“I kept my day job for over six years while working mornings, nights, and weekends to create Dilbert.”

Scott Adams

[Ed: I enjoyed Tony Wright's contrarian article, Half-Assed Startup, when I first read it on his excellent blog. Tony, a founder of RescueTime (Y Combinator), argues that you can start a company while you're otherwise employed. And he explains how to do it. Tony kindly agreed to re-publish his article on Venture Hacks. Take it away Tony.]

tony-wright.jpgI’ve done two part-time-to-full-time startups. One was acquired by Jobster. The second startup is RescueTime—currently a Y Combinator funded company—cross your fingers.

In the long run, I think Paul Graham has it right in How Not to Die—you can’t half-ass a startup:

“The number one thing not to do is other things. If you find yourself saying a sentence that ends with “but we’re going to keep working on the startup,” you are in big trouble. Bob’s going to grad school, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. We’re moving back to Minnesota, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. We’re taking on some consulting projects, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. You may as well just translate these to “we’re giving up on the startup, but we’re not willing to admit that to ourselves,” because that’s what it means most of the time. A startup is so hard that working on it can’t be preceded by “but.”"

In the beginning, however, it’s not always practical to dive in full-time. And when your idea is off-the-wall and easy to prototype, it’s smart to whip something out just to see if it’s as cool as you think it might be—before you take the full-time plunge.

So if you’re too poor or too unsure to do the right thing for your business and dive in full-time, here are a few things that seemed to work for us when we did it part-time:

  1. You need a co-founder and some cheerleaders. If you can’t find two or three friends who are really excited to be beta testers for your product, ponder changing your direction. In a part-time effort, a co-founder is essential to keeping you on-track and working. At some point, you’ll hit a motivation wall… but if you have a partner who is depending on you, you will find a way past that. If you don’t have a partner, you’ll often lose interest and find something else to entertain you.
  2. Pick a day or two per week where you always work, ideally in the same room as your co-founders. Always, no exceptions. We worked one weekday evening and one weekend day. That doesn’t mean we weren’t working other days, but keeping a fixed schedule helps you through the phases of the project that might not be so fun.
  3. Have a boat-burning target. What will it take for everyone to dive in full-time? 5,000 active users? 10,000 uniques a week? Funding? The target should be a shared understanding. You don’t want one founder who is ready to go full-time while the other has reservations. This is easy to gloss over, but you should really nail it down. I’ve lost two co-founders who weren’t ready to dive in full time when I was. It wasn’t fair to them and it wasn’t fair to me.
  4. Pick an idea that is tractable. Every startup is a hypothesis. If your hypothesis is, “we can build a better web-based chat client”, that’s something you could test quickly. If your hypothesis is “we can build a car that runs on lemonade”, that’s just not going to work as a part-time effort. The scarcity of available time should force you to distill the idea to the absolute minimum that is necessary to test the hypothesis. No extraneous features!
  5. Understand that your first version is probably going to suck. Read David Rusenko’s article, The importance of launching early and staying alive—David is a founder of Weebly (Y Combinator). It’s a long road. My second startup was a ridiculous fluke—it was acquired after 2 months. 99% of overnight successes were slogging in the muck for 5 years before the night in question. Be prepared for a long journey and be surprised if your startup is an immediate hit. So with your first version, look for the tiny little flicker than you might be onto something. And use it to motivate you to make it better. Every week, make it better than last week and see if that flicker of light can be fanned into a tiny flame.
  6. If you’re going to screw off at work (everyone does), spend it getting smarter about the stuff you don’t know. If you’re a coder, read a few design or usability blogs. Read up on what motivates angel investors. Research competitors and write down what they do well. Get brilliant at SEO (it’s not hard). Write a lot more (blogging helps). Think about virality and research the heck out of it. That said, be aware of the fuzzy line between using your cool-down time at work for your startup and stealing time or resources from your employer. If you’re paid to do a job, you need to do it.
  7. Be sure you own your startup. I’ve had the fortune of working in companies where there was very clear ownership of “after hours” work. If ownership of your personal intellectual property is not clear, do not rely on the good will of your employer. Greed can do funny things to people, even if they were initially big supporters of your startup. (Thanks to Ivan from TipJoy for this final suggestion.)

