If you have a business idea, there's one piece of advice you're sure to hear soon: "Don't quit your day job." But if you're an entrepreneur getting serious about your business, you will have to do just that at some point. I did it and went four years without a paycheck. This is my story—complete with a happy ending—and some lessons I learned along the way.
My husband Cameron and I founded Brazi Bites, our Brazilian cheese bread company, six years ago while still working at other careers. During the first year, we both held two jobs. We woke early, delivered Brazi Bites to grocery stores around town before sunrise and punched into our day jobs by 8AM. We'd put in a full day at our desks and then headed to a commercial kitchen to make cheese bread until midnight. The next day we'd do it all again. There were times when we were both delirious with sleep deprivation. And despite our best efforts, as the business grew we were falling behind. We had too many orders to fill and too much to do. We weren't "all in" but needed to be. It was time for one of us to take the plunge and quit our day job. I went first.
I left my job to work at Brazi Bites full-time in November 2011. Cameron left his three years after that. We learned that the more we grew the company, the more money we needed to put into it. Selling more? We needed a larger facility. Increased demand? We needed more employees. More distribution? We needed to promote more. At home, we downsized. We sold my car. We spent money on our mortgage, food and little else. We cashed in our retirement plans. It was scary.
The business expanded every year but we didn't pay ourselves until late 2015. Continuing to invest through the early years has paid off; we now have a profitable company that continues to grow. Everyone's entrepreneurial journey is unique, but working for little or no pay is a common theme when it comes to building a business. Here are some tips based on my own experience surviving without a paycheck for four years:
1) Set Aside Six to Twelve Months of Savings
Most articles about emergency funds recommend that the average person put away three to six months of income. But, if you're an entrepreneur, you're not the average person. Some people have parents, spouses or rich uncles who are willing to support them while they pursue their dreams. If you are in that group, you are fortunate. But for the rest of us, remember that there is a good chance you will need to live on your savings and even pump those savings into your business. Entrepreneurs should consider saving up twice what's recommended—at least six to twelve months.
2) Downsize, Downsize, Downsize
When you first launch your company, don't plan on vacations or major purchases. This is your time to live frugally. Skip restaurants and "brown bag" your lunch. Avoid buying new clothes. Cancel your cable. Stick to the essentials and spend your free time (the little you have), doing things that are free—take a hike, play a sport, or socialize with friends.
3) Don't Be Afraid to Do the Dirty Work
Everyone starts out building a company pretty much the same way—brimming with pride about their new idea, eager to gush their intentions to anyone who will listen. But time has a tendency to separate the entrepreneurs from the "wantrepreneurs." Success in business usually takes a little luck, but more than anything it takes hard work and the determination to do whatever it takes. For me that meant transitioning from a cushy desk job to scrubbing pots in a commercial kitchen in the middle of the night. For years we couldn't afford to pay anyone else to do the dirty work, so we either did it ourselves or we stalled. To bootstrap successfully, you'll need to drop any notions about low-level or high-level tasks; everything is important and it's all on you.
4) When You've Earned Your Paycheck, Take It
We paid our employees for years before we paid ourselves. We put everything we could back into Brazi Bites. When it turned profitable and our savings ran out it was time to start paying ourselves. Believe it or not, we felt guilty taking home our first paychecks. We couldn't help but think about how we could grow the company with that money. But the business could finally afford it and pouring everything you have into something with no return is not financially or emotionally sustainable. So when the time is right for you, take the paycheck. You've earned it. Literally.