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Lessons Learned

How I Launched A Successful Startup Without Quitting My Day Job

Successfully moonlighting as an entrepreneur is all about time, money, and motivation.

How I Launched A Successful Startup Without Quitting My Day Job
[Photo: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock]

Three months after starting my first job out of college, I began to work on a startup on the side—and I haven't stopped since. For three years, it was a juggling act: I would keep plugging away at my business while sticking with my full-time job. Finally, I managed to raise enough funding to focus on my startup exclusively. It wasn't easy, but I pulled it off. Here's how you can, too.

1. Use Every Second You’ve Got

It goes without saying that time management is absolutely essential to working while bootstrapping. Working nights and weekends is a given, but really optimizing your time takes even more than that. The nine or so hours you spend at work each day takes a lot out of most people, leaving scarcely any time at all to build a high-quality product or service. For those who are committed to doing that anyway, you need to find a time management approach that suits you.

For me, it meant that I started by listening to audiobooks about building better companies  ( Inbound Marketing and Venture Deals were both particularly helpful) as I walked or drove to work. If I wanted to relax on the couch after a 16-hour day, I chose to turn on Netflix and watch movies like the Inside series to learn how companies like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and LinkedIn were built.

It's not the most formal business education, to be sure, but those things helped get me in the habit of asking the right questions about entrepreneurship. I’ll even admit that I used bathroom time to look up some of those questions on Quora instead of playing Angry Birds. This might seem crazy, but it shows just how efficient you have to be when you're working the equivalent of two full-time jobs, while trying to learn and get better at both of them.

2. Shorten Your Commute

Citi's ThankYou Premier Commuter Index estimates that workers spend 200 hours a year commuting to work. To be sure, you can make the best of that time by brushing up on educational content (see above), but that isn't always as productive as just sitting down to focus.

Depending on what your full-time job is, you may not have any real options when it comes to shortening your commute. If your ultimate goal is to launch a startup, but the only real option is to build it up from a side gig, it helps to find a day job that makes that as easy as possible for you. To that end, it makes sense to live very close to where you work, even if that's a bit more expensive or a longer distance from your friends.

Don't forget that part of the reason you're keeping a full-time job in the first place is to maintain an income (and with it, a conveniently located home), and let's be honest: You won’t have much free time to socialize anyway. Commuting isn't just a time sink, it's actually draining. When you lose minutes and hours in transit, your productivity and energy tend to go with it.

I've changed jobs and moved three times each over the past three years in order to keep my commute under 20 minutes. (Ideally, for the sake of your well-being as well as your productivity, that 20 minutes is best spent walking or biking, so you can fit in some exercise.)

3. Don’t Build From Scratch

Many founders incorrectly assume that they have to build everything themselves. That takes way too much time. It might seem at first that a steady income buys you more time to build, but in my experience, that can be a dangerous trap. Speed is even more important when you're moonlighting as an entrepreneur than when you're full-timing.

Why? Because humans need to feel like they're making progress in order to stay motivated. If it takes more than six months to create a usable prototype, chances are you'll give up before you get very far. Trust me, if you spend a week building a "revolutionary" user-registration system for your product, you are not going to make it.

In the early days, the most important thing you can do is get a working prototype out there in the market and see how it fares. Then, once you have some traction and resources behind you, you can go back and build more or rebuild.

Fortunately for entrepreneurs today, there are so many open source projects, modern frameworks, and out-of-the-box systems available that most "standard" features are already built for you. All you have to do is bring these products together, tweak them, and you'll be halfway there. This also lets you focus your limited time and precious energy on the things that really matter (like your core technology).

4. Find A Cofounder

Complementary cofounders are important for all entrepreneurs, but particularly for those haven't quit their day jobs yet. Finding a cofounder who believes in the startup as much as you do and who's as invested as you are is crucial for one reason above all: With someone else on board, it’s much harder to quit.

Your idea or company is no longer only about you, and that creates accountability. You can't fail someone who followed you into battle. Pinning down a cofounder also means there are two people hard at work, so progress will feel faster, which is good, not just for your chances of success, but also for your motivation. Since you and your cofounder will hit your own highs and lows at different times, you'll be able to prop each other up.

And on a more practical level, a partner also gives you someone to bounce ideas off and challenge your perspective with their own. Decisions can come from a place of discussion and collaboration, instead of your own swirling, overtired, and overworked brain.

5. Be Cheap And Stay Cheap

While keeping a steady job gives you more of a financial cushion, it of course doesn't mean you'll have plenty of spare cash to spend on your startup. The same way every second counts, so does every penny, and saving can be extra tough if you live someplace like San Francisco or New York. The last thing you want is to build a product and not have enough resources to market it, brand it, or scale it, but with some creativity, you can build and scale a startup to thousands of users with almost no money.

How? Some of it comes down to how you pick your tools. At first, I used AWS to host a small website and paid over $70 a month, when I could've been paying $5–$10 with Digital Ocean. And when I first started email marketing, I used MailChimp and paid over $150 a month for a few thousand users before switching to Sendy, which allowed me to send tens of thousands of emails for less than $10 a month. When I first started with Facebook ads, all I did was choose a country and an age group for targeting, which resulted in wasted money from click-bots. Later on I switched to Custom Audiences to build highly targeted campaigns, which resulted in way more users for way less money. I could go on, but you get the idea.

If you're a small startup (with under 20,000–30,000 users), there's no reason to pay more than $50 a month for just about any service.

Moonlighting is all about time, money, and motivation. Those three are closely intertwined, so if you lapse on one, the others will fall along with it—leaving you with only your day job all over again.

Tigran Sloyan is the cofounder and CEO of CodeFights, a startup aiming to make improving your coding skills and finding your dream job fun and accessible to everyone in the world.

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