Secrets of the spare time startups

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You’ve just invented the self-tying shoelace in your head. It’s intellectual property that could make you millions. But you’re stuck in a 9 to 5 job. Is the dream over before it’s begun?

Certainly not. More and more people are having small business ideas and starting up SMEs, or small-to-medium enterprises, in their spare time. And thanks to new technology and techniques, setting up a business is easier than ever.

The idea

First of all, take a look at your idea. Do we really need self-tying shoelaces? Great ideas solve problems and plug gaps in the market. Maybe you don’t have time to sit around brainstorming all day. But you can look at what’s missing where you work or study. Working in Belgium, GU founder James Averdieck saw the potential for high-quality puddings like the ones from his local patisserie to sell in supermarkets.

British student Ben Francis saved his money from delivering pizza to buy fitted fashionable gym wear that young people would like. After just four years, his successful brand GymShark turns over £26m. While working for Louis Vuitton, Kunal Kapoor noticed there was no opportunity to buy pre-owned, luxury fashion items at a discount. So he started Dubai-based online platform Luxury Closet where people could buy and sell their designer handbags. US toy manufacturer Mattel started making picture frames. With the leftover materials they tried their hand at dollhouses. The dollhouses sold better. All saw the opportunity and had the idea.

The business plan

So you’ve decided we do need self-tying shoelaces. It’s a great idea. If you’re setting up a business, you need a business plan. Business plans can seem daunting. Fortunately, there are lots of tools and templates out there to help you get started. The $100 Startup’s One Page Business Plan asks simple questions to help you work out what your business is and what to do next. Enloop makes it even easier. Not only can this app autowrite sections of your business plan, it uses the data you input to automatically generate financial forecasts, saving you time and money on fortune-tellers.

StratPad for the iPad or Business Plan & Start Startup for Android also provide plenty of tools, resources and tutorials. Make sure to register your company. There are numerous online company formation services that can register your business quickly and easily at low-cost. It’s important to understand the legal aspects of starting a new business in your country as well. Websites like and can give you information on tax law, intellectual property, employment regulations and digital rights, for example.

The time

You’ve got the plan. Have you got the time? Finding the hours while working, studying or raising a family is one of the biggest obstacles to starting a new business. First of all, remember: there are 24 hours in a day. Take away 8 for work and 8 for sleep – you’ve still got 8 left! There’s a whole other day in there. If you manage your time effectively, you can get a lot done.

Of course, there’s an app for that. Wunderlist is one of the most popular. An easy-to-use to-do list and task manager, it can help you decide what you need to do and when you need to do it. But how long do you do it for? Try the Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo. Spend 25 minutes doing a task and nothing else. Congratulations. You’ve completed one Pomodoro. Take a five-minute break to celebrate before starting the next Pomodoro. Every four Pomodoros, take a longer break.

The place

One day you’ll have an amazing HQ for your new company. For now, you have to work where you are. Chris Orrell, the founder of, used to call clients from the car park during his lunch break. If you’re running a home business, Emma Jones of Enterprise Nation suggests setting up dedicated business spaces in your home to minimise distractions. But when life intervenes, try and incorporate it. She calls it the ‘work-life blend’. If you’re going out to make a delivery, why not take the kids along?

Sara Mauskopf founded Winnie, an app that gives parents local information, while bringing up a new baby and helping her husband through chemotherapy. She’d work from hospitals and crèches, while managing her time by preparing tasks and setting time limits. These days, you don’t need an office or a company secretary either. Office companies like Regus and Anvic provide virtual office services with professional administrative support and an official business address. That helps with company registration.

The people

One of Sara’s pieces of advice is don’t go it alone. You’ll find more time if you can delegate and outsource tasks. Use people you know. For example, a number of friends Ben Francis met at university now work for GymShark full time. Vetements is an international collective of young, like-minded fashion designers who were fed up with the clothes they were making for big names. Creating their own designs in a Paris bedroom at weekends, the brand now regularly sells out in high street stores. Luxury Closet receives its products from 15 countries a month and sends them on to 40. Such a logistical operation is beyond its means, so the company outsources the supply and delivery of luxury items to DHL.

The tech

E-commerce has made it possible to run a business in your sleep. Customers can buy your product or service whenever they want online. Marketplaces like eBay and Amazon make it quick and easy to get started. If you want something a little more tailored, web hosting companies offer web shop services. Shopping cart systems like Shopify can let customers buy stuff directly from your website, while you’re doing something else. But what happens if something goes wrong? Now you can digitally outsource your tech and customer support. Amazon Web Services can host your website and apps. Snapengage can integrate live chat support directly into your website. Zendesk offers support ticketing, knowledgebase and FAQ features along with apps for all major smartphone operating systems.

Communication with customers is key to the success of your new business. But you can’t be on call 24 hours a day. Email is a reliable way to track customer complaints or queries. Use auto-responder to notify customers when they can expect a response. There are also customer relationship management apps like Nimble to organise your contacts and track what’s going on wherever you engage with customers. There are tools as well to analyse the data.

Dashboards like Microsoft Power BI service and 9-Spokes automatically harvest data from all your business systems. They then present it back to you in an easy-to-read form, highlighting which areas of your business need work.

The marketing

If you’re working 9 to 5, you probably don’t have the time or the money to market your new self-tying shoelaces. In that case, learn from GymShark’s use of social media influencers. Sponsoring 18 top global YouTubers, Instagrammers and bloggers, with a combined following of 20 million, the company raises awareness of its brand at a fraction of the cost. Enterprise Nation suggests engaging influencers before asking them to promote your product and reaching out to smaller ones first. Also offer free samples or trials in return for a review.

Don’t have time to trawl through social media? As ever, automated tools are at hand. The bizarrely named Followerwonk searches for Twitter accounts that tweet about relevant subjects. Buzzsumo finds the most shared articles on a topic. Buzzstream identifies influential websites.

The money

So everything’s come together. You’ve set up all aspects of your self-tying shoelace business over a few lunch hours. Now you just need the money to make some self-tying shoelaces. It takes time meeting investors and venture capitalists to secure business finance. Thanks to crowdfunding on websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, you can let the investors come to you. ForeverSpin is a company making spinning tops that crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Originally trying to start a software company, the founders didn’t have enough capital. So they brainstormed a product that was simple, unique and nostalgic – high-quality metal spinning tops – and went to Kickstarter for funding.

First they tested the website with an unrelated project to find out how it worked. Then they made a good, simple video for an international audience. People loved the idea, which in turn increased its visibility on Kickstarter and drew in more backers. Read our guide on how to get funding. It really is easier than ever to set up a business. You can fund, make and sell a product or service pretty much anywhere, anytime. So what are you waiting for? You could be sitting on a billion dollar self-tying shoelace company, or a knot-for-profit.

This article was originally published by on DHL’s Discover platform.