Don’t quit your day job: how staying in employment can boost your startup

Running a startup alongside a job is a serious undertaking but it can help de-risk a founder’s first taste of entrepreneurship

Don't quit your day job: how staying in employment can boost your startup

Walking away from a job can be incredibly tempting for anyone with a great business idea. It’s easy to see how the prospect of self-employment and taking something of your own to market could convince anyone to hand in their P45. However, in a world still recovering from recession, it’s impossible for the majority of entrepreneurs to quit their day job straight away. Unless you’ve got some serious savings tucked away, reality dictates that you’ll have to balance business ownership with full-time employment in the early part of your entrepreneurial journey.

Yet, far from being a necessary evil, sticking with the nine-to-five is arguably the most prudent course for budding entrepreneurs. “If you create options for yourself and explore those options before jumping in full-time, you can materially increase your chances of success,” says Patrick McGinnis, managing partner of Dirigo Advisors, the investment and advisory firm, and author of The 10% Entrepreneur, which examines how people can fulfil their entrepreneurial ambitions while maintaining a steady salary.

Not only does remaining in work remove the pressure of having to succeed straight away, it also gives entrepreneurs a chance to experiment without the money running dry. Moreover, as McGinnis explains, it lets people assess whether they’re really cut out for entrepreneurship. “I have talked to many people who dreamed of being entrepreneurs but the minute they actually did it full-time, found out it wasn’t suited to them,” he says.

Suffice to say, part-time entrepreneurs must be pragmatic and strategic with the time they spend on their startup. “It’s about having realistic expectations about what you can achieve,” says McGinnis. “You’ve got to be smart about the goals you set and the timeline you create.” Ultimately, someone who is equipped with an entrepreneurial mindset should have no problem balancing the two. “In reality, anybody who has ever dreamt of being in charge of their own destiny will make time to do so,” he adds. “And they will do it in an intelligent way by setting realistic goals and viewing it as an incremental but ongoing part of their lives.”

The write stuff

Despite being a freelance TV presenter, Adrian Simpson was effectively working full-time when he had the idea for All Speeches Great and Small, which offers bespoke, professionally written speeches for weddings and other occasions. His role on A Place in the Sun, the popular Channel 4 show, often saw him filming from the crack of dawn. “I would sometimes be up at 5am and then I’d work all the way through until midnight,” says Simpson. “But it’s the same for anyone who starts a business – unless you are prepared to put the hours in, it’s never going to work.”

The All Speeches Great and Small story started when somebody asked Simpson to write their wedding speech. As a former journalist, it was something that he relished. “I wrote a lot of speeches for myself at work,” says Simpson. “I always really enjoyed the creative side of it.” And when a stag and hen weekend startup founded by a friend acquired a website that offered bespoke wedding speeches, Simpson decided to get involved. “Before long, I decided I would start my own company and just build it from there,” he says.

However, Simpson’s personal circumstances meant he couldn’t simply drop his freelance commitments. “I needed an income because I’ve got three kids,” he says. “Whilst the actual money to start a service business is quite small, having to advertise can be relatively expensive.” Securing startup capital for All Speeches Great and Small was also out of the question. “I don’t think my wife would have allowed me to take on external funding,” Simpson laughs. “And, as a freelance TV presenter, I just wouldn’t have been able to borrow any money.”

While the speechwriting side of the business came naturally to Simpson, his shortage of digital know-how meant he had to learn a number of other things from scratch. “There are so many different moving parts to a digital business that understanding them just took lots of time,” he says. “I was learning through Google’s Digital Garage how to do the advertising and the analytics.”

Simpson spent a year juggling his job with his startup before deciding to run the company full-time. “I contacted my agent and said, ‘that’s it: I’m done’,” he says. “It was a very lovely moment.” Suffice to say, Simpson didn’t take the leap until he was sure it would provide him with a steady income. “I had a good idea of what the sales cycle might look like for the business, what ads would be costing me for a year, how much business I could expect in and what my markets were,” he adds.

It was a tough 12 months for Simpson but, given he is now writing speeches for politicians, musicians and Premiership footballers, the hard work appears to have paid off. “Mentally and physically you have to be on top of your game because you will be working long hours and juggling two different lives,” he says. “But it’s going to lead to a critical junction where you can say goodbye to one life and embrace another. So you just have to steel yourself for that.”

Just the job

Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of CV-Library, was first inspired to launch the job site after struggling with his own search for employment. “It was really time-consuming having to post my CV to everybody, visit numerous recruitment agencies and drive around to local companies,” says Biggins. “It seemed to make sense to create a website where you could post your CV and everyone could come and find you.”

But with zero experience of the recruitment industry to draw upon, Biggins wasn’t able to jump headfirst into launching the company. For the first couple of years, he balanced his startup commitments with paid work at local job agencies. Not only did this provide Biggins with a regular income but it also helped him get a better grasp of the market he was entering. “I knew I needed to understand the sector if we were going to provide an online recruitment platform,” he says. “So I continued to build the business off the back of what I was learning day-to-day in the recruitment industry.”

After starting to work part-time for his fater, Biggins was able to focus on CV-Library in his down time. “He provided me with a small office next door to his business, so I ran them both,” says Biggins. “I was quite lucky in that regard – it really helped me financially.”

Something else that helped Biggins balance employment with entrepreneurship was having a business partner to pick up some of the slack. While Biggins bought out Brian Waken in September 2013, sharing the load for the first 13 years has certainly stood the company in good stead. “When I was working, I was actually paying to support everything while he was working full-time on the site,” says Biggins. “You open up flexibility by having a trusted partner.”

And it was when CV-Library started its own recruitment drive that Biggins began working full-time on the business. “Our first employee needed managing, so we really had to make that transition,” he says. “By that point, we were making enough money to take people on.”

Fast forward a few years and CV-Library has 10 million registered users and more than 190,000 jobseekers signing up every month. It’s certainly been an impressive journey for Biggins but he’s under no illusions about the challenges involved in running a company on the side. One of the many tests that CV-Library faced was making sure it was totally open with its earliest customers. “If you are working full-time, you need to make sure you don’t overpromise,” says Biggins. “You absolutely have to manage your clients’ expectations.”

Adam Pescod
Adam Pescod

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