How to start a business from your corporate cube


Starting a company is cheap enough that you don’t need to raise a lot of money to do it, but you still need to feed yourself. A popular route is the in-between step of being an entrepreneur while still working in a corporate job.

This means there are a lot of people running companies from their cubes. Sort of. It’s contrary to just about every company policy for you to set up your widget shop inside your cube and solicit your co-workers’ business. But most startups can skate past the corporate policy restrictions because the founder works after hours. So the entrepreneur is sitting in the cube even if the company is not, and it makes for a difficult balancing act.

Here are ten ways to manage entrepreneurship from your corporate cubicle:

1. Don’t tell your co-workers.
You will want to tell them. They will say, “How was your weekend?” and you’ll want to say, “I got two new clients and I am feeling like a startup stud!” Don’t say that. Even if you’re not doing your company at your work, it still feels like cheating to a co-worker. They don’t want to hear you’d rather be working on something else besides their stuff. You need to keep a positive profile at work even while you do your startup: The best entrepreneurs have solid networks.

2. Don’t blame your problems on lack of time.
It’s certainly a luxury to have tons of time on your hands to focus on your company all day. But most people don’t have that. Most people who start companies have kids or a day job or a girlfriend or college courses – something that distracts them. Don’t tell yourself you would do better if you had more time. Just do better now. Be smarter. Everyone is short on time all the time. It’s not an excuse.

3. Don’t have guilt.
Yes it is morally questionable to be a salaried employee and turn your cube into a call center for your other business. But you can do a ton of personal business from your cube – like call your landlord or the plumber or make plane reservation – in order to make more time to do your business from home. Most cubicle workers spend two hours a day surfing for personal reasons. And these people do not have side businesses at home. So it’s fair for you to do it, too.

4. Get on a stupid project at work.
When you have your own business you think about it all the time. You are responsible for everything, so there is no coasting while someone else deals with a problem or a project. Fortunately, that sort of coasting is rampant in big companies. So if you are starting a business at home, get on a project at work that lets you coast – that will give extra mental energy to let thoughts of your own company jump around in your head.

5. Look for like-minded people at work.
In most companies there are some people thinking like you – trying to get something off the ground while they spend their days in their cube. It’s so hard to keep believing in yourself when the startup is more idea than business. It’s hard not to toss in the towel, but you are less likely to give up if you have other entrepreneurs in your life. To sniff out the other entrepreneurs look for people who dash outside the building every day to take calls. (Reality check: If the calls are ten minutes, it’s a startup. If the calls are a half-hour, it’s a new girlfriend.)

6. Go to the gym on your lunch break.
You think you are doing something so big and so challenging and you are even holding down a full-time job while you do it, so of course you have no time to go to the gym. But exercise provides mental traits of an entrepreneur: You think more clearly, you are more self-confident, resilient to setback, and you become a person who inspires confidence in other people.

7. Sit on a yoga ball instead of a chair.
Everything you need to do to have a startup and a corporate job at the same time requires self-discipline. And this might be why entrepreneurs are happier than most people — because they have good self-discipline and people with self-discipline are more likely to get what they want in their life.

You can get self-discipline by working on your posture. No kidding. So get a ball chair for your cube. Psychologist have found that if you make one, small change in your life that requires self-discipline, like improving your posture, then you are more able to make other changes in your life that require self-discipline.

8. Partner with a stay-at-home-parent.
In general, when I have started companies, I tried not to hire people with kids because they are less able to jump for investors, more torn between where their head and heart are at any given time, and anyway, today’s parents generally do not work insanely long hours. (Yes, this is an illegal hiring practice. But it’s common.)

So anyway, if you are starting a company from your cube you are missing exactly what a stay-at-home parent has: Flexibility during the work day. One of the things that make for a successful entrepreneur is partnering with someone who can fill in the spots where you are weak, according to Andrew Zacharakis, professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College.

9. Stop fantasizing that a credit card could fund your cubicle escape.
Especially in the current credit crunch, it’s important to be conservative in how much you bet on this side-business of yours. The most successful entrepreneurs are not actually huge risk takers but people who intuitively mitigate risk wherever they can, according to Saras Sarasvathy, professor of business at the University of Virginia. The point of entrepreneurship, after all, is to get out of the cubicle, not tie yourself to it forever paying off your debt.

