Just recently, I saw two startups go into "overdrive" mode. By overdrive, I mean the days of working 24/7 come into being, and you can see the bleary eyed entrepreneurs staying up late for nights on end, working to get their products up or maintaining them, doing it knowing that resources are tight and that there is no one else to turn to but themselves and that there is no where for slackers to hide.
Startups are inevitably short staffed. There isn't enough cash in the early stage to hire enough people to do everything they want to do. I often warn them about the work that is required and hope that they have some forewarning. But I balance that with not scaring them so much from backing off on what they need to do and motivating them to stay up 24/7 and do what it takes, no matter what.
It's easy to just give up. Go home and go to sleep. The leader needs to whip them into working every day and not going home until it's done. The leader constantly needs to remind them that the survival and livelihood of the startup is at stake and that the future rewards are what everyone is working towards, and yeah it sucks in the present because you're working 24/7 and getting butt tired.
To me, motivating them is easy. I tell them about my experiences in the early days of Yahoo. Surely they sucked from the standpoint of us getting no sleep, being perpetually tired, and knowing that your social life is gone. But I will definitely say the bonding experience of working in a small team and doing what it takes to get the product out the door is one not to be missed. Staying up late knowing that you're not alone, and that there are others depending on you, and that you all are there working your butt off means you build trust with your teammates. You really find out what you and your cohorts are capable of, and who is going to give up or not.
It is like when you build a squad in the Army and you go out on patrol in hostile territory. You have no choice but to watch each others' backs. Once you go out on patrol a few times and the enemy pops up and tries to shoot and kill everyone in the squad, but it doesn't happen because your squadmates have saved you and you have saved their asses more times than you can count - there is no substitute for the bond that forms knowing you've all been through the trial by fire and come out knowing that you can depend on others to watch out for you.
You never know how someone will react until they are put under stressful situations, and in depleted situations where your personal resources are stretched to the limit. A lot of people can't take it. They collapse, give up, run away. The Army or early stage startups is not where they should be.
But those who survive the test, and you, knowing who does and who does not, will know who you can trust at the eleventh hour and who you cannot.
It is a badge of honor amazingly enough. I used to tell stories of the old days at Yahoo and the new hires would be so impressed about the endless weeks of staying up all night getting stuff done. They seemed to idolize that. I shrugged it off mostly and just chalked up to storytelling about the old days, but I think deep down inside they wish they could have been part of that energy to do what it takes and don't stop until it's done.
The team unity of creating something and getting to the end is a huge factor. The satisfaction you get from watching something launch, after weeks upon weeks of working on it 24/7 is a feeling of accomplishment that transcends. You know you've accomplished something super difficult and watched it birth out to the world. On the Internet, the unfortunate thing is that you can't fire and forget products; you need to worry about after they launch as users come onto the system and you then worry about post-launch things like the servers going down under unexpected load or maintaining editorial content on the pages, etc. The funny thing about Web products is that really there is no end. I've often stayed up late with teammates watching products go up, and then I go home to get a few hours of sleep, and get into the office before everyone else just to check on what we launched the night before. Most of the time you hit the site with your browser and everything still looks good; however, there are times when you login at 7am (after going to sleep at 3am) and....nothing pulls up...! You pick up the phone immediately and wake everyone up to figure out what's wrong with the servers and the game goes on...
By the way, if you're the leader of a team, I would strongly suggest you stay up with the team. Nothing is more demotivating than the leader who tells you to work all night, and then goes home at 5pm leaving the team to continue working. If you want respect from the team, there is nothing like telling them to work all night, and then staying up with them. This is even if you have nothing to do. I've just sat in my office at times, reading a book or sometimes even taking a nap while my team works around me.
So today I am out of that environment mostly, but I still retain the ability to operate on virtually no sleep. I thought about this a lot and offer some tips on increasing your ability to work endlessly on no sleep:
1. Vitamin C. I drink a packet, sometimes two of Emergen-C which is 1000mg of Vitamin C. Back in the old days, we'd have bottles of chewable Vitamin C and pop them like candy. There is conflicting research into whether Vitamin C really keeps you healthy or not, but I for one am a huge believer that pumping your body with Vitamin C prevents a lot of diseases that you can catch due to lowered resistance from lack of sleep.
2. Tums. Sometimes stress and no sleep can cause your stomach to do weird things. I used to take Tums to calm my stomach from excess acid and gas. It helps a lot.
3. Working out seems to increase your tolerance to operating without sleep. Dean Karnazes is noted for his ability to operate on four hours of sleep a night, getting up at 3am to run his daily 4 hours for ultramarathon training. My belief is that exercise is key to training your body to be able to function with less sleep. You keep healthy, you achieve deeper sleep during your lesser sleeping hours from being tired from exercising and it removes your stress. It clears the mind and helps you think clearer as well.
4. Along with exercise, you just adapt physically to operating on less sleep. Remember in college when we used to study all night? We seemed to be fine doing that for months on end. I think humans can build the ability to operate on less than 5 hours of sleep a night. Hunker down mentally and just get up even though your body and brain doesn't want to. Keep moving all day and don't stop moving. Coffee helps, but try to do it through mental fortitude and not drugs.
5. Having a sleep recovery day is beneficial. I try to do this on a weekend night where during the week, I may be getting 4-5 hours a sleep a night but then on Friday I don't go out, crawl into bed at 9am and wake up whenever I feel like it. Recharging one night a week really helps.
6. The last and most important: POSITIVE ATTITUDE. Here is where I think the mind-body connection really comes into play. If you feel like whatever you do is dragging you down, you WILL GO DOWN. On the other hand, if you are energized with what you're doing, you enjoy it, you are driven by it or any one or more of many other reasons, you'll be able to do it and more. Try to find something that really interests you, that you can sink your teeth into and enjoy, something that TURNS YOU ON. Believe me, you'll be able to work 24/7 for months on end and not look like the cat dragged you through the mud.
The days of working all day and all night are not to be missed. Everyone should experience it. It'll take you to heights of creativity, turn you inside and out, bond you to a group of people with common purpose and you'll party like it's...well, not 1999 but maybe 2999 when you launch. I highly recommend it. You'll thank me.