How to Turn Your Employer Into Your First Customer

Imagine this.

You drag yourself out of bed in the morning. It’s a rainy day and your commute to the office is hell. The soundtrack you play in your car doesn’t even come close to drowning out the sound of horns and engines.

By the time you arrive at the office, you are stressed, apathetic, and counting the seconds until you can drive home again in that same rush hour traffic. In the meantime, you chisel away at the clock by half-heartedly completing the tasks assigned to you.

On occasion, you lean back and daydream about what it would be like to run your own business, be your own boss, and never do anything you don’t want to do again. And just as the daydream becomes vivid enough to produce some semblance of serenity, you glance at your computer screen and see a dozen messages from five different people about things that you need to do ASAP.

What you just imagined is the reality that most people face in their office careers. Everybody wants freedom — financial and otherwise. But with an oppressive weight of an office job on your shoulders, it can feel like an impossible task.

It’s not.

Everyone has leverage

Figuring out what leverage you have can be tricky. Leverage can be hidden by lack of context, lack of interest, or even by anxiety. Sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight in the form of your responsibilities.

Finding your leverage is like finding out which parts of the board you control in a chess game: this is the area where it would be prudent to make your play. In chess, your opponent will try to stop you and make use of their own strong point. The difference in business is that there is no opponent — not really. More often than not, your boss or manager isn’t out to get you personally, even though it sometimes might feel like it. In general, people have better things to do than to sabotage you, even if they don’t particularly like you.

Find your leverage by asking yourself a couple of questions:

  1. What responsibilities do I have at my job that are crucial to the company?
  2. What are some problems that I am in a unique position to notice?

Build your leverage

Once you define your current leverage position, it’s time to expand it.

Ask yourself some further questions:

  1. How can I solve the problems relevant to my position?
  2. How can I scale this solution to apply to other companies, not just my own?

Thus, you define a product that you can build and the skills you need to do it. You may or may not have all the required skills to begin with. That’s not an issue. Skills can be acquired.

Your solution would be useful to your company, but more importantly, it is very likely to be useful to other companies in the same industry. To find out, try talking to some of your colleagues at other companies. Attend some networking events, or just have coffee with a few of your college friends. People are usually more than happy to chat with their peers — much more so than with their superiors or subordinates.

If you find a pattern of similar issues at other companies, you’ve got yourself an idea with the potential to turn you from an employee to a business owner. But, to utilize your newfound lever, you need a rock to place it on.

Find your rock

That rock is somebody with the authority to approve your suggested improvements on behalf of your current company. Not only that but you need this person to recognize your right to do this as a separate entity rather than as an employee of a company.

For this, you need a sympathetic ear somewhere higher up the chain of command. To maximize your chances, do three things:

  1. Maintain good relationships within the office.
  2. Build a minimal solution at home before you talk to your company.
  3. Be extra vigilant in your work during this time so as not to appear to be putting your side project above your job.

Then, talk to the most open-minded of your bosses and present to them the benefit the company can see from implementing your solution.

Make your pitch

Make sure they understand that you built it at home and that you are uniquely adapted to integrate it into the company’s procedures.

Offer them a free trial and a free installation. Charge for maintenance and use of your solution later on. If you sign a contract, make sure it is not exclusive. After all, the goal is to sell the solution as a product to other companies. Who knows, you may even expand into other industries later on.

Make sure to form a separate entity to handle the invoices, bills, and contracts rather than signing anything as an employee of your current company.

Make the transition

After a few months, with your product validated and your first customer paying you regularly, it’s time to start pitching other potential customers. Use the months in between to build connections with professionals from other companies within your industry.

Whether your new business grows big enough to replace your job entirely or remains a nice side hustle is impossible to tell beforehand. There are far too many variables. I can’t promise that you will start a million-dollar company — but I can promise that you won’t start one if you remain stuck in your cubicle.

I’ve known several software developers who have completed this path in more or less the fashion outlined above. At the very least, they now have an additional source of income. At most, they have their own companies with their own employees and products.

None of the above is easy, particularly if you’re an introvert or if your job is more menial than creative. But one thing is certain: to build something great, you must take bold steps and leave your comfort zone behind.

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