How to Build an Empire in Your Spare Time

Piranesi engraving, fantasia of Ancient Roman architecture

Photo of Piranesi engraving by Evil Preacher

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. And it was a full-time job.

Think of lugging all that marble, laying pipes and foundations, raising columns and arches, tiling all those roofs, and doing all the fancy bits of decoration on the top. Not to mention organising supplies of food and water, keeping the rabble entertained and in order, and stopping the fractious nobles from destroying the whole structure from within.

And that was just the City of Rome. Outside the gates stretched a vast Empire formed by years of conquest and maintained by a complex web of treaties, tributes, and the garrisons of the Imperial Army.

No wonder they never got round to conquering Scotland.

Yes indeed, building Rome was a full-time job. And I should know. A few years ago, I was faced with a tough decision: finish my Master’s degree or finish playing Rome: Total War. Fortunately for my career, I opted for the degree. (Don’t tell my Glasgwegian father, but I did conquer Scotland a couple of times. Sorry Dad.)

So if you want to build an empire made of marble and gold, with a conquering army and vassal kingdoms, you will probably have to quit your day job. The same goes for the kind of bricks-and-mortar business empire built by big-shot entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Donald Trump and Bill Gates. That kind of company requires huge offices and payrolls, complex organisational structures and a hefty injection of capital up front.

But these days, small is the new big. You have the opportunity to create a new type of business, without hiring employees, renting an office, buying expensive equipment or taking on venture capital funding. You can start it from your kitchen table, with imagination and elbow grease, in your spare time.

Spare Time Is the New Venture Capital

You might wonder why I didn’t just play my computer game in my spare time. The answer is that I was doing my degree in my spare time. I was working at my business and taking a day a week to travel to the University of Warwick for classes, reading and writing on the train, in my evenings, my weekends and any other time I could fit in between client appointments.

To me, making this kind of investment in my future is normal behaviour. Yes, it was hard at the time, but that degree helped me transform my business. I could see the value in the course, so making the time was a no-brainer. The same went for starting a blog, creating an e-learning course, raising my profile with free ebooks and building a mailing list with a free course. I could have been doing something else with that time, but I wanted to build my empire.

I often talk to people who say they’d love to start their own business, or extend the online presence of the one they already have – but they ”don’t have time”. Employees seem to think they’ll have to give up their day job, which feels too scary. And freelancers are afraid they won’t have time to service their clients.

My answer is simple: most business empires built by creative entrepreneurs are started in their spare time.

I can remember hearing Sonia Simone, Dave Navarro and Michael Martine announce they were quitting their day jobs, as they were now able to support themselves from their online ventures. In all three cases I remember thinking ”Huh? I thought they were already doing it full-time.” They were producing such a volume of quality content and products I never guessed it was their part-time gig.

It’s easy to look at an impressive edifice like Copyblogger Media and think ”I’d never have time for that” – but those of us who were blogging aeons ago in 2006 can remember Copyblogger pumping out valuable content for months on end with no visible means of financial support. No ads, no products, no consulting services, no affiliate offers. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, it was a mystery what went on behind the scenes. But Brian Clark later revealed that he started Copyblogger while earning his living from various other online projects. Another spare time project.

And my own humble fiefdoms here at Lateral Action and over at Wishful Thinking were also eked out in my spare time – time I could have spent hustling for more short-term business, or in the pub, or watching TV. Or playing computer games.

Ask yourself:

How much time do you really need to make a start on your new venture?

How much spare time do you have lying around, that you could invest?

Everything Has a Price

If you want to keep all your evenings and weekends free, if the thought of missing a holiday fills you with horror, or if you can’t imagine cutting down on TV, Facebook or World of Warcraft, then don’t become a creative entrepreneur.

Some of the internet stories of earning money while you sleep may be true, but everyone I know who earns a good living from their own business put in a lot of time and effort up front. Which involved making sacrifices.

