Do you have a brilliant business idea that you just know could be successful—if only you had the resources to pursue it full-time?
That's exactly where I was in 2015.
I was at the stage of my career when I was eager to gain new career and leadership skills. Getting an MBA was the default option for my parents' generation, but taking two years out of the workforce and racking up $200,000 of debt just seemed reckless. That was my aha moment: People like me were desperate for professional development, but the current higher education model wasn't working for us. I knew there had to be a better way—and I wanted to build it.
Now, I'm the founder of modern business education company brunchwork. We're currently reaching tens of thousands of professionals, but it started as a side hustle. It took me three years to leave my job and focus on brunchwork full-time, but knowing everything I know now, I could have done it in one year. And if you have an idea you're equally driven to pursue, you can, too.
My advice: Build your business on the side before you leave the comfort (and paycheck) of a 9-to-5 job. Then, once you have some traction, a user base, and a solid business plan, you'll have the confidence and resources you need to pursue your company full throttle. Here, I'm breaking down the process I followed to turn my idea into reality, in a quarter-by-quarter plan that will help you be a full-time founder in less than a year.
Note: This guide assumes you already have a business concept you're excited about—if not, you'll want to spend some time ideating. Starting a company is no small investment in time and energy, so you want to be ridiculously passionate about the problem you're setting out to solve.
Side hustle to company: Your quarter-by-quarter plan
Q1: Validate the problem
The first step is researching whether there's a market for your business idea. There's plenty you can do from the comfort of your laptop—and you should, so you don't waste time and money pursuing an idea that doesn't have legs in the real world.
Start by learning more about the industry you're targeting as it is today. Startup-focused sites like Crunchbase, TechCrunch, AngelList, and VentureBeat can give you a broad overview of trends in funding and business traction, while publications and Substacks that are focused on your specific industry will allow you to dive deeper.
Specifically, you want to look into and really understand:
Is there a market for your potential solution? Is it growing, and how quickly?
How competitive is the industry? Who are the current major players?
How much capital do you need to get started?
You can also analyze data like Google keyword trends and website traffic to adjacent sites. Is there a lot of search volume around your business area? Is it growing? If yes, those are good signs.
Next, it's time to get out from behind your screens and actually talk to people. Start meeting with industry insiders—people who are already working, founding companies, or investing in your field—to get a more nuanced, real-time understanding of what's happening in the market.
You'll also want to talk to prospective users. Ideally, the business problem you're trying to solve is one that you personally experience, but to validate your assumptions, seek out potential customers or users and ask them about their experiences and pain points. While online surveys are a quick and easy way to get quantitative data, I've found that having one-on-one conversations gives you far richer information and allows you to dig in deeper.
At the end of the quarter, take stock of what you've learned, and use that intel to refine your business plan. For example, with brunchwork, I went in with the assumption that coursework and knowledge were what people wanted most from an MBA alternative, but through user interviews, I learned that peer-to-peer connections were just as important to my prospective audience. So, I adjusted my business plan to make the program format more interactive and allow people to build those networks within the platform.
Q2: Build an MVP
A "minimum viable product" is startup speak for a bare-bones version of the offering or product you eventually plan to create. In other words, what's the simplest way you could get your business idea up and running to start testing it out?
Many people are scared away by actually building a product if they don't have a background in software engineering (or know a developer), but you'd be surprised at what you can do without knowing how to code and with resources like Makerpad. You could set up a simple landing page to collect email addresses and validate interest as you build out more functionality. You could start an email newsletter and start sending out content to your audience. You could set up a "concierge service" that offers a one-on-one experience of a service you eventually plan to automate.
Or, you could leverage existing no-code-required tools. For example, brunchwork started as an events-based program. So, rather than building my own event registration platform, I used Eventbrite to market events and register attendees. In addition to saving you the hassle and cost of building a custom solution, a key benefit of using existing tools is that they can easily integrate with other tech. Using Zapier, I could connect Eventbrite with Mailchimp to communicate with attendees, with Instagram to reach a broader audience, and with Google Workspace to track data on registrations, cancellations, and more.
Save new Eventbrite attendees to Google Sheets spreadsheets
Find and update Google Sheets rows for new Eventbrite attendees
Enrich Eventbrite attendees with Clearbit data and log to Google Sheets
Using these existing tools and resources—and having the ability to seamlessly connect them with each other—helped keep me lean and focused. No coding skills necessary.
New to Zapier? It's an automation tool that helps anyone connect apps and automate workflows—without any complicated code. Sign up for free to use this app, and many others, with Zapier.
Q3: Market your product
Once you've built your MVP, it's time to get it out there in the world by marketing it to potential users. This step is another one that tends to make first-time founders nervous, but don't worry—marketing doesn't have to cost a lot.
In the early days of brunchwork, I didn't spend a cent on Facebook ads or other digital marketing and instead doubled down on organic marketing efforts. I joined email listservs, alumni organizations, and industry groups that targeted the same audience I was going after. I primarily focused on being part of the community by engaging in conversations, answering questions, and offering up helpful resources wherever I could. Then, when it made sense, I would mention programs or events brunchwork was hosting. (This type of give-before-you-ask mentality is key—you never want to make people feel like you're shoving your product down their throats.)
Similarly, I hosted free events and webinars with like-minded companies. When people were interested in the topics, they'd sign up for our email list to stay in touch about future offerings.
No matter what marketing approach you take, it's important to keep talking to your customers (and potential customers) and stay curious about their experience. What messages are resonating with them? What questions do they have about your product? What's their initial feedback? Rather than thinking you have it all figured out at this stage, use their feedback to keep iterating on your product and marketing approaches. It'll ultimately mean you have a stronger business.
Q4: Refine your business model
You've built the product and you've brought it to market: Now, you'll need to decide if your business is bringing in enough revenue for you to pursue it full-time. What's your monthly revenue? What are your costs, both fixed and variable? Is the profit enough to sustain you and any potential hires?
At this point, you may need to make some tough decisions about your business model. For instance, is there anything you've learned from talking to users that has caused you to think differently about your offering? For example, at brunchwork, our initial model was to sell individual event tickets. However, we kept hearing from our users that they were interested in programming that built on itself. They didn't want one-and-done events; they wanted an ongoing educational experience. As a result, we decided to shift to a subscription model and eventually a business class model.
You'll also need to consider whether you need or want to fundraise. Taking on angel investors or venture capital isn't for everyone, but if you're in a very competitive market or need significant resources to take your business to the next level, it can be the right move. If you go this route, now's the time to start preparing a pitch deck based on your early traction and looking for intros to VCs.
Finally, before you jump, think about who you'll need to bring on to help, and what that will cost. Even with an ultra-lean company, you can't do everything yourself. Consider hiring freelancers or early employees to help you build your vision. I've found Upwork to be a great, affordable source of talent for everything from customer support to SEO keyword research.
For many, turning a side hustle into a full-time company remains a pipe dream. But I'm here to tell you: With the right idea, with focus and determination, and with a solid plan, you can do it. All you need is a year.