About the Author (Tony Wright)
Having done this twice (started a company that eventually turned into a full-time startup), I settled in to reply. Before long, it was clear that my response was long enough to justify a blog post.I’ve done two part-time-to-full-time startups (one resulted in a startup the sold, the second is RescueTime– currently a YC-funded company– cross your fingers).
At the end of the day, I think Paul Graham is right when he says:
“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 sometimes, when your idea is off-the-wall and also easy to build a prototype for, it’s smart to whip something out just to see if what you’re building is as cool as you think it might be before you take the 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 2-3 friends who are really excited to be beta testers for what you’re building, ponder changing your direction. The arguments for a co-founder are many and varied. For a part-time effort, they are essential to keep you on-track and working. At some point, you’ll hit a motivation wall… If you have a partner who is depending on you, you find a way past that. If you don’t, 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-founder(s). ALWAYS, no exceptions. We did 1 weekday evening and 1 weekend day. That doesn’t mean we weren’t working other days, but having 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? That should be a shared understanding. You don’t want to have one founder ready to go full-time when another has reservations.
4. Pick an idea that is tractable. Every business is a theory. If your theory is, “we can build a better web-based chat client”, that’s something you could test quickly. If you’re theory is “we can build a car that runs on lemonade”, that’s just not going to work as a part-time effort.
5. Understand that your v1 ia probably going to suck. Read David of Weebly’s post on persistence. It’s a long road. My first startup was a ridiculous fluke (2 months and then sold). 99% of the overnight successes you read about 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.
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/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. This is all more valuable (and hopefully just as fun) as looking at LOLcats on Reddit.
At the end of the day, 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.