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How to “get out of the building” while working full time?
46 points by htss2013 on Oct 4, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments
Traditional lean startup advice says to keep your full time job while working on your statup on the side, at least until you gain traction...most of all you need to talk to real prospective customers about your product to gauge real market interest, lest you build something nobody wants.

But how are you supposed to do that with a full time gig that has you technically under an inventions assignment agreement?

Those agreements, arguably, would own anything you create while employed, at least if it's somewhat related to your full time job. Granted, their enforceability is questionable in a lot of cases (especially in California)...

But even forgetting legalities for a second, that'd be a hell of an awkward conversation if your boss/team realized that you've been building/pitching your own products on the side without telling anyone. Reactions could range from firing to, most likely, just a general distrust, like you're trying to sneak one foot out the door on the sly.

Maybe some folks are really lucky and could just openly lay it all out on the table, but I don't think that's practical for everyone, especially those in large Bay Area companies.

I know personally if I asked my boss for permission, the 95% most likely result would be for her to put me in touch with legal...and the legal department is by-the-book, so of course they'd never give me any sort of permission or interpret anything remotely in my favor. I may as well just skip that route.

So any advice about the tactics of how to approach this? How to get real potential-customer feedback without risking your full time job?

You've discovered the reason many go freelance while building their own products. It is much easier to base agreements on a project level rather than the ol' full-time we own everything you do end all contract that is a full contract or full time employment agreement.

I try to only sign agreements that match the type of job, i.e. I might agree on a non-compete for 6 months if it is a 3-6 month contract with a paid non-compete period, but not a 6 month non compete on a 2 week job. Outside of a full time job businesses have to pay for their anti-competitive ways if they want you to sign a non-compete/work-for-hire that is not an acceptable timeline. NDAs, work-for-hire when fulfilled with payment are not a problem usually.

Non-competes are destroying innovation and force people to go indie.

In the game industry, contracts there (old school ones) also sign you on to own ALL of your on time and off time products. So you will always see people in the game industry break out on their own when looking to publish otherwise it is owned by the employer or could be.

I would do what you need to do though, no matter what they won't like a worker's time/focus being consumed with another project. Better to keep this one to yourself and do not work with anyone from that job on it, that could get you into trouble. You have one foot out the door now if you are doing this. If you do get big enough for them to notice and it is a problem then you can continue with that path. I wouldn't even worry about them caring about it unless you are directly competing or working with a client of theirs, both of those reasons will be problematic and wrong. And again, do not work with other employees there on this venture. That is where it becomes a very problematic and wrong.

I would suggest that you start with "customer development" in the Steve Blank sense of the word. See http://steveblank.com/category/customer-development/

In my experience you can get very far with not building anything. Just talking to people, in your chosen domain, about the pains they experience daily is a great start. In a way you could use your situation to your advantage. If you can't easily build things that you "own", it prevents you from putting building ahead of learning.

At the start of a new venture, talking to people about problems they face has almost always been more valuable to me than building things for them. However inevitably I focused on building rather than talking, and most of the real learning was an accidental sideshow to my building effort. If you're a coder it takes great discipline to put learning ahead of building. So you've got a distinct advantage in your current situation. No-one's going to fire you for talking to people about their pain points.

This probably applies more to business focused startups than consumer ones. I know so many people who ridiculed twitter and ipads when they came out and now use both on a daily basis.

That's less relevant, because that's Apple now as a major, global force in business.

Going back to the old days, Apple certainly understood their customers. The best example I can think of is when Woz was asked how many they could sell and he immediately said, "A million!" When pressed how he could be so sure, he replied "Because there are at least a million ham radio operators" Obviously it isn't a radio, but he understood that nerds into ham radio would be the same ones wanting a personal Apple computer in their basement. In that sense, really what getting out of the building means is a deep, deep connection and understanding with your customers.

It's true that market understanding and research are important for all businesses, what I mean is asking for specific requirements from your customers and designing around those is less useful.

That's probably less true however if you're selling something to a market of serious hobbyists who treat the hobby like a second job because they have probably spent a lot of time thinking about the problems with current products. On the other hand, if you asked me which features are important for a dishwasher I'd be unlikely to give you useful answers because I don't spend much time thinking about dishwashers.

