Startup Doping

Startups have a lot in common with professional sports: competition is fierce, intense focus is a requirement, and sometimes one can get ahead with performance enhancing drugs. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

A lot of space is spent on this blog observing the habits of cokeheads. This time I’m not talking about what fuels the Eyes Wide Shut toga parties of Silicon Valley dealmakers. The utility of the white horse amongst the investor class is well documented.

This is about the drugs developers are on. After all, cocaine isn’t really useful for those trying to get work done. Marty Scorsese learned that in the ’80s. Instead, a lot of startup entrepreneurs are using drugs such as Adderall or Provigil to stay focused and productive for long stretches.

Although Provigil was developed for sleep disorders including narcolepsy and sleep apnea, I’ve heard of people who have used it for “clarity of thought” instead. Some are doing Provigil to get more “in the zone” for long stretches of programming. In fact, the most popular off-label use for Provigil is to eliminate the need for sleep.

It certainly sounds intriguing to have 12 unbroken hours of clear concentration. However, does this really give you any kind of advantage when you need to work on your product for months before launch? So you had a good day of zen-like focus. Congratulations, the next sprint has a full product backlog. In fact, many issues blocking you or your startup from success have little to do with how many hours you work.

I know people who have been prescribed Provigil for ADHD and report it’s a life-changer. For some, Provigil is far more effective than other drugs and has very few side effects. It definitely has a legitimate use.

Another favorite drug of startup culture is Adderall. Naturally, a drug whose off-label use is for focus and concentration when studying would find its way into start-ups to fuel coding marathon sessions. Observing as a third-party, Adderall seems to increase focus–but that doesn’t mean you will focus on the right thing. You might spend 10 hours counting every fiber in your carpet instead of re-writing your PHP back-end to node.js. If you have problems seeing the forest from the trees, being hopped up on amphetamines will make it hard to see the leaves from the branches.

Adderall messes with the brain’s reward centers to achieve its effects. What makes Provigil work is a mystery. What are the long-term effects of using these drugs? Provigil in particular hasn’t been around long enough to know. Sure, you might fix a few showstopper bugs and shave a week off of your release schedule. You’ll feel pretty stupid when we discover years from now that you dissolved your liver in the process.