Make The Job You Want But Legally Protect Your Side Project

February 9, 2019

One of the founding principles for Braid is that people deserve to be happy at work.  This means that people should be able to choose their tools, their work environments, and their hours – taking care of ourselves at work is a huge part of taking care of our whole selves.

But if your job won’t give you that autonomy, and if you’re not in a position to take a new position somewhere else, something has to change.  One way to make that change is to start a side project with the intention of making that your full time job.

For some people, a passion for something outside of work is the best option – cooking classes, making furniture, and knitting clothes are all examples of side projects turned real businesses that my friends have done.  But some people may not have a strong passion or skills that translate into a self-contained endeavor.

If you don’t have a passion outside of your day job, you may have ideas that come from your job on opportunities for something better that you could do as a side project.  It’s easier to imagine a better approach, a new product or service offering, or some other opportunity while you’re sitting at your desk, frustrated with the current state of affairs.  For many people, the best ideas often come from something we’ve learned at our job.

But doing a side project related to your current job can be very scary because your current employer may make it difficult to pursue, even on your own time.  In June, Braid put together a small conference in Oakland called the Gold Laces Conference where the three partners at Smith Shapourian Mignano – Teela, Neda, and Lindsey – gave a presentation on how to legally protect your side hustle.

Three key points I took from the presentation:

1. Know the rules of the road at your employer.

Your employee handbook or your employment agreement may have some language around doing a side project or another business while you’re employed.  You may have also signed an invention assignment agreement that gives your employer certain rights to things you make, even outside of work.  Review these documents and make sure you are in the clear before you do anything.  If you’re unclear, gather up all the documents and make an appointment with an attorney.

2. Don’t use anything from your job to do your side project.

Obviously, don’t use any secrets you have from your job to do something new.  You cannot use company trade secrets or customer lists.  If you use company time or company equipment, your employer legally has a right to what you make.

So don’t use your work computer or your work-issued phone.  Don’t even use work Wi-Fi or electricity.  This is the easiest one for you to control, so do all these things:

  • Buy or use your own computer – and only use it at home or in shared spaces, like coffeeshops or libraries.  That way there’s no confusion about who owns what.  There’s a story that Drew Houston wrote the first part of Dropbox on a work computer issued by his employer, Bit9, when he first started.  He was lucky enough that Bit9 gave Drew the release; you may not be so lucky.
  • Use your own phone; if your employer pays your phone plan, take over personal responsibility and don’t expense those bills.  Checking the email account for your side project on your work-issued phone is super easy to accidentally do, so it’s important to protect you from your own “check in” impulses
  • If your employer pays for, subsidizes, or allows you to expense your home internet, take over responsibility.  Again, it’s hard to prove separation from work if your employer pays for anything you use.  If you’re doing woodworking as a side project, and you Google something, your employer may be able to claim you were using company resources.  Better to be safe than sorry.
  • Get a separate email address for your new idea and use a different project management tool to keep track of your tasks and what you’re working on.  A business email address from Google is cheap and it helps you keep everything separate so you don’t accidentally mix your day job with your side project.  And, of course, we think Braid is pretty nifty to help you manage everything, without having to get another extra tool.  But you can even just use a separate notebook if you want.

3. Consider being open with your employer.

This one seems counter-intuitive; why would you let your boss know that you’re doing a side thing, especially when the side thing is intended to become a full time thing?  One, it’s better to know up front that something could cause red flags – you don’t want your employer suing you right as you’re about to jump ship.  Also, it may provide a written record that you can use to protect yourself in case you have an unhappy separation.  Lastly, it may be a way to have a conversation that lets you change some of your work circumstances, such as the hours or environment, that could spur you to do the side project in the first place.  There’s no reason to delay being a little happier at work – even if you’re 100% sure that you’re going to do the side project anyway!

Now, after you start working, you may choose to incorporate and do all the extra stuff, or you may not!  But before you begin doing anything else, it’s super important to draw and enforce strong lines between your day job and whatever you’re hatching on the side.  The sooner you draw these lines and take responsibility for what you need, the cleaner everything will be in case you’re able to make your side project your main hustle and have the work experience that’s perfect for you (since you can make all the calls yourself).

Here’s to being happy at work!


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