Four years ago Jean de la Rochebrochard landed his dream job when he was hired to pick out startups for one of France’s most famous business angels. The catch: potentially infinite work hours.
“All these new friends suddenly wanted to meet me,” says Rochebrochard, a partner at Kima Ventures, the startup investment arm of billionaire Xavier Niel. “I was studying hundreds of opportunities and closing two deals a week, while managing a portfolio of some 400 companies. I had three kids at home too, so something had to give.”
Rochebrochard was also hosting a workshop for entrepreneurs and startups then, titled ‘Money money money’. Fundraising was tough in France and he thought it made sense to address financing as the biggest challenge for founders.
“At one point I thought to myself: forget fundraising, the real challenge is getting organised to tackle the kind of workload that entrepreneurs have to plow through.”
Since then Rochebrochard has been toying with the idea of what he calls the ‘human machine’, first in seminars and now in a book which he has published this month. In it he explores work-life equilibrium as the balancing act between working “like a well-oiled machine” and “living like a human”.
Rochebrochard’s book is a reflection of a maturing startup ecosystem that’s no longer stuck in the starting blocks.
France, like many of its European neighbours, now has entrepreneurial success stories to build on, as well as dreams of spawning new global champions.
With that, concerns are moving beyond just creating businesses and raising money, to questions about resilience and keeping up in the long run with the demanding and sometimes unrealistic standards that investors and founders have set for their world.
Incidentally, Rochebrochard is based in France, a country notably preoccupied with getting the work-life balance right.
France added the 35-hour work week into its labour code in 2000, the subject of much political debate since, even if few employees actually work just those hours. The same goes for a so-called “right to disconnect” law, which was passed a few years ago and theoretically allows employees not to answer work-related email outside office hours (although again is not always observed).
Rochebrochard says that people in the startup world need to rethink how many hours they are putting in. “It used to be that being a hard worker meant not counting your hours, but that’s starting to change,” Rochebrochard says. “Entrepreneurs are at the forefront of that change, just like they’re best placed to be first to tackle diversity issues or environmental challenges.”
Go home early
So how do you become a "human machine"? In the book — "not a self-help book", he insists — Rochebrochard suggests tips to get better organised: advice ranging from shortening meetings and replacing conference calls with voice memos, to an elaborate system of to-do lists.
His recommendations also include more unexpected items like book-reading breaks in between meetings and going home earlier than usual at least twice a week “and then more and more often”.
But the bigger point Rochebrochard is making goes beyond just splitting your time differently. He’s promoting a cultural change in startups and more broadly in life at the office; a more human approach that values different skillsets and relies less on outdated criteria for what it means to be hard-working.
“We should talk more at work about things like: it’s ok to be vulnerable, it’s fine to say ‘I don’t know’, it’s actually good to speak your mind honestly, etc.,” Rochebrochard says. “It’s really about a changing mindset.”