In short, you want to prove whatever you need to prove as quickly as possible, so you can dive in full-time. Near as I can tell, there are plenty of startups that have started as “hobbies”, but you need to take it out of that phase as soon as you can. There is nothing that drives a team forward like the fear of public failure, debt, and starvation. Leap off the cliff and start building the airplane on the way down—you might be surprised with what you can pull off.

Topics Case Studies · Starting Up

15 comments · Show

  • Entrepreneur In Training » The post that got me out of bed

    [...] I bought myself an iPhone for Christmas and one of the sick habits I have is to go through Google Reader before I even get out of bed in the morning. I always have good stuff to read but this morning I almost jumped out of bed, all fired up to get the day started. What possibly could get me going like that? It wasn’t this news item – though for some people that probably could do it, rather it was a post from Venture Hacks titled "Half-Assed Startup: How do I start my company and keep my day job?". [...]

  • Daniel Tenner

    Having been there and done that (worked on my first startup for a whole year alongside a full-time job at a consulting firm), I’d add one more tip:

    - Put a significant lump sump, e.g. £5k, in as your business’s seed money (and, of course, your co-founder should do the same). You won’t spend it on yourself, but it’ll achieve two things. First, and most important, it will ensure both you and your cofounder are committed and will only pull out if the idea is really a disaster. This will do wonder to any “motivation issues”. When you have five grand riding on it, quitting’s just not an option. Secondly, it will ensure that your business isn’t stumped by a $200 expense (e.g. some decent hosting or a certificate) – in business terms, a one-off $200 is very small, but if you have to pay for it out of your own pocket you’ll really hesitate – that could cost you much more in missed opportunity costs.

    Good luck to all half assed startups out there :-) You’ll need it!

    Daniel

  • Brody

    There’s some solid advice (and humor) in there. Thanks for keeping my attention. I think that “startups should make use of their available resources” should be on this list too. There are a lot of programs that are specifically geared toward helping startups and I think that list should be exploited as part of the process– that’s what they’re for. Sun Microsystems has a program called ‘startup essentials’ that offers discounts on x64 servers, free tech support and free events to meet ‘missing pieces of your personnel’ and we think thats a cool move to lend a hand from the get-go. I’d be interested in seeing a huge list sometime of all of the resources out there but you can start with this one: http://www.sun.com/startup

    Peace,

    Brody

  • Joe Hunkins

    Startup advice always “reads” well for me, but having played online for some time with various failures and some successes I’ve come to the conclusion that there is *absolutely no relationship* between any cookbook advice or activity and success. There are so many confounding factors that I think even the old unasailable adages of “hard work”, “don’t give up”, “follow your dreams” are largely irrelevant in the online space. Look at Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook. Not to mention the thousands of small startups that died, had modest success, or are still hoping. All had very different trajectories, buyouts, pricing, strategies, etc.

    Startups move away from failure, not towards success.

  • Fred Yee

    Great article. And good commentary. I especially like Joe’s ‘Startups move away from failure, not towards success.’ comment. Given that most startups are not overnight successes, and having some experience in startups (both my own and other peoples), I’d say that statement is the closest thing to useful cookbook advice.

  • Keith Emmel

    Excellent post. Love points 3, 5 and 7. I think it’s also easy to make the argument you can’t half-ass your life, part or full-time. Dive in.

  • Josh

    Excellent post, and great ideas. I certainly appreciate the need to have other people have a vested interest in the start-up. It is very, very easy for one person to shoulder most of the load from a financial and risk perspective.

  • kartik

    Very interesting and useful post! I am exactly in that position…..I have a number of partners who cheer me up by motivating me…..we started a collaborative blogging project…and every day we take turns trying to keep it up and running….getting it updated multiple times every day

  • pinkconnection.com

    great article! i like the mandatory 2 day a week rule + getting people to invest early on financially. have to keep people accountable.

  • Cover your ‘Half-Assed’ Startup : Texas Startup Blog

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  • Martin

    Yes, good article. I am in those shoes as I type (being fully employed, and looking for kicker to get serious and full time in my own business) I had my business for a year now as a side-project.
    I guess it all comes down to being serious about it or not. If you dont trust yourself going full time into it, you might not be serious enough to do it.

    Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.
    -Henry Ford
    :)

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