10. Believe in yourself.
Entrepreneurship is lonely and frustrating. This is not something people talk about a lot because the thing that makes entrepreneurs successful is a crazy optimism that they can create something big from nothing. But underneath that optimism, is a fear that things will never work.

The feelings of loneliness and fear will be exacerbated in your cubicle, where you will be surrounded by people who are satisfied with stable jobs, regular paychecks, and having someone else take responsibility for the ultimate bottom line.

In your cube is the time you will have to be your best self: Confident, productive, disciplined and optimistic. No small feat, for sure, but that’s why entrepreneurship brings out the best in us. That’s why it’s so enticing.

31 replies
  1. DAR
    DAR says:

    Great blog post, Penelope, and very timely for me right now, as I’ve been moonlighting hard this year to try to launch something.

    I have to say, though, despite what you say, I think lack of time is actually a huge problem – at least for me. I’m a software developer, working on a development project, and it’s been extremely difficult to make much progress doing this at night.

    Between job (I’m the sole breadwinner) and family obligations (2 kids) I really find myself with only about 1 night a week (4-6 hours) to hack on my project. It’s extremely difficult to make much progress that way. It takes a good hour just to get re-oriented from where I left off and get back into “the flow”. Plus, it’s hard to be productive late at night (and after a day’s work) as exhaustion sets in.

    When I take a step back and try to look for an objective solution here, what usually comes to mind is to try to switch to a smaller, more easily achievable project. Problem is, though, a piece of software or web site that’s small and easily writable part-time isn’t likely to be very compelling to users. (At least, I haven’t yet been able to think of something small worth doing.)

    I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated at this situation, and getting increasingly worried that “I’m never going to make it”. I definitely appreciate the encouraging tips here, and will read them over more carefully when I’m fresher and better rested. (Yep – you guessed it; last night was another late-night hack-a-thon.)

    But I still can’t help but question the “don't blame your problems on lack of time” thing. I’m starting to feel like that’s exactly what’s to blame … and that only people who have some independent source of wealth (daddy, hubby, previous startup cash-out, etc.) have any hope of making it as a startup – since, unlike me, they have the ability to dedicate huge swaths of their best waking hours to it.

    Any other suggestions or words of encouragement you can offer here would be greatly appreciated!

    P.S. Thanks for the great blog, by the way. Read it daily.

  2. Richard
    Richard says:

    11. Seek council from an Attorney

    Some companies can claim that they own any and all work that you perform, on and off the the company clock.

  3. Darren
    Darren says:

    Great advice. Especially number 8.

    I’m starting up a consulting practice right now. Not from a corporate cube, but after one year as a stay-at-home Dad.

  4. Willy
    Willy says:

    Nice post. I’m trying to start a company, but I’m certainly not trapped in a cube, as I recently graduated from college and have committed myself full time to my business.

    I’d like to see a post on How to Interview for a Job While Also Trying to Start Your Own Business. I was in this awkward position when I was testing the waters and trying to figure out whether starting a business was really something that I could do. I fell into the trap of telling the interviewer about what I had been working on (and my business was in the same genre, although would not be a direct competitor) because I had no other explanation for the gap in my resume after I graduated. Would you have been up front and told him what you’re up to, but that you’re really interested in the job as well, or just BSed him and made up some other excuse for the gap?

  5. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    To supplement #2… My father is a project manager at his company, enrolled in a long-distance PhD program, managing my grandparent’s home-care (Alzheimer’s) AND is in the process of creating a new software startup. Time is where you find it.

    Of course, part of finding time is related to #4, 5 and 8. Delegating things that he can’t do well or quickly is a huge part of his strategy. He’s also piggy-backing his work when possible, such as using his real life start-up for homework assignments and submitting his small business to various grant competitions (which are good for attracting investors even if you don’t win).

  6. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    I normally love what you write, but I’m spluttering with disbelief at this one. It’s not just “morally questionable,” as you write — it’s morally wrong. If not, why not come out in the open about it? Right, because your company would prohibit it and/or fire you. It’s deceptive and it’s stealing another company’s money. I would fire in a second anyone I found out was doing this on work time, and their bridge would be irrovocably burnt.

  7. Nina Smith
    Nina Smith says:

    Penelope – I really liked this post.

    I'm reading The Anti 9-to-5 Guide by Michelle Goodman and she echoes your advice about finding like minded people.

