Skip to main content
guest column

I've never considered myself an entrepreneur at heart — I'm far too risk averse to put everything on the line and jump headfirst into a venture from scratch.

But over the past six years, I've learned that entrepreneurship doesn't have to be all or nothing. It is possible to incrementally build your business while holding down a 9-to-5 job, until your side project is cash-flow positive. Then you can leave your day job to become a full-time entrepreneur in a proven business.

That's exactly how I built Beat The GMAT, a social network for MBA applicants. By the time I left my job to become a full-time entrepreneur, I had a proven business model and sustainable revenue. Today the site serves two million business-school applicants each year and it is profitable without any external funding.

I founded the company in 2005, from my Stanford dorm room. I love the learning space and I am energized by the idea of solving education needs through online communities and social media. When I launched Beat The GMAT, I had a dream of working on this venture full time. But at the time I was 23 years old, and funding was a major challenge. I also had more questions than answers about how to run a business and my college degree in Sociology certainly didn't provide me with many relevant or transferable skills.

So I decided to hedge my risk. I accepted a full-time job as a product manager at a respectable Silicon Valley company. With my day job bankrolling me, I was free to be highly experimental with my side venture and I didn't fear failure. At the end of the day, I would still get my salary and benefits, even if my social network collapsed. I was optimistic and I thought I would only work at my day job for a year before I could move on to my start-up full-time.

One year turned into four years. During that time, I spent 40 to 50 hours a week at my job and another 40 to 50 hours a week (nights and weekends) on my side venture. The lifestyle was extremely taxing and I had to make a lot of sacrifices with regards to my personal time. I had precious little left to spend with family and friends, or to work on hobbies.

Even still, I was having so much fun. At my 'real' job, I was fortunate to work with managers who were great mentors and I was able to select projects that were relevant to my own small-business interests. During my time as an employee Imet the person who would become my business partner – who also coached me on how to think strategically.

I spent three years experimenting with my side venture while working full time. And while I made plenty of mistakes along the way, I also enjoyed many successes. By my third year, my site traffic began to grow exponentially, and I was able to begin monetizing my site. By the end of my fourth year, I was earning almost twice as much from my personal venture as I was from my day job.

I was now ready to make a go at being a full-time entrepreneur and I left my day job in January, 2009. I've been fully focused on Beat The GMAT for two-and-a-half years now, and I wouldn't change a thing about how I got to where I am.

Entrepreneurs should do some serious soul-searching and not be pressured to go full time into their ventures immediately. There's no stigma attached to being an entrepreneur with a 9-to-5 job. Instead, think of your full-time job as an opportunity to incubate your business.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Eric Bahn is the founder and vice president of Beat The GMAT, the largest MBA applicant social network on the Internet, serving three million people a year.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only non-profit organization comprised of the most promising young entrepreneurs in North America. The YEC promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to youth unemployment and underemployment and provides its members with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of a company's development and growth.