From the March 1999 issue of Startups

Tales of running a start-up on someone else's company time possess the same lurid tone usually reserved for rumors of office affairs or political conspiracies. Entrepreneurs talk of covert phone calls, of suppressing the desire to just confess, of hiding personal papers under an innocuous cover sheet, of seemingly casual strolls to the fax or printer while silently praying that the office busybody isn't in the vicinity.

With time at a premium, the temptation to "sneak around" from the cubicle's confines can sometimes be too great to ignore, and you may find yourself questioning whether that pesky word "ethics" is going to haunt your every professional action.

However, with a proper ethical perspective and a keen eye toward caution, stealing a few hours off the time clock can actually prove to be beneficial--not just for you, as you move closer to self-employment, but even for your boss, since many "cheaters" admit to working harder at their day jobs to keep from getting caught.


Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer who frequently and without remorse hides her cheatin' heart by writing while at her Boston day job (but don't tell her boss).

Productivity As Insurance

Nechelle Feaster, 24, admits cheating became standard practice in the two years it took to get her multimedia company going. Between 1996, when she launched New York City-based De Tai Technologies part time, and 1998, when she finally quit her day job, Feaster paid the bills by working in industries ranging from medicine to entertainment. The jobs not only paid the rent, but actually helped her start her business--because the tools she needed, such as a computer, fax and copy machine, were all located at the workplace--although sometimes not so conveniently.

"You're always looking over your shoulder," recalls Feaster, "trying to get your stuff done as fast as possible. You run to the printer as fast as you can, trying not to look like you're doing something [unrelated to work]."

Although Feaster told co-workers about her start-up, they were unaware of the extent of her outside work. And even though her bosses never challenged her, she ended up challenging herself.

"It gets to where you're tormented not by guilt, but by anxiety, trying to get everything done," she explains. "At my last job, they thought I was Superworker because I was always at my desk, but the reality was, I didn't have time to chitchat because I had to juggle the job and my business. I utilized my time a lot better. If I hadn't been trying to [run my business] on the side, I would have been doing things that were a waste of time, like taking extra breaks or calling my friends. [The business] made me more focused."

For entrepreneurs like Feaster, anxiety spurs them to better performance in both arenas. "My job wasn't [negatively] affected; actually, it was the opposite," she says. "I think it would have caused too much anxiety if my [business] was affecting my job, and then I probably would have gotten caught."

Remember The Golden Rule

If, as a kid, you didn't have to repeat the mantra of good children, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," you might want to start uttering it now if you find yourself in an ethical quagmire. Some entrepreneurs discover the hard way--when they have to hire employees--that what they slipped by the boss isn't acceptable when they're actually bosses themselves. Another argument for keeping your rules golden: You know who your friends are, but do you know who your boss's friends are?

Terrence Young, owner of New Image Enterprises Inc., a business consulting firm in Portland, sometimes makes client phone calls during his day job in an advertising agency, but he stays aware of how close he comes to crossing his own personal ethics line. "It's really hard to work on your own business after 5 or 6 p.m., when clients are trying to figure out why you didn't call during the day," says the 28-year-old. "When I make calls, I'm not doing it to discredit my boss, and I don't think it's a conflict of interest, because I'm not doing advertising."

Blessed by working only three blocks from home, Young hightails it home on his lunch hour to send e-mails and make as many business calls as he can, carefully avoiding making calls from the office whenever possible.

"I make sure it doesn't interfere with my job, because if you interfere with your full-time employment, you're going to shoot yourself in the foot twice," Young contends. "First, you're going to screw up the job you have. Second, you never know who knows someone else. If clients find out [from your boss] you're not as ethical as you could be, then you're shooting yourself again."

Keep 'Em Separated

Most dilemmas that arise while starting a business from someone else's office have to do with questions like whether it's OK to contact your employer's clients, whether you can use ideas formed on the job that relate to your employer's business, and how far you can stray under threat of a "noncompete" clause in your employment contract.

Some entrepreneurs skirt these reservations completely by spending their working time in fields other than their start-ups. Christopher Jones, owner of New York City start-up business consulting firm Progressive Solutions, knew he had to get experience in the professional world before striking out on his own, but he didn't want to risk bad karma to get it. Before going full-time with his company in 1991, Jones worked for two years at various businesses, including an alarm company and an accounting software firm.

"It's always difficult to be upfront and not hide anything, at least for me," he says. "I did all my [business's work] at night and on weekends, but my boss did notice how exhausted I was all the time. I didn't tell him what I was doing because I think if you do it in your off hours, it's not your boss's business."

