The Dropbox founder talks about his burnout

Cloud storage pioneer Drew Houston had to learn how to get his productivity back and introduced "No-Meeting-Wednesdays"

Addicted to your phone? You are not alone.

In the Bits & Pretzels Podcast Drew Houston, the co-founder of Dropbox and one of the most achieved tech-pioneers, explains how during his career he got really frustrated with his lack of performance as CEO due to an overwhelming amount of emails and to-do lists:

"I’m in meetings all day, inbox all night, and then wake-up and repeat, and it was bizarre, because I couldn't remember the last time I was using my brain. I was working really hard, but feeling I’m making less progress.“

Taking work with you to where ever you go and being available 24/7 as an entrepreneur that's not just inefficient, says the 36-years-old, it actually contributes to an "epidemic of burnout". Since as a CEO your potential to-do list is always a hundred times as long as the time you actually have available, work's never really done unless you decide so. For Houston it even got to a point where he felt that he got sick. Looking backwards he says today that it was a "burnout".

It's like realizing that you and Elon Musk theoretically have the same amount of hours for work available, says Houston who co-founded Dropbox in 2007 at the age of just 24 – but that the CEO of Tesla gets much more stuff done per day.

„At a time when we are all asked more than ever to using our brains, it seems that with every passing day it gets harder and harder to do that. There are a lot of great things about the tools we are using in mobile and in the cloud but there are so many of them now and I think we’ve hit a breaking point of how much we can process.“

To be more productive as a CEO Houston taught himself how to elbow out time to work smarter. For example he introduced what he calls a "No-Meeting-Wednesday" in his company. He spends the day without looking at his to-do lists or his inbox and focuses specifically on the next strategic steps for his company. He also carved out time to spend outside work, like playing in a 90s cover band with his friends. Moving forward, Houston also expects artificial intelligence to help with the overflow of information and tasks:

„The whole renaissance of machine learning means that there is a whole lot potential for machines to taking a lot of this busy work off our plates (…) Computers are getting better at filtering through all that stuff that you have to look at and giving you a smarter menu of 5 or ten things."

Dropbox certainly needs all the attention of its CEO it could get right now. After the successful IPO of the cloud storage unicorn in March 2018 with now more than 600 million registered users around the globe – Dropbox' stock has tumbled by more than 30 percent in 2019. While cloud computing certainly has been a winning theme for Wall Street, business models such as Dropbox' are in tough competition. Will the company bounce back in 2020? The founder of Dropbox shows confidence:

„Our company has gone up and gone down, and one thing you learn pretty quickly is as CEO you don’t control your valuation the market sets. The people who ultimatively set the value for our company aren’t our investors, it’s our customers and if we solve important problems for them and if they are happy the whole stock price thing will take care of itself.“

But Houston certainly realizes that being a unicorn doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a successful company. The big unicorn craze of 2019 is definitely over, after the dramatic fall of WeWork with its withdrawn IPO as well as ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft or messenger app Slack that are all trading well below their offer prices.

„What the market is telling everyone now is that we need more to focus on the fundamentals. (….) Gravity always wins, you need to make sure that your business model is sustainable."

Podcast Chapters:

1:30 No one is born with a suit on
3:40 Why CEOs should read more
5:36 “Engineering is my first love”
9:28 Why a “File-Guy” is jealous
12:35 The “No-Meeting-Wednesday”
14:44 Don't waste your time
20:07 The unicorn craze is over
24:21 Why Drew still plays in a 90ies cover band
26:41 A billionaire's burnout
29:36 An illegal poker-bot
31:55 Learn to love the struggle

The Bits & Pretzels Podcast is produced by Regina Körner, Migo Fricke and Hubert Honold with the help of Janek Postpischiel.