Tip: Don’t let your side hustle hurt your employer

NAIROBI, KENYA: She, like many other young Kenyans, was dabbling in running a business while holding down a job. However, she made numerous mistakes along the way that made the balancing act impossible.

You see, Ruth forgot the cardinal rule of running a side business while still employed: don’t let it hurt your employer.

“Looking back now, I can see that I forced my employer’s hand and had to get fired, or his entire office would have become impossible to run. But back then? I thought it was the most unfair thing he’d done to me,” she says with a wry smile.

Ruth runs a graphic design and photography company, something she’s been doing for three years. Before this, she worked in a small publishing outfit.

“I took up side gigs because the job wasn’t paying me enough to meet my costs, such as rent, school fees for my then three-year-old son, food, transport and so on. I had a friend who had a graphics company, so she threw a couple of jobs my way. I’d get paid my entire month’s salary on one project, so of course my focus shifted,” says Ruth.

“If a client from the side gig needed a job done urgently, I’d prioritise that over work. Some of my colleagues started grumbling about how slow I’d become and all that, but I felt like the money was worth it, so I didn’t pay attention to their complaints.”

Drop the ball

Ruth got her comeuppance when she dropped the ball on a deadline-sensitive assignment at her job that got the attention of the CEO.

An audit of what went wrong was done after the project cost the company a substantial amount of money. It, of course, showed Ruth had been the weak link.

“Being summoned was horrible. I never want to be in that situation again. The CEO, who was also the founder of the company, was so disappointed, especially because of what that money would have meant for him as an entrepreneur. I felt bad about dashing his dreams because I was too selfish to recognise the value of the work I’d been hired to do.”

A company-wide email was later sent out that enforced stricter reviews of performance, and a couple of weeks later, Ruth got a dismissal letter that cited her “dereliction of duties”.

“To be honest, that experience was a learning curve for me. I decided to just focus on turning my side hustle into my main job. Also, rather than hire employees, I try as much as possible to work with a regular set of part-timers,” says Ruth.

“It may sound ridiculous, but I understand the pressure a lot of young people face in their first jobs, and I wouldn’t want to risk the success of my business on people who don’t understand the depth of my dreams.”

The scholarly definition of an entrepreneur is one who takes risks to introduce an innovative venture into the market. But embracing the risk associated with growing a venture is often easier said than done.

The reality is that there are bills to be paid, family responsibilities to be considered and start-up capital that needs to be raised.

As a result, a lot of people in full-time jobs find themselves just biding their time on someone else’s dime as they wait to be in a position where their side business can sustain them fully.

Popular option

Whether it’s to get an extra shilling, to put a talent or hobby to good use, or simply to maximise on one’s professional skills, more and more Kenyans are taking on side hustles.

A GeoPoll Rapid survey conducted in February this year among 1,762 young Africans in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania found that 40 per cent of Kenyan youth – that’s two in five young people – engage in side hustles. This is only second to Nigeria, where 44 per cent of the youth run a side business. 

“As an employer, you actually can’t stop people from running side businesses,” says Johnson Kapsut, an HR professional and banker.

“What you do instead is ask that they make sure that whatever they do does not conflict with the expectations of the job you’re hiring them to do. This means their side business cannot do things liketake over the time they’re supposed to be giving to the company, nor take the customers the company has.”

But how well can the side hustle co-exist with the main job?

Most of us know that it takes superior time management skills to put in an eight-hour workday and then find extra energy for the side hustle – and do all this without becoming drained and disoriented.

It is especially Herculean in the first few months of setting up a business when there are no systems in place, customers are few and far between, and you’re haemorrhaging money on overheads.

So is it really possible to get your new venture off the ground and still manage to convince your boss that you’re 100 per cent devoted to your day job? Here’s how to navigate these waters.

1. Know your company’s policy on side hustles

In today’s rather flexible corporate world, many employers won’t dictate what an employee can or cannot do in writing.

