Why I don’t advise entrepreneurs to work from home

Mar 21, 2012
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Yesterday I wrote an article about the difference between accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, offices, and houses; the article was meant to talk about how certain locations are best suited for certain types of startups and types of entrepreneurs. In the comments section, readers got upset that I said that people working at home tend to have a certain “unwillingness to make any financial commitment  to their idea.” As the comments section got heated – mainly by certain entrepreneurs who are currently working on their project at home, either full-time or while balancing another full-time job – I thought it best to re-address the issue in a dedicated post.

My first concern: Discipline

I work in my bed a lot. It’s nice. I can sit in my San Francisco Giants pyjamas, sip my tea, and respond to emails at my leisure. And that’s the problem. Leisure. We hear glory stories of Steve Jobs sitting in his garage with the Woz, and it’s easy to think “well if he did that and was successful, I’ll do that and be successful!”

Here’s the problem with that logic: trying to align your story with a success story by recreating certain parts of the success story does not a success story make. This is the same logic people use when they say “Zuckerberg and Gates dropped out of Harvard and became billionaires, so don’t go to college.” I would love to see the statistics on students from Harvard who dropped out to start a company and the number of them whose projects didn’t become worldwide successes. They might not have the same opinion about prematurely stopping education.

I find that it is very hard for people to discipline themselves to the extent required in a startup. I’m not talking about forcing yourself to work or making a roadmap, I’m talking about respecting that roadmap. After all, that’s the entire purpose of an accelerator program: they set deadlines for you that you have to respect. Why do you have to respect them? Because the opportunities they present to you down the road are only useful if you’ve done everything leading up to that.

If you can maintain the same rhythm of work, not only in terms of hours but in terms of productivity, meeting self-imposed code-pushing deadlines – then I say ‘go for it.’ But before I give you the OK to work at home, let’s look at another concern

My second concern: Financial Commitment

Let me make this perfectly clear: Financial Commitment means you pay money that was in your bank account in order to fund your project. Time spent working on a startup is not a financial commitment. Money spent maintaining minimal web-hosting services is not a financial commitment. Letting cofounders live on your couch rent-free so you can all work on the startup in the same place is not financial commitment. The following is financial commitment:

  1. Quitting your job (either with or without unemployment) to work full time on your company
  2. Paying a monthly sum for work space, whether co-working, incubator, accelerator, or office space

This may sound harsh, or even unrelated, but the key in all of this is ‘commitment.’ One commenter said that they would go from working at home to renting an office space once investors gave him money to do so. Do you think investors really want to invest in someone whose commitment level only matches the profitability of their venture?

Startups are risky. Startups are risky. Startups are risky. They are risky for VCs. They are risky for employees. They are risky for lawyers, even. But most of all, they are risky for the founders. And if you aren’t risking your own money, why would a VC, an employee, a client, or a user want to take a risk in using your product?

The Hard Truth.

When someone tells me they work on their startup from home, the image I get – as a journalist, as an entrepreneur, as an employee – is of someone who is not willing to commit. Even worse is if you are a sole founder: my father was a single founder running a startup out of his home. It took him nine years to realize he wasn’t getting anywhere. You know why? Because there’s no one around you to tell you you’re not getting anywhere. And then the more you go out of your house, the more people seem to ‘not understand your idea’ (read ‘doubt that you’re making progress’) and so you talk about your idea less, or go out less. Less feedback means less learning. Less learning means less progress. Welcome to the Land of the Living Dead.

Going to a co-working space, an incubator, wherever, means that not only do I have to justify to myself the amount of money I’m spending each month, but I am constantly confronted with feedback, suggestions, insults, ideas. I spend most of my time working at DojoBoost, and startups are constantly telling me about their progress, and I’m constantly pushing them to do more, because that’s what they need.

It is possible to do a startup at home – it has been done before, and it will be done again; however, it is just as much risk as any other part of a startup: the risk of living in the land of the dead, of never progressing, and never even knowing. So if you are willing to take that risk, to constantly spend your time setting goals for yourself and giving yourself feedback, then go ahead and do your startup at home. I’d much rather focus my time on progressing and leave the feedback to my peers.