Startups and the 4 Hour Work Week

I tend to read a lot of books. Some are typical science fiction and fantasy fare, but I often read business or personal productivity books as well. One book that I had put off long enough was The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. I do not agree with everything in the book, and I am not looking for a “mini-retirement” either, but there are some very good points in the book. Given that these points are generally good advice, I wanted to relate how they can be applied to a startup. If you are not familiar with the book, it is broken into 4 sections D, E, A, and L, and this post follows the general outline of the book. Also, please do not kill me on the specific details of the book as I am only paraphrasing and applying the information to an area it is not targeted at.

D is for Definition

  • Know what you are spending time and money on. If you do not know, then you do not know what you can improve. As a startup, you may have $1,000,000 of funding, that does not mean you need to spend it now.
  • “Rules that change the rules: Everything popular is wrong”. Tim spends an entire chapter on this for a good reason. Popular acceptance of something does not mean it is right, it might just have better marketing. Another good quote I have heard over the years is “question everything”. Is there a reason to do a task in a particular way? If not, maybe change the way you are doing it, or eliminate the task entirely.
  • “Dodging Bullets: Fear Setting and Escaping Paralysis”. As a startup, realize that you will most likely fail. If you are going to fail, fail quickly so you can continue with something else. If you constantly try to avoid failure and plan for the future, you may not realize that you have already failed or the opportunity has already passed.
  • What are your goals and how do you get there?
    • Develop short term and long term goals.
    • Determine the costs to achieve each goal.
    • Determine the costs of not achieving each goal.
    • Determine the “revenue” of achieving each goal. If the “revenue” does not exceed the cost, then maybe the goal is not really a good idea. “Revenue” may not be actual dollars, but it could be as simple as time.

E is for Elimination

  • Do not do “time management” if it takes more time to manage the process than it does to do the task. Sometimes, the personal productivity and time management systems can allow you to create “busy work” that really just gets in the way of doing something truly useful.
  • “The Low-Information Diet: Cultivation Selective Ignorance”. If your startup is based on social media, then there is very little reason for you to read about PC and server hardware. You may think that you will need to know eventually, but typically you will just be hiring someone to do that job anyway. Let them read about it.
  • “Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal”. I like to think of this as “Know when to say no”. If someone needs your help, it is common courtesy to help them. Business is not about common courtesy, it is about actions and profit. If you do not have time to help, tell them. If another startup is looking for a partnership, but you are not ready to really partner with them. Tell them you can not partner with them at this time, but in the future it will be a good idea.

A is for Automation

  • Outsourcing can be a tremendous help to any startup. One item that Tim talks about is getting a virtual assistant. You may not really need one, but you can try them out by using something like Elance as a test. Some startups even outsource their development to teams in other countries like India. Granted outsourcing development is hard, but if you know how to do it and you get a good team, you can do very well (see Social Median).
  • For any business, you need to find out whether you can actually make money. Look at the industry you are targeting and how much money you want to make. Is there a sufficient number of customers?
  • Creating a business plan is not entirely optional. However a business plan does not need to be 40 pages. If you are not getting funding, write down the most basic concepts in one page. Try to limit yourself to the one page so that you can focus on core concepts. If you need to get funding, then you can fill in the details based on your one page summary.
  • “Testing the Muse”. Before a big launch or announcement, do a limited release of your service. Get an idea of whether people like what you are doing and get feedback. This feedback could turn your startup from a nice service into something much bigger.
  • “MBA – Management by Absence”. Even if you are not planning on taking a “mini-retirement”, automation is critical. Automate anything that can be automated. If automation of a task does not work out in the long term, you can always do it manually. Automation can save huge amounts of time, and for a startup time is almost more important than money.

L is for Liberation

Liberation is the section that does not have a direct translation to a startup, but some things can be adapted.

  • “Disappearing Act: How to Escape the Office”. Vacations are important, probably even more important in a startup given the tensions and the time spent working. Give employees more than the traditional 2 weeks of vacation, and do not criticize them for taking it. A week away can significantly recharge an employee.
  • “Beyond Repair: Killing Your Job”. Is every position really needed within your organization? If not, combine responsibilities and have the unnecessary position eliminated. Do not eliminate the employee, because you hired them for a reason and they can likely do something else.
  • “Mini-Retirements: Embracing the Mobile Lifestyle”. Mobility and telecommuting can be very helpful for a startup. You might want to work with someone who lives on the other side of the country. Technology has given us the ability to work remotely, why not take advantage?
  • “Filling the Void: Adding Life After Subtracting Work”. At some point, the startup gets over the initial releases. Work may be able to slow down and the hours get scaled back. If people do not have enough work to fill a typical work week, look into research projects and prototypes. Google has used their “20% time” to spawn various new products. You never know where your next idea could come from.

As you can see, there is plenty of useful advice from Tim’s book that can be applied outside of a single person. Even if you are not trying to have “mini-retirements”, a startup can benefit from the book as well. You never know where you can get some good ideas.

6 thoughts on “Startups and the 4 Hour Work Week

  1. For testing out I actually suggest ‘get a freelancer’ rather than elance – elance is way more on the expensive side.

    Also for startups they should more think about automation as a way of eliminating steps of what to do – just ‘get an assistant’ is too broad.

    Looking throught the book and similar threads on the net one should be able to start thinking about ‘how can I streamline my live better’. In the end it may not even come out to be a virtual assistant but about getting more aware of how to manage / process tasks. 🙂

    Startups have a lot on their plate, so they should be looking for areas where a task is easily defined and outsourcing partners have exact options for it. Like setting up the tools for the blog, monitoring google alerts for mentions of the company and compile the clipping etc etc.


  2. Nicole, thanks for reading!
    Elance was just an example, one take from the book. Freelancers and sites like elance are really good resources when the need arises. Automation is huge for a startup (and it is discussed a few points after the assistant thing). I am not a big fan of the virtual assistant, but it is an interesting idea to try out and it is a simple form of outsourcing. In general, I think we all want to “do things better/easier/smarter/faster” so any advantage we can get we need to take it. I absolutely agree with your last point, any tools/partners that can do things that are not your core competency are immensely useful and great time-savers.


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