As a green entrepreneur with a delicate startup on the line, every minute of the day feels like it has a $ attached to it.
I can spend 15 minutes making breakfast, or 15 minutes making a network connection that might lead to a major deal that might just catapult my business into another dimension.
I know the likelihood of landing my “big break” when I would have otherwise been making breakfast is slim at best. I know that in my mind, but as I’m standing over the toaster, I can’t help but consider the opportunity cost.
So while considering the tradeoff between wheat toast and another message sent, I am reminded of the relentless power of margins. Operational slack. Creative space.
Margins translate to options. Having a margin as an entrepreneur allows for pivots, new ideas, redirections. It means I can jump on the latest iteration of a project with a fresh mind before I’m drained by the monotonous tasks of the day that come with being an office of one. Margins allow for better client service, more attention to detail, and, dare I say, more room for fun. Remember fun??
But don’t just take my word for the power of margins in the day-to-day of a small startup. Tom DeMarco, an expert on making space for creativity, researched and wrote Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency back in 2002. The concept of slack, as he describes it, is just as (probably even more) relevant today. Not just in a giant corporate workplace, but in the living room offices of startups and entrepreneurial ventures alike.
DeMarco explains how an obsession with efficiency drives us to squeeze out as much margin as possible. The result is no cushion for when things go south. The inevitable sickness, family issue, distraction, or error can derail the whole project, leading to expensive missed deadlines and mutual frustration.
All because we confuse efficiency with effectiveness. Efficiency is having no waste while doing whatever we’re doing. Effectiveness is doing the right thing, and it says nothing about forgoing breakfast to add 15 minutes to the workday.
As entrepreneurs, it seems that by chasing the dream of total efficiency, we actually build ourselves a concrete box we can’t grow out of. Or worse, we spend so long with our nose to the grindstone, focused on survival, it takes years to realize we don’t even like what we’ve built.
Margins create space for fun, new ideas, mental health, room to say no, and room to say yes.
I will end with this quote, which I think quite nicely sums up the long-term effects of pursuing margins.
“The secret to doing good research is to always be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” – Amos Tversky