Data doesn’t lie.
There is a sexy image of an entrepreneur as someone toiling away in a garage, tinkering full time on their new venture, or joyously yet feverishly staying up until 3 a.m. working on their latest innovation or iteration of their product.
We love to celebrate these fantasy risk-takers and breakthrough-makers, ones who put it all on the line and then cash in big.
But is this the reality of entrepreneurship? If you have a concept for a new business, are you really better off quitting your nice stable job with its regular paycheck and going all in, or should you take a safer path and ease into the working-full-time-for-yourself thing?
From 1994 to 2008, management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng tracked a group of would-be entrepreneurs to answer just that question.
They looked at more than 5,000 people in the U.S. who became entrepreneurs during the 15-year period in question. The study participants were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they started a wide variety of businesses. Regardless of industry, the researchers were seeking the answer to that age-old question: When starting a business, are you more successful if you keep or quit your day job?
There was a pretty definitive answer: Those who kept their day jobs were 33 percent less likely to fail in their new venture.
In other words, you’re not just better off keeping your day job–you’re way better off keeping it.
While the results of the research may contrast with the romantic notion of the Obsessed Entrepreneur Who Risks It All, it backs up assertions of other experts.
According to Adam Grant, psychology professor at Wharton, “Quitting your full-time job to start a company is like proposing marriage on the first date … The most durable businesses are typically started by people who play it safe.”
Consider a few examples:
Phil Knight spent five years selling his athletic shoes before leaving his full-time job in accounting. The company he started? Nike.
Sara Blakely developed her idea for Spanx over the course of years, and kept her full-time job selling fax machines in the meantime. Forbes currently estimates Blakely’s net worth at $1 billion.
Markus Persson was a programmer who built video games on the side. He first put up Minecraft, unfinished, on a gaming portal. He kept his day job for a full year before committing to Minecraft full-time, eventually selling it to Microsoft for $2.5B
Now pay attention to those timelines: All three of these massively successful entrepreneurs spent not just weeks or months at their day job while developing ideas into billion-dollar companies–they punched the clock for years while building their business on the side.
We need a new way of looking at entrepreneurship. In the words of study author Joseph Raffiee, “[S]o strong is the stereotype of entrepreneurs as brave mavericks who quit their day jobs to pursue their dreams, that we are only now coming to realize that there may be a better way than plunging right in.”
In fact, the stories of mega-successful people follow a similar trajectory. Many were not, in fact, huge risk-takers, but big-time risk-avoiders. They hedged their bets by keeping their day jobs, and tried a lot of things out before committing to the one that worked.
There are several major advantages to keeping your day job. First, because of that steady paycheck, you’re not as desperate for business, which means making your first sale is, ironically, sometimes even easier. If you really really really need the sale (or the funding), how desperate are you going to come across? If, instead, you’re exploring, trying things out, that energy will read very differently.
Plus, when you wait and have stability and security while you’re building your side business, it gives you more time in general. You have more time to evaluate the marketplace, test things out and then rework them–you’re not so desperate for something to work that you’re misreading information.
The researchers themselves suggest a hybrid approach to entrepreneurship as the one that will lead to the most success. “Given the uncertainty associated with new businesses, entrepreneurs are best-served by making small initial commitments early on, giving themselves the option to commit fully to their business after they have had a chance to accumulate information and assess its potential and prospects.”
So consider not casting off the bowlines of your ship just yet, and heading out of the safe harbor. Instead, hang out at the dock. Tinker on weekends. Run your idea past lots of people and get lots of feedback as you go along. Invest your time and energy, yes, but don’t over-invest it.
Take things one step at a time, and know that when you do, you’re following in massively successful footsteps.