Back in the nineties, when I worked in publishing, I was training as a hypnotherapist in (you guessed it) my spare time. I worked on my diploma in the evenings, and travelled to London for seminars at the weekends. I spent all my spare income on the course, books and travel, so I slept on friends’ couches to keep the costs down.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, I had a choice: either stay in and work while my friends went out, or go out and drink orange juice while they quaffed beer – and call it a night when they moved on to a nightclub.

I’m not telling you this as a sob story. My friends may have been having fun, but I was on an adventure, learning incredible things, and seeing a future opening up before me that would make it all worthwhile. That course changed my life – and it laid the foundation for everything I’ve achieved since. (And don’t worry, I caught up on the partying afterwards. 😉 )

You probably don’t even have a choice to make. You know instinctively whether you’re the type of person who prefers holidays or adventures.

Ask yourself:

What is your venture worth to you?

What will it cost you to start it – in time, money, effort, missed opportunities?

Is that a price worth paying?

Choose Your Battles

Sonia Simone wrote an eye-opening piece about how she manages to get so much done AND engage with a wide network that supports her business:

You can’t be everywhere

I’m on Twitter and Copyblogger. A few times a month I post here, because I love the culture and community that’s distinctly “Remarkable Communication.”

That’s it.

(Productivity and Social Media: How Do We Get Anything Done?)

The funny thing is, before I read that I thought Sonia was everywhere. I read Copyblogger and Remarkable Communication, and hang out on Twitter – and so do most of the people who are relevant to her business. So to us, she is everywhere.

Like Sonia, you can work smarter by focusing on critical tasks and communication hubs. Here’s how I spend my working hours, to get (and give) maximum value from the time I put in:

  • Working with clients
  • Creating courses and other products that will add long-term value to my business
  • Writing and commenting on Lateral Action (and occasionally on Wishful Thinking)
  • Writing guest articles for other blogs relevant to my business
  • Keeping up with email
  • Hanging out on Twitter and other social networks

I don’t commute. I use Skype and the phone to minimise meetings. I batch meetings and networking events, to minimise trips into central London.

I only do Facebook to check in with friends in Australia. I only keep up with a handful of blogs regularly, and catch up with the rest when I have time – usually on my iPhone, often on the train. I don’t read novels or play computer games. Learning Japanese is on hold for now.

And I use technology (WordPress, RSS, email autoresponders etc) and licensing (Creative Commons) to reach as many people and deliver as much value as possible, relative to the hours I put in.

For practical ways to make better use of your available time, see my free ebook Time Management for Creative People and my piece on How to Find Time for Creative Work.

Ask yourself:

What are the critical tasks you need to get done?

How can you structure your time so you do them?

How can you use the web to maximise your impact?

Learn What Works

In some fields, such as conceptual art, there are apparently no rules – you’re expected to improvise and redefine the game as you go along. In others, such as accounting, you have to learn the rules and stick to them.

Like most creative disciplines, entrepreneurship and internet marketing are somewhere in between. You need originality, flair and spontaneity. But you also need a firm grounding in the basics – things that have been proven to work, that you ignore at your peril.

You could decide to go after a niche where there’s no competition – but when you know why this is a bad idea, you won’t.

You could decide to ignore the principles of copywriting headlines – but when you know why the principles have been established, you won’t.

You could add everyone you meet (and a few you don’t) to your mailing list – but once you know how this affects your reputation, you won’t.

If you like books, Jonathan Fields’ Career Renegade is a great introduction to creating a business doing what you love. And for the internet marketing side of things, Brian Clark’s free ebook Authority Rules: The 10 Rock Solid Elements of Effective Online Marketing will acquaint you with the fundamentals.

Some things just work. And some are a matter of discretion – it’s worth taking the time to learn the difference.

Ask yourself:

What do you need to know?

Where can you learn it?

Don’t Overdo It

You need a break. Even if it’s only an hour in the evening before bed, or an afternoon off at the weekend. There are no medals for burning out.

