When launching a business, one of the biggest questions for entrepreneurs can be when to take the leap and quit your day job.
For some, it's all about jumping right in with a "carpe diem" approach, while others prefer to dip their toes in more slowly.
But for Ray Chan to take the plunge and go full-time with his website, 9GAG, it was all about making sure he'd crossed a very symbolic milestone first.
The 34-year-old Hong Kong businessman and his four co-founders ran the viral site as a side gig for four years until the point that they could match the salaries they were earning in their day jobs.
“We earned some money, but we still worked at our day jobs until the moment (we realized) we can kind of cover the basic salary of our existing jobs," said Chan, 9GAG's CEO, who was working as a product manager at aNobii, an online platform for book lovers, when he first started the company in 2008.
Over the years since, the site, which is known as a platform for internet memes, has amassed more than 100 million global fans across Facebook and Instagram, generating income through banner advertisements.
"We believed that, hey, maybe if we can work full-time on 9GAG then it will have a better growth. That’s the moment that we (went) all-in," Chan told CNBC’s Uptin Saiidi during an episode of “Life Hack’s Live” at Hong Kong’s RISE tech conference.
Even then, however, Chan and his four fellow co-founders went one-by-one.
His younger brother, Chris, who was working at a fast-food chain at the time, went full-time at 9GAG first, followed by Chan himself. 9GAG’s three other co-founders, Derek Chan, Marco Fung and Brian Ya, joined incrementally afterward.
Chan acknowledged that their path was more “conservative” than some other entrepreneurs. He said that was partly a result of his “humble” family background. Growing up in a working class family on a housing estate in Hong Kong, Chan said his parents had always taught him he should focus on finding a “stable job.”
But he also said that gradual approach allowed the founders to try out different ideas and evolve in line with the industry — something especially important for 9GAG, which started when social media and internet memes were only just gaining mainstream momentum.
While Chan said it's right for young entrepreneurs to look to others for advice early on in their careers, he also warned that there can be a trapping in following others too closely.
He noted that a lot of people hope to emulate the success of tech icons like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg by copying their habits or the way they dress. But Chan said his experience showed that, over time, you instead need to carve your own path.
He gave the example of leaders who advise on how best to manage a team.
“Some people say that you have to be very disciplined. Some people say that you have to be very relaxed,” said Chan.
“Who is right, who is wrong? You don’t know.”
More often than not, said Chan, it actually comes down to the particular environment and individual team dynamics, which can vary vastly from business to business.
“No matter how good a tech leader is, probably their advice is not very applicable to us," he noted.
"You don’t have to copy anyone — you have to figure out your own way," he continued. "This is one of the many examples that we learned through painful lessons."
“We have to be the best of us, the best of me. Instead of (becoming) a clone of another tech leader."
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