Besides this separation of church and state, the 31-year-old adds, "Another thing that helped me think about it ethically is that I was never competing in the same area. I made it a point to work at places that were similar but where I wouldn't be competing [with my employer] directly. That's difficult, but it's worth it."

Oh, The Legality . . .

Adam J. Conti, an employment lawyer who owns his own firm in Atlanta, offers five tips for those trying to stay within the law's tricky borders:

1. Make sure your employment contract or noncompete agreement is legal. If the restrictions are too broad, or if there isn't a specific time frame (usually no longer than two years) or a specified region (for example, within your state) mentioned for noncompetition after you leave the job, it's highly possible the contract that supposedly binds you isn't legally enforceable.

2. Throw the good ones back . . . for now. Stealing your company's clients will very likely bounce you into court, but if you stay true to the noncompete agreement's time frame, you can start dialing for dollars once the contract runs out without fear of getting sued.

3. Put time on your side. If you plan to start a business that competes directly with the day job you just left, remember: The more time you let elapse between your departure and your start-up, the less risk you run of landing in front of a judge.

4. Keep intellectual property in mind. If you've developed an idea that's within the scope of your job duties and responsibilities, chances are your employer can lay claim to it. But if you can prove the idea was developed outside of the company and wasn't something your employer wanted you to do, then that claim ticket is yours.

5. Don't worry about getting fired. It's never a good idea to bait your boss into downsizing you, but if you do get fired, the law will look more favorably on you than on the company that tossed you out and then tried to prevent you from earning a living in your field, whether you signed a noncompete agreement or not.

Even Steven

For those essentially working two jobs, time is not on your side. Figuring out how much time to give to each is like a problem on the mathematics portion of a standardized test. But if you think of it in terms of units, it becomes easier to pencil in those blank ovals.

Russ Sarbora, 27, bills by the hour and has found that companies are understanding when it comes to exactly which hours show up on their bill. As owner of Peak Consulting and Development, a Web site development company in Wilmington, Delaware, Sarbora uses the office space of companies for whom he's contracted and pushes the limits of multitasking while doing so. Yes, this full-time entrepreneur "cheats" on his own clients.

"Sometimes I work on other projects while billing a company for my time," Sarbora says. "But my clients realize what's going on, and everyone knows I'm responsible for finding my next assignments. They know I do small stuff on the side, but most [clients] say it's not a problem. And as long as I feel like I'm providing the service I'm being paid for, then it doesn't bother me at all. If deadlines are coming up, I put in extra time--for free--and it all balances out."

'Fess Up

Confession can be good for the soul, but not always for business. That said, there are a few situations in which it might be better to bare all:

  • After you've left the job. Sometimes bosses can be helpful for finding contacts after you're off their clock. Some may even be interested in investing in your company.
  • When you suspect you're about to get caught. Like parents and spouses, employers sometimes give you credit for preemptive honesty.
  • If your work is truly suffering. If your boss suspects you're just a slacker, he or she may appreciate the truth as to why you're not giving your all to the job and might even grudgingly accept that you have to follow your entrepreneurial leanings.

Ethics 101

Still seeking guidance about the ethical implications of cheating on your boss? Even for the experts, nothing's black and white.

Joe Badaracco, a professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School, says there are no concrete rules when it comes to the ethical implications of cheating. "It depends on the implicit contract [you have with your boss]," he says. "I think the main question is, Are you doing your job? Are you doing it in a way the company expects you to do it? You're probably at risk if you deviate too far from that.

"I'm not sure whether stealing time is any different than stealing something from the warehouse," Badaracco continues. "On the other hand, my impression and my hope is that most people are paid for getting the job done, not for sitting on their butts." In other words, although some may see the theft of time and resources as equivalent to pillaging your employer's bank account, Badaracco believes as long as you're getting your work done, it's forgivable and even forgettable.

But will the boss see it the same way? Sometimes, Badaracco warns, it's better not to unburden your cheatin' heart to a superior. "Bosses like to think they've got their employees' hearts and souls," he says. "That's an illusion, but depending on who your boss is, sometimes it's a necessary illusion, and it's probably best not to disappoint [him or her]."

The final word? As comfort to office cheaters everywhere, Badaracco says ethics depend on the specifics of a situation. "My general view is, if you can say in good conscience that you're doing your job, the rest of your life is yours."

Contact Sources

Adam J. Conti, (404) 531-0701

De Tai Technologies, nfeaster@detai.com, http://www.detai.com

New Image Enterprises Inc., nie@mailcity.com

Peak Consulting and Development, (302) 983-5422, russ@delaware.net

Progressive Solutions, (212) 386-2449, ckjones@progsolinc.com