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June 12, 2008 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Facing critical burnout - how do we keep our business on track without killing ourselves?

We're two folks in our twenties who've been running a web hosting and development business for five years (and on the side for five years before that). We're the only two employees. We're also married - to each other. The marriage part is going gangbusters, the business part is wearing us down.

For the last 18mos. we've both been doing this fulltime, and for 12 of those 18mos. we've been struggling to keep up - 20 hour days, no weekends, and any help we have tried to bring on so far has been sub-par to say the least. We are exhausted. In addition to being front line support for the hosting side of the biz, we're also in the thick of several development projects - and I mean several. As in, ten. And the harder I try to get things organized and under control, the more unexpected situations crop up that leave me flying by the seat of my pants. More times than I can count I have wished for a mentor or a secretary or about ten more programmers, but in the immediate, I'm faced with a partner who's definitely showing the strain and I want things to be more manageable so we can start enjoying our accomplishments a little more and maybe not just feel like we're on an endless treadmill. Time off would be nice. I have no idea where to start.

It's Monday morning and I just pulled an all-nighter, not to finish a project, but to stay on top of support for the projects I finished in the last two weeks - which puts me behind in development for this week, and who knows what my inbox may bring? Our mail server has been spotty since Friday and my partner finally looked up after 3 days of trying to fix it and said "I don't care anymore." I hear that. It's hard to care when you feel like you're being bludgeoned from all sides.

Where do we go from here? We clearly need assistance, but our efforts so far have been discouraging. What can I do to help our business grow while allowing us to have a life in between?

I've created an email address for followup questions at sleepydrone AT gmail DOT com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need to start charging more.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:56 PM on June 12, 2008

Seriously -- charge more, and fire a couple of clients.
posted by crickets at 3:00 PM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

And look into a virtual assistant to handle the real-life stuff that must be passing right by you. (Bills, birthdays, etc.)
posted by crickets at 3:01 PM on June 12, 2008

sometimes the best way to keep a business growing is to cut back, in the same way that you'd prune a tree to keep it healthy. the way you're working and living right now is not sustainable, and it doesn't make you happy, so it's time for a change. go through your list of projects and figure out what you can put off, what needs to be done now, and perhaps most critically from your description—what you can actually hire other people to do. and then either hire people, or outsource those tasks to another business. many small business owners make the mistake of trying to do everything themselves, to save money and to make sure everything is done perfectly, but at some point you have to hire other people. for you, this is that time.
posted by lia at 3:02 PM on June 12, 2008

In addition to being front line support for the hosting side of the biz...


My experience suggests you simply cannot be frontline service of any kind and really do any kind of development that takes immersive thought. The former job/hat/role is interrupt driven, while interrupts are a huge drag on the later.

It's also important to note that while system administration and development skills can overlap in a person (and it's rare to find someone who can do one who couldn't learn to do the other at least marginally well), they're often diverging roles for a reason.

It sounds to me like you need to hire at least 1-2 other people, and start deciding who's going to take on what role. This is problematic, of course, because then you add a new managerial role to the dynamic, and that will carry some overhead, but it sounds like it's either that route, or prune some clients (never a bad idea to do a cost-benefit analysis on clientele).

I suppose there's another option: outsource. Find someone who has the system administration side of things down cold and resell their services instead of doing everything in house.
posted by weston at 3:03 PM on June 12, 2008

also! start scheduling downtime and stick with it. if you're working 20 hours a day every day you're probably so tired physically and mentally that you're not getting 20 hours worth of work done. the beauty of being your own bosses is you can make your own hours—as Bruce H and crickets said, take less jobs and charge more for the ones you do take.
posted by lia at 3:05 PM on June 12, 2008

We clearly need assistance, but our efforts so far have been discouraging.

What efforts? You don't mention trying to hire an assistant. I am unclear why you CAN'T hire an assistant. Hire an assistant.
posted by tristeza at 3:07 PM on June 12, 2008

One of the most difficult skills for me to learn as a freelancer was this:

"Sorry, I can't take that job right now, I'm overbooked."

Sounds like you need to work on that one as well. Obviously you can't bail out on ongoing responsibilities or things you're already contracted to (getting your mailserver fixed, etc) but at the very least you need to stop taking on new development projects for a while, until you can dig yourself out of this hole.

In the longer term, it may also be worth doing some triage on your client list. If you track the number of hours you devote to each of your clients, and the number of situations that suddenly crop up out of nowhere, you'll probably find that the majority of them come from a minority of your clients. If you're not billing everything by the hour, this means that some clients are costing you more time and attention than they're worth, and you'd be better off without them. Consider encouraging these clients to seek hosting elsewhere. (Be professional about it, don't just dump them out in the cold, but there are ways to do this that save face for everyone: "We're sorry, your needs have outgrown what we're able to provide; here are some other hosting providers that may be better equipped to do X, Y, or Z than we are.")

