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by • January 17, 2017 • FoundersComments (1)30

Surplus time

While most folks invest to beat inflation’s 6% (or whatever) each year, Mark Cuban suggests sitting on a large pile of cash and accepting that you’re going to lose some each year. The reasoning is that even very super-rich folks have trouble getting their hands on lots of cash in a hurry, so having it sitting around means you can pounce on limited-time deals noone else can pursue. It’s Taleb’s Black Swan strategy: expect to lose small so you can eventually win big. It’s hard to notice the problem of trying to get the most out of your money by putting it all to work since you don’t visibly lose anything. Instead, you just miss out on the biggest opportunities, which is much harder to see.

The core issue here is over-optimisation. By trying to ensure every dollar does its job in the short term, you end up doing less well in the long. Adding some slack (ie. intentional inefficiency) into the system ends up giving better results[1].

Time works the same way.

You obviously need some extra time to get started[2], and then every founder understandably wants their business to move as quickly as possible. But to move fast, they tend to keep everyone (and especially themselves) very busy.

I spent 2015 working alongside one of these super-hustler sales guys that technical founders dream of. He kept himself unbelievably busy on bizdev whereas I kept about 80% of my time intentionally empty (a point of minor contention). At year’s end we were surprised to see that we had each closed almost exactly 260k worth of deals. Why did I get easier results? I wasn’t just poaching his best leads, as we had separate pipelines and dealflow. Instead, I think the advantage was my surplus time. When he saw an especially big lead, he was already running at 100% capacity. Whereas I had nothing to do, so I could happily make a proposal or hop on a plane right that moment. He did loads of small deals and I did a couple big (for us anyway) ones. Plus I ended up using my surplus time to do a bunch of experimental stuff that moved the business forward, whereas he just used his extra hours to make us all feel guilty about how hard he was working

Gabe Weinberg touches on the idea of surplus time in Traction when he suggests that you ought to keep 50% of your time allocated for growth related projects, even if you don’t know what they are, because you’ll only be able to respond to a given day’s micro-opportunities (like a news story) if you’ve got the extra time set aside. One of the big mistakes technical folks make is optimising their time too tightly around product and clobbering all the other priorities.

Damage from over-optimisation gets bigger in complex systems, as we saw with the banks in 2008. If you’re acting by yourself, doing this wrong can only cost you some missed opportunities (although those can matter a lot). But if you allow your whole company to maintain a state of constant busyness, any unexpected interruption ripples through the organisation at great cost. We suffered from this hugely: Rob was too busy to finish his slide deck before the big conference talk, so Devin gets called on to take it out; but now Devin’s not able to do the client handover before Sal heads to the meeting; not that he could have gotten in touch with Sal to do it anyway, since Sal is unavailable due to some prior ripple of overly busy schedules colliding predictably with reality.

We got so frustrated by these ripples of urgency that we introduced some pretty outrageous inefficiencies into our working processes in order to give them enough slack to be harmless. My favourite was that you’re not allowed to ask anyone anything that requires an answer within a week. The results were hilarious and ultimately hugely helpful. The first month or two were a disaster. We dropped leads (couldn’t ask for help on proposals or pricing or calendars), missed project deliveries, and generally pissed off everyone we were in contact with. But we stuck to the rule and found ways to solve each problem that wouldn’t cause urgency ripples: robust client handover documentation, a per-project readme, a standardised pricing list, polished sales material. Essentially all the shit we should have done ages ago but never bothered with because we could always just interrupt someone else to get it done.

I was never able to convince my busybody business partner that he should work a little less[3]. That’s a worldview and you can’t reason your way through it, no matter how convinced I was (and still am) that scheduling less gets more done. But at least we recognised the danger of urgency ripples and took the hard steps to prevent the splash damage these busy folks cause.

For individuals, surplus time is an asset. It’s like an untapped oil reserve beneath a country: latent wealth you can draw on when an opportunity or need arises. For larger groups, surplus time is one way of adding some slack into the system to reduce the presence and damage of urgency ripples.


[1] Manufacturers are also long familiar with this idea. If you’re making computers costing $500 in parts and need to have 5 stocked in each of 2000 stores globally, then you’ve spent $5 million (on parts) out of your pocket that you won’t see until ages later when all those computers are [hopefully] sold. The response to this is lean manufacturing, where you ideally don’t make anything until the customer has ordered it. As long as you’re quick enough that the customer doesn’t go somewhere else, you can use that 5 million on other, more productive causes like marketing or expansion. This one idea is how Dell ended up so successful in the 90s. However, if you take lean manufacturing to the theoretical extreme of zero inventory, you have a dangerously over-optimised system that will fall apart from the slightest disturbance. So again, manufacturers always keep a bit of slack in the system.

[2] Company foundation is a case where time and money are non-interchangeable. A bit of money an speed you up, but I’ve met folks addicted to their finance jobs who try to replace the lion’s share of their early involvement by writing a check, which never works. Startups get started by creating value form nothingness via some alchemical mixture of time, insight, skill, and effort, and it doesn’t seem you can outsource that.

[3] Years earlier I worked with a designer whose work ethic put the protestants to shame. He couldn’t handle a day where he wasn’t busy to exhaustion. Once, memorably a big lead finally came in that needed some prompt design work. We excitedly told him and he threw his arms up in exasperation saying that he’d been up all night working on something [unimportant] so he couldn’t possibly start on this today.

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One Response to Surplus time

  1. […] cultures vary, but the quality of urgency/busyness is always present. Although busyness hurts the business[1], it’s fiercely contagious since the infected (aka busy people) are visibly suffering and […]

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