This is mainly because too many rules at the workplace lead to low morale, dishonesty or even stifle creativity.

Instead, the preferred code of conduct tends to be reinforced through company culture. For example, imagine starting a new job at an auditing firm where it’s the norm for colleagues to meet up for a drink every evening and play golf on weekends. Wouldn’t turning down such interactions for your side hustle single you out?

However, there are employers that strictly prohibit employees from engaging in commercial activities and explicitly state as much in the employment contract. In such cases, it’s best to be in the know since it could easily lead to dismissal or legal action being taken against you.

2. Be clear on the terms of your contract

Most people tend to leverage their professional skills to run a side business. So, for instance, if you’re an accountant, you’ll offer to do book-keeping for small SMEs and such.

“Companies that have given you high levels of clearance and keep lots of data can be rather sensitive about allowing you to use your skillset to run a side business. There’s no telling how much you might exploit your employer’s trade secrets or intellectual property,” says Johnson.

To avoid getting entangled in a legal suit, it might be best to avoid a side business that could turn you into your employer’s competitor.

However, entrepreneurship research shows that new business owners benefit from previous employment experience and enjoy higher chances of success if they start an enterprise in an industry where they understand supply and distribution chains, not to mention market requirements.

But judging from the results of the GeoPoll Rapid survey, conflict of interest might not be a major problem for most young Kenyans. The poll showed that agriculture is the most preferred side hustle, followed by ICT and entertainment.

The bottom line is that investing your time and energy into your side hustle should never overshadow the commitment you’ve made to your employer, says Johnson.

3. Be conscious about how you split your time

While it might be impossible to completely switch off your business mind when you step into your workplace, make a conscious effort not to use company time on your side hustle.

Not only is it unethical, but it also affects your output.

“If your employer expects you to work six days a week, from 8am to 5pm, then block off these hours for your main job. If you must run a side hustle, do it outside of these hours. When it comes to letting you go, an employer can cite that you took time away from your job as a basis of giving you the sack,” says Johnson.

Stealing time from your day job turns you into a non-performer. Remember, your employer is paying you to contribute to the growth of his or her business.

Plan your time well and clearly designate ‘hustle time’ – this could be in the evenings after work, on weekends or early in the morning before you report to work.

In addition, it’s crucial to set up the right support structures as soon as you can. Find a trusted employee or family member that will have your back so you won’t have to pick calls from customers in the middle of departmental meetings, for instance.

4. Don’t imagine your employer’s resources are yours

Most of us are guilty of using company resources, such as stationery, printers or computers, to further our personal interests.

It may not seem like a big deal as, after all, everyone is doing it.

“Using the company’s products to run your side business is actually theft. We couch it in gentler terms, like ‘misuse of company resources’, but in reality, what you’re doing is stealing,” says Johnson.

This misuse adds to your employers’ overhead expenses. Further, some businesses have copyrighted software that does, for instance, financial computations to get a competitive edge. While these are at your disposal in the course of your job, resist the urge to copy the programme for your own business. 

The next time you think of using your work computer for personal business, just remember that Hillary Clinton lost an election simply for using the wrong email server.

5. Don’t cross the line with clients and co-workers

Although it’s advisable to build a solid customer base before jumping ship, you want to keep away from turning your employers’ customers into yours. Since they know you as a representative for the company you’re working for, selling them on your side business might come off as unprofessional.

Your employer has put in a lot of time and resources to build their current customer base – don’t burn that bridge by disrespecting these efforts.

The same could be said about selling products to your co-workers during work hours. Have you come across an employer who appreciates staff who check into the office peddling wares?

Yes, the economy is rough on the pocket these days, but you’re trying to remind your boss why you get paid every month, not why he or she should let you go.

It may be important to become your own boss by building your business while still employed, but if this is the path you choose, then carry out your activities in way that respects your current employer. Mirror the behaviour you’d like to see from you own employees some day.