I've been building my side business for the last four years while working full-time. Before starting my business, I always imagined (and dreamed about) quitting my job and doing my own thing full-time. I felt this would make me happy. I would finally be free from work responsibilities and take back my time. I wouldn’t have a manager to report to and would be my own boss. I romanticized the idea of not having to think about money anymore, and fantasized about everything I would finally be able to do. I read many blog posts and books about personal finance and concluded that my North Star was to have passive income and retire early.
However, there are two sides to every job, and the past few years have taught me that building a solo business is not as straightforward as it seems. I have faced new challenges, become more self-aware, and even managed to land a new full-time job. All these changes have given me greater perspective and helped me assess whether I would still like to build a full-time business in the future.
Of course, what I share in this post is only based on my experience building a SaaS business as a software engineer, so it might not be valid for others. Your experience will vary depending on the type of business you want to build.
You don't control your time
Most people I talked to from the indie hacker community wanted to start a business as a way of controlling their time. They believed that by becoming their own bosses, they would have more freedom to do what they wanted in their daily lives. I have found that the opposite is true. When you run your own business, you don’t own your time; your time owns you. You're constantly attached to it. You’re almost always thinking about your business, and you need to be on call practically 24/7 for anything urgent that comes up. When things break, you have to fix them, because now you have customers who will complain, and possibly even leave, if they’re unhappy. When you're traveling or vacationing, you feel guilty, because you feel like you’re wasting time you could be spending working. It's hard to disconnect your mind from the next feature or marketing campaign you plan to create. At times, this drive is born of excitement, but it often doesn't leave you with enough mental space to think about other things in your life.
You might have to do things you don't like
If you're a programmer who likes to code and build products, you might not enjoy the operational side of building a business. There are many things to take care of besides coding, such as accounting, taxes, and marketing. These responsibilities can often be jarring, but they have to be done. You can't avoid them unless you outsource everything. Even then, you will need to coordinate the effort, which requires a time commitment.
Suppose you’re someone who likes building software and nothing else. The idea of starting a business can be alluring. However, you may actually get to exercise your interest more working at a company. You are hired to do software engineering work, and no one expects you to do other things.
It becomes yet another job
It can be an exciting project to work on your business on the side. You don't even need to call it a “business” yet, because it's a low-risk endeavor. Even if it fails, you can always start a new one. You still have your full-time job to fall back on. However, this changes when you switch to working on it full-time. It becomes yet another job full of daily obligations that you have to meet. There are days when you can choose not to work, but eventually, you will have to be consistent to make any progress growing your business. Your livelihood now depends on your efforts.
Often, I find that the initial interest and excitement dwindles as you take on more projects, and it becomes harder to commit. This requires you to continuously find new, exciting milestones to look forward to.
Freedom is not a given
I often see the following argument on Twitter: "...but if you do your own thing, you can decide when you work and what you work on." This is primarily true for working on your own business, but nine-to-five jobs don’t necessarily mean giving up your freedom. Now that most software engineering jobs support remote work, you have the ability to decide when and where you want to work. Most tech employers I know or interviewed with don't care about hours; they care much more about the final results.
People also underestimate how fun and engaging work can be in startups or big tech companies. I love my job and what I'm working on. I find it fulfilling. In fact, as an engineer growing into a more senior role, your manager and leadership team will expect you to find work that aligns with your interests and expertise. You get the time and financial resources to do projects that you like. Of course, you may also end up working on tedious things, but that’s true for almost any type of work you do—including starting your own business.
It's more stressful
Running a business is far more stressful than having a job. Apart from the usual fear that your business will stop growing, there is also the stress of competition, software incidents, and anything else that might kill your business. In addition, there is also financial risk, because there is no guarantee of a stable paycheck. You need to figure out your own retirement savings, health insurance, and other benefits. This can be a significant stressor.
Is it more lucrative to build your business than to work in big tech or join a promising startup? That depends on many things, but I'm increasingly of the belief that I can accumulate more wealth if I work at any of the FAANG companies for an extended period of time. If you perform well and the company stock appreciates, that puts you in a great position financially. Of course, the challenge with a full-time job is that you get paid only for your time, and time doesn't scale. If you put more effort and hours into your business, that may pay off in the long run as your business scales and grows, providing you with better financial returns.
That said, the time you put into your business doesn't always translate to more money. There may be months or years when your revenue plateaus or even drops, so you have to be prepared for that. I believe that building a large business alone is rare. I have only come across a few exceptions in my network. Most indie hackers are likely to make more money working in big tech or joining a startup than starting their own business.
It can be very lonely
Working alone is not fun, and it can get lonely. You need to be able to cope with solitude. You don't have co-workers, but you still need people to socialize with. One way to overcome loneliness is by joining online communities and finding people who do similar work. For me, however, online interaction isn’t enough to fully connect with people. I miss spontaneous, in-person chats at the office. I now understand why most VCs and startup accelerators encourage you to find a co-founder if you're building a business. They know how hard it is to start a company alone, and how important it is to have someone on your side who is on the same journey.
No time for other interests
Apart from programming, I have other hobbies and interests that I don't have time for but would like to explore more. I love art and enjoy reading about artists, checking exhibitions, and learning more about art history. However, finding enough time to do all these activities is difficult. My side-business consumes most of my free time.
I find that life is far more enjoyable when you have an outlet to explore many things that you find interesting, instead of focusing on just one. Building a business can provide that outlet in some ways, but often leaves you left out of other things in life. It's a trade-off. If you have a full-time job, you may have more time and energy to indulge in your hobbies. This is a big aspect of why I like having a job: I have more paths for following my personal curiosity.
This blog post is only a rumination and a way to empty my mind of thoughts. It doesn't necessarily mean that I’m against starting a business or won't ever start one. These are issues that I have been mulling over for some time. I felt the urge to share them in the hopes that they will be useful to others who are on similar journeys.