Full Time Startup’ing vs Part Time: Which is the best?


Twyla Tharp is a choreographer.  While Twyla talks about a lot of things in this 3 & 1/2 minute video, the part starting at 2:53 is my favorite section.  She talks about how she didn’t immediately try to make her passion pay her bills:

I was lucky, in the beginning, I began to work to simply make the dances. I never thought it was going to make an income.  I never thought I was going to earn a living doing it.  I was just curious about doing it.  My mother also gave me lessons in stenography; We could type, we could do other things and we did.  We did other things and we did dance because that’s what we were really challenged to do, but we didn’t look at dance to pay the bills at the beginning.”

Creating a business around your passion is a good thing.  Forcing your passion to pay your bills overnight with a flip of the switch though is not a good thing.  My passion is helping folks grow and learn. The odd thing was that when John and I gave birth to 360|Flex (and thus 360|Conferences), I didn’t know that was my passion.  What I did know was that there was a hole in the market for a good conference focused on Flex.

The first year 360|Conferences was alive, we put on 2 shows and entered our second year $15k in debt.  We took no salary, so that $15K was tied to actual losses from the shows.  Now, John thinks because we didn’t pay ourselves it wasn’t a business but a hobby. I think Twyla sort of backs him up there.  There seems to be this strange stage of a business where it’s post idea and not quite making steady payroll, a business zygote so to speak.  During this time, you’re making money outside the business (in a day job most likely) while moonlighting on  your passion. To compare us to Twyla’s quote above, programming was our stenography and conferences were our dances. The one luxury this afforded us though was the ability to do it right.

I was so glad to have that luxury our first year. It’s very important to build trust in our brand by making it the best it can be.  Sadly, I don’t think we could’ve done that with no jobs and bill collectors breathing down our necks.  There’s a certain peace of mind and/or liberty about being able to focus on doing something right vs getting paid.

For instance, when we were $15K in the hole we decided to go international. It was a bold move and a painful learning experience.  However, from the dialogue in preparing for that show came our successful business model.  Now would we have made that same choice if we were $75K in debt (the loss of the shows plus some salary for us)?  I doubt it.  We would have stuck to US only and we wouldn’t have discovered our new business model.

In our second year, I think we finally hit our stride.  We had the new business model in place. This was the show breakdown:

  • Febuary in Atlanta, GA – profitable
  • April in Milan, Italy – not profitable
  • August in San Jose, CA – profitable

I remember being 30 days out from Atlanta and not having the numbers in ticket sales to make either Atlanta or Milan profitable.  I darn near gave up.  I told John, “We’ve tweaked the show as best we can to achieve profitability.  The one factor we need though is the numbers (in ticket sales).  If we don’t sell over 300 tickets, we’re in trouble.  If we don’t make that number, I think we have to concede that no one sees the value in our offering and throw in the towel.”

John, being the good biz partner that he is, gave me a pep talk and got me excited again.  I don’t remember much of the pep talk, sadly because i was probably wallowing in self-pity.  The one thing I did remember was this bit: “The money will come.  If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the money will come.”  There was also talk of us having to help it come, which we did late into the night but he had the faith.  I had the fear of failure, he had the faith of success.

Whether or not we should have gone FT at the start of year 2 is debatable.  In hindsight, we probably could have.  I think there was enough ground work in the conference biz concept to get to profitability. Being FT near the start of year two or just after Atlanta would’ve made the other two shows that much better.  It may have even been enough to make Milan a success or at least break even.  Hindsight is 20/20 though and I can’t very well say it would’ve been all good.

Now, I will say this though. As soon as it became clear that San Jose was going to be profitable (or at least by the end of the show), I should’ve jumped ship and gone FT on the conf biz.  Granted that’ll only be six months by the time I leave. Still, six months is a heck of a lot of time for a startup.  John and I did our first ‘corporate summit’ in October.  (More on summits in another post.)  It would have gone a lot differently if we were full time and for that I am sad.  My employer is great and I love them dearly for the opportunity they’ve given me.  However, I can’t help but feel that the impact my presence made at their company was negligible in comparison to impact my presence would have been at my own company.

Sorry if you’re looking for a clear cut answer, because I don’t think there is one.  You need to look at your situation and make the best call.  Ben knew what he wanted to do and thus set aside the funds to make it happen.  John and I had no idea we would be jumping into the conference biz until we did, so there was no way for us to set aside funds for that jump plus we needed time to learn the biz itself.

I guess it boils down to this: Go FT as fast as possible.  If you’re living at home and young, heck yeah jump ship and go FT the day the idea hits.  If you have a family, you have responsibilities that you need to think about.  Try your best to juggle both, but don’t get too comfortable.  Be honest with yourself and when the opportunity presents itself to go FT, see it and grab it.  Don’t push it off just because you can.

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