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Rise of the 5-9 entrepreneurs

Cover of Working 5 to 9 by Emma Jones A new wave of enterprising types are starting firms in their spare time while keeping their day jobs

The conventional way to start a business has always been to give up the day job and get stuck in. Not any more. Fuelled by fears about the economy, the difficulty of getting a bank loan and the potential offered by the latest technology, a new wave of entrepreneurs are running their companies while holding on to full-time jobs.

This new breed ? dubbed the 5-9ers because they run their firms from 5pm to 9pm ? can maintain a regular income until their fledgling businesses take off and, of course, they have the security of a job if it all goes wrong.

For them, the ability to take the plunge without having to risk everything outweighs the disadvantages ? the lack of sleep or a social life and the inability to devote 100% of their time to their company.

According to Enterprise Nation, the home-business website, an estimated 5m people in the UK keep their jobs while building their own company at night and at weekends.

Of these, two-thirds hope the businesses they are starting will become big enough and profitable enough to enable them to switch to running them full-time within a year.

Janan Leo, 29, is a typical 5-9er. During the day she works as a product development manager for Virgin Trains. As soon as she is finished there, she switches to running Cocorose, which makes folding shoes for women to wear while commuting.

She started the company, which she runs from the spare room of her home in north London, a year ago with £3,000 of savings. She works every evening from 5pm until at least 11pm and every weekend.

?It is non-stop,? said Leo. ?I hardly ever see my boyfriend. I lie in bed at midnight watching the orders come through on my BlackBerry.

?The main advantage of starting my business this way is that it has minimised the financial risk. The downside is never having enough time. It is also very hard to switch between the two modes. One minute my mind is on Virgin Trains and the next minute I am designing the next collection of shoes.?

Her dual life is paying off. She now sells hundreds of pairs of shoes a month in boutiques and through her website, cocoroselondon.com.

While some 5-9ers choose to keep their second jobs secret from their employers, Leo wanted to be completely open, and the decision was a good one ? Virgin has been very supportive, even allowing her time off to attend trade exhibitions.

Steve Emecz, 38, is another 5-9er running a business in his spare time while holding down a demanding full-time job.

By day he is the business development director for Venda.com, an e-commerce support company, and at night he runs MX Publishing, his own book company with 50 titles, including ones on Sherlock Holmes and neurolinguistics.

?Publishing is perfect to run as a 5-9 business because it is very rare that you need to talk to anybody as it is mostly web-based,? said Emecz. ?I process urgent orders in my lunch break and normal ones in the evening.

?I have an outsourced warehouse that picks the books and ships them ? it is all technology-driven and web-based. The authors all have day jobs themselves and so want to talk to me in the evening anyway. The distributors do everything online. I have my e-mails sent direct to my BlackBerry and I use Skype a lot.?

Emecz said that staying on at Venda made sense for a lot of reasons. ?In the current market, particularly, it would be very difficult to give up the day job and take that risk.

?And I am not sure that the bank would lend me the money to start up the business at the level I would want to. At some point in the future it would be great to do it full time if the firm really takes off, but at the moment it suits me perfectly. The business is growing 50% each year and if I can keep that going for the next three to four years I will be very happy.?

Another 5-9er, Dolapo James, 30, has a full-time job as an architect. But as soon as she gets home she picks up her knitting needles to make scarves and handbags, which she sells through her business Urban Knit (urbanknit.com), which she started four years ago.

?It began as a hobby and then turned into a business,? said James. ?I really enjoy every aspect of it, from designing the website to buying stock. I have met all sorts of interesting people and gone to places that I never would have if I didn?t do this.?

At present she makes every product herself as well as running the business. If demand continues to grow she hopes to run the company full time, but she is in no rush. ?I like the sanity of having something stable,? she said.

Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, has seen such a big increase in the number of 5-9ers that she is writing a book about the phenomenon ? Working 5 to 9: how to start a business in your spare time.

?People are building a business on the side to ease themselves out of employment and into self-employment,? she said. ?It?s the best way to start because they are keeping their costs and risk low and building confidence while building cash flow. This country is buzzing with people starting and growing their own businesses, which use the best of technology to make and sell niche products and services.?

Indeed, such is the growth of the 5-9 phenomenon that from next month Staples, the office-supplies group, will start testing a club aimed at people who are running businesses in the evenings and at weekends.

The club will offer discounts on products and there are plans to hold special events for 5-9ers in Staples stores, such as question-and-answer sessions with business experts.

Yetunde Ige at Staples said: ?This 5-9ers trend is yet another sign of people?s entrepreneurial spirit. Keeping on top of your day job and trying to start and run a business in your free time takes an enormous amount of energy and drive and you need all the help you can get.?

David Crisp, director of Renaissance 09, a business advisory service, said that the biggest advantage in starting up a business while keeping your job was that it enabled an idea to be commercially tested in a low-risk way.

?By selling a product or service you are getting proof that the concept really works. Once you have proof that you have a product or service for which people are willing to pay a commercial price and so can generate a profit, you can assess the size of the market and your potential share of it ? and therefore you can quickly assess the risk involved in giving up your job to run the business full time.?

And because the concept has already been commercially tested, he said, when you do finally make the jump and go full time, you can be more certain it is going to be successful.

Crisp said that thanks to big advances in technology, 5-9 businesses had every chance of being as successful as more conventionally established firms ? provided they were able to deliver a highly professional product or service.

He said: ?Customer care is absolutely essential ? delivering what you say you are going to at the time that you state. Then you build up a stream of happy customers who are willing to give you references.

?As a business person I am quite happy buying from smaller smaller suppliers, provided the quality is maintained. It doesn?t really worry me whether a product is made overnight or at the weekend or during the day, provided it arrives on time and at the right price and at the right quality.?

The need to be open at the same time as other businesses has also become less important, said Crisp. ?Increasingly the growth of e-mail communications means that timing is not an issue for most people. I often send my clients information after midnight. They can view it first thing in the morning when they get into work.?
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