Another factor is that fashion is a bigger deal in the consumer space, if your product is associated with "cool" people will buy it regardless of whether it solves a real problem.

Doing something in the B2C space tends to involve a lot of luck, particularly when it comes to generating that "cool" image. That's the main reason I've always been drawn to B2B, where the customers tend to understand their needs a lot better.

If you're technically under an inventions assignment agreement, then you're acting in bad faith by doing this in the first place. It's not being caught that results in distrust, it's being untrustworthy.

I'm not saying that the company is right in taking any work you do outside of office hours (I think that's total crap), I'm saying that you've made an agreement and now you're trying to work around it.

In an ideal world, you'd get permission - or work for a company that understands. Of course, the world isn't ideal :)

I'm not saying that the company is right in taking any work you do outside of office hours (I think that's total crap)

Oracle can't take your cupcake business, but:

- They pay for your mind. That's why the agreement you agree to says, "We own what your mind produces". That's why they hired you.

- In working for them, you get access to tools, knowledge, and experience you wouldn't have otherwise. If you get some great inspiration while talking to the company's client, you're hardly a lone actor.

I don't love it either, but I understand the reasons, and for me it all comes down to how it is enforced. If you develop a web page under Oracle, they shouldn't have rights to that. If you develop an enterprise database that targets Oracle's market segment...

That depends on the agreement. Some claim rights over everything, others only over things related to the company's business, or to what you personally work on. Also, various states limit such things, and if the employer overreached it could be unenforceable. I don't think it's bad faith to ignore a contract that the state says is too unfair to enforce.

My suggestion: read the contract carefully, make a list of specific questions, and spend an hour talking with a lawyer.

> Some claim rights over everything, others only over things related to the company's business

Mine was limited to the company's primary business. Then I asked the founder (of Linode) what "the company's primary business" entailed. He smugly replied "computers."

Vague, all-encompassing definitions like that generally don't hold up in court.

Well, that ruins my (previously good) impression of Linode.

It may sound obvious, but I would (besides the customer development which has already been mentioned), begin looking for a job at a place which gives you more latitude. There are some companies who get it, and some companies who don't.

So now put a job hunt on top of trying to create a startup idea and keep a roof over your head? Doesn't seem very practical unfortunately.

No, OP will have to focus on one thing at a time. So it's going to take longer to begin, but sometimes these things can't be helped.

That depends. In my city the job hunt isn't that hard. Jobs are plentiful and recruiters do most of the work.

i would start on my project and i would convert to a 1099 contractor and run it through your startup's paper (LLC or S-Corp). your current employer can be your first customer.

in fact that's exactly what we did and it worked fine. you might even end up getting a raise. i know one thing for damn sure though: there's no way in hell a full time job and a making progress on startup are compatible. it's just too much work. if someone came to me for advice or money and they wanted to do this, i'd laugh in their face, in the nicest way possible. it's a pipe dream. the only cases i've heard of in which this was possible are jobs in dysfunctional orgs where you don't actually have to do any work - which are out there, so if you've got one of those, maybe you've got a shot.

this path requires you to quit. it's a way of solving the problem you describe through another mechanism. as an added bonus, it protects you legally in a number of ways. at the cost of some management overhead, but if you can't deal with management overhead, just forget about the idea of running a business.

there's two ways of doing this:

1. notifying your boss that you will quit, and that they can retain you as a contractor for $x/hr, or

2. just quitting, and then giving them the option.

either way, you don't ask permission in a situation like this. you have to do it for reals.

the most important thing in starting a business is getting into the mindset that you are in this for yourself, on your own, and this is for real, no bullshit. having a full time gig is extremely detrimental to adopting that mindset. most startups die because never being truly started. they just fizzle out with nary a whimper.

also, look at it like a test - if you can't even accomplish this minor task in the execution of your world changing startup, you probably don't have what it takes to do the next step either. this convert-to-contractor trick is extremely common and i've seen it done 3 or 4 times myself. if you are valuable, the current organization is going to want to retain you as long as possible and you can dictate terms to a certain degree.

Just to clarify, I'm not on a mission to start a "world changing startup"...I'm a mission to create a nice little lifestyle SaaS business that will generate 3-5K in MRR.

