The gruelling reality of starting up isn’t all about winning investment or getting press coverage. Hidden beneath the shiny veneer of startup culture is the hours entrepreneurs spend hustling to launch something while holding down a full-time job - and their stress levels.
The topic came up when mapping the entrepreneurial journey of YENA founder Ash Phillips. We drew a timeline plotting milestones like launching a paid offering and hiring a team, and the challenges he faced. On the left-hand side was a big space we don’t talk about all that often; the three years he’d spent building a 2,000-strong community while working full time at a marketing agency.
The response to a request for entrepreneurs to talk about the subject was overwhelming.
The stress of balancing a full-time job and a startup
Working forty hours a week can be tough enough. Adding an all-consuming startup to the mix is even more difficult.
Margot Radicati di Brozolo spent two years building therapists platform Your Mind while working in consulting. That meant working 60 hour weeks, something that isn’t unknown in her industry, and dealing with a period that would push her to her professional limit.
“The peak time when I experienced burnout was at the end of [Escape the City’s] Tribe programme when I was trying to build the very foundations of the business. I remember crying at work for a whole day in front of my boss, anything that happened I would just cry.
Content seriesView full content series
“I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well. In the sense that I wasn’t building my startup well because I couldn’t dedicate the time to it, yet my mind was somewhere else when I was working at my actual paid job. It was the sense of being pulled in all directions yet not being able to do anything well. And, just in general, not having any time for myself,” she says, adding that the Tribe programme was a great way to startup and get networking.
It’s a common sentiment. Irina Bragin, managing director of fashion brand Made of Carpet, describes a “year and half of hell” founding the business while working a design job in the City. Looking back at the experience, she stresses the need to make sure you’re in a healthy position before starting up.
“If you have problems with sleeping or any other health issues do something about it. Find a cure because when you start all of this you will not have time for health and sleeping problems. You will be excited and happy to see a pillow at all.”
Brozolo, who previously worked as a freelance healthcare consultant, says stress can have physical impacts such as feeling exhausted all the time, losing your appetite or even having headaches, as well as generating negative feelings.
“Burnout is a very real consequence of stress, but can be avoided by implementing some small steps every day. For example, having some time to relax each day is key – be it mindful breathing, taking a bath or colouring in. Speaking to a friend has also been proven to relieve stress and it helps to put things into perspective.
“It’s easy to tell ourselves that we don’t have time for these things, but we all do. Even by giving up 10 minutes of mindless scrolling through social media to dedicate some time to yourself you will notice a difference!”
It’s important to manage your time in a sustainable way, too. Lucy-Rose Walker, CEO and co-founder of startup incubator Entrepreneurial Spark recommends setting goals that “are achievable and include some that are tangible or high-impact, so you notice the positive changes being made” to help reduce stress.
Less time, but less risk...
Quitting your day job to work full time on a business is daunting. Not having a definite paycheque to rely on, knock-backs and, ultimately, fear of failure were barriers raised by the founders I spoke to.
Ocushield founder Dhruvin Patel says he struggled with the idea. “Going full time from the onset is a big change and a big ask to anyone's lifestyle if it's not been done before - you have no safety net if it fails. And you could feel lost if you don't have a direct plan and finance in place. Starting up part time allowed me to complete small objectives and launch a business in my own time without taking out a loan.”
Patel developed a screen protector that eliminates harmful light frequencies while studying for a degree in optometry. Launching for £500 it grossed £40,000 in its first year with a net profit of £15,000 and he hasn’t had to loan any money.
Starting up part-time means starting lean
Limited money and hours often forces business built part-time to be incredibly lean. Phillips worked on YENA for an hour or two most evenings and a day on the weekend, running 20-plus events a year. This bred discipline and made sure it was prepared for scale.
“This helped me to make the operations of the business incredibly lean - because it had to be,” he says. “This helped accelerate growth way faster when I had seven days a week to focus on it. People often remark at how we're now able to run 56-plus events a year, manage members, sponsors and other activities as a team of just two, but this is the reason and I'm glad I went through it as it bodes very well for future growth of the company.”
For Patel, studying and working on the business meant taking every opportunity to use his time effectively. Graphic design and marketing were outsourced, lunch breaks were used for website development, shipments packed in the evening ready for posting on the way to university and, quite simply, he learnt that “there are way more hours in a day if you spend each hour accordingly without procrastinating!”
Working part-time also means you can test an MVP or work out whether there’s demand for your offering while managing risk. You have the ability to use your current job and colleagues as sounding boards and to generate ideas. You can also spend time doing deep research on your chosen industry, learning about relevant marketing, intellectual property and taxes, and all the other things you need to know as a business person.
That said, if the business grows rapidly customers will put increasing demands on your time. It’s unlikely early users will know or care that you’re working part time - in fact, founders often deliberately conceal their work situation - and they’ll expect the same level of service as a regular business.
Scott Sherwood spent six months working on test management software TestLodge before going full time and had to balance the needs of a growing customer base:
“Reacting to feedback was always a problem. Early beta users expected the tool to improve significantly at a good pace. Naturally, these users are not aware of the humble beginnings and I've always worked hard to present TestLodge as the high standard software testing tool it is today,” says Sherwood, adding the four-year-old bootstrapped business now boasts over 300 paid subscribers.
Entrepreneurial Spark’s Lucy-Rose stresses the need to manage customer expectations during these initial stages.
“Entrepreneurs should plan for growth and strike a balance between loyalty to customers and an honest and upfront approach. Be prepared to say ‘no’ to a customer if your business cannot deliver, as it is far better to under promise and over deliver when addressing customers’ expectations of you or your product.”
Managing expectations in startup land
In a world where the media relentlessly talks about startups raising hundreds of thousands of pounds, it’s amazing to hear bootstrapped success stories. Less publicly, there’s often an element of privilege to those that are able to go full-time from the outset whether it’s through connections to potential investors or a wealthy background, or they’ve worked in a well-paid job. But it’s much more common to hear from founders that were burning the midnight oil to prove their product could make an impact before taking the leap.
Yes, many businesses launched part time have gone on to raise capital and there’s nothing wrong with getting a helping hand or early investment, but the discipline required to prove the concept while holding down a full-time job and keep you sanity is incredibly impressive.
Did you start your business part-time? Leave a comment below and let us know how you got on.
Journalist and editor with nine years' experience covering small businesses and entrepreneurship (ChrisGoodfellow.net). Follow his personal twitter account @CPGoodfellow and his events business @Box2Media. He has written for a wide range of publications in the UK, Ireland and Canada, including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent and Vice magazine.