Finding people who slot seamlessly into the lifestyle-business structure is challenging. Naturally, flexible hours and leave attract all sorts of undesirable applicants. While some will thrive in this environment, others will milk the benefits and simply burden the business. Unfortunately, when recruiting, businesses don’t have the luxury of a crystal ball, so promising candidates will often prove to be disappointments.
Sir Richard Branson, long-time champion of employee well-being, and whose staff are entitled to “essentially unlimited” leave, has a favourite question during the recruitment process: What didn’t you get a chance to include on your résumé? “Obviously, a good CV is important, but if you were going to hire by what they say about themselves on paper, you wouldn’t need to waste time on an interview,” he writes in his book The Virgin Way: Everything I Know about Leadership. This approach aligns with the lifestyle-business ethos of blurring the lines between work and life: Employees shouldn’t leave their personality behind in the workplace but rather carry it with them in everything they do. Getting to know employees in this way is crucial at the interview stage.
Brainteasers can also prove revelatory. In Elon Musk’s biography, it’s claimed the entrepreneur proposes the following quandary to candidates: “You are standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” Those who answer correctly and don’t freeze up in the moment demonstrate confidence, and this self-belief is a sign of the kind of self-reliant employee who could can get on with tasks without being baby-sat.
#2 Success = freedom + responsibility
It was Netflix’s management philosophy of “freedom and responsibility” that inspired Virgin’s liberal leave policy. Like Branson, CEO Reed Hastings gives hourly freedom to salaried Netflix workers—a policy he claims can breed “stunning” workers who “thrive”. However, he’s quick to underline that only responsible people are “worthy” of freedom. For the CEO, responsible people are “self-motivating, self-aware, self-disciplined and “self-improving.”
Equally, employers have a responsibility to punctually unburden themselves of mediocrity, reminds Hastings. While Netflix’s employees have comparative freedom, they must perform like members of a pro sports team, otherwise they’ll be ‘cut by the coach’. This approach contrasts with the liberal aspects of the lifestyle business model and attitudes of loyalty that we typically associate with a healthy workplace culture. But while Hastings admits “people who have been stars for us, and hit a bad patch, get a near-term pass,” he stresses that “unlimited loyalty is not what we are about.” As increased productivity is one of the goals of the lifestyle business, employers should not settle for anything less than high performance.
#3 Don’t forget to live.
It’s important to remember that in a lifestyle business, employers should have the same relationship to the business as their staff. Make sure you structure your own business to accommodate a desirable work-life balance. Why? For the same reason employees should: to increase performance and productivity. Hastings’s salaried employees are entitled to huge amounts of leave, but he, too, ensures he takes as much vacation as required. “I take a lot of vacation, and I’m hoping that certainly sets an example,” he says. “It is helpful. You often do you best thinking when you’re off hiking in some mountain or something. You get a different perspective on things.”
Finding the right balance is no walk in the park, however. “Achieving work-life balance is like walking a tightrope,” Branson cautions. “Lean too far one way and you’ll lose your stability, and topple.” He recommends phrasing the division as “doing and being”. “Alongside the meetings, appointments and email replies, find time to be inspired, take in the beauty of the world, and laugh with your loved ones. If you slow down, breathe, and be present in the moment, you will find balance more easily.” —James Orme
“I imagined that the whole lifestyle business vibe would be chilled and relaxed. The impression you get from the outside is that everyone’s always on holiday and having a jol. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that it’s not like that at all. I’ve been working harder than ever—and I’m loving it!”
The employee at branding agency CN&CO adds that the great—and different—thing about the lifestyle side of the business is that you don’t have to be in the office at a certain time; “you just have to do amazing stuff and deliver.”
Much has been written about lifestyle businesses, like CN&CO, and the many perks
that come along with this model. (Fast Company SA ran its first article on the subject in last year’s March/April edition.)Some advantages include: being able to control most aspects of the
business, easily and quickly, with no red tape or bureaucratic processes; deciding on what working hours suit you (and your productivity levels); working as hard as you like to attain a certain level of income to sustain a particular lifestyle; and taking time off to travel or get family chores done, as and when it suits you.
