Running a company on a 25-hour workweek

Marybeth, co-founder and CEO at KnowledgeOwl, runs her company on a 25-hour workweek. Here’s how KnowledgeOwl came to adopt this model—and why it’s now a key part of their culture.

Running a company on a 25-hour workweek

When I tell people that working full-time at KnowledgeOwl means a 25-hour workweek, they generally ask the following questions:

  1. Can you live off 25 hours of work per week? (spoiler: you can!)
  2. Can I work for you? (this joke makes me happy! 😄)

Whether I’m talking to candidates or fellow business owners, I’ve learned that the 25-hour workweek is a difficult idea to convey to people who are unfamiliar with non-standard work arrangements. While perks like a 4-day workweek and flexible hours are becoming more common, the 25-hour workweek is definitely not standard. In fact, we may have accidentally invented it!

How it started

KnowledgeOwl is a small, bootstrapped software company. Today, there are ten owls working at KnowledgeOwl, but at the start, it was just my co-founder and me. We had no outside funding, and we were only able to hire once we had enough paying customers to cover the cost.

One of our first owl-ficial hires was a former customer who had previously expressed interest in working with KnowledgeOwl. Back in 2016, we were getting to a place where we couldn’t do everything ourselves, and we had enough revenue to cover the cost of hiring someone to help us with customer support. So, I reached out to this person to explore what working together might look like.

They replied with an interesting proposal, which was the genesis of our 25-hour workweek. They said that if we could offer them at least 20 hours per week at a healthy hourly rate, they would be able to just work at KnowledgeOwl (and not need to get a second job). This proposal wound up being a “win-win”, and in 2017, this person became our first customer support hire.

Most of the owls we have hired for various roles since then have started with the 25-hour workweek (or less). People liked that the 25-hour week gave them more time for other, non-work pursuits. At some point, it became part of our owl-ficial job descriptions.

In the beginning, the 25-hour workweek wasn’t super intentional, but it worked well for our business. Since we were small and bootstrapped, we weren’t swimming in extra capital that would allow us to hire a bunch of experienced, full-time employees. However, we could hire some experienced people with higher hourly rates but for fewer hours per week—and because we were able to pay them what they needed, they didn’t have to work multiple jobs.

A turning point: Can we make the 25-hour week work for everyone, including the founders?

One day, my co-founder and partner said to me “our teammates are living our dream” and exposed the ugly underside of our 25-hour workweek: we had created it for our teammates but not for ourselves. We realized that we were paying people more per hour to work less hours than we were. The people working for us seemed to have it way better than we did as owners, and I knew that had to change.

I had a conversation with a teammate back in 2018 about how my co-founder and I “had” to work more than the people we hired. I’m sure some people would have found ways to hire people for more hours to reduce the amount we had to work, but that didn’t seem right. I said, “I think rather than trying to get to a point where we have all these people full-time, it would be awesome to have 25 hours be full-time.” I also wanted to enjoy the work/life benefits that we had been offering to our team members since 2017.

After writing our first company vision in 2020, I shared that I would like to first get to a place where I was only working 40 hours a week and then eventually 25. I’m happy to share that in 2023, I got closer to that goal and I am currently hovering somewhere between 30-40, which is not so bad for a software tech CEO.

Now when we hire, we intentionally do not hire people for more than 25 hours per week. A full-time role at KnowledgeOwl means 25 hours a week, and we don’t offer roles that ask for a more extensive time commitment. This boundary has become a valued part of our organization’s culture.

Benefits of a 25-hour workweek

As we made the 25-hour workweek a core part of how we run KnowledgeOwl, we’ve learned that it has several benefits for our team members and our business.

Quality over quantity

In 2021, one of our team members shared the Zapier article “I work 5 hours a day, and I've never been more productive”. It suggests that people can only do focused work for 4-6 hours per day. Our Chief Product Owl Kate says that she gets as much done in her 25 hours per week at KnowledgeOwl as she did at a 40-hour-per-week salaried job, and that she actually finds herself less productive when she forces herself to work past 5-ish hours per day.

Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time allotted for completion, and I’m convinced that applies to the 25-hour week. By tracking our time and “only” working 25 hours, we are more intentional with how we spend our time and what we work on. 

Attract and retain good people

Having awesome perks and benefits has long been a recruiting tool, especially in the tech industry. KnowledgeOwl’s 25-hour workweek was a huge selling point for some of our amazing hires.

Erica recently wrote about the 25-hour workweek and her experience working at KnowledgeOwl. She was genuinely excited about the opportunity to work 25 hours per week so she could also focus on her other passion in life: painting. I was blown away to learn that she makes more money now, working 25 hours, than she did at her full-time job running an entire CX department! 🤯

Not only does paying more and offering a good work/life balance attract top talent, it also helps to retain them. Erica gets more done in 25 hours than she did in 40—not only because she no longer experiences burnout, but also because she feels appreciated and respected at KnowledgeOwl and will always feel a duty to give the team her very best every hour she’s at work. When employees feel cared for, they'll give their care right back to their employer.

Flexible work hours

We also combine the 25-hour week with super flexible scheduling, allowing our team members to work when it makes the most sense for them. Some prefer shorter hours, working 4-5 hours 5 days a week. Others like the 4-day workweek, so they work 6ish hours a day. Some choose to do their KnowledgeOwl work on nights and weekends, fitting in their hours when it makes the most sense for them.

Work/life balance

Our Lead Support Owl Anne had a baby this year. When she announced it to our support team, she mentioned how happy she is to have a job that is 25 hours a week to support her role as a new parent.

And there’s another upside to the 25-hour workweek: I firmly believe that it attracts people who use the “extra” time in ways that make life better—not just for themselves, but for the rest of the team, our company, and our communities. When work doesn’t consume all our time and energy, we have space to give back. I truly believe that I’m surrounded by people who are making the world a better, happier place by working on becoming the best version of themselves. ❤️

Challenges of a 25-hour workweek

The 25-hour workweek is not without its critics and struggles.

It has its price

At first, other business owners said we were overpaying for support (which is a whole other topic that I feel strongly about but won’t get into now). I’ve learned a basic rule of thumb for paying contractors: a contracting rate is roughly double the salary rate to cover the costs of lost benefits, taxes, etc. So, paying a contract support person $50 per hour is like paying an employee with benefits $25 per hour (which is about $52k per year full-time). Our 25-hour workweek at $50 per hour equates to $65k per year. However, if team members worked 40 hours, it would add up to $104k per year. We understand that paying this much is not for everyone.

Making it work for co-founders

There was also the aforementioned uncomfortable realization that our teammates were working less and making more money than the two co-founders. Thankfully, there was a straightforward solution to this challenge. Instead of paying people less or making others work more (like we were), we decided to pay ourselves more and work fewer hours per week. We believe that co-founders/owners deserve to be happy at work as well. 🙂

Balancing between different models

Before our 25-hour workweek was formalized, we used to have team members who worked a more traditional 40-hour workweek. This was challenging because it was difficult to not compare them to other teammates who “only” worked 25 hours. It almost felt like knowing others’ salaries: if you know that someone makes more money than you, you might expect them to provide more value than you for that disparity to feel fair. Similarly, if someone works more hours than you, it can be easy to expect them to be more productive.

Finding meeting times that work for everyone

A final challenge I’ll share is that flexible schedules and multiple time zones can make it difficult to schedule meetings. But I’m also happy to report that we are almost always able to find a meeting time that works for all parties.

Working less, living more fully

At Write the Docs Atlantic 2023, Rose Williams shared that previous generations speculated that society would have adopted 15-hour workweeks and larger seats on planes by this time in the future. While there’s not much that I can do about airplane seats getting progressively smaller, I’m grateful that, in our own small way, KnowledgeOwl is helping to co-create a world where people can work fewer hours and live more fully.

Are you considering implementing a shorter workweek at your company? Would you like to further tab into Marybeth's knowledge? Feel free to contact her on LinkedIn.