Keep your job AND a side business

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Don’t quit your day job.

It’s the common-sense mantra of just about anyone who’s started or even contemplated a side business.

But in an age of layoffs, outsourcing and downsizing, merely showing up for that 9-to-5 job may not be enough. The question is: How do you excel at the job you need while building the business you want?

First, drop the guilt. “You’re not doing anything wrong by starting a side business,” says Richard Nelson Bolles, author of, “What Color Is Your Parachute?”

But you must observe the primary rule of etiquette. “Rule No. 1: Don’t do it on company time or with company resources,” says Stephen C. Harper, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina/Wilmington. “That’s grounds for termination in many cases.”

Many budding entrepreneurs may not realize that a short phone call now or a quick check of the side-business e-mail account is a corporate no-no. “Even if you’re on a break, it’s still company property,” says Harper. Remember, anything done on a computer leaves a trail. “Hitting delete doesn’t mean it’s gone,” he says.

On the other hand, you can benefit your business by taking every opportunity to enhance and sharpen your skills at your day job.

Take extra training and volunteer for assignments, says Lois Frankel, author of “Stop Sabotaging Your Career.” “You can gain the skills you need to be successful in your own small business while you’re giving back to the company,” she says.

To tell or not to tell?

Discretion is critical. Don’t solicit your cubical-mates, don’t pressure subordinates into buying goods or providing leads and don’t tap corporate clients — even if your product or service doesn’t compete with your employer.

Instead, build boundaries, says Ford R. Myers, author of “Get the Job You Want Even When No One’s Hiring.” “When you’re at work, your focus must be 100 percent on your job,” he says. Not just to prevent others from finding out, but “for your own sanity, too” Myers says.

The big question: Should you tell the boss?

No, says Bolles. What an employee does in the evenings and on weekends is not the boss’s business “in a well-run organization,” he says. “We live in a society that volunteers too much information. That information can be so misused.” If the boss discovers it later and you’ve been doing a stellar job at work, so what?

Frankel concurs. “I would be discreet in this economy,” she says. “What people are going to think — whether it’s true or not — is that you’re not giving 150 percent.”

In many cases, the boss really wouldn’t care. “I don’t think most employers would have a problem if you made jewelry in your spare time it and sold it at craft fairs,” says Frankel.

Bringing it to the attention of an employer and your co-workers could create an issue where there was none. That extra income could lead bosses to conclude you’re in a better position to weather unemployment if a round of layoffs is coming, says Harper.

But have your talking points ready if the subject comes up, Frankel says. Point out that “this doesn’t take up one minute of my time at work,” she says. You can also put it in the context of “I’m doing this to make ends meet.” Stress that you’re not conducting your business from the office and it doesn’t detract from your responsibilities or your ability to put in overtime when needed.

Not everyone agrees. “I would be upfront and present my case,” says Janet Christy, who wrote “Capitalizing on Being Woman Owned.” “It would be worse if they found out by accident.”

Whether you tell, play offense instead of defense: Come in early; stay late; be visible and productive; be prepared and contribute in meetings; take on new projects; and don’t be shy about your work-related accomplishments. And, whether you’ve told the boss or not, never mention the side business.

“You have more to prove than somebody who doesn’t have a side business, especially initially,” says Christy.

If you’re still undecided about informing your boss, look at the corporate culture for budding entrepreneurs, says Myers. Is it openly encouraged? Quietly tolerated? Or tacitly reviled?

Check the personnel manual, says Harper. Read the fine print to see if it covers your situation, he says. And decide, realistically, if your sideline is truly a business, says Christy. “Having a hobby and making some money at it is not being in business,” she says.

Going incognito

Any business needs to make a name for itself, and these days budding entrepreneurs want to go global and viral — using everything from online Web stores to Facebook and Twitter.

But what are the rules when you’re still someone else’s employee?

Leave co-workers, office friends and clients off your marketing, e-mailing and social networking lists, says Bolles.

If your employer doesn’t know or you simply want to keep your two lives separate, consider adopting a business or fictitious name. That way, every marketing tool you use won’t be a reminder of your double life.

At the same time, be realistic about your concerns. “You can’t be afraid that the boss of your main job is going to find out,” says Bolles. “If you live in that kind of fear, you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur.”

Special circumstances

Of paramount importance: If there’s the slightest possibility your business could be seen by your employer as competition, seek legal counsel before you launch, says Harper. “This is a legal minefield.”

Even if you’re going to be leaving your employer before you launch your business, you don’t want to open yourself up to a lawsuit down the road. It pays to get some advice and do everything right from the beginning, he says.

But also consider if your side business is in an area that your company would like to outsource, you could propose starting your side business with your employer as your first client, says Harper. Depending on your needs and how you structure the arrangement, you may even be able to stay on as an employee, he says.

Or, as your business grows, you may be able to work out a part-time arrangement where you work three or four days a week, are accessible to the office on your days off, and maintain health benefits and 75 percent to 80 percent of your salary, he says.

But those deals won’t work for everyone. Says Harper, “The more valuable you are to the business, the more your employer might be willing to do this.”

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.