And remember the principle of The Dip:

• If working hard now will make things easier later, keep going.
• If hard work now will just lead to harder work in the future – find a better approach.

Right now, I’m working hard on my business as I’m laying the foundations for a more rewarding future. And we have two small children, which doesn’t leave us a lot of leisure time.

But I still take time off in the evenings, and do my best not to work every weekend. I watch a lot of movies courtesy of I run. I play with my kids. I do bits and pieces in the garden. And I schedule 30 minutes a day to do absolutely nothing. Over Christmas I had a lot of writing to do – but I did it in Japan, in between relaxing with family, eating delicious food and visiting weird and wonderful places.

And I won’t be working this hard forever. I’m already reaping the benefits of the work I’ve done in the past, which means every year that goes by, I attract more visitors, subscribers and customers with less effort than the year before – via search engines, referrals and my mailing lists. These days, every task I complete is one more brick in place in my own pocket-sized Empire.

Ask yourself:

What do you need want to do – to maintain your personal health and happiness?

What’s the minimum time you need for this?

When are you going to fit it in? (Skipping it isn’t an option!)

How About You?

Have you ever started a business – or another creative project – in your spare time? If so…

How did you find the time?

What sacrifices did you make?

What was the payoff?

I’ll shortly be opening the doors to a new group of students for The Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap – an in-depth course shows you how to build your very own creative micro-business empire.

If you’d like to be first in line when the doors open – and to access the free education for creative entrepreneurs that introduces the course – you can sign up here.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. I love this. It’s a severely limiting thought that you do not have enough time to make happen what’s important to you.

    Case in point – I’m writing this reply while I eat my breakfast, before I head off to work. Yes, I could pass time reading the newspaper, but will that help me? No, I’d rather connect with you, Mark, and your audience, and memorialize my thoughts.

    I wrote a post about this here:

    “We all suffer from bouts of boredom, but we each deal with it differently. And believe it or not, how we fill those slow times in our day can have a huge impact on our long term career success.

    People who cure boredom by building things win. People who cure boredom by being entertained lose.”

    I hope that helps someone!

    • Hashim, it’s made my day to hear I’m level pegging with breakfast for your attention. 🙂

      And this is so good I just tweeted it:

      People who cure boredom by building things win. People who cure boredom by being entertained lose.

      • Expect us to link to your article. I like where this is headed. I might contact you as well to see if I can interview you for our site. (if that works please email me above – its my personal one) many thanks – Dan
        ps: spent NYE in Rome last year and it was Epic ; )

      • Todd Dettor says:

        Hey Mark,
        Tennis Court Todd here in Florida, your statement here is spot on! I know you said it a while ago but it’s soooo true. I could never have gotten to where I am today with my venture if I spent my spare time watching TV or playing video games. Once again, you have reinforced my utmost appreciation for what you are accomplishing with your work. Keep it up!


  2. Great post Mark. I remember Gary V. telling a room of developers to stop playing WOW and build a freaking product. I wonder how many actually took that challenge.

    Well, I was already doing my thing so nana to them. Now to your questions…

    1. I currently have multiple businesses. The first time I up and quit my job to work for myself. That didn’t work out. The second time around I built it back up after working at my full-time job. Once it was a choice between one or the other I quit my job and went full-time in my own business. All of my other businesses have been built after getting the one before to be running well on it’s own.

    2. How did I find the time? I worked my ass off all day and night. Sleeping is a waste of time. Oh, and I did much of this while also going to school, and my daughter was born the same day I started my MBA. It was a very busy few years, but who need sleep?!

    3. Sacrifices made – none. I made the time to make it happen and have it happen on my terms. I don’t drink and my wife and I didn’t go to bars and what not, so I had a lot more time for kicking ass.

