In the early stages of starting a business, you may not have the financial resources to work full-time on your new venture. Working a day job while you build your startup can provide some important security. It also presents a very real challenge: how do you scale up your business when you can’t devote all your time to it?

The primary challenge is mental - you need to avoid the trap of thinking of your startup as a side hustle. Start with a clear idea of the level of success that will let you quit your day job. Then work on growing your revenue enough to reach that point.

We’ll talk about how to avoid some of the common mental hurdles facing new founders, and give you some tips on how to make the best use of your time and resources.

The Security Trap

There’s a mental trap that snares a lot of first-time startup founders. It works like this:

You have a great idea for a business, but you don’t have the savings to pay your bills while you’re getting it off the ground. So you decide to stay at your current job, working nights and weekends on your startup until it’s bringing in enough revenue to support you.

But if you slack off at your job, you have to answer to someone. At your startup, there’s no one to hold you accountable but yourself. 

So if you don’t get around to setting up that ad campaign, or you put off building that important front-end feature, it’s not a big deal, right?

This is how you wind up working a day job forever, with your startup as just a hobby you tinker with in the garage.

Just to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with keeping your job while you build your business. The problem is with a mindset that overvalues the security of that established income stream. 

Your primary goal shouldn’t be security - it should be growth. Here are a few strategies for focusing your efforts on that goal.

1. Pick a Number

One of the most powerful weapons against a loss of focus is a clear, measurable goal. So we’re going to start by setting one.

Take a look at your expenses and come up with a figure that represents the amount you’ll need to be making from your business before you can ditch your day job.

That number might be a quarterly sales target, an average per-project rate, or the monthly revenue from committed clients. This will be the goal you strive for as you move forward.

Down the line you’ll have more ambitious goals, but for now you’re working toward the point where you can let go of the lifeline that is your day job.

Lots of founders never do this. Even though they’re bringing in enough revenue to make the jump, they don’t, because they never decided where that line was.

2. Invest in Growth

Another version of the security trap is to treat whatever starting capital you do have as a rainy-day fund. You keep it in the bank for emergencies, instead of putting it to work for you.

But if you’re not acquiring new customers, your venture will fail - no emergency required.

Many new founders don’t have a lot of training in marketing, and they don’t really understand how important it is. They assume that a website with an attractive sales pitch and an inviting call-to-action will be enough to drive sales at first.

The truth is, the early days are precisely when you need to work hardest at getting the word out about your company. 

Your website doesn’t have testimonials and case studies to demonstrate your value in a concrete way. And you don’t have an established customer base that can spread your name via word-of-mouth.

So you need to spend money on marketing now to start generating leads. 

Even if you don’t have huge resources to draw on, you should be investing in some kind of marketing effort. Buy a few Facebook ads, sponsor an event, do something concrete to put your business in front of potential customers.

3. Automate

Remember that your medium-term goal is freeing up time to focus on your business. Until you can quit your day job, one of the most efficient ways you can do that is automating your routine tasks. 

In a lot of ways, it’s easier today to operate a one-person business than it’s ever been. There are tons of software tools that can handle things like managing your email subscriber list, scheduling phone calls, and even converting sales leads.

Some of these tools are free, and you should probably start there. Others do require monthly subscriptions, but they’re worth investing in once you begin growing your revenue stream.

Here are a few examples:

  • Zapier lets you automate a variety of repetitive tasks like Tweeting links to blog posts or saving documents to OneDrive.
  • Calendly syncs with your calendar app to let clients book meetings or consultations.
  • Xero handles a lot of basic accounting tasks like payments and invoicing.
  • ActiveCampaign takes a lot of the busywork out of email marketing and CRM.

4. Know When To Hire

At some point, you’ll probably need to grow beyond the level of a one-person shop. Timing is important when it comes to expanding your team.

The most common way that founders get this wrong is by hiring too late. In a way, this is another version of the security trap. Having another person’s livelihood depend on your success is intimidating - it’s a big jump from having only yourself to manage.

But if you wait until you start missing deadlines or dropping the ball on important tasks, your business will suffer. When you’ve taken on enough work that you can’t realistically handle any more yourself, it’s time to start hiring.

It is possible to make the opposite mistake, though. Some people will tell you that as soon as you’re working forty hours a week, you should bring on another person rather than burning yourself out.

That sounds nice in theory, but the reality is that you should expect a certain amount of burnout as a founder. Before you bring on any new employee or contractor, you need to be certain they’ll have enough work to justify the expense.

The sweet spot for hiring is before you start missing deadlines, but after the possibility of missing them begins to loom large.

The Bottom Line

The key to building a business while working a day job is looking ahead to the point when you can leave the day job behind.

Turn that point into a clearly defined target, and devote your efforts to growing your startup until that target is met. Invest in marketing, automation, and additional talent until your company is self-sustaining.

Don’t think of your current job as your parachute. Think of it as your runway.

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