Maybe I'm naive, but it seems completely realistic to get to that point with a full time gig. Beyond that, sure, you probably have to quit to grow, but quitting at that point isn't risky because you've already proven you've got traction.

This is an area that I have sought legal counsel over in the past. I'm not a lawyer but I believe California and 8 other states have laws that protect employees intellectual property that they create on their own time with their own resources (http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=lab&gr...).

As far as it being ethical, is it ethical for an employer to have a monopoly on your time on and off hours?

As a general rule I will never sign anything that requires I disclose all my "inventions" up front. Most of these agreements will usually claim all of your intellectual property well beyond your termination date. The attorney I spoke to said that even a love letter to my wife is covered under the agreement that I had sought counsel over.

The market is really good right now for software engineers. If more candidates would turn down job offers that stipulate these agreements maybe companies would get the hint.

If you are in a customer-facing role or in constant conversation with customers there should be no issue with you tacking-on a question or two related to potential enhancements. You have plausible deniability, and you also have the option at any stage of not running with this yourself and actually doing it via the company (which is what your employer is most likely expecting).

One guy in a previous team of mine brazenly and proficiently used Socratic Method on the phone with clients to direct the conversation, getting clients to come up with answers to the questions he was looking to answer. This was genius not only because he covertly gauged market interest but also because having the client come up with the answer themselves makes them more inclined to buy.

It's a massive grey area and you have a lot of scope as long as no-one can pin anything on you (and as you mention, you want to avoid coming across as dishonest).

Regarding being honest and laying it all out on the table, I strongly advise against this route. Nothing good will come of it.

First and foremost, reconsider signing any of these assignment agreements ever. If you're talented and the company wants you, you have plenty of room to negotiate. And since this isn't a compensation or revenue impacting deal point you'll should find leeway. If they say its our way or nothing, its some quick insight into the organizational structure and culture. Consider if you wish to aid and abet that organization and management.

It should be a point of personal principal to never sign an NDA or an assignment agreement or even employment agreement. Of course the any of these that come with 9 figure checks attached are worth thinking about. If you're trustable and upstanding with who you're working for and they are with you, that will be enough.

Its a matter of risk. You will regret the things that you don't do more than the things you do. So just go for it.

Man, the nerve of some people.

You're working at a company, where you willingly signed a work contract, which included things like "when you're at work you will work" and "since we're paying you we'd like your full attention when you're at work". They're paying you to produce work according to said contract. You're also probably in tech, which means that your employer isn't Walmart or McDonald's or an Indonesian sweat shop and you're generously compensated in money and benefits.

And now you're asking the internet for tips on how to break that contract without getting caught. Really? Even the 11th graders I teach have more common sense than that.

Your non-immoral options are:

1) try to change your current position to part time so you can deal with your other business on the side.

2) quit your job, and find another job that will let you work on your side business during work hours (improbable)

3) quit your job, and go freelance to fund your venture (or wait tables, make coffee at Starbucks, whatever it is you need to do to pay your rent).

4) quit your job, go all in using your savings.

No matter what, sneaking around and knowingly breaking your work contract and inventions agreement won't end well for you. At best you'll get fired, at worst you'll get sued.

PS: since you're trying to start a company, what would you think if down the line you found out that one of your employees posted exactly this on HN?

The questioner wrote:

"But how are you supposed to do that with a full time gig that has you technically under an inventions assignment agreement?

Those agreements, arguably, would own anything you create while employed, at least if it's somewhat related to your full time job. Granted, their enforceability is questionable in a lot of cases (especially in California)..."

Which means, his employer put a stipulation in the contract which means they own everything done while at work, or anything done outside of work (even if it's not related to the job).

I would guess those stipulations are not really enforceable, but I don't know.

You wrote: "since you're trying to start a company, what would you think if down the line you found out that one of your employees posted exactly this on HN?"

I'm not the OP, but in my case I encourage my employees to have side projects. Even projects that could turn into businesses. I don't own them, and having those outlets often makes them better employees. They obviously have non-competes in their contract, which cover our area of business, but not unrelated side-projects.

As a side note, I don't understand why your comment is so aggressive. You're probably right, in that if the contract is really as the poster states the safest thing is to find another job. However overall I think the moral fault lies with the employer, you shouldn't be able to restrict your employees in this way.