One of the biggest perks is the freedom it provides. However, while a lifestyle business and the flexibility it provides sounds incredibly appealing, this immense autonomy may bring with it many more difficulties than one may first realise.
When you first begin working in this type of environment, you have all the time in the day to get through your work. In theory, that sounds great; your time is your own and you’re more than confident you’ll get everything done. Rob Christian, co-founder of CN&CO, points out that the problem begins to creep in when, because you have the whole day at your disposal, you start procrastinating. A task that should take one hour somehow ends up taking three.
“The key is to introduce discipline in how you work, and to work at times that suit you,” he says. “Perhaps you’re a night owl? Then don’t worry about not getting things done in the morning. Go to gym, sleep in, do some admin. Then tackle the big tasks when you’re at your most productive. By forcing yourself to work at certain hours of the day, you soon get out of the procrastination mindset. Have a task, get it done, move on.
“It does take a concerted effort to change your mindset to this style of work, as you’re not bound by office hours, therefore you theoretically could always be working—but you won’t be productive all the
time. You have to make it work for you.”
But sometimes, as Christian points out, it’s not up to you. “When your friends get home from work, they can often leave their work at the office. Since we aren’t office-bound and don’t have set working
hours, wherever we go we take our work with us. You’ll sometimes have to work at random times of the week, weekend or even on holiday, but that’s the nature of the work model we’ve chosen. With that in mind, you need to learn to switch off properly. Turn your phone onto flight mode for an hour when you’re socialising; focus on the moment you’re in and don’t let work problems wander into your mind. By fully appreciating the time you spend offline, you’ll find that you often feel refreshed at a later stage, leading to increased productivity.”
Echoing Christian’s thoughts is Belinda Mountain, co-founder of Black Mountain. “The fact that my working hours are not set in stone is both a pro and a con,” she says. “It’s a pro because I can attend my daughter’s swimming gala in the afternoon, but then I might have to work from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. that night once the kids are asleep. I don’t mind this at all, because in this way my work adapts around the rest of my life—and not the other way around.
“My business partner and I try to manage this challenge by not emailing each other about work after 6 p.m. during the week, and certainly not on weekends—unless it’s something urgent. I also try to ensure my laptop remains shut from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. each night, which is when my family is my priority. Those client emails can wait!”
This flexibility-for-family-time was a big inspiration in starting up Black Mountain, which was formed in 2012 when Catherine Black (Mountain’s business partner) was doing freelance social media consulting, and Mountain was a client of hers, working at a publisher. “I’d been wanting to team up with a partner for a while, and as a new mom, Belinda was looking for more flexibility in her job,” says Black. “We both wanted to do something that involved writing, which is a passion of ours. We noticed a gap in the market for well-written content that was also optimised for search. Today, it’s a full-time job for both of us, and we have several corporate clients on retainer as well as smaller niche projects that we take on.”
While family time is a plus to a lifestyle business, Black notes that a major downside (for Black Mountain, particularly) is that they’re not building a company they’d be able to package up and sell in future to an investor, and then walk away. “This is because our competitive advantage is closely tied to our specific skills: our experience in the specialist fields, our background, our client relationships. Also, we’re not producing a product—we’re selling time. So any time we’re not working, Black Mountain is not operating,” Black explains. This is a big difference between a startup and a lifestyle business. As Corbett Barr, author of the Lifestyle Business Weekly newsletter, put it: “A startup’s job is to grow big enough to provide a return to investors. A lifestyle business’s job is to provide a great quality of life to its owners.”