    4. The payoff is that my family and I are spending the next few years in Thailand (where my wife is from) and I’m able to operate all of my businesses from here. We have many more options, I’ve met and worked with a lot of awesome people, and I’m in control of my destiny. I get to spend a lot of time with my family, and doing what I love.

    Long story short – it was ALL worth it, and continues to be.

    • Thanks Robert, great answers! A journey like yours is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote today’s post.

      Your answer no 1. Just goes to show it’s not a black-and-white choice between employment or entrepreneurship – and the ‘leap of faith’ isn’t necessarily the best way to start a new business.

      And that’s a hell of a payoff at the end. 🙂 Thrilled to hear it’s working out for you.

  3. Hey, Mark, great post, as usual.

    I am ALWAYS in the middle of a creative project in my spare time. Being creative is like breathing for me – I’ve got to do it.

    My biggest spare time project was writing a book. It took me three years and included not only the writing, but the layout and publishing. Other spare time projects include knitting, crocheting, sewing, and reading, which is not a fluff hobby that I can drop because it helps to improve my writing.

    The biggest time-waster for me is television. I watch a little, but I get bored with it, so it’s very easy to give up.

  4. Mark,
    So, I’m at the Full-Time job right now 🙂 and only have had time to scan. First off, thank you. And thanks for such substance (what else would we expect!). I’m looking forward to spending some time in this over the course of this week.

  5. Happy New Year Mark,

    This is a really great one. Of all the resources available to mankind, time is the most crucial. Whatever it is we all wish and dream of becoming is first determined by the use of our time. Whether rich or poor, black or white, we’ve all been given equal amount of time daily; 24 hours, no more, no less. The outcome of our lives is dependent on how we use our time. At the core, the primary difference between the rich and the poor; winners and losers; those who succeed and those who fail is how they use their time. Time is mankind’s most valuable resource.

    Every great entrepreneur started out from their spare time, Warren Buffet sold coke at night from door to door in his spare time, today he his the highest shareholder of coca-cola. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his spare time, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created apple in their spare time. All that you have pointed out nails it all, we might never have the time to do all that we want to do in life, therefore it’s our responsibility if we really want to succeed to make the most of all the spare time we have at our disposal. What a lot of people have a hard time with is knowing when it is a spare time and here’s what I think is a spare time.

    A spare time is anytime you have all to yourself. In other words, it’s a time you are in control of. A time free of external control or influence; a time you can totally call your own. It’s a time whereby you get to decide what you choose to use the time for. Spare time is anytime spent for yourself. It is your time, use it well. Examples include;
    • Sleep time
    • Idle time
    • Toilet time
    • Travelling time (e.g. driving, flying etc.)
    • Waiting time (e.g. in a client’s office, before an interview/appointment)
    • Laundry time
    • Exercise (work-out/gym) time
    • Cooking time
    • Office time (yes, believe it or not, there are spare times during working hours e.g. break time)

    How can you tell it’s a spare time?

    Firstly, observe yourself; are you in a conversation? You can’t have a spare time when you are talking or listening to someone else talk. Spare time is when you have the control to keep your mouth and your ears shut. This means that you have to critically examine your conversations and fish out those idle talks which yields no productive result.

    Are you all by yourself? This does not necessarily mean being alone (no one physically around). What this means is that you’re mentally alone. People may be all around, but you don’t have an obligation to them; either to speak or listen.

    Secondly, observe the situation/environment; is there no better place for you to be at that particular time? Even though you are obligated to be physically present in such a place at that time, must you be mentally present too? Can’t you be physically present but mentally elsewhere; either thinking, reading or daydreaming?

    Thirdly, observe your emotions; what is your body or mind telling you? Is your spirit, soul and body fully present and aware? Are you being reminded from within of something else you could be using that time for? Are you feeling uncomfortable or absentminded at that particular time? Are you feeling pressured or restless? These are all indications of boredom signifying that you should find something more exciting and challenging to engage yourself and your time.