This is a really difficult thing to do; I never like turning away work, and it's no fun disappointing people who've come to you for help. But if I took all the jobs I'm offered I wouldn't be able to do any of them well, which would disappoint all of them -- that'd be much worse.

In contrast to many of the people who've answered while I was typing this, I don't think hiring more people is necessarily the right way to go; it depends on the kind of company you want to run. If you want to stay a small, high-quality boutique, that's a perfectly reasonable business model; don't hire someone you're not absolutely certain is up to snuff. (But keep in contact with the ones who are mediocre or better; they're the people you can pass on the overflow to.)
posted by ook at 3:21 PM on June 12, 2008

Look, in any business, there are parts that only you can do, or that you only feel comfortable doing yourself. If that alone is virtually killing you, than take everything else and outsource it.

If you MUST do the development and support yourself, then outsource the billing, the accounting, and the telephone answering even. Anything you actually can outsource, do.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:21 PM on June 12, 2008

Seconding the division of development from support. The same people doing both is a bad recipe, in my experience. Even if you have the time, it's a bad mesh: the priorities and values are in conflict with each other.

Do you make more money per hour from support or from development? It's hard to be good at both. What if you could be better at just one?

Of course, outsourcing is hard unless you get very lucky, since almost everyone you could partner with is also a 'competitor' of sorts, which adds its own stress.

You need to either hire a lot more people, enough to bifurcate the labor, or start turning down work. When I worked in a web shop in th 90's there was a maximum of one open project per person (total), so a team of four developers could only have four open projects before needing additional hires. Why on earth do two people have TEN open projects?

Finally (and it's hard to remember this) turning down work is not bad for your business. There's nothing wrong with being busy or in-demand. You are not obligated to say "yes" to everyone who wants to hire you.
posted by rokusan at 3:27 PM on June 12, 2008

I also like Bri's suggestion.
posted by rokusan at 3:27 PM on June 12, 2008

I've been in your shoes before, and it's a tough place to be. It's amazing to have all the business you could want, but frustrating to realize you just can't handle it.

Here's what I would suggest:

1. Take a deep breath; take a step back and evaluate what you have going on. The changes you make now won't alleviate the stress of the next few days/weeks. You just have to deal with the time before you can start implementing your changes best you can.

2. Evaluate what you can have someone else do. I know when you run your own business it's hard to give up control of anything - you're afraid someone else can't do it as well, or that training them is harder than just doing it yourself. It's not true. Trust me. Start with the lowest level tasks, the ones that a trained monkey could do (hosting support is a great example of this, there are so many companies online that you can outsource this aspect of your business to.) Look online to find your support (,,, and don't expect the first person you find to be the right one. You'll eventually find the right people.

Also think outside the box. Can you get someone in to clean your house so you don't have to? Can you take a few hours on a weekend to stop into one of those places that help you setup meals for a week? Can you hire a dog walker to take your puppy out?

Get rid of any low-level tasks that you can.

3. Evaluate the value of your projects, don't say YES to everything. Learn how to say NO. This is a big one. People are writing articles about this.

I had to try really hard to break myself of this habit. Someone would offer me a project, and as long as the money was OK, I would accept it. A lot of times, the money was barely what I would consider break even for the amount of effort I was putting in, sometimes it wasn't. When you have as much work as it sounds like you guys have, it's better to take on fewer projects at a higher premium. If these are hosting companies who need dev work done, then have a backup list of designers you can refer them to if you're too busy. You'll still look like the hero when your recommendation does great stuff for them.

and finally:

4. Charge more for your work. Some clients will say "no", but the extra money and the free time you get back will from those that say "yes" will make up for it.
posted by finitejest at 3:36 PM on June 12, 2008

It is my understanding that providing web hosting and e-mail is not a high profit business as it's very competitive and everyone over-sells capacity.

With this in mind, could you offload the web hosting and e-mail to a 'managed server' with a reputable major supplier? That way fixing the e-mail server will be included in the fee you pay, instead of using up your partner's time.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:09 PM on June 12, 2008

How much of your development work can you automate? Is it all custom? Even if so, I'd imagine there are things you can do to streamline it.

Also, outsource certain things, like your mail server. Services like Fastmail can make your life easier in ways you can't even begin to imagine.

I'm in the middle of bootstrapping my second business. One of the best things I've learned is that you need to take a step back and get a real look at your operations. You'll find some things that you aren't doing the smartest way, but doing out of habit/necessity due to the time crunch of the workload. Taking the time to get these things fixed will pay out huge, and allow you to scale down the road when your business really takes off.
posted by zap rowsdower at 4:12 PM on June 12, 2008

Nthing the suggestions to charge more. It lessens the workload, gets you higher quality clients, and gives you the income you need to hire someone.
posted by PatoPata at 4:41 PM on June 12, 2008

A book called The E-myth Revisited addresses your problem pretty exactly.
posted by jennyjenny at 4:42 PM on June 12, 2008

A lot of good advice here, but I thought I'd come back around to the issue of the hosting side of your business. As others have noted, the interrupt driven nature of IT operations and support isn't very compatible with software development, but I question whether it's even a good business to be in.

