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Don’t Quit Your Day Job: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from the 9-5

Your corporate job could be the best way to learn about what it takes to be a great entrepreneur

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BY Cristina Morales - 18 Aug 2017

quit day job

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Many say that starting a business is best done in one’s youth. The younger you are, the less you have to lose, and should your start-up be successful, you’ll be able to reap the benefits for longer. While this approach has no doubt worked for many founders, there is also much to be gained from climbing the corporate ladder and learning as much as you can from your day job.

Working at a 9-5 job isn’t a waste of time unless you treat it as such. Instead of viewing your office job as a necessary evil that you can’t wait to leave behind, open yourself up to the opportunities to learn. Take notes from your company — what makes it work? What could be improved on?

“The truth is that I learned everything I know about entrepreneurship and business from working for other people,” management consultant Steve Tobak writes in this Inc. article. “I started out as a little fish in a big pond, then a big fish in a little pond, and ultimately, a big fish in a big pond. Now I swim in my own little pond. And it feels great.”

The stakes are low(er)

One benefit of staying with a day job is that you’re basically learning and making mistakes on someone else’s dime. A college education by itself isn’t nearly enough to prepare you to lead a team, let alone start a company, but at a so-called “real job,” you can pick up the essential management and leadership skills you need.

“I learned how to carry myself professionally, which is especially useful when dealing with corporate clients,” says Patch Dulay, founder and CEO of The Spark Project. A 9-5 job can teach you how to network and how to present yourself — vital skills when you finally strike out on your own.

Learn from mentors

A corporate job can give you the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals who know what it takes to make a company run like a well-oiled machine. Though there’s no such thing as a perfect boss, you can pick something up from each one of your supervisors if you open yourself up to the learning opportunity.

“From my time working 9-5, I learned that good management traits are applicable anywhere. My leadership style is based on practices I adopted from mentors over my career, and now bring to entrepreneurship,” says Anna Chew, co-founder and CEO of start-up BEAM, a storage solutions company based in Singapore.

Pay attention to structure and business practices

The corporate world is the perfect place to learn the basics. Ideally, you’d be working in a somewhat successful and structured company. Note how people interact, what motivates them, and the traits of the most successful people in the company.

“In general, corporates have clearly defined job functions and better performance tracking,” says Chew. “This framework provides scope for training and allows executives to focus on their own development. I apply these processes and structures into the start-ups I manage, as it helps my team to execute efficiently.”

Observe what doesn’t work

Not everything in your office will translate well to your future (or current, if you’re moonlighting) start-up. “We need to be aware of restrictive practices, which slow down outcomes,” Chew says. She observed that successful companies use lean hiring processes, meaning qualified people are hired to fill necessary functions instead of just adding to the headcount. “Adopting this has allowed my own company to develop and scale, quickly and efficiently."

Chew also noticed that management layers can hurt, rather than help, a company. “In my experience, this usually happens when the company becomes too objective-driven, rather than focused on outcomes,” she says. “Whether it is in a corporate or a start-up, the worse thing for staff to lose is their passion. I keep the big picture in mind when making choices, and pay attention to team motivation.”

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