Graduating and landing a first job can be a very exciting time. You may have dreamed of that first paycheck that will help you afford a work wardrobe and furnish an apartment, but it can also be an overwhelming transition. Perhaps you’re moving to a new city or finding a roommate to keep expenses down. Meanwhile, human resources at the new job is sending you the standard paperwork—tax forms, non-disclosure agreements, non-compete agreements and more. You’re so happy to have landed a job, so you click “agree” or “ok” without reading the fine print.
When we land our first job, we’re often so pleased to have a salary and benefits that we may not be focused on what may seem like non-negotiable finer points. While you may think to ask about your employer’s insurance and vacation policies, you may skim right over a non-compete clause. But, unbeknownst to you because you didn’t read the fine print, the side hustle that you’ve always dreamed about or even already started could be in jeopardy. It’s your gig, but does your employer have ownership rights to your existing or next big idea? Can you start a business or even a non-profit outside of work?
These six tips will help you establish that your side hustle is yours:
1. Read any non-compete agreements your employer asks you to sign. Don’t just read it—make sure you understand the terms. What is the time frame and the geographic area that restricts you from competing against your current employer? It is OK to ask questions of the HR rep to understand what you’re signing, and it’s not a bad idea to have an attorney look the document over as well.
2. If you already have a side hustle that you’re planning to continue, be sure the agreement is clear that the employer has no ownership or that you have a waiver. Although rare, be sure there is not a “no-moonlighting” clause that would prevent you from working on another business while employed.
3. There’s a difference between planning and launching. If your side hustle is in the same industry as your current job, you can plan but you can’t launch while you’re still an employee of the company.
4. Keep a log of your hours. If things get sticky with your employer, you’re going to want to be able to show that you worked on your side hustle on nights and weekends, not during work hours when you were working for your employer.
5. Use your own laptop and cell phone. Using your employer’s resources when working on your side hustle creates a risk that the company will have ownership in your new business.
6. Do a great job at work. Your side hustle shouldn’t interfere with your work duties or your employer may believe they were paying you to work on your side hustle and may want a piece of it. You want to build your network as you start your career and not burn bridges. Also, if you quit your job to work on your side hustle and later your venture folds, you’ll want the option to ask your former employer for a reference for a new job.
Starting your first job is very exciting, but you’ll want to take the time to read the documents you’re signing. Should you decide to start a side hustle in the future, you won’t have to wonder whether your employer owns the new business you’re creating. Also, protect yourself by not working on your side hustle during business hours, use your resources—not your employer’s, and don’t let it negatively affect your performance at work.
Elisa Mitchell is the Assistant Director of Operations and Finance at The Garage and is an attorney and CPA. She enjoys helping students start their entrepreneurial journeys and is thrilled to be a part of The Garage. A special thank you to Northwestern professor of law and DPELC Director Esther Barron for her inspiration and review of this article.