Entrepreneurship is crazy, difficult and chock-full of risk, and we do it with the hope of a payoff that's likely years away. In the meantime, we scrape along with little to no salary, pouring most of our earnings back into the company, while depleting our savings (if we're lucky enough to have any).
It's one thing to throw oneself into such uncertain waters. But what about when you have a family, too?
When I started DailyWorth, I had two kids under the age of 3 and no savings to speak of. My saving grace was my day job, the web-development consultancy Soapbxx, which was paying me six figures and allowed me to transition out as DailyWorth started to take off.
I was lucky, but I couldn't imagine starting a business without some source of income, so I wanted to know how other parents manage. I spoke to Naama Bloom, founder of feminine-hygiene subscription service HelloFlo and mother of two young kids. In February 2013, she left her marketing job at a small software company to launch her business. Her husband, David, founded the restaurant technology startup Ordr.in four years ago. What allowed them to make the leap into entrepreneur coupledom? She and David spent years preparing for it, limiting expenses and banking as much money as possible. "Our expenses were and still are mortgage, child care and food," Bloom says. "That's it. We don't spend on anything else."
With their savings and years of practice living simply, they know what their minimum comfort level is and can say no to many luxuries, such as an annual vacation. "Something big and unexpected would have to happen for us to get in real trouble," she says.
Best-case scenario, one of their businesses will reach a point where they can pay themselves a better salary. (Right now Bloom pays herself nothing; David's salary and their savings cover the family's bare minimum.) But they have a backup plan if things turn south or take longer than expected to gain traction: Bloom can supplement their income with consulting work, which she'd been doing until recently.
In both my case and that of the Blooms, it boils down to savings, a working spouse who can cover the household's core expenses each month or other part-time income streams and years of planning. No matter what, be aware that taking care of your family and your business simultaneously is, as Bloom says, "not for the faint of heart."
Consider your 401(k) the third rail of savings
HelloFlo founder Naama Bloom has several rules governing how deep she and her husband will dip into their savings, and chief among them is to never, ever touch the sizable 401(k) accounts they built up over years of corporate life. "That's just off-limits to us in terms of keeping our lives functioning," Bloom says.
It's a smart move, as the long-term pain associated with cashing in a 401(k) vastly outweighs any short-term salve. You'll face a hit on federal and state income taxes, plus a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal. Not to mention the fact that your retirement now depends almost exclusively on the success of your company.
My advice: If you're eyeing your 401(k) to fund your expenses until your business takes off, shelve the business idea and get a job that will enable you to build up your savings.
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