    She writes, "As you go about your business of building up your web-design empire on the side, working an extra job to finance your Ugandan volunteer vacation, or training to be a bush pilot, there will be naysayers. Lots of them. But know this: Many of them hate their office-bot jobs and secretly wish they had the guts you do to get out of Dodge Incorporated. Befriending those with similar aspirations can help immensely, not just with brainstorming and the swapping of war stories, but with any newfound frugality."

    The frugality part circles back to your advice about people who intuitively mitigate risk by minding their pennies. Forgo the pricey friends during this upstart period and find those that are banking on a similar dream.

  8. Peter
    Peter says:

    I have some sympathy with Ask A Manager. That’s the way it is in a large, established company. However, in my last stint as a manager, I was more interested in helping those who reported to me achieve their career goals, whether in the company or not, assuming they were meeting the requirements of their job. The time we would spend in a manager-subordinate relationship at one particular company is (and was) short compared to the length of our careers, and I would rather be remembered as someone who helped them along their respective paths, rather that someone who blocked their way.

  9. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    Hey Peter, I think that’s a great outlook and I’m all for helping people who work for me achieve their career goals. I love to talk to employees about their bigger picture goals and what we can do to help them get there. I will go out of my way to give them projects and responsibilities to help them do that. But that’s a very different thing from someone going behind their manager’s back to spend significant chunks of time on something they know wouldn’t be allowed if they were open and honest about it.

  10. Steve
    Steve says:

    Conducting business other than your employer’s using their space, equipment and time is misappropriation and if caught your employment will be terminated. Just because other people are doing it, does not make it ok for you. I find most of this article to be irresponsible, and could get some your readers into a lot of grief.

  11. Mauri
    Mauri says:

    I have to agree with Steve and Ask a Manager. By utilizing your employer’s resources you are at risk for a lawsuit and/or termination.

    Also, another thought is the use of software licenses. i am not sure about the details, but my guess would be a license assigned to your employer should not be used for other commericial purposes. I hope a programmer can chime in regarding this subject.

    Lastly, big business employers may take ownership for your hard earned work. You lose automatically if you create a your million dollar widget in your workplace.

    The whole thing is risky. Go home and work in your home office.

  12. daniel reed
    daniel reed says:

    I know it was said by Steve, Ask a Manager and Mauri, but I can attest to an actual case of someone working or something on company time and when the company found out they claimed it as their “work product” since there was not only proof it was done on company time but also used company laptop/phone to work on new business.

    Those of you that are aspiring entrepreneurs should consider how you would feel if you broke away from that “big corporate job” to start your new company and found that one of your employee was working on another business venture using your laptops/phones/time. You might feel differently when it’s your own hard earned money that someone is spending on other things.

    Instead, you might just talk to your boss about your interests and see if there is a way they can accommodate. One of my employees talked to me about some aspirations they had and we came to a solution that worked for both. I don’t work for a “big corporation” so I imagine it won’t work in all cases. If you don’t like the answer you get, move on. If you are confident enough in your new business idea then take the risk on your own nickel.

    * * * * * *
    I think you have to really know your company. If you work at Lockheed under a government contract and you use company time to develop new search technology, forget it. You’re in trouble.

    But if you work where there is an entreprneurial culture, it’s different. For example, is letting employees do their startup in the company, officially.

    — Penelope

  13. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Good post, Penelope! A few friends are being sent this link.

    Richard says: “Some companies can claim that they own any and all work that you perform, on and off the the company clock.”

    This should be in your employment contract, if they are to have such a privilege. However to claim work product privileges on anything an employee does, off the company clock, using his own assets (PC, software, phone, web connection) can not hold up in the courts of law.

    So the modified advice should be:

    “Consult an attorney specialising in employment law and in IP law. Make sure you understand your employer’s work product privileges in their extreme sense. Then set up a small gig at home where you can do all the work for your start-up (say writing software or writing to potential investors or trial customers) strictly outside work hours. Keep extensive logs especially if you are creating anything that is likely to show up in patent or copyright disputes; these logs may save your bacon in case of a dispute.

    Sounds painful? Then just try to imagine getting sued instead. Sounds joyful? No? I did not think so.