    Fourthly, observe your schedule; is the activity you’re currently engaged in a priority? A priority is an activity that is both urgent and important. Urgent in the sense that it requires immediate attention, delay could mean disaster. Important in the sense that it constitutes a vital part of a much bigger whole.

    The key thing to bear in mind when trying to detect or maximize a spare time is this; always ask yourself how the present activity you’re engaged contributes to the future goal you’re pursuing. There are countless number of things that would signal to you acting as reminders of how you ought to be spending that time. Your task is to spot the signals and obey or submit to it by consciously choosing to use your spare time for some wealth creating habits or activities.

    My own little piece.

    Thanks Mark for sharing.

    • Thanks Tito, for such a well-thought out comment – it could be a post in its own right… When you look through your list, there are a lot of snippets of spare time lying around in our daily routine.

      Love the idea of being ‘mentally alone’. Or maybe that’s my natural introverted tendencies coming out. 😉

  6. Hi Mark

    Great post (as always). This is exactly the strategy that I have followed since working for myself was a mere glint in my eye. I have never been a “throw all caution to the wind” kind of person and so when I wanted to make a change and become an entrepreneur, I did it the no-risk way i.e. working full-time and building a profile and a business in my spare time. I have done this twice now.

    Weirdly this is something many people don’t seem to be able to grasp – “but I am tired when I finish work!” or “I have other things to do on the weekend!”. Yes, but that is your choice.

    My belief is that we can always find some ‘spare time’ in our day or week if we try. Get up earlier one day a week; substitute an hour of TV viewing for an hour of empire building; or try the 20 minute rule and work on your empire for 20 minutes every day – whatever works for you.

    For me it’s not a time problem, it’s a priorities problem.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • For me it’s not a time problem, it’s a priorities problem.

      Amen. There are usually a lot of unexamined assumptions behind the ‘I don’t have time’ excuse.

  7. My parents taught me two things now very important to me: “You always say yes, if you can not go back” and “There are two types of people: those who live and the other” And I believe that dreams daily basis, all cost is forging the rule that everyone has dreamed of, or as I say: the micro-targets

  8. I’ve been working on eliminating time wasters so I can focus on making real progress in life. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade meandering through random websites and forums, playing games, and idly watching TV.

    I’m sure you can guess how far that took me. But I went through technical school and that helped snap me out of it. With the improved skills from the classes (writing, Linux admin., economics, psychology), I’ve been shedding time wasters and building the foundation of an online business.

    Turns out I don’t care much for TV, and most of the websites were fluff farms.

  9. As a career novelist, I know all about doing creative projects in my spare time. The stories of authors who write books while simultaneously “holding down a real job” are just too darned numerous for me to care about. They’re all true. The end.

    I was born a workaholic. From age 15 to age 36, I held down a full-time job or more with never a holiday or sick day. Give me a vacation and I’ll go work a different job. And yep, those of you who saw the opening age was 15, I was a student. 3.9 GPA while working 40+ hours a week. So?

    Anyway, December 1999, I moved to Hong Kong and lived there for quite a while on a tourist visa. Hence, no job, hence, all free time all the time. I learned to be an editor. Then I moved to mainland China and learned to be a teacher, while editing in my free time just for fun. Good thing it was fun, since the publisher ran off with my money. Heh.

    About five years ago, I had to become a full-time editor because there was just no other way to get myself a visa to stay in Thailand. It worked, too. Yay! Now I’m still editing, from Hanoi, and it started as a spare-time hobby.

  10. You know what really helped for me was having a spouse who was able to do a lot of the household stuff. Your loved ones can help you and support you in significant ways—this is not to be underestimated.

    It was still a lot of work and little sleep, but I knew that wouldn’t last forever so I was able to endure it.

    And I absolutely recommend Jonathan Fields’ book, Career Renegade. It’s a great empire-building guidebook.

