This CEO says a 5-hour workday saved his Mark Cuban-backed paddle-board startup but ultimately ‘broke’ its company culture

Tower Paddle Boards CEO Stephan Aarstol
Tower Paddle Boards CEO Stephan Aarstol.

  • Stephan Aarstol has flipped between various five-hour workday models for his startup.
  • Tower first introduced its five-hour workday back in 2015 – cutting down hours by more than a third.
  • But Aarstol said that some staff treated it as an entitlement, rather than a reward.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The CEO of Tower says that using a five-hour workday saved his paddle-board startup but ultimately “broke” the company culture.

Stephan Aarstol, who got $150,000 in funding from Mark Cuban after appearing on “Shark Tank” in 2011, said there’s evidence that a nine-to-five schedule doesn’t work for all companies.

But ditching it completely could wreak havoc on a company, and cause workers to feel like a five-day is an entitlement rather than a reward, he said.

Read more: The CEO of $1.3 billion cybersecurity startup Arctic Wolf moved the company’s headquarters from Silicon Valley to Minnesota to capitalize on its affordability, talent pool, and work culture

San Diego-based Tower first introduced its five-hour workday back in 2015 as a three-month experiment.

“I basically wanted to instil a culture of productivity,” Aarstol told Insider. “Everything was focused on productivity.”

He said that he personally had been using productivity tools to save time but not all his staff had been. So he decided to cut down hours by more than a third.

Aarstol said that this would also better reflect the company’s culture as a paddle-board startup. “We were going to live more authentically to our brand and by living it, we would sort of propel our brand,” he said.

So Aarstol created a company-wide policy where his staff started work at 8 a.m. and clocked out at 1 p.m. each day – with no strings attached, no change in pay, and no lunch break.

“I said: ‘okay, you need to figure out how to get as much done or more than you were doing previously, or you’ll be fired,'” he said. “So I’m giving you your life back, but I’m putting pressure on you.”

Tower is a small company with six current employees. This peaked at nine. As a result, the startup has very few meetings, which Aarstol said helped when staff were restructuring their days.

After the policy was introduced, staff started timing their tasks looking for ways to speed them up, and sharing productivity hacks. This included finding more efficient ways to use ShipStation to almost halve the amount of time it took to ship a package.

And Tower’s revenues increased by 50% – so he decided to extend the policy.

The five-hour workday ‘broke’ the company culture

But after about two years, Aarstol began to notice problems with the new company culture that the policy had created.

“It made work just this thing you do before lunch,” he said. “I think we broke the company culture because the ties between one other were not as strong after that,” he added.

Aarstol said he had introduced the policy to recruit and retain people who worked three times as fast as others – but that this hadn’t happened.

So in 2017, Aarstol decided to tweak the policy. Staff started to work a five-hour day for just four months, from June to September – when the paddle-board company is busiest.

And then, in 2019, earnings suddenly plummeted for the company. Its revenues fell from $4.3 million in 2018 to $2 million in 2019, and Aarstol said Tower was around 60 days from going out of business.

He said the declining revenues weren’t related to its shorter workdays but he decided to reintroduced longer workdays. The company’s revenues doubled in 2020.

Workings hours are now tied to the company’s performance

Aarstol is now tweaking Tower’s working hours again. Staff will work a five-hour day from August 1 to November 31, but only after years when the company’s revenue has increased “as a company-wide sort of bonus,” Aarstol said. Previously, workers had acted like they were entitled to the five-hour workday, he said.

“This is a reward when revenues are increasing and if revenues are going down, now everybody knows how to work at twice the speed, we’re going to double down and we’re going to grow this thing,” he said.

The company has also diversified. As well as paddle boards, Tower now also sells electric bikes and has an event space and a bike-repair shop. This kept the business going during the pandemic, Aarstol said, adding that its e-bike sales had grown six-fold.

Both companies and employees have been reevaluating when, how, and where they work as the pandemic has shifted people’s priorities and caused them to assess their work-life balance.

Unilever is testing a four-day work week in New Zealand, while dozens of companies including Silicon Valley giants Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce have said their employees can work remotely post-pandemic. Trading platform Coinbase is even scrapping its former San Francisco headquarters in favor of a decentralized and remote model.

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