How to Set Boundaries as a Startup Developer

The following insight was written by Dan Moore, Head of DevRel at FusionAuth

I have written before about boundaries and how important it is to have them when you are working as a software developer. This is even more true when you are joining or working at a startup.

There are a number of reasons that developers at a startup can work too hard, to the detriment of themselves and the business:

  • Glorification of work
  • Expectation of a big payoff
  • The knife’s-edge of small company life
  • Company culture (“everyone else is doing it”)
  • Expectations from the team

In this article, I cover three ways software engineers can successfully set boundaries when working at a startup.


Get a clear understanding of work life at this startup

The first thing to do is assess expectations. The ideal time to do this is during the interview process. Different companies have different needs, and your goal when interviewing is to assess the match between the company’s needs and yours; not just about salary and tech stack, but also about work/life balance. Not sure how to get this information? Here are 16 questions to bring up while interviewing for a startup technical position.

The following is an incomplete list of factors which determine the level of effort at a startup:

  • Stage: The earlier, the more of a grind it will typically be.
  • Business success: If the startup has not yet found product market fit (aka a way to make money), every hour and every day is that much closer to the end of the financial runway where business operations cease.
  • Team size: The smaller the team, the less cushion employees have. If an additional task needs to be done, there are fewer people capable of accomplishing it.
  • Your chunk of ownership: If you have more equity (or more options) you will typically be expected to work harder and contribute more to the company’s success. Founders usually grind the hardest.
  • Company culture: There’s a spectrum of work commitment, from live-to-work fanatics to work/life balance seekers to clock-punchers (who are there only to make a paycheck).

So, before you accept that offer, know what you are getting into. When interviewing at startup X, ask questions like:

  • How many hours a week do employees typically work?
  • What is the work/life balance like?
  • How many vacations, dear interviewer, have you taken?
  • Is there a time when people need to work especially hard (before a launch, etc)?

In addition to assessing the company’s expectations, take a clear eyed look at your desire and ability to fulfill them. At different times in your life, you’ll have different capacities for work. For instance, I was single in my 20s, I had more time to grind; I also found more companionship in my colleagues than I do now, when I’m in my 40s and have a family.

This decision isn’t solely based on capacity. I joined a startup as a co-founder in a domain, local food, that I was very excited about. I made financial and family sacrifices because I believed in the mission.

Think about how many hours in the day you’d like to work and make sure it matches up with company expectations.


Set your boundaries (in a respectful manner)

Once you have found an acceptable compromise between what you want to give and what the company needs, get to work (assuming you get the offer!).

However, communicate your limits.

There are many ways to do so:

  • Take vacations. When you do, disconnect (After arranging pager coverage, I canoed the Yukon during a stint at a startup.)
  • Set an alarm and leave work at a regular time.
  • Discuss priorities and make sure you are working on important things.
  • Don’t check work emails outside of work hours. If that is too tough, limit the amount of time when you do.
  • Ask for more money/equity if you are expected to wear a pager or your job description changes.
  • Don’t install slack on your personal phone.
  • Turn off your notifications.
  • Automate what you can to accelerate development and maintain quality.
  • Document procedures so people can do things without you.

Don’t be flagrant about your boundaries but be firm. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” is a phrase you’ll want to use regularly.

Some flexibility will help: find out what team norms are and work within them as best you can. For instance, if your whole team starts work at 10am, then align your hours: start work at 10am, not at 8am. You’ll have an easier time maintaining boundaries if the team doesn’t view them as counter productive.

When in doubt, have a conversation with your manager. It may be an awkward conversation, so a good way to start is to ask the manager about how they manage their boundaries. If your manager is a founder or major owner of the company, they attain greater rewards if the company is successful, so take that into account.

After you’ve been at a startup for a time, your attitude toward work may change. The needs and demands of the startup will change as well. Pay attention to these, as they may require adjusting your boundaries.

Remember, limits are actually good for you and for the company. Working long hours for many months is a recipe for burnout. You can’t help the startup if you end up there.

Outside of emergencies, these limits help you and the company build a sustainable organization.

Cross your boundaries (when you deem it necessary)

That said, there is a situation where you aren’t building for the long term. If you have not yet found a way to raise or make money, then, as mentioned above, every hour not worked is an hour closer to the business shutting down. This is the “TV” view of the startup, where three guys (typically guys!) work in a garage, live on ramen, and code all the time.

In this situation, pace yourself, but at a higher level than you might otherwise. You want to aim for the goal of self-sufficiency, which could include raising money from a VC after showing sufficient promise.

You will work harder in this situation than you would at a later stage startup. That’s okay. Make sure you get paid for it (typically in equity) and ensure the pace is sustainable. That includes taking time for your health, your family and your hobbies. Maybe less time than you’d like, but not zero time.

There are other situations which are true emergencies: production is down, a project needs to be delivered by a fixed deadline for contractual reasons, someone just quit. These happen at all stages of company growth. The key here is to timebox your efforts and not let the extra hours become a habit.

  • If production is down, you work hard until it is back up, then take a comp day.
  • If the project needs to be delivered in two weeks, work 60ish hour weeks (or whatever you can sustain) to get it shipped, then take a few days off.
  • If someone quits, take over only their essential duties and make it a priority to hire a replacement.

Get good at assessing if something is truly an emergency. Sometimes tasks or projects can feel urgent, but they really aren’t. The frenetic nature of startups, where it seems like everything is on fire, can take over and make even trivial or workday tasks feel monumental.

Talking to customers is a good way to get perspective: what you think is critical may not be important to them. Another option is to talk to people outside the echo chamber of your startup.



When you are considering working at a startup, realize that not every startup has the “rise and grind” culture. Some do, and they can offer tremendous opportunities for learning, growth and burnout. Others, especially when at a later stage, tend toward the normal work/life balance found at more established companies.

To set boundaries at a startup, remember:

  • Get a clear view into what you are signing on for
  • Set boundaries in a respectful manner
  • Cross those boundaries when you deem it necessary

More Related Insights