Dear Bureaucrat,

I feel like I’m missing out. People are starting companies and nonprofits, and I’m just holding down a job. If I stick with it, I’ll get promoted eventually, but I’ll still be a cog in a dreary machine. I want to be an entrepreneur and build something I’m proud of, but I’m afraid to give up my steady paycheck. Should I take the leap, quit my job and work full time on finding a dream to make real? Or should I wait until I develop a can’t-fail idea and then take the plunge?

Signed, Mark “Hoodie” Z.

Dear Hoodie,

You’ve been influenced by two kinds of romanticized startup stories. The first is total commitment; working 16-hour days so you can code all night and pitch all day, living in a group house and subsisting on instant ramen, until you attract venture capital and then make it big. If it doesn’t work out, then you start picking up the pieces of your life. The second story is getting a brilliant idea and developing a business plan that maps step by step how to implement it, so the risk of failure isn’t even part of the story.

Back when Google and Amazon were startups, Professor Saras Sarasvathy researched what successful startup entrepreneurs actually do, and it usually didn’t match those romanticized stories. Sarasvathy found that the entrepreneur usually starts with a very general desire, such as making money, creating a legacy or pursuing an interesting idea, rather than a specific plan for a business. Instead of waiting until she can implement the best form of her idea, she tries whatever form she can create using the means available to her. She chooses her actions to risk only as much of her resources as she can afford to lose, knowing that any particular attempt may not become a viable business. But each attempt increases her knowledge of what customers will pay for, strengthens her own skills, and builds relationships with people who can be her future partners, investors or customers.

Sarasvathy gives the hypothetical example of an entrepreneur with the idea to create an Indian restaurant with a fast-food section. A well-funded and experienced restaurateur could commission market research to gauge demand, line up the space, equipment, personnel and suppliers, use all that groundwork to attract additional investment, and open the restaurant. But a startup entrepreneur would need to think up what she can do with the means available to her.

Perhaps she cooks Indian recipes well and has friends or relatives who work in offices downtown. She might use those resources to start a lunch delivery service to her friends’ offices. That might build a customer base and track record that allow her to start a restaurant. Or as she serves her lunch-delivery customers, she may learn that they are more interested in experiencing a culture, rather than eating her food on a steady basis. She might conclude she is more likely to succeed offering Indian catering, party planning or cooking classes, rather than a restaurant.

There are many real-world examples of this grow-from-experience strategy. Airbnb started with two roommates renting out air mattresses on the floor of their apartment. That small start let them convince a friend with more technical skills to work with them building a web site to match roommates worldwide. After a few months’ experience they realized that the shift from short-term stays to roommate matching was a bad move, and they changed the site to match visitors with people offering spare rooms.

The business lost money so fast that the founders had to start a sideline selling novelty boxes of breakfast cereal, just to keep their main business afloat. Not enough people came to the Airbnb site, so they developed software to automatically copy their listings onto Craigslist, with a reply link that brought all the responses back to Airbnb. Craigslist would have blocked that tactic eventually, but Airbnb got away with it long enough to grow their business.

You can use the grow-from-experience strategy to start as an entrepreneur while you keep the security of your job. Some public-sector jobs provide opportunity to do good, do what you love, or advance your career, and they are worth 110 percent effort. But unsatisfying jobs like yours can be good platforms from which to launch a startup. If your job doesn’t provide much reward for outstanding effort and performance, that means you won’t get much less for mediocre effort, so you have some breathing room for a side project. This is why public-sector jobs are popular as a “mommy track” for people with time-consuming family responsibilities. If your job offers teleworking or flexible work hours, that will make it easier to do some work for the startup on your own time, but during normal business hours.

Beyond continuing your paycheck, your job can make other contributions to your startup. Sarasvathy says entrepreneurs begin with three types of means: who they are, what they know, and who they know. Look for ways to use your job to strengthen these means. It can be your laboratory to develop skills and ideas on the job that will help you as an entrepreneur, such as giving presentations or making budgets. Your job may bring you into contact with people who can become involved in your entrepreneurial venture as partners, investors or first customers. Even with people you meet outside your job, the fact that you have reputable public sector employment may give them more confidence to get involved in your side project.

There are also limitations on entrepreneuring while you keep your day job. Almost every employer prohibits using their resources for your startup, or working on it during paid time. There are other limitations specific to particular employers; for example, U.S. government employees are generally prohibited from representing anyone before any federal agency. So just signing your startup’s grant application to a federal agency totally unrelated to your job could be illegal (ask a lawyer).

Eventually, you may decide it makes sense to quit your job and devote full time to your startup. Hopefully this is because the startup has become solid enough to support you. Or you may reach the point where you can’t think of how to make further progress while devoting time to your day job and working within the limitations it imposes. But you can reach that point having used the security of your job to let you lay the groundwork and learn from some false starts.

Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing advice for people who work in the public sector and the opportunity for the federal workforce to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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