  11. Hey man, how about some dang social media buttons or something here? LOL. 🙂

  12. I had a big long silly comment on here and deleted it. Short story: not sure if I’m lazy or just not sure of how to go about creating what I want. Will check out Career Renegade. What totally impressed me was you replied to every single comment. Hmm…..

  13. Hey Mark,

    It’s refreshing to read a post that so succinctly “tells it like it is” – so many people get seduced by the promise of a kitchen table business.. while actively ignoring the reality of what is required to make it happen.

    This post is great because it points out the hard work required, yet still sells me on the adventure! The practical lesson that I personally need to take from this is to focus on a small handful of key activities. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the multitude of tactics, approaches and platforms out there… but you’ve made a compelling case for sticking to just a few things, as you and Sonia seem to.

  14. The comments made here were a valuable addition to an insightful, thought provoking article. Two separate comments were specifically self-awareness triggering. I realize that I desperately miss having adequate mental “alone time” to focus, and that family/friend support is indeed ideal and quite necessary.

    I wonder if I have been shooting myself in the foot by not sharing with my children my aspirations of being able to do work I really enjoy, and letting them know some ways they could help me achieve that? I have to remember that self-sufficiency is not necessarily doing everything myself.

    My children are still at an age where they want to help me, and old enough to be capable of at least a 30-45 minute block of focus time. They still have that unsquelched, anything’s possible approach to life, and are always trying on their own to come up with a “Business” to make themselves a few dollars. Perhaps I can find something they can be excited about contributing, while at the same time give me an uninterrupted block of time. Worth thinking about.

  15. Mark: Congrats on your Empire Building; you’re obviously seeing the fruits of your labor and they’re well deserved.

    I’ve just started on my journey. It’s scary, overwhelming, and a lot of of the time it feels like it will never work. Plus, it’s so easy to get caught up in reading and studying the how-tos of creating a business instead of actually doing it.

    All right, back to work for me. 🙂

    • Thanks Jason.

      It’s scary, overwhelming, and a lot of of the time it feels like it will never work.

      I’m seeing so many memories flash through my mind as I read that. 🙂 It applies to so many of the most worthwhile pursuits in life, not just business.

      If you’d like to know more about my journey – and more importantly, what lessons you can learn from my mistakes – you might like to read my new (free) ebook: Freedom, Money, Time – and the Key to Creative Success.

  16. Mark, this is a goldmine of information – I wish I’d had this when I was starting on the road of building my “online empire” just over a year ago. Happily, I found my way to many of the same conclusions, sometimes by doing the research, but more often by learning the hard way what worked and what just didn’t! I’m in the middle of launching/developing my first online information product, based on helping others find their “vital vocation”. Your writings have been a great help along the way, so thanks for the inspiration!

  17. I am saving hard for my goal. And have push my self for a. business, the drive for more greatness has made me dig deep in thought for further creative ideas, should I invest in a busniess I have a love for, that may not make as much money. A modern mix media Art gallerie, full of local artist and imported art, glass blowing ect, a unic idea I have had for years. Or should sell out for easy set up of a franchise

  18. I started Real Estate Blog Topics – – in my spare time. At first, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. So it started as a simple landing page on my personal site. I thought, why not charge for my knowledge and expertise. Little did I know that it would grow to the extend that it has and continues to do so.

    It’s evolved from a simple extended email to a fully-crafted PDF full with writing advice, techniques and topics for RE Agents – delivered weekly. I created an auto-responder titled “The Real Estate Blogging Blueprint” that converts exceedingly well.

    How long did it take? What did I sacrifice? It took a lot of evenings of tweaking. Experimenting. Finding ways to make the whole process/experience better (and that’s still a work-in-progress). I outline during the week, but I spend Sunday’s writing, editing, publishing and scheduling. Yes, it takes time. But the growing community is the reward. It’s a project I’m passionate about. And it’s growing like I never would have imaged. That, makes the experience amazing, all all worthwhile to me.