7 Lessons From Entrepreneurs Who Kept Their Day Jobs While Starting Their Businesses

7 Lessons From Entrepreneurs Who Kept Their Day Jobs While Starting Their Businesses

This story appears in the
September 2015

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Keeping your day job while starting a business has its advantages. In addition to regular income and free coffee, reliable full-time work helps you build your CV and portfolio and expand your professional network. Even better, working for someone else gives you a first-hand view of the best (and worst) ways to run a business, from managing time and money to managing customers and employees.

We asked successful entrepreneurs who started businesses while maintaining a 9 to 5 to share the lessons they learned.

1. First, prove your concept.

Maintaining a day job means having only as many waking hours to devote to your secondary business. That’s why validating that your idea will work – and that people will pay for it – should be the number one priority, says Shara Senderoff, co-founder and CEO of Career Sushi, an online marketplace that connects young professionals with employers.

Senderoff was lucky that his former employer, a Hollywood television and film production company, agreed in 2011 to finance and incubate his startup internally. But because she didn’t need a bootstrap, she mistakenly spent more time than she should have on Career Sushi branding, web design and platform details, the proof of concept must be damned.

“I probably spent six months doing it,” says the Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, whose site now serves 15,000 employers and 150,000 job seekers. “In retrospect, it was a waste of six months.” Of course, the typical startup cannot afford such indulgences for fear of running out of money before getting started. The lesson learned, says Senderoff: “Don’t try to build a Porsche when you just need to build the wireframe and test if the car can ever drive.”

2. Let the big goals shape your calendar.

Managing your schedule won’t necessarily be easier after you leave your 9-to-5. Between the limited budget, the lean staff and the avalanches of action, deciding the tasks to be accomplished every day at start-up can become overwhelming.

For Allyson Downey, co-founder and CEO of the weeSpring baby product review platform, working in an educational nonprofit has provided valuable training in organizing and prioritizing.

To stay the course, Downey relies on a graph on his desk, a carryover from his previous job, indicating the main goals for the day. “I have a column called” user growth, “a column called” revenue growth, “and a column called” development, “says Downey, who is based in New York. To avoid “going down into the rabbit hole to fix little things and create new features,” the development column is half the size of the other two, she says.

This means that less pressing tasks such as updating the About weeSpring page are pushed into the background. “This has been on my to-do list for two years, and it will likely continue to be on my to-do list for another two years because I have to keep my head down and focus on the things that will move us forward.” the company. Explains Downey.

3. Document the processes.

Before Guy Baroan started running his IT business at Elmwood Park, New Jersey, Baroan Technologies, he spent several years managing an indoor amusement park. The establishment employed 80 teenagers and organized around 135 children’s birthday parties per week.

“There had to be a specific method for the hostesses to come in and organize the birthday parties,” says Baroan. Employees needed a process roadmap – from the moment the cake was presented to the sale of game tokens – to keep the parties going smoothly and to keep guest collapses to a minimum.

Baroan was a one-man show when he left his job in 1997 to focus on Baroan Technologies. Determined to transfer part of his workload as soon as possible, he took a page of amusement park operations and began documenting all of his business practices, from scheduling appointments and service calls to the worker training.

“The best way to delegate is to create processes and systems,” says Baroan, who now employs 18 people and generates $ 3 million in annual revenue. “Then you have a consistent method where, no matter who does a task, it will be done the same way.”

4. Detect problems early.

Before devoting herself to her full-time business in 2012, Katie Stack spent a decade working in the costume departments of regional theaters. Often, it is only at the time of final adjustment that a designer decides on a different color or fabric for a costume and wants a replacement. Between overtime and last minute shipping costs, “suddenly the cost of this new garment was about six times the original cost of the garment,” said Stack, who now runs Stitch & Rivet, a studio of design and retail store in Washington, DC

By selling its own handmade bags, purses and belts, Stack ensures that the quality of the materials it orders from sellers is up to par before manufacturing each product. Because if they are not satisfied with a particular fabric or zipper, their wholesale customers may not be either.

Stack Tip: “If you have to change what you’re doing, change it in the prototype phase rather than the final phase, when you’re in a stream and you can’t really go back.”

5. Predict financial fluctuations.

Heidi Andermack became intimately familiar with the fluctuations in small business cash flow over the seven years that she has run her husband’s custom font company. When she co-founded Chowgirls Killer Catering in 2004 in Minneapolis, she and her partner Amy Lynn Brown defined tax rules: limit the amount of personal credit used to float the business during lean periods; avoid exhausting their retirement funds; seek a bank loan as soon as they are qualified.

They also relied on the peaks of their business – the summer wedding season and the holiday season – to support the valleys. “Learning these models of your business is really important,” says Andermack. “You can expect slimmer times.”

You can also expect cost overruns, adds Stack, who started spending Stitch & Rivet budgets for the worst scenarios during his theatrical days. “Always have a contingency budget,” she says, noting that she allocates 15-20% more money than she thinks she will need for website redesigns, trade shows, printed materials and product development. “If you don’t use it, it’s fine. But you will probably need it.”

6. Invest in people.

Making workers feel valued has always been a major concern for Chowgirls’ Brown, who was paid generously by the multinational media company that employed it for nine years before devoting itself entirely to catering. “Being treated well and being paid well and receiving great benefits taught me how important it is to staff loyalty,” she says.

Chowgirls, who earns more than $ 2 million in annual income, offers full-time employees competitive compensation and generous benefits, including four weeks paid parental leave, three weeks paid vacation (after three years of service) ), free massages and discounts at grocery stores. “We have a very high level of retention,” says Brown.

7. Treat customers like gold.

When Baroan started his business in the late 1990s, “the IT people thought they were gods,” he says. But he had no desire to build a team of sufficient technicians who would be too arrogant to treat customers with respect. Instead, he described the service philosophy of his former employer, the amusement park: “We focused on treating everyone as a guest in your home rather than just someone from the street you’re doing a favor. “

For his IT team, this means being on time, speaking to customers by name, answering questions and checking if customers need anything else before finishing the job.

“People judge you by what they can identify with,” says Baroan. Its customers may not know much about network configuration data, but they do know when someone is courteous and reliable. Baroan attributes these traits to gaining references from his business and regular customers over the years. “This is how the business grew,” he says.

Cutting corners is not part of Kevin Jordan’s DNA. His six years as a commercial airline pilot instilled him with unwavering discipline. Skip the required preflight inspection and you could endanger lives. Now the owner of Redpoint Marketing Consultants, which he opened in 2012 in Farmville, Virginia, Jordan applies these same standards to every project he accepts, even those involving tasks he prefers to avoid – and tasks that his customers may not even know. One of these tasks: interviewing customers of customers for their opinion on the company. “Some of these things are painful,” he says. “It’s hard to get people on the phone.”

But for Jordan, having the discipline to go the distance when no one is watching is part of the job. “As with upstream inspection, the client may never realize that you have done many of these things,” he says. “But it will make a difference in the long run. And that’s what sets me apart from other people who do what I do. “

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