That said, Black Mountain’s business model is perfectly suited to its owners’ lifestyles and family focus. Josie Dougall, co-founder of CN&CO, spent many years in the corporate world, but she too crossed over into a lifestyle business for its flexibility where she could dedicate time to starting a
family. And while the business model is an ideal fit for her long-term lifestyle goals, she highlights that its lack of structure and boundaries is one con of the model.“Having climbed the corporate ladder for 15 years, and now finding myself in a lifestyle business, the lack of boundaries and structure can sometimes be overwhelming. This can easily be overcome with a bit of experience in the lifestyle business model, where you learn to put your own boundaries in place and gain immense gratification from sticking to them. The resultant freedom from having personal boundaries that suit your lifestyle makes you feel that you’re absolutely winning at life!”
The travel industry is one often associated with the lifestyle businesses model. Lesego Matabane, marketing manager for Club Med Southern Africa, is quick to point out the amount of self-discipline it takes to work within the industry when you have some of the most beautiful places in the world serving as your backdrop.
“I recently visited our Finolhu Villas in the Maldives for a media shoot. From the outside, it seems I’m living the life, jet-setting to one of the planet’s most breath-taking islands. What people don’t see is me working all day on location at a shoot in the Maldives. That’ll end at around 5 p.m. Maldives time. Because of the time difference with South Africa, at 7 p.m. in the Maldives—when I should be winding down for dinner—my laptop is out and I’m answering emails and attending to urgent requests from my team at home, because South Africa has only just started its workday. I’m then getting to bed at around midnight. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to travel for work, and yes, to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but with it comes a lot of self-discipline
and my having to be strict with my time.”
Perhaps one of the most popular advantages of a lifestyle business is the fact that its owners and employees have the opportunity and freedom to work from wherever they choose. While this may sound ideal, Blake Dyason, founder of Love Our Trails, notes that this, too, is one of the model’s downsides. “Working remotely, and often alone from home, means there’s no one to share ideas with
or bounce questions off. It also gets quite lonely,” he says. “I’m the type of person who wants to be constantly surrounded by interesting and inspiring people, and so I’ve made it part of my structure to work from coffee shops, include regular meetings and ensure sports and training are regularly integrated into my everyday routine. This helps me to share ideas, brainstorm, get feedback and be creative.
“We often discount the value of working with people, but I’ve learnt that just working around people, even if they’re in a different industry, will spark new ideas and generally open your mind to new opportunities and solutions.”
So working within a lifestyle business requires a lot of self-discipline, passion and focus. Sure, there are downsides, but as long as you stay committed and figure out the best way to make the model work for you, you should overcome the disadvantages in your stride.
But that doesn’t mean that a lifestyle business will suit everyone, as Colin Ford, co-founder at
CN&CO, points out. “A couple of months ago, I was working on the rebrand of an insurance brokerage. The company was rebranding because of a change in structure. According to the remaining partners, one of their shareholders had left because ‘he wanted to run the company like a lifestyle business.’ The comment was delivered with a grimace as the partners around the table shared a look of incredulity. ‘Have you ever heard of such a thing?’ Much tut-tutting and head shaking ensued before we got down to the business of the day. I felt like a Capetonian must feel when they first discover that not everyone wants to live in the Mother City.But it’s true. The lifestyle business is not for everyone. We don’t have office hours. There’s no landline, no leave, no bonus. Hell, there’s not even a monthly salary if we don’t keep the ship afloat!”
That means getting the job done, whenever, wherever, Ford adds. It means always taking your laptop on holiday with you; it means home is work, and work is home; it means accepting that your teammates sometimes go sailing on a Thursday, or spend a Monday afternoon with their grandparents; it means turning away work that doesn’t work for you, even if it’s potentially lucrative (this is more difficult than you may think); and it means delivering to your own standards (even more difficult than declining jobs).
“So,” says Ford, “if you’re the type of person who needs a place to go every day at 8 a.m., a list of policies and procedures to guide your behaviour and interaction with others in the workplace, someone on call to set up your email account or fix the printer, a library of PowerPoint templates for your presentations (internal and external), and an excuse to ignore work calls after hours—a lifestyle business may not be right for you.”