  14. Greg Rollett
    Greg Rollett says:

    Great post Penelope. It is tough trying to get a start up off the ground while working at a cube but using those extra minutes of free time to hammer out important “side business” work is a much better use of time than visiting US Weekly for an hour or 2. In regards to all the managers getting upset over this subject, as an employee you should know your limitations in the office. If you can surf some important facts online, great. If you can build a new widget, great. If you can make a few calls, great. Know what is acceptable and what isn’t. The bottom line to working in a cube and moving forward in your business is Time Management. The gym point is amazing. Use lunch to get things done. I know that everyday for an hour I can get more done than the entire rest of my day. I guess it also depends on your dedication. Anyway, gotta get back to work at the cube…….

    * * * * *
    Yes. It all comes down to time management. You can keep your cube job and your startup if you are good enough at time management to do well at both, simultaneously.


  15. Will
    Will says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks!

    I think the debate all depends on what type of job you have. If you are an office-furniture- design-engineer, it is probably unethical to use your best ideas for your own side business. However, if you are selling widgets over the Internet, it has absolutely nothing to do with your employment as a designer. I think this is the key.

    * * * * * *
    Great distinction. Competing with your employer is on a totally different scale than doing a business totally unrelated to your employer. Things are not black and white today. And maybe running a side busines in your cube is one of those things where your instinct on whether it is fair is probably the best gauage. The important thing is be fair to your employer.


  16. Joe Blogger
    Joe Blogger says:

    Having just had my first class in information policy & privacy I can say that I am bit taken aback with some of the advice. Sure I would not tell my coworkers about my part time business, and I would partner with people who had more time, but using company time and resources is quite a debatable topic.

    Sure you can stick it to the man and take 15 minutes to confirm (or make) flight plans for your vacation (after all we all have coffee breaks, don’t we?) but taking work time for your own business – that’s not only wrong – it’s a fireable offence. I heard from people who had been fired for something as innocuous as coming in 15 minures early to work to check their personal email.

    Before you do anything – make sure you haven’t waived any rights when you joined your firm because following this advice might get you fired.

    as a side note: I agree with going to the gym for part of your lunch break, healthy mind healthy body.

    * * * * * *
    It’s a very fine line – – how much personal business is okay and how much isn’t. And what personal business is personal and what isn’t. Companie would be in a much better position to evaluate who is meeting their goals and who isn’t. That way you can just fire someone for not meeting their goals. And if someone can run a business out of their cube and perform well in their full-time job, then they are a star, right? You should keep them.


  17. Liz Maher
    Liz Maher says:

    For years, many prominent Manhattan firms were unknowingly supporting the performing arts while I ran a theatre company out of my cube. I did everything: programs, research, publicity, fundraising. It was a perfect match. They even gave us a grant.

  18. Bored Cube Guy
    Bored Cube Guy says:

    Thanks…I have gradually come to the realization that this really is the way to go. I was sitting in a meeting today that was an absolute waste of my time. I started taking my pulse to make sure I was still alive (really!). I was happy to discover my resting pulse was consistently 37-44 beats per minute (I’m training for a marathon). And I was counting for a full 60 seconds…I had one 30-second sample where I counted only 14 beats.

    The people I work with are nice and the company is a good company, but it’s not “my” company. Being bored is a waste of my life. So I just have to figure out how to get away with working on my own stuff without appearing to do so. It is just hard to get over the good old work ethic that tells me such behavior is wrong. And I have this big monitor that everyone can see what I’m doing on.

    Good advice on #1; no real name here.

  19. Ali
    Ali says:

    Bored Cube Guy: it’s hard to get over your feeling that it’s wrong because it IS wrong. How would you feel if you were the boss and your employees were spending the time that you paid them for to work on something totally unrelated to your company? It’s completely unethical. And believe me, if you get caught, it will follow you around forever; people check references, you know.

  20. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    Ok, wait a second. I don't see why everyone is being upset over the notion that someone else could have a secret side venture. Really, most of this advice is about how to keep a start-up from taking control of one's primary workplace. I've gone through and summarized/rephrased each point to illustrate how this advice isn't bad for employers.

    1. Don't brag because it lowers morale.

    2. Don't whine because you volunteered to have two jobs

    3. Don't steal company time for your second job. Stop wasting time aimlessly when you could spend it getting your personal life in order. (Since productivity tends to spawn productivity, the advice to "waste time" more effectively is probably good for everyone.)

    4. All companies have "grunt" projects. Volunteer to do it since you don't really want to be at that company anyways. It will give you time to brainstorm and free up fun projects for committed employees.

    5. Consolidate with other people who are bored and looking for more to do. (Again, productivity spawns productivity.) Also implied is the idea that one should not spend more than 10 minutes on a phone call for the start-up.

