’t let it be an excuse for a lack of creativity. And yes, as a business owner, you are (and must be) creative.
By restricting your work hours, your priorities will shift towards the true underlying problems that are preventing your company from excelling. The brain space it creates will bring both clarity and enable smarter decision making. Not to mention you’ll live longer.
Lastly, when seeking to solve a short-term problem such as cash flow, challenge yourself to simultaneously solve the more significant issue underneath. You can achieve multiple goals with one action, but only if you prioritize creative problem solving over hard work.