Part time startups: The difficulty of context switching

- February 9, 2015 3 MIN READ

For many, at least here in Australia, the reality of your startup endeavour is one that will be tackled part time.

So how do you go from being a consultant, marketing manager, engineer, lawyer or saleswoman, to being a CEO?

How do you switch context so that you can operate effectively in both environments?

You still have bills, a mortgage, school fees and an array of other expenses to cover – your ‘job’ enables you to stay afloat whilst you do your part in creating some form of new and unique value through your startup. This job also helps you live some remnant of a normal life during the transition period.

Context switching isn’t easy and my personal experience with this conundrum is probably somewhat similar to many of those who will read this article.

Let’s first examine what you’re getting yourself into.

By its very definition, a startup is a temporary organisation designed to search or learn its way to repeatable and scalable business model. Once a business model is found, it’s then exploited to create some form of, value usually commercial, which is then scaled to the point at which you are considered a ‘company’ and not a startup.

The period of time in which you search for, confirm and then exploit a business model can take time, and in most cases this will be a matter of years, not months.

During this period of time, as the CEO, it’s your job to drive the exploration and execution activities that lead your startup towards its vision. In the very beginning, you are everything and anything you need to be to make this work, and only over time do you move into a more ‘traditional’ CEO role.

This takes time, requires effort and certainly requires sacrifice. To top that off, you’re still working 45 hours a week as a consultant, marketing manager, engineer, lawyer or saleswoman and are constantly context switching between the day-to-day execution role of your job, and the constantly evolving exploration role of startup CEO.

You may be context switching between being a ‘doer’ and being a ‘leader,’ and what may in fact be the most difficult component of this transition, you are now operating in an environment of extreme uncertainty, where your cognitive ability, or the speed at which you learn and adapt, may mean the difference between the life and death of your startup.

All of this is very normal in the transition from job to startup.

Put simply, it’s not going to be easy.

Personally, I believe entrepreneurship is more of a calling than a job or job title. You’re embarking on this journey because you have to. You have a why and it’s bigger than the day-to-day work you’re currently used to.

Because of this, the role of startup CEO requires your full attention.

In most cases, you will not be ready. Your greatest asset will be your ability to learn and adapt very quickly, making practical application of what you’ve learned regularly along the way.

In an ideal world, given that the role of startup CEO requires your full attention, the time in which you are forced to context switch between your current mode of earning income and your new pursuit should be as short as possible.

This in itself is contextual, and there are too many variables to delve into, however as has already been mentioned, your ability to learn and adapt may be the difference between the life and death of your startup. Therefore your resourcefulness and ability to shape your environment, creating the opportunities you need to ensure your full attention is given to your startup, may well be among the first major challenge you.

I don’t believe there is an easy solution to this, and I certainly haven’t found one.

For me, the pursuit of market validation, paired with appropriate commercial opportunities and support mechanisms is leading to an environment where my full attention can be given to my role and my startup.

This is my second startup, the second time I’ve raised funding and the second time I’ve begun to pursue an ambitious vision within an industry vertical I’m deeply involved in.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, however, during these phases of transition I’ve found context switching to be amongst the most difficult day-to-day hurdles.

It would be great to hear your perspective and the experiences you’ve had in this context.