It's possible to pursue your dream without using your credit card as a poor substitute for a paycheck. As someone who has been through the process, I know that having the security of a day job while you develop, test and sell your product gives you a secure foundation and minimizes risks. Here's how to do it:
Determine product-market fit.
It takes focus and resolve to succeed as an entrepreneur. Not only do you need passion for your business to drive you after setbacks, you need to have a market fit. In other words, people must be willing to pay for your product or service. Staying employed and investing a few months of after-hours labor during this process is far better than liquidating your savings and mortgaging your house in pursuit of an idea that no one truly wants.
Ask around to test the concept. Ask coworkers if they'd buy it. If so, how much would they spend? Don't worry about someone stealing your idea--only bigger companies have the resources to put you out of business, and they typically insist on seeing a few thousand customers first. In fact, if someone else is pursuing a similar idea, that only validates your idea and market.
You can do more in the margins than you think.
Once you're confident with your product or service, put the kids to bed and get to work. Bootstrapped businesses work best when created in the margin -- on nights and weekends. If you're single, stop going out every Friday and Saturday night. If you have a family, have a conversation about what you're about to do so everyone understands what's coming. Getting over the first hurdle is challenging. You have to focus and invest your time to successfully balance your day job with your dream job.
Have a hobby that pays.
Once you have a prototype or a minimally viable product, it's time to launch. Buy a few Google AdWords, launch a website, and put your product or service up for sale. You won't make much at first - mostly beer money - but you will gain valuable feedback and customer insight. Starting a business on a shoestring budget is easier than ever with great third-party resources, such as Stripe for credit card processing and LegalZoom for legal documents.
Maximize your lunch hours.
Remember the time it took to build your product? That's how much time you have to devote to selling it. You are the face of the brand; you are the sales team. Set appointments during the workweek with potential customers. Learn how to tell your product story clearly with enthusiasm. You have the most passion for your product -- present, evangelize and listen.
Know when to quit your day job.
Even after you make your first sale, it's not time to quit your day job just yet. Be smart. Success does not come overnight, and it's best to not preemptively quit. As a good rule of thumb, once you can cover about half your annual salary from your new business and the other half from consulting on the side, you can take the plunge.
Additionally, keep in mind that one-time sales are a tough way to move your business forward. You'll run through cash quickly at the beginning, and I've learned from experience that it's better if your customers are generating recurring revenue through contracts, subscriptions, supplies and refills.
Don't sell yourself short.
Be careful what you say "yes" to in order to win business. For example, don't give up any portion of your intellectual property rights. Ask for money up front to cover any product improvements requested. You shouldn't have to work for free, even to win a big piece of business.
Ask for help.
You'll be surprised how many CEOs, entrepreneurs and other advisors are willing to help. As someone who's been through the process, I get asked all the time and I'm happy to say "yes." There are a lot of great communities and online resources that you can draw advice from. It also helps to know you're not alone when you share your business challenges with other entrepreneurs.
Brian Pontarelli is the founder and CEO of Inversoft, a provider of software solutions that bring brands closer to their users, and it was all started on the CTA trains and buses in Chicago and the Pontarelli family kitchen table.