From the October 1997 issue of Startups

Once you decide to become your own boss, you need to determine whether you'll operate your new business on a part-time or a full-time basis. Each has its advantages. Whatever your choice, keep in mind that a focused commitment is required whether you devote 40-plus hours a week to your entrepreneurial endeavor or run it part time or seasonally.

Starting out on a full-time basis can be ideal for entrepreneurs with a good deal of work experience related to the venture they're launching--and a long list of contacts and potential customers resulting from that experience. It allows an entrepreneur to grow a successful business more quickly by providing a solid customer pool to concentrate your efforts on right away.

Still, many new businesses are begun part-time rather than full-time. Doing so allows employed entrepreneurs to learn whether a venture will succeed before severing all ties with their employers and before devoting unrestricted time and resources. It also enables many of these entrepreneurs to hold on to health-care benefits and a steady paycheck while testing the waters and honing new skills.

The decision of whether to operate a start-up business on a part-time or a full-time basis is a highly personal one. You must assess your unique circumstances, resources and skills.

To provide examples of the decision-making process involved, our Building Blocks entrepreneurs have returned to explain how they resolved the issue of part time versus full time.

Suzanne George, Suzanne George Shoes

When Suzanne George, 34, launched her part-time, made-to-order shoe business in the summer of 1995, little did she know she'd end up becoming one of the busiest people in San Francisco. "In addition to running my business, I'm working full time as a project coordinator for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, I have a part-time job in a retail shoe business and I do an apprenticeship that I try to attend weekly to continue my training," she says. "Luckily, my other positions are flexible enough that I can squeeze in appointments for my own business when I need to."

George first got the idea to start making and selling custom-designed footwear when she was in her early 20s, but shied away from pursuing this career path for several years because she feared it wasn't a viable option. After studying at a reputable technical college in England that specializes in shoemaking, George returned to San Francisco, determined to make a go of it. She completed a six-month training course at a local business incubator on how to operate a profitable business, obtained her business license and devoted her attention--part-time--to her new sole proprietorship, Suzanne George Shoes.

"I wrote my business plan knowing that I would continue with other part-time work, because I couldn't support myself completely without that additional income," George says. "I had a part-time job for an educational publishing company that provided benefits, so it really made sense to keep that job so I could maintain my them and not have to try to afford a benefits package on my own. My plan, though, has always been to grow my business into a full-time operation."

Despite her busy schedule, George says she enjoys having multiple professional commitments in addition to running her own business, because it enables her to develop new skills and expand her knowledge. Take her part-time retail position selling shoes, for example. "I've maintained that position because there are learning aspects about it that I don't get through my apprenticeship or through my own business," George says. "I had never done sales before. I'm learning a lot about merchandising and price points, and the target population there is very similar to that of my own business.

"The other nice thing is that you're in totally different environments all the time," George says. Still, she admits that working such long hours at her own business and others'--both day and night--can become a bit exhausting. That's why she's trying to make the transition from part-time to full-time entrepreneur. "I'd really like my business to become full time," she says. "When I put my business plan together, I had a five-year plan for how I envisioned the business developing. I'm at the point right now where I want to keep everything on track." And making the transition to full time is a part of that track.

D. J. Waldow, B-School Cleaners

Because both D.J. Waldow and his partner, Matt Campbell, are undergraduates at one of the nation's leading universities, resolving the issue of part time or full time was a breeze. Waldow, 21, runs a dry-cleaning service from the student lounge at the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor. "My classes definitely come first, so it's strictly a part-time business for now," he says.

One of the most appealing aspects of Waldow and Campbell's business is that it doesn't require a significant time commitment. Because they don't do any of the actual dry cleaning themselves, they have ample free time to tend to their studies. They've subcontracted with a local dry cleaner who picks up, cleans and returns all the clothing to them at their on-campus business space. So the process of operating their dry-cleaning service is quite efficient: University students, faculty and staff drop off clothing during specified hours, and pick it up during the same hours a few days later; Waldow and Campbell primarily fill out invoices, collect money and promote their service around campus.

As a business-school student, Waldow's primary goal when starting this business was to acquire hands-on professional experience to complement his classroom learning. Another goal was to ensure that this work did not interfere with either his or Campbell's education. "There was never a question about whether we would run this business full time or part time, because full time was not a realistic possibility," Waldow says. "Matt and I both have classes most of the day, so we decided to operate the business during the free time we have in common, which is the time slot in the middle of the day."

To get started, Waldow and Campbell chose to restrict their business hours to a few hours per day on a few days per week. By year's end, they hope to increase those hours and the number of days each week their doors are open for business. "We wanted to limit our hours, initially, to see how the business would go over," Waldow says. "Since things have been going so well, we're looking at expanding our hours soon, based on the needs of the customer. I'm very optimistic about the future."

Al Schneider, usedmall.com

"Ours is an emerging industry, so it was only natural for us to start out running our business part time while the demand for our offering grows," says Al Schneider, 57, co-owner of usedmall.com in Englewood, New Jersey. Since the spring of 1996, he and partner Harvey Berlent have been selling electronic classified-advertising listings to companies buying and selling business equipment over the Internet.

"Usedmall.com started as a part-time venture because, in early 1996, the Internet was just beginning to catch on as a cost-effective way for companies to conduct their business activities," he explains. "Since then, we've benefited from increased activity as more businesses have begun participating in this rapidly expanding marketplace. We're getting contacted by companies that recognize our service already has a following."

Despite its growing popularity, usedmall.com continues to operate as a part-time venture today, allowing the partners to spend time on their other business, selling computers via other channels. According to Schneider, this is still possible due to the efficiency with which ads are placed. "From our standpoint," he says, "the ads are automatic. They're entered entirely on a computer at the client's site, so the creation of ads is essentially a hands-off process for us. All we need to do is look over the ads, approve them and post them on our site. This keeps to a minimum the administrative time we must devote to operating this business."

Nevertheless, Schneider foresees the day when he and Berlent will be forced to devote a full 40-hour week to usedmall.com. "We get closer to that point every day," he says. "This business becomes more time-consuming and, luckily for us, the volume just continues to build."

Part Time Or Full Time?

  • How much capital do you have available for launching your new business? One advantage to starting a business part time is that it requires a smaller initial investment.
  • How long is your list of contacts and potential customers from previous work experiences? The longer the list, the stronger your prospects for realizing a sizable customer base in a full-time endeavor right away.
  • How extensive are your personal savings accounts? If you're living "high on the hog," you likely have the financial security to start out full time, even if things don't end up going quite as smoothly as you'd like. If "hand to mouth" better describes your situation, hold on to your regular job and gravitate toward a part-time start-up.
  • How well do you know your business partner, if you will have one? Launching a business on a part-time basis provides a greater opportunity for determining partnership compatibility before committing too much time and energy.

A business writer for the past eight years, Kylo-Patrick Hart has run a successful homebased consulting business since 1989.

Contact Sources

B-School Cleaners, djwaldow@umich.edu

Suzanne George Shoes, 526 Seventh Ave., #3, San Francisco, CA 94118

usedmall.com LLC, (800) 683-1608, info@usedmall.com