Web hosting is incredibly competitive. It only seems to make sense to do it if you are doing it a large scale (which you must not be if you are two person shop that also does development). If you are doing it because it simplifies deployment of the dev work you do, and it gives you a chance to make more money off your dev clients, I'd look into whether you develop a relationship with a good hosting company and turn a lot of it over to them, including the help desk function. You could decide whether you wanted to resell it under your own brand, or if you would just take a commission or something.

Keep in mind that hosting has become so competitive that some people are giving it away for free (ie Google).
posted by Good Brain at 5:03 PM on June 12, 2008

There is such a thing as bad business.

Clients that are more trouble than they are worth are not worth keeping. Keep the profitable clients, ditch the rest.

Are you into code reuse? Develop standards and stick with them. You should be able to bolt together an application with pre existing parts. If not you are doing something wrong.

Ditto hosting- it's not worth the effort. Leave it to the big guys.
posted by mattoxic at 5:32 PM on June 12, 2008

n'thing that your first step should be to hire an assistant to handle office tasks and other low-level work like doing the mail and phones and hiring a customer service manager. consider someone with a bit of experience who has shown he/she knows how to set up such a department and run it. expect this person to be comfortable doing it all on his/her own with minimal supervision and scale it as your needs expand.

if in spite of the way your business is going you cannot afford to hire people consider what others wrote above about your prices.

I hear you loud and clear on finding a mentor but you need to start reaching out in your industry or at business schools of local colleges/universities to find the right person. this takes time and energy but can be the most helpful thing ever. your ideal mentor doesn't need to be as technologically-in the moment as you are, this person needs to know how to run a small technological company and how to scale a business from a mom-and-pop small business into a mid-size company. you need someone to help you lay out the plan for the next five years. if this sounds like what a consultant does, it's because it is. the key is to find the right person. go to small business meetings. talk to people. I realize this will only happen once you have hired people to take a little bit off your plate.

(also: pick up the harvard business review. lots of great case studies that, while dealing with larger operations, might help you a lot.)
posted by krautland at 6:36 PM on June 12, 2008

Repeat after me:

"Oh gosh, I'd really really love to work on such a great project, but we just can't take anything on for the forseeable future; we're focused on taking care of our existing projects. I'm sorry that I don't know anyone to refer you to, and I'm flattered as heck that you thought of us. We're working on solidifying our business so that we know it's sustainable over the long run; I hope you understand. It would be great if we could work together in the future, though."

This approach has made life more bearable for me, personally. Although turning down two theater groups that I respect mightily hurt a lot at the time, I'm so so glad I did, especially since my existing clients keep asking for more work from me.
posted by amtho at 8:15 PM on June 12, 2008

Our mail server has been spotty since Friday and my partner finally looked up after 3 days of trying to fix it and said "I don't care anymore."

Get thee to Rackspace. Seriously. If what's making you money is the development (which I assume it is), plan a deployment to a managed hosting provider (the fanatics at RS are astounding in their abilities), offload the twitchiness and monitoring of the server, hire an assistant to answer calls/provide basic techsup/etc., and get some time off.

Good luck.
posted by liquado at 10:31 PM on June 12, 2008

From a really good article on burnout:
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Maslach’s research is that burnout isn’t necessarily a result of overwork. It can be, certainly. Michael Leiter, a lovely Canadian fellow and frequent collaborator of Maslach’s, has elegantly called burnout a “crisis in self-efficacy,” which to me suggests that head-banging feeling of struggling mightily for too little or (worse) nothing in return.
According to Potter, “The antidote for burnout is personal power, or a feeling of ‘I can do,’ a belief that you can act to control your work.” She lists eight paths...
The article also has several long paragraphs on how interruptions are a particularly notorious culprit.
posted by salvia at 10:35 PM on June 12, 2008

As others have said, if you're that busy then you need to charge more, turn work down if you're too busy or it's not profitable, and try to partition off the two sides of the work. Running hosting is one of those things that can be easy money when all is going well, but an absolute killer when things go wrong, which is why I steer clear of getting too involved in it.

To try to break the current cycle, sit down and work out which tasks can be put off. Yeah, I know, it's all urgent, but you have to prioritise and start ticking off projects instead of juggling them, even if it means apologising to a few clients. Don't work late more than 2 or 3 times a week, and don't work all night unless it's to meet a final deadline after which you can take a rest (does it really make sense for you to have worked all night on general support tasks, given how it'll affect your performance for days afterwards?).
posted by malevolent at 11:24 PM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you sure those employees are sub par? Lots of people forget that they have a reason to go above and beyond, and their employees don't... thus, when employees fill the requirement but don't go above and beyond, they resent their employees. Don't go down this path.
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:26 AM on June 13, 2008

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