    6. Be healthy; you'll feel better.

    7. Be ergonomic; you'll feel better.

    8. Find someone who doesn't work at another company to do the daytime work you can't. Remember, you have a real job and you have to do that job while you're at it.

    9. Don't assume massive credit card debt. (Good general advice.)

    10. Enjoy your regular employment because it will offset all those other hours of being paranoid.

    Note how none of that was "it's ok to steal time/resources from your primary employer to work on your secret project". The only thing that I could see as reasonably questionable is point #3. But since point #3 is based on the acknowledgment that people mostly waste their downtime at work, the advice to do something more productive with that downtime is not necessarily bad for employers. I always find that it's easier to get things done (anything done) after I get started on *something*, even if that something is trivial. That's how "pick up my earrings" transforms into "scrub out the bathtub". I have a suspicion that if people spent more time accomplishing actual tasks instead of, oh, reading fascinating blogs on the internet, then they would experience upsurges in productivity whether or not those tasks were necessarily related to company business.

    I do agree with the oft-repeated advice to consult with a lawyer, especially if there's a remotely tangible possibility that the start-up could overlap with the primary employer's business. To that I would add that one should buy a laptop to use when conducting start-up business, because using the primary employer's computers is indeed a resource theft. There are plenty of cheap laptops nowadays and it can be written off as a business expense on one's taxes, so there's no good reason not to get one.

  21. Bored Cube Guy
    Bored Cube Guy says:

    I disagree. My employer does not own my time; I’m not paid hourly and slavery was abolished a long time ago. But I’m not an idiot; obviously you can’t just not take your job seriously. It’s just that in many cases, it doesn’t take much to take the job seriously. Rather than sit around being bored out of your mind, you should either 1) find something interesting in your job/change roles/get motivated internally or 2) take advantage of the relative security and flexibility of the situation to start your own thing so you never have to work for someone else again. I feel like I’ve exhausted path #1 after 10 years of effort at various companies. If my performance becomes unsatisfactory, then yes, that would become unethical of me to allow that to happen. But my job is not something that is just hours of time and it infuriates me to be wasting time doing nonproductive things at work.

  22. elysa
    elysa says:

    I wish I had read this one week earlier. I am a designer at a large printing company and I also do freelance graphic design. Last week I was calling around getting price quotes for a print job for a freelance client. I decided to ask my director at my “real job” for a price quote. I figured since I work for a print company that might be a good place to start. Her answer was “well, I don’t really want to get you a quote because Mr. Boss Man frowns upon side businesses.”

  23. Dianne
    Dianne says:

    You’re totally deluded if you think your coworkers don’t know you’re stealing company time to run your own business, just like everyone knows people who do all their personal business on the company’s tab, and resent every piece of work dumped on their desk because someone else was too busy with their personal stuff to do. What you better hope is that your coworkers like you really, really well or you will find yourself jobless without a cubicle to run your sideline from. This is terrible advice on every level. And I’ve known people who have lost their jobs over just such a situation…and, guess what, they find it hard to get another job once they get that reputation. Create your home business at home. That’s where it belongs.

  24. Jayesh Naithani
    Jayesh Naithani says:


    Here is another perspective – your job should also be considered your business as well. This way you don’t need to do step 4 – Get on a stupid project at work. If one really wants to get a “stupid project” at work, then they should leave the company.

    – Jayesh

  25. Jack
    Jack says:


    This is an interesting argument, and I personally find parts of it intriguing and invigorating. If only it were so, I’d be truly pumped!

    But alas, it’s just not as simple as you describe. As a manager of IT technical professionals myself, I would surely *fire* an individual who behaved as you suggest — taking moonlighting calls on their cell, devoting work time to an entrepreneurial adventure.

    Such behavior is also simply unethical and unprofessional, no matter how burned-out and frustrated you feel. I have these same dreams myself and long to fulfill them — but my ethics tell me its wrong to wontonly waste my employer’s time when they’re paying me to work.

    Sorry, no sale. You have to find another way of empowering people to drive change in their lives without just being slackers.

  26. Hazel
    Hazel says:

    This was a really great piece and it helped me a lot.I did the same thing but unfortunately made the mistake of trying to recruit staff from my offices when the work load got too big
    They blew the whistle and I got dumped.Although I don’t really miss my job I do miss my friends!
    By the way the home job is going great!!!!!!

Comments are closed.