“Sleep is never straightforward,” says Danielle Morrill. She would know. Four years ago, the CEO of Mattermark, a business intelligence platform, started conditioning herself to awaken earlier and earlier. It was a lengthy process — and one that wasn’t easy for the self-proclaimed night owl — but these days she rises effortlessly at 5 a.m.
Sufficed to say Morrill is not afraid of hard work. She previously founded the Y-Combinator backed Referly, a social commerce service, and was the first employee at Twilio, which provides communications platforms to software developers. Last month she announced that Mattermark had raised its Series B round of financing, valuing the company at $42 million. Oh, also she goes to bed by 10 p.m. every night — proof you don’t need to burn the candle at both ends to succeed in Silicon Valley.
In her own words, here’s Morrill on sleep, work-life balance and the recurring dream she shares with her sister.
I get up super early, which I started doing about four years ago. I get up around 5 o’clock in the morning. It didn’t start like that, but I slowly got up earlier and earlier. I started out sort of thinking “I’m so proud that I get up at 7:30.” I know that sounds ridiculous, but I work in tech, ’cause for a while it was like “roll in at ten, that’s when everyone starts,” and I’d get up at 8:30 or 9 a.m.
I think I’ve been getting up at 5 a.m. for about a year. Which means I have to go to sleep usually by 10 o’clock at the very latest. I’m thirty, so most people, when I tell them I get up a five, give me an “oh god, how do you do that?”
I really hate my alarm clock. So it wasn’t enough to train myself to wake up — I had to train myself to wake up without it. So I’d train myself with the alarm on my phone for a couple days, and then I’d try a day where I didn’t set the alarm. And usually I wouldn’t wake up exactly at the right time, but then I’d go a couple days and train myself to wake up earlier, and just kind of go earlier and earlier.
The big thing was not sleeping in on weekends. If I was being consistent everyday, it was a lot easier. If I told myself, well, I can sleep in on the weekend ‘cause I went out drinking on Friday or whatever, that would set me back by a couple weeks. For me now, sleeping in on a weekend is getting up at 6:30. I actually can’t stay asleep much later than that — I’ll be lying in bed trying to make myself fall asleep and it won’t work.
I don’t think I have a work-life balance. I don’t even know what that means, really, or if it’s something you should want. There are all these social norms around, like, when you should get up, when you eat, how much sleep you need, and I think challenging that stuff can be kind of interesting. It’s easy to do whatever your parents did, or whatever you did growing up.
I guess the simplest thing is to actually challenge it. I used to think I needed a lot more sleep, and then when I experimented with less, I found out I was okay. I do think if I go below seven hours a night, I won’t feel it at first, but I’ll feel myself slowly get sleep-deprived. And once I get really sleep-deprived, you can’t just get it back in a couple days. You have to have weeks and weeks of consistent sleep to actually feel better.
I really hated getting up earlier — I just did it for productivity for a long time. It wasn’t, “Oh, this is cool, this is fun,” it was more just, “I don’t feel like I have enough time in the day to do everything I need to do.”
My sister and I have the same recurring dream. It usually involves some sort of tornado. We’ll be like, “Hey, I had the dream again!” And it’s like, “Okay, what’s out of control in your life right now?”
I don’t know how other people dream, but my dreams are movie-quality. They’re crazy. I have dreams every night and my husband doesn’t dream at all, so when I tell people this, I’m always thinking, “Am I weird? Do they dream? Do they dream a lot?”
One of the most painful experiences in the world, I think, is when you’re sitting there and you cannot keep your eyes open to save your life. I remember we were once trying to recruit an important person at a company I worked at in the past. It’s probably not the best thing in the world for the person you’re trying to recruit to see you, the person interviewing them, as debilitated with exhaustion. But I had just been pushing myself really hard for a deadline, and I’m sitting in the interview with my boss and another person, and I literally had to excuse myself from the room.
It was pretty awkward. I remember my boss came up to me in the hall — “what was that? — and I said, “I’m literally so embarrassed, I will fall asleep if I sit there one more moment.” And I just went home. It was physically painful, I think partly because of the anxiety of being embarrassed.
I really hate being sleep-deprived. I dislike it more than being sick or having a headache. It just has this sort of pervasive effect — even if you go to bed and wake up, you don’t just feel better. It’s pretty horrible.
I have a double espresso first thing in the morning. And a glass of sparkling water. It’s a nice little ritual.
My bedside table: Books. Lots of books. And always a glass of water.