We tell stories about entrepreneurs who take big risks because risk is sexy. People who take risks, the implication goes, are fearless. It makes for a great story. A hero overcoming odds.
But if you’re anything like me, big risks sound scary. Today I run Site Builder Report, a one-person niche business that makes ~$40,000 / month. But five years ago, I was working my first job and saddled with student loans. I wanted to quit the job and start a business— but that just felt too risky.
So here’s what I did instead.
1.Cutting Back on My Full-Time Job
My first job was Digital Media Co-ordinator for Union Gospel Mission. And though it was great, I constantly daydreamed about starting a business.
Unfortunately I had a monstrous student loan— and quitting was just too risky. I needed to get creative.
So I came up with a solution: I asked my manager if I could work three days a week instead of five. I promised to keep the same responsibilities— I'd just complete those responsibilities in 3 days rather than 5.
To sweeten the deal, I also said I’d take 3/5's of my pay. My job paid ~$44,000 CAD and I believed I could scrape by with less.
My manager deserves a lot of credit. Though he may have been skeptical, he was supportive. He promised to talk to HR and see what he could do.
It wasn't far-fetched to imagine getting my work done in 3 days. My job had plateaued after I completed some ambitious projects in my first year and I was confident that I could stay on top of everything if I stayed focussed.
A few days later my manager got back to me and said we could give it a try. Boom.
2. Starting My First Business
So I found a co-working space and started my business.
The business I started was bad. It was called Bright Contractor. It was a website builder for contractors. (The year before I had built a successful website for my brother's concrete business and thought I could scale that service up.)
Though Bright Contractor was a bad idea, the days spent building it were great. I would wake up early, extremely excited, bike to my co-working space and happily hack away all day.
Occasionally, a cranky person at my job would be upset that they couldn't get a hold of me on my days away (“What!? He doesn’t work Tuesdays?!”). But in those cases I would— using discretion— let them call me. The arrangement went smoothly otherwise.
3. Pivoting Into a Profitable Business
After a few months I launched Bright Contractor. Unfortunately no one signed up for it.
I tried everything to make sales: I designed free mockups. I read sales books. I would randomly asked contractors what they thought of my idea (most suggested it was a tough market— they were right).
Nothing worked. So I decided to shut down Bright Contractor.
I concluded that in the world of website builders, it wasn’t the best product that won, it was the most well-known product. That conclusion proved valuable: it lead me to my next business idea: Site Builder Report.
Instead of building yet another website builder, I would help people choose the right website builder by doing reviews of every website builder I could find. I realized the market didn't need another website builder— it needed an air-traffic controller.
In time Site Builder Report became a nice, profitable niche— and most importantly, a ticket to quitting my job permanently.
4. Don’t make starting your business an all-or-nothing gamble.
Would I have started Site Builder Report if I had quit my job fully?
I’m not so sure. I would have been desperate for Bright Contractor to succeed— it would have been my only source of income. I would have been walking without a wire. It’s hard to make a decision to pivot when you don’t have money for rent.
I was able to pivot into Site Builder Report because I had a secure, consistent income from my job. My life didn’t depend on Bright Contractor succeeding. Sure, I didn’t have a lot of money, but I wasn’t without options. I didn’t need to bet the farm.
We tell stories about entrepreneurs who take big risks because risk is sexy. People who take risks, the implication goes, are fearless. It makes for a great story. Mark Zuckerberg got up and moved to Palo Alto to build Facebook for a summer— but we forget that he also had enough money to put $85,000 into Facebook that summer between him and his parents.
If you read Indie Hackers you're probably sharp enough to be skeptical of sexy cover stories about death-defying entrepreneurs. I’m guessing you're bright enough to see through the myth-making.
So here’s an alternative: play the slow-game. Life is a longer than we think. Take a small step today and let it grow exponentially over time.
Don’t make starting your business an all-or-nothing gamble.