>As a side note, I don't understand why your comment is so aggressive.

The cult of the "sanctity of contracts" is alive and well in America among some so-called libertarians (I think some like to call themselves voluntarists or something like that).

I suspect they wouldn't mind having debt contracts with default clauses leading to 'voluntary' slavery much like occurred during the Roman empire.

First, I'm not working on the startup while I'm "at work" (even though that entire concept is kind of bullshit nowadays with 24/7 work)...I'm certainly not working on it on company equipment, using any company resources, or talking to company clients.

Second, the startup is not in the same business as my employer. My company doesn't sell stuff like this. My company is a big enough behemoth that it's conceivable in the future that they could sell anything, but they don't sell anything like this now and their current direction isn't anywhere near this.

The contract states they own anything related to my work or what the company does. It's be a HELL of a stretch to say what I'm working on is related to my work or what the company does (or plausibly plans to do).

I'm sure a lawyer will gladly argue in favor of the company, but clearly the spirit of the contract is that I don't steal company time, resources or clients to end up competing with my company -- that's not at all whatsoever what I'm talking about here.

So, to answer your question, if I found out an employee was doing things which had nothing to do with my company on the side, I wouldn't give a shit -- and furthermore, I'd expect it because that's what happens in silicon valley.

>No matter what, sneaking around and knowingly breaking your work contract and inventions agreement won't end well for you.

Contracts are not immutable law even if signed. California law explicitly renders non-competes unenforceable, for instance.

Furthermore, non-competes and intellectual property agreements where the employer owns all your ideas are among the most unreasonable clauses added to modern day employment contracts. Under which ideological system is erecting legal barriers to competition a GOOD thing? Or owning your ideas during your time off?

There is nothing moral about following the terms and conditions of an immoral contract signed because you need a roof over your head and food on the table.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is a laudable act to violate immoral agreements (signed because of said roof & food) just as it is a laudable act to violate immoral laws.

If you lived in Minnesota, an inventions assignment agreement is unenforceable. Employers cannot legally condition employment based on an assignment of inventions unrelated to the employee's work, or made on the employee's own time, or not based on the employer’s trade secrets, equipment, or resources. The MN statute 181.78 lays this out clearly.

MN is a great place for you to work on your lean startup no matter what kind of work you do to pay the bills.

Well I'm a self employed house painter even though I could probably get a job tomorrow doing either Drupal or Angular and never have to crawl around another toilet ever again.

You gotta take some risks.

So why do you paint bathrooms instead of doing Drupal or Angular work?

Because I have time to invent shit.

The answer is very simple,offer your company first right of refusal. You will find that in most cases they do. And if they don't and do use your idea make sure you are in charge. This is the high road approach. Other suggestions are just dishonest if you ask me.

Fair call, but I don't think this is realistic. How do you mitigate the risk of 1) having your reputation tarred with the "dishonest" brush, and 2) being sent to Legal to be shut down?

I would keep everything above board in cases like this. Be open with your company and let them know exactly what you intend to do. If they are upset by it then you should probably question what it is you're doing.

damn near everybody is intrigued by that guy that's got one foot out the door.

say you're a double-agent. the only thing that matters is if you're working against the common good. if you're totally on another level, you really have nothing to worry about.

the contracts you signed when you were new and stupid are an entirely different beast. get a good lawyer; you should be fine 9 times out of 10 as long as you're not violating a typical no-compete clause... or that no-compete clause over-steps its boundaries.

having read through a good majority of the peanut gallery, i'm compelled to say that your contract is your duty.

having said that, ... get a good lawyer. the original contract might be vague enough that the lawyer has had experience with similarly worded crap in the past.

any company that tries to steal your personal development for the entire time you're employed is not some company that you want to work with. a good fight is just a good american spirit. fight that crap that junk corporate throws at you.

tl;dr - fuck 'em. let the lawyers fight it out, but get a good lawyer. dollar-for-dollar, they're worth it. no matter, your education is worth the lawyer dollars regardless.

I would suggest asking for things and just let the people say no if they want to rather than rejecting yourself on their behalf without them even knowing you want something from them.

What if you have not signed any agreement?

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