Starting a Business

6 Steps to Starting a Business While Working Full Time

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
woman distracted looking at her phone while working in an office space

You have a full-time job and a business idea… but you’re not quite ready to ditch a steady paycheck and dive headlong into entrepreneurial waters to work on your business full time. So how can you gain some of the skills needed to launch and run a successful small business?

Simple time tracking that syncs with payroll.

Start a small business on the side.

You’ll be in good company: An estimated 44 million people in the US alone have a side gig, possibly because starting your own business, at least from an administrative point of view, is really easy.

Launching a successful business? That’s a lot harder. Especially when—and I’ve definitely been in this boat—you can’t afford to risk your steady paycheck from your full-time job.

I’ve talked to dozens of people who have started profitable side businesses across a wide variety of industries. Here’s what they shared about how you can start a successful business while still maintaining your full-time job.

Not the type of business to start, because that is something only you can decide, but rather the mental approach you’ll need to start a successful small business.

Step 1. Commit to ensuring your full-time job will always be your priority.

Say you’re a programmer… but you also love making things, so you start a side hustle building small decks for homeowners. You love designing and building decks. It’s fun. It’s fulfilling. To you, it definitely beats debugging databases.

So you spend lots of time dreaming up new designs, figuring out ways to overcome construction challenges, crafting creative proposals. In fact, it’s so fun that you may be tempted to work on your part-time business while you’re supposed to be working.

That’s natural—but it’s also the last thing you should do. Your fledgling business may be your passion, but your full-time job puts food on the table.

Just as importantly, you owe your full-time employer your best.

Make sure your full-time job will always be your priority. Never let your cool startup affect your attention, work ethic, or availability.

Step 2: Commit to following a rigorous schedule.

Determine how many hours per day, and per week, are required for you to be outstanding at your full-time job. The hours left over are the hours available for your business. Then commit to a schedule that ensures you can succeed at both.  

That might mean working on your business from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Or for a few hours before work. Or from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday. Develop a schedule and then stick to it.

It won’t be easy, but that’s the only way to succeed. Where your business is concerned—where anything worthwhile is concerned—“If it is to be, it’s up to me” must be your mantra.

That means doing the work. And that means following a strict schedule.

Step 3: Commit to thinking big—but focusing small.

When I started ghostwriting on the side while I was running a manufacturing plant, I dreamed of landing the proverbial huge client that would kick-start my business. It was fun to dream—but the reality was, I didn’t have the skills, experience, or standing to land a huge client.

I needed to start small: Building expertise, experience, a network, and a client roster. Building a base helped me, in time, to land slightly bigger clients, and then to leverage that success and land even larger clients. And these were steps I could take while maintaining my other commitments. 

Step 4: Commit to relentlessly focusing on the bottom line.

It’s easy to forget that full-time jobs differ from startups in several key ways. For one thing, spending time networking is a great way to build a career… but it’s a terrible way to build a successful business. 

You don’t need connections that may someday pay off. You need customers. You need revenue. You need profits.

Spend plenty of time selling. Then spend the rest of the time working.

Anything that is “nice” to do is something you shouldn’t do. Do the things that make money. Prove—through revenue and profits—that the business you envision really is a business.

Embrace this mantra: “If a task doesn’t pay… I definitely won’t do it today.”

Step 5: Commit to constant self-criticism.

You’re good at your job. You’re skilled, experienced, trusted. And comfortable.

Don’t let that bleed over to your new business. After every interaction, every sales pitch, every project completed, every deliverable delivered—no matter how seemingly successful—take a few moments to reflect. What could you do better? Faster? More efficiently? Differently?

Focus on constant self-criticism—not in a masochistic way, but as a constant search for improvement. 

You won’t get feedback from bosses or managers or peers. You’ll be responsible for providing your own feedback and your own “employee” development plans.

It’s hard to improve what you don’t measure—and if you someday hope to turn your business idea into a thriving enterprise, you’ll definitely need to improve in a variety of areas.

Start that process now.

Step 6: Commit to waiting longer than you think you should to quit your full-time job.

Possibly the toughest decision you will need to make is when the time is right to quit your full-time job and truly take the entrepreneurial plunge. As your business grows, that decision will get even harder, because your schedule and workload outside of work will grow with it. You’ll feel run down, frazzled, and overwhelmed.

Which means you may wake up one morning and say, “That’s it. I can’t do both anymore. It’s time to turn in my notice.”

Don’t let emotion be the driver. Instead, focus on numbers: Revenue. Profits. Customer base. Sales projections built on historical data instead of hope.

Let reason and logic be your guide to determining when the money you make—and can foreseeably make—from your side business will be sufficient to replace your full-time job.

Then ask someone you trust for a second opinion.

And then wait longer than you believe you should… because once you quit your full-time job, it might be impossible to go back.

Make sure you won’t need to.

Updated: August 21, 2019

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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