It's one of the biggest decisions that startup entrepreneurs must make -- when to quit their day jobs.
Chantale Trouillot has been debating that question for the past five years. She dreams of when she can permanently exchange her nurse uniform for a business suit. For now, she juggles caring for patients with selling decision makers on her innovative product, a more functional hospital gown.
The balancing act, she said, "hasn't been easy," but from a practical standpoint, "we have to pay the bills."
Although U.S. business startup activity has jumped above pre-recession levels during the past four years, entrepreneurs like Trouillot still are hesitant to take the full-time plunge. Making the decision requires a tricky calculation: weighing passion and persistence against financial stability and viability.
If you're too poor or too unsure, you can start a company while employed -- no investor will knock you for that, said Violette Sproul, founder of Femfessionals, which organizes events in U.S. cities to help businesswomen connect. But starting a company and holding down a day job takes time management and focus. "You quickly discover it is not as easy as you think it will be," said Sproul, who started her business while working a full-time job before making the leap.
A few months after Trouillot secured a patent for her innovative hospital gown, her husband, Eric, left the souring real estate business to take over marketing and sales. Together, the two have taken Peak Textiles in Coral Springs, Fla., to the next level -- finding a financial partner to manufacture and warehouse the innovative, less revealing hospital gowns.
Eric does the heavy lifting -- cold-calling, attending trade shows, negotiating contracts, and meeting with prospects -- while Chantale makes the high-level presentations to hospital decision-makers about the clinical benefits of the gowns. The Trouillots sold 100,000 hospital gowns in 2011, and they expect to double that this year.
"It would have been impossible for us to get to this level without one of us devoting ourselves to it full-time," Chantale said.
By becoming an agency rather than hospital staff nurse, Chantale said she has managed to get some flexibility in her schedule. In some ways, her work has been good for business. It allows her to further build relationships in the hospitals and speak authoritatively on need.
"Our goal is we want our gown to be the standard hospital gown," Eric said. Chantale said it might take another five years before the business generates enough profit to make it her full-time job. Meanwhile, the key to balance, she said, has been keeping one day a week for herself. "We all need to unwind. For me, Sundays is my day with family."
One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is the risk of burning out. Holding down a full-time job while running a part-time business can leave you with little, if any, leisure time. Heidi Elden has discovered balancing both takes intense organization. She works a full-time job in the evenings as a bar manager at a restaurant in Delray Beach, Fla. During the days, she focuses on her entrepreneurial venture, Lingerini, a fashionable hybrid between lingerie and swim wear. "It is tough trying to keep focused," Elden said.
For three years, she formulated the concept, poured her savings into samples, and officially launched her clothing line in July. Now, she spends her days marketing her line to South Florida's resorts. When you have less time, you have to make it count, she said: "When I come home from my night job, I have to turn the switch off and focus on getting one or two things done."
Eden has found positive thinking is critical to building a startup. "You just have to want it badly enough." Adding yoga to her day helps her complete two tasks at one time: working out and positive re-affirmation. "It keeps me sane and focused."
Clearly, there's a financial benefit to initially launching a startup as a side project.
"Lots of entrepreneurs make a mistake in winging it. It's better to do due diligence while still bringing home a paycheck," said Nicole Shelley, founder of a Miami modeling agency/events and public relations company. "But after a while, it's like dating one person and thinking about someone else. You start thinking you should be where your heart and mind is."
Entrepreneur Tonya Seavers Evans found this to be true. For two years, she worked as communications director for a university while she tried to start a business as an image/style consultant. She found it overwhelming and fraught with conflict. "I would use my lunch hour, my vacation time, my sick days trying to network and build my business. I found myself stressed and exhausted."
About a year ago, she began running Style Strategist Inc. full-time with a new, more focused commitment. The move took buy-in from her husband and acknowledgement that it could take years before her former salary is replaced. "When your hobby becomes your business, that takes a mental shift as well," she said. "I think there's a much greater fear of failure because the excuses are gone."
Sproul works with women all over the country to get their businesses jump-started. She estimates that about half are started by women still employed. In the beginning, it's not always practical to quit your day job, she said. Eventually, transitioning to a full-time entrepreneur requires nailing down funding, successfully testing your hypothesis, and being prepared to live for a period of time with zero income. At some point, you have to jump off the cliff.
The good news is momentum for young firms has been good. While a majority of startup business owners do not believe the economy will grow in the next 12 months, 83 percent are confident that their own profits will, according to Kauffman/Legal Zoom Startup Confidence Index.
"It's not going to be a stress-free ride," Sproul said. "But when it's time to transition, you will be pulled in that direction and it will be an easy decision."
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.
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