Is it possible to run a successful software business with a 4 hour work week?

Tim Ferriss’ ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is a thought provoking, but controversial, book. One of the central ideas he promotes is that you should be able to use outsourcing to create a money making business (‘muse’) that you can run in only a few hours per week. Leaving you with enough free time and income to travel the world, learn to tango or otherwise amuse yourself. But I am highly sceptical that anyone can sustain, let alone grow, a software business long term, working only 4 hours per week. I have run my own business working less than 10 hours week for a month or two at a time while travelling or doing house renovations. But it only gave me enough time to keep things ticking over. I wasn’t able to improve my product or marketing. I am sure my business would decline in the face of technological changes and hungrier competitors if I kept this up for too long. I have spoken to other owners of small software businesses and they were of a similar opinion.

So I was interested to see a case study on the Four Hour Work Week blog from someone running a software business. Brandon Pearce owns, a slick-looking web based app for music teachers.

He says that after 5 years he is making $25k in sales per month with $10-12k in expenses per month[1] and no employees[2]. So that is a net profit of around $168k per year. That’s not too shabby, especially when you consider that he lives in Costa Rica and says he works just 5 hours per week. That’s nearly $650 per hour!

But he doesn’t say how many hours per week he worked to build the business. He also says in the case study:

With a complex web application, you can’t write it once and be done; you need to continue making enhancements and listen to user feedback in order to have a successful product.

I couldn’t see how this squared with working only 5 hours per week. Even if you are outsourcing everything you still need to manage the outsourcing, which can be time consuming in itself. I emailed him for some clarification and he was kind enough to give some more details:

It’s hard to give an average time worked over the past five years, since it’s changed so much. The first two years I was also working full-time as a programmer, but spent most of my free time working on the site – probably 10-20 hours per week. Once I quit my job (years 3-4) I worked probably 40 hours per week on the site. The past year or two, it varies from week to week. Some weeks I’ll only work 2 hours on it, some I’ll work more like 15, if I’m preparing for a new feature, special offer, or doing a big launch of some kind. But these days I’m averaging about 5 hours per week, and it’s been that way for well over a year.

Yes, I can definitely sustain and improve profit levels at this number of hours. The business is a well-oiled machine, and I have teams that are working to help continue to improve and grow the business in various ways, largely without my constant supervision. The business continues to grow every month, regardless of how much I work.

What do I spend these 5 hours doing? Mainly reviewing the new features or bug fixes the programmers have been working on, the requests from customers that the support team has submitted, and determining which items I want the programmers working on next. I also spend a little time handling some of the more difficult support or billing issues, paying my workers, managing a few PPC campaigns, answering e-mails, and checking stats. Recently, I’ve also been writing the scripts for some new video tutorials, and finding people to help produce the videos, too.

So, pretty much everything I do at this point could also be outsourced, allowing me to work even less, but at this point, I still enjoy this work, and it allows me to keep some important aspect of control on the business. Some day I may decide to work even less, but I’m pretty happy with 5 hours at the moment. :)

So, unsurprisingly, it took a lot more than 5 hours per week to reach this point. And only time will tell whether he can continue to maintain (let alone grow) this business with such minimal input. It will be an impressive achievement if he can. But I think Brandon is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps he is particularly talented or lucky. Very few of the successful software business owners I know work short hours for extended periods. Also I have no way to verify Brandon’s numbers. So I would recommend viewing Brandon’s case study as something to aspire to, rather than a likely outcome.

Brandon has a blog and is writing a book about his experiences creating “in the hopes that it will help others who want to do something similar”. It should be an interesting read. Given all the spare time he has it shouldn’t take him long to finish it!

Further reading:

[1] He mentions the expenses in the comments.

[2] He does use several contractors, some of whom work full time.

10 thoughts on “Is it possible to run a successful software business with a 4 hour work week?

  1. fish

    I don’t think anybody claims you can start a business by working 4 hours a week. Until you have money to hire somebody do work for you you need to work a lot and hard. But once the first venture is profitable you can work 4 hours and use the income to start the new one.

  2. Joannes Vermorel

    Personally, I am extremely skeptical about those 4h/week. It looks like an ‘easy money’ advertising (hint: making money is *never* easy).

    At this level of involvement, this is not *running* a company but rather acting as a chairman who’s delegated everything to a trustful CEO. The catch lies in the definition of ‘running a company’.

  3. Software Candy

    The short answer to the question in the title of this article is, of course: No!

    A longer answer would include the acronym TGTBT, the law (in physics) of conservation of energy and other pearls of wisdom acquired through thousands of years of human experience.

    There is no business without customer service, and customer service takes time.

    Your excellent article already says it all.

  4. fish

    I actually started to use that site. They have great customer service. I get answers within an hour or two. So obviously not done by somebody who works 5 hours a week. As the article says he has a few full time people working for him.

    Where he is “runnning” the business or not, he makes the executive decisions, he owns it and he keeps the profit by working 5 hours a week.

  5. MurrayRob

    I know Brandon, he works hard cares about people and manages time efficiently, he had a goal stuck with it and now it’s paying dividends. Brandon never had a negative outlook and where I see people in here saying “can’t” he said “can” he had the nerve, the vision and the dedication to make it happen, he deserves praise not derision.

  6. Brandon Pearce

    @fish & @MurrayRob – Thanks for the kind words. Yes, customer service has always been a very high priority in the business. I used to do it all myself, but currently have an excellent support team who care about the customers just as much as I do. And I do pipe in on occasion.

    I totally believe that running a business in 5 or fewer hours per week is possible for anyone who’s willing to setup the systems to make it happen. Yes, it’s a lot of hard work upfront, but it’s absolutely worth every effort. Another book worth checking out on the topic is Gerber’s “E-Myth Revisited”.

  7. Smart Company Software

    Automation is the key here I believe (that includes outsourcing). I used to do all of my home finances manually, then I discovered that instead of spending hours checking this and checking that, I could automate the lot and cut downs the hours involved dramatically.

    Well done Brandon.

  8. Anonymous

    I think part of the reason why Brandon has been successful is that he has a talent for hiring people. If you’re going to put your business on other people’s hands and with little supervision you better hire the best. That alone is a great achievement, considering the poor quality of talents in the other countries.

    And Lucky? I don’t think so.
    The harder I work, the luckier I get. -Samuel Goldwyn

  9. Pingback: Travels, Japan, and Book Progress « Entrepreneurship « Fulness of Life – the personal blog of Brandon Pearce – Living Abroad, Homeschool, Entrepreneurship

  10. Mac

    When harvest the fruit,it doesn’t need much time. But before that, it does take much of time to know what and how to plant, and to manage the plant. so does our business.

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