The thought of business ownership is a promising one if you're dealing with a boss who makes you want to scream, a job that is less than exciting or a career path that doesn't offer much room for growth. The idea of doing what you love is enticing as the tools to start -- and build -- a business are more accessible than ever. However, what does it actually mean to do what you love? What is a day in the life of a business owner really like, and what does it take to build a profitable business, not just tinker with your favorite hobby and make an occasional sale?
Instead of jumping right from your stable income source into a risky business venture, taking steps to make sure you're setting yourself up for success will give you a better chance of building something sustainable (and fun).
Here's how to start a side business while working full-time:
1. Get a reality check: research business owners who do what you want to do
Do you have friends who own businesses? Do you feel envy when they tell you about landing big customers, creating cool new products and building the next big thing? While all of this sounds exciting and perfect to a creative go-getter, there is another side to business ownership and it should be clearly understood before jumping into it! The best way to do this is to talk to people who are already doing what you do.
First, identify other business owners who work in the field in which you are interested. For example, if you are a graphic designer and would like to have your own design company, make a list of 5 or 6 existing design companies of varying sizes and ask the owner if you can do an informational interview with them. Ask them questions about a typical day, their biggest challenges, their lifestyle, what they love, what they could do without, what kind of advice they have for you and if they would do it again. This will help to give you a clearer picture of what business ownership in your chosen industry is really like -- after you take away the exciting stories that come up at holidays and celebrations.
2. Listen to the people with money: interview customers to learn about their preferences
When we come up with an idea, we can get attached to it -- especially if we imagine how it could help people and change the world. This is a normal belief to have and it's also one of the main ingredients of entrepreneurial success. However, while it's important to start with something you truly believe in, the next step is to find out if that belief is rooted in reality. The best way to do this is to identify your target audience for your product or service. Who would use this? Why? What problem does it solve? Talk to at least 50 people who you think may purchase your offering and ask them what they are doing now to solve this problem, how much they would pay to solve this problem and how much pain this problem causes them.
If you find out no one is that concerned about solving the problem you are presenting, you may find that even if you start this business, you will have no one willing to buy what you are selling. Be open to changing your idea, identifying different target audiences and being flexible with your vision. This is where you will acquire meaningful information that could pave the road to business success or stop you dead in your tracks. Both options are better than investing thousands of dollars without a proven product.
3. Keep a roof over your head: evaluate your finances and rock bottom income needs
One thing many entrepreneurs will tell you is that they've made difficult sacrifices for their growing business, especially in the beginning. Whether it's forgoing time with their family, giving up vacations or quitting their coffee shop habit, many new business owners sacrifice the luxury a full-time job offered them in exchange for the lifestyle and opportunities entrepreneurship brings. While this is exciting, they now have to spend money on things like new equipment for the business, purchasing advertising, hiring staff and paying rent on their office space. While business owners often have no problem doing this, it's important to note that the lifestyle shift is a major one and should be considered and evaluated before taking the leap into full-time business ownership.
You can do this by creating a budget, which comprises your current monthly income and monthly expenses. Look for places you can save -- maybe you take off your gym membership and exercise at home, get rid of cable television and downgrade your car for an older model. Just getting rid of small luxuries like these can save you thousands each year while putting more money towards your new endeavor. Once you've gotten rid of the extra expenses, you can create a rock bottom income amount and start saving the rest for living expenses and growing your business.
4. Be seen as a rock star in your field: start building credibility and visibility
If you've been working in the corporate world for a while or have held the same job for a long time, it's likely you haven't been out in the community attending business events, speaking at luncheons or shaking hands at conferences. If this is the case, building credibility and visibility for you and your business will be an important first step. One important note: this does not happen overnight and you can never get started early enough. You build credibility by showing up -- whether it's in-person or virtually, it's important to show up where your customers are and where other professionals in your industry hang out. This is where you will start to be seen and known as someone to pay attention to in your field. You need to do things like offer your expertise, create programs, write blogs, build events and attend other people's engagements. You should make it a goal to spend at least 2-3 hours each week doing this so you can stay top of mind and find out what kinds of approaches work best to get attention and find customers.
5. Be memorable: build a simple brand
When I meet aspiring entrepreneurs and new business owners in their first six months, they are usually fixated on their logo and coming up with the perfect name for their business. While these elements are important, they shouldn't be obsessed over right away. Again, you're still figuring out if your idea has legs. Before you go out and hire a fancy design firm and spend your life's savings on a new website and brand, start with something simple. You could make some business cards yourself at home, give yourself a generic name, create a DBA, and voila, you're in business. Until you know who your customers are, how you're helping them, how much they'll pay to get what you have and how you want to position yourself, the brand will be a mystery. An easy way to name your business in the beginning is to just use your name and a common noun after it, like: company, enterprise, group, etc. I named my company Angela Lussier Enterprises because I wanted it to be generic to start. I've built other brands within my company, which I keep separate and it works out great.
6. Get their attention: create free offerings
Doing things for free gives people a reason to pay attention to you. Not only that, it's free marketing! You could put together a 60-minute webinar, a workshop, an ebook, an informational guide or samples of your products. The possibilities are endless. By giving things away for free, you are getting people interested in trying what you have to offer in a low risk way. This way, you're not giving your customers a lot to think about -- there is no buying decision -- it's just a matter of whether or not they want to try what you're offering. This is another great way to test what you're selling. If you try to give something away and no one wants it, that should tell you that they wouldn't buy it either.
Before you jump into entrepreneurship full-time, be sure you are considering lifestyle changes, income needs, customer needs, your reputation and creating marketing opportunities for your new business. All of these activities will tell you if entrepreneurship is the right path and if your idea is the right business for you to start.