Making Time

Not ready for the burden of a full-time business? How do your evenings and weekends look?

You want to start a business, but you have other responsibilities. Maybe you're a full-time student already pulling study sessions all night long, a stay-at-home mom or dad keeping the household running or a full-fledged 9-to-5er. So, what do you do?

Have you considered starting your business part time? Aah, but then all those little nagging questions appear in your mind's eye-the questions that threaten to stop you before you even get started. Well, to counter those dream-squashing questions, here are some answers from people who know firsthand about the difficulties (and rewards) of starting part time.

The Benefits and Risks

Is starting a business part time a good idea?

Absolutely. According to Jack Reiners, a business counselor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Small Business Development Center (SBDC), most entrepreneurs start their businesses part time, whether they're full-timers, students or stay-at-home parents with other income. "The risk is dramatically lessened," explains Reiners, "and it takes the time pressure off. You don't need to get your business started tomorrow-next week is good enough, the week after is OK." Reiners' clients tend to follow his advice: "Don't quit your day job."

What are the benefits to starting my business part time?

For full-time workers who want to test the entrepreneurial waters, there's a steady paycheck-financial security during start-up, a time when many entrepreneurs are broke or nearly so. A full-time job also provides you with a network of potential contacts, advisors and future customers to help your business grow.

For midnight-oil-burning students, school can be the perfect incubator for a start-up. "When you live in a dorm and eat in a cafeteria, you don't have to worry about working to buy food or make a payment on your house," says Clay Johnson, 23, founder and community strategist for KnowPost.com, an all-purpose Q&A Web site. While pursuing a degree at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Johnson asked his professors questions about "hypothetical" businesses (his own) and hired other rent-worry-free college volunteers in KnowPost's early days. When KnowPost got its first infusion of venture capital, Johnson took his Web site out of the dorms and into an office building-and put his degree on the back-burner.

How risky is it?

Every business is risky, and many fail. Alan Knitowski, 31, president and CEO of Vovida Networks, in San Jose, California, a provider of Open Telephony Application Platforms for next-generation, Internet Protocol (IP)-based Linux networks, had the odds stacked against him. Knitowski was working 50- to 60-hour weeks with an operations management consulting firm; he was enrolled in the final semester of his MBA program at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley; and he was enjoying the arrival of his first daughter, Kaylan Paige . . . all just a month before his company's incorporation in February 1999. "There's a certain amount of financial risk you have to have the stomach for," says Knitowski, "because you can have it all blow up in your face." But by starting part time, you can lessen some of that risk and give your business time to percolate.

First Steps

Can I use the resources of my full-time job for my part-time business?

Yes...to an extent. For students, the college environment is your oyster. Those working full-time shouldn't spend their full-time resources on their own businesses in an inappropriate fashion. What's inappropriate? There's no pat answer; it's a common-sense judgment. "If you think it is, it probably is," says Reiners.

But that doesn't mean your full-time job can't help you. David Sikora, 40, founder and CEO of Palm Harbor, Florida-based PeopleSense Inc. moved from human resources at Cigna Corp. to market research, to better learn the re-insurance business because he knew the experience would help him if he went off on his own someday. It did: Sikora uses his new marketing savvy and understanding of the small-business landscape at PeopleSense, his Web-based provider of human resources help for small businesses. "If you can develop business ideas that relate to your employment," says Sikora, "you can get a real head start-both on the learning curve of what it takes to be successful and in developing your business while you're still employed [full time]."

No current job? What about past jobs, hobbies and special talents? "People need to understand they're not coming in naked," says Reiners. "They do have experiences that relate."

If I decide to start a business part time, what should be my first step?

"Plan, plan, plan," counsels Reiners. If you're a newbie, take a course in business planning at a local college or SBDC. Buy a business-planning book and start mapping out your ideas. And don't fall into the trap of "fill-in-the-blank" books or software. "It's not the plan itself, but the planning that's important," Reiners says.

Sikora knows all about planning. When he was still working for Cigna, he and his wife sat down to work out the details of PeopleSense, and wrote out a two-year plan "for what the start-up and the expenses might look like." Sikora also did plenty of market research, examining his competition and his target market.

Should I tell my employer?

"For a certain period of time, I kept it pretty close to my chest," says Knitowski. "You never want to disclose all of your thoughts to your bosses or sometimes even your own family. You have to sort through all the opportunities, figure out what you're really going to do and then be upfront with people."

That's what Sikora did. When he got more serious about starting his business part time but was still working full time, he approached his bosses, who were very understanding. They arranged an informal agreement stating that either side would give six months' notice before terminating their working relationship. "It's much easier to be upfront," says Sikora. "It made things simpler because I wasn't trying to hide what I was doing."

Reiners agrees. "Don't burn bridges. You want your reputation unbesmirched, and you may want to utilize your current employer as a reference, a customer or a supplier-all kinds of relationships you don't want to destroy."

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This article was originally published in the June 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Making Time.

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