How to start a business while working

Starting a business while employed can be a great way to test your business idea - here's how to make it work

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  • The Startups Team

For many people, quitting a salaried job to start a business is an unaffordable luxury. With bills to pay and families to support, many have no option but to keep the day job while building their new company – necessitating a delicate juggling act fraught with stress, complexity and potential conflicts of interest. However, there's no reason why you can't serve two masters at once.

Some of the world's top companies have begun as side-projects, fostered in the founder's bedroom during evenings and weekends. Balancing a salaried role with a start-up can have real advantages, enabling you to gain contacts and advice while testing your commitment to the company you wish to found.

Living a two-job existence will never be an easy task, but we've asked some of Britain's top entrepreneurs to offer their advice on how to do it. Here's what they told us:

Create a clear schedule

At the outset, it's vital that you create a clear, realistic timeline for starting up your business, breaking down the process into achievable goals. That way you will always be clear exactly where you're up to – vital in maintaining focus and avoiding frustration.

Prioritise the most important tasks, and those which will take longest, such as securing insurance, completing the necessary registration and applying for start-up funding. If you leave these until the end, you could face exasperating last-minute delays.

Think about approaching your boss

Wendy Tan White founded web development company Moonfruit while working at internet bank Egg. She told us: “Don't think you can't go and speak to your boss. Even if you haven't got that close a relationship, most companies want to keep their staff and even if they can only keep you part-time, it might be worth their while.”

Many employers are entrepreneurs themselves, and will appreciate the fact that you've shown initiative – particularly if you choose your words carefully.

Christian Lanng, who started up Tradeshift while working for the Danish government, told us: “You should demonstrate to your bosses that what you're doing is a compliment to them. Tell them why it will help the existing workplace, flatter their ego, and give them credit.”

See also: How to start a business: What you need to know

Use your holidays

If you want to get your business up-and-running quickly, you'll need to use all the time available – and annual leave provides a key window of opportunity. Furthermore, by using your holidays for work rather than pleasure, you could end up making financial savings to go towards your start-up.

Your family may not appreciate the fact that you're devoting holidays to work, but hopefully, when your company takes off, they'll see the benefits of the decision.

Get into a routine

As anyone who's ever revised for an exam knows, structure is crucial to working effectively at home. This is doubly important if you've already worked a full day; so you need to plan out a regime for your start-up, identifying the exact time you'll be starting work each evening, and the time you'll be logging off for the night.

Once you've created your schedule, make sure you stick to it. Don't take refuge in excuses that allow you to procrastinate, and don't work a minute beyond your finish time. The more disciplined you can be, the better.

Maximise the resources available

Tristram Mayhew, who founded Go Ape! while holding a senior position at General Electric, said:

“I definitely spent lots of late nights thinking it through, writing and making plans on the internet. A lot of the market research was available on the internet – it's extraordinary how much you can get.

“I also talked through with friends with relevant backgrounds, particularly accountancy backgrounds, in the evenings. People will be generous with their time, so you should ask for as much advice as you can get. With things like cash-flow forecasting, everyone needs as much help as they can get.”

Get support

You may have always dreamed of standing completely on your own two feet. However, if you want to build a successful start-up without quitting your existing job, you may need the support of someone else.

According to Tan White; “it's tough to discipline yourself when starting up on your own, so it's good to have a co-founder – so you can meet and work outside the 9-to-5.

“If you really don't want to work with a co-founder, find someone like a friend or mentor, who's doing something similar. I know writers who will meet other writers and work together, to create a structure for their day.

“It's also worth trying to get yourself into a group that meets once a week or once a month – there are loads of groups out there and they can help you through it.”

Try and get full-time help

Christian Lanng told us that he hired his first employee two months into the project, ensuring that someone would be working on the business throughout the working day while the founders were seeing out their salaried job.

You may well be unable to pay someone before you get the business off the ground; in this case, you might want to think about taking a young graduate on a placement or work experience stint. Sites such as Gumtree will allow you to run job adverts for free, which could provide another vital cost-saving.

Choose a good location

When you're juggling two jobs, every minute counts – you have to make the very best of all the time you have available. So it's essential that you find a location that works for you, and allows you to achieve maximum productivity without distraction.

Tan White told us: “I don't like working in the house that much, but a lot of good coffee shops have Wi-Fi, some people will even let you use their offices. We actually worked in the attic of our web agency. If the setting's not working, change it.”

Avoid cross-over

In the age of smartphones, tablets and personal email addresses, there's no reason to bring your start-up activity into your day job – the two can be kept completely separate.

Christian Lanng advised: “Be fair, and careful, about how you use email, IT and things like that – companies usually have rules about how to use their equipment. Use Hotmail or Yahoo! mail to generate correspondence about your start-up, don't use your work account.”

Meanwhile Hugh Robertson, who co-founded marketing agency RPM while working at sales promotion agency ZGC, added:

“In order that there's no conflict or interruption, I would advise setting up another phone number – so that you don't have people calling you at the office with regards to your new business venture.”

Behave with respect

Ultimately, as each of the entrepreneurs we spoke too stressed, you have to behave with respect. Your current employer could be a potential customer, supplier or even investor one day, so try not to burn your bridges. You might hate your salaried job, but it's still important to be professional – what goes around comes around, and if you treat your boss badly, they'll remember it.

The Startups Team

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