Calacanis and Workaholics

Posted on March 11, 2008
Filed Under BS-Free Advice |

Jason Calacanis’ latest flare-up of chronic foot-in-mouth disease got the Web 2.0 blogosphere’s panties in a knot. Some have lambasted Calacanis for advocating that companies should “Fire people who are not workaholics” while others have come to his defense.

My take? As usual, Calacanis shows that he’s still a few years short of wisdom. So let me throw in my advice.

Productivity is Not Measured in Hours Worked

The workaholic employee who puts in 14 hours each day may not be getting as much done as the more efficient employee who puts in 8 hours each day. Different people work differently - some work harder, some work smarter.

Great employers don’t ask, “How many hours are my employees putting in each week?” They ask, “Are we consistently achieving our objectives and hitting our milestones on schedule?”

Productivity is defined as “A measure of the amount of output per unit of input.” A company is on the road to failure if it’s not getting the output it needs - even if its employees are working an ungodly number of hours.

As such, Calacanis should focus less on measuring how much input he’s getting from his employees and start focusing on how much output he’s getting.

Balance is Good

You don’t have to be a workaholic to have a work ethic. Employers that seek out workaholics instead of employees with good work ethics are seeking out trouble.

David Heinemeier at 37signals wrote a great response to Calacanis’ argument that employees who aren’t workaholics should be fired. In it, Heinemeier notes five reasons why workaholics are actually the ones who should be fired. Perhaps the most important observation:

Workaholics may well say that they enjoy those 14 hour days week after week, but despite their claims, working like that all month, all the time is not going to be sustainable. When the burnout crash comes, and it will, it’ll hit all the harder and according to Murphy at the least convenient time.

The truth is that maintaining a solid work-life balance is healthy. Scientific studies have demonstrated that individuals who have balance in their lives are happier, less-stressed and more productive than their less-balanced counterparts. That’s good for employers.

Calacanis might live to work, but demanding that kind of one-dimensional life from employees is the mark of a one-dimensional leader.

Employer-Employee Relationships Are a Two-Way Street

Great employees are willing to go the extra mile for their employers but also typically expect that their employers will go the extra mile for them as well when appropriate. In other words, great employees are givers and takers and so are great employers.

Most of Calacanis’ advice is focused on taking from employees. Even when he’s giving, he’s doing it because he thinks what he’s giving will enable him to take more. For instance, his willingness to buy an employee a computer for home is predicated on the assumption that the employees he does this for will work at least three extra hours a week from home, making the “investment” worthwhile in dollar terms. This is a crude justification and shows a real lack of leadership common sense. In this case, one of the risks in buying computers for some employees while not doing it for others is that it could potentially alienate the employees who don’t receive computers and who may not understand what appears to be an arbitrary decision.

When Calacanis’ backtracked on his hastily-written post, he commented that Duncan Riley’s headline on TechCrunch should have been “Calacanis fires folks who don’t love their work.” Calacanis apparently has some understanding of how important it is to have employees who enjoy their job but Calacanis seems to be woefully unaware that employers play a major role in making sure that their employees love what they do.

Non-executive employees at a startup have a different level of investment in the startup than the founders and executives. Even though a developer could conceivably become a millionaire in a major acquisition, it’s important for employers to recognize that even non-executive employees who are dedicated to making the company a success don’t have as much incentive as executive employees. Therefore, it’s important to invest non-executive employees in their success in other ways.

Asking employees to use their cell phones as their business phones, not encouraging/allowing employees to go out to lunch or on coffee breaks and are not tactics that good employers use to cultivate an “I love my job” attitude in their employees.

Just as two spouses in a happy marriage probably don’t have a formula for determining how much they each give and take, good employers understand that they can give to their employees without always having to calculate how much they’ll be able to take in return.

A Shit Company is a Shit Company No Matter How Hard Employees Try to Make it a Great Company

One of the reasons I personally believe even the most ambitious entrepreneurs should maintain balance in their lives is that there are no guarantees that your hard work is going to pay off. It may not seem fair, but quite a few people who are extremely “successful” didn’t work that hard for their success. They were at the right place at the right time, got lucky, knew the right people, etc.

Most new businesses fail, and quite frankly, in the world of technology, the vast majority of startups (like Mahalo in my opinion) are shit companies. A herculean effort is not going to change the fact that a company doomed to failure is going to fail.

When you take your final breath, you’re probably going to regret things that happened in your personal life (not spending enough time with family, not traveling as much as you wanted to, etc.) more than you’re going to regret things that happened in your professional life (working for Jason Calacanis, not selling your social networking company to Yahoo for $1 billion when you had the chance, etc.).

After all, your most precious asset in life is your time, not your money. Wasting it working 16 hours/day at Mahalo probably isn’t the wisest use of that time.


Not everybody is cut out to work at a startup. If you’re looking for a cozy 9 to 5, it may not be for you. But anyone under the impression that you aren’t fit for the startup world if you’re not willing to sacrifice a healthy personal life for a pipedream is foolish. After all, it seems like some members of the Web 2.0 clique making time for extracurricular activities.

At the end of the day, I think some of Calacanis’ advice is borne out of the fact that the economics of Mahalo more closely resemble that of a sweatshop than they do an innovative technology company. That’s problematic given that Mahalo is competing in a market where innovation has typically been the most potent changer of fates. And no, using another startup to stream your coverage of the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl is not “kind of innovative.”

Finally, I would suggest that Calacanis set a better example for aspiring workaholics. Some of his blog posts appear to be the work of a bored soul and his feed seems to be a little bit too active and a little too filled with useless information. Why would a self-professed workaholic CEO be posting Tweets about , () and the release of from jail? Yes, they were posted with Mahalo Follow but if I had invested $16 million in Mahalo I would hope that the CEO has better things to do.

Fortunately for Jason Calacanis, talk is cheap. Unfortunately for his investors, a stake in Mahalo isn’t.

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2 Responses to “Calacanis and Workaholics”

  1. Jason on March 11th, 2008 10:30 am

    Quick note: everyone at Mahalo has stock options, and every can make their own hours as long as they are there for the staff lunch (which itself is optional, but sort of the anchor of the day).

    So, while I love to save time–mine and everyone elses–with things like extra montiors and expensive coffee machines that eliminate trips to starbucks, many folks still take breaks in the afternoon. Some go for a run (in the office gym or their own!) and some go for starbucks… it really up to the individual.

    i restated the fire folks who are not workaholics to fire folks who are not passionate to make it a little more clear.

    fact is, we have almost no turnover at Mahalo… folks love the job and folks are obsessive about making Mahalo into a really valuable service for the benefit of users around the world–and for the value of their stock options! :-)

    all the best, j

  2. Sean Murphy on March 12th, 2008 12:02 am

    A lot of folks confuse effort with results and face time with team work. Especially as more and more startups look like global networks, founders need to develop a management style that isn’t derived from a kindergarten teacher approach of ongoing direct surveillance to ensure no one wanders out of sight.

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