From the April 2002 issue of Startups

Jon Carmen did the safe thing. He kept his day job in the high-tech industry and started his online guitar string discount store in his spare time. He built his Web site and filled orders on evenings and weekends. Then, what was just a fun hobby for two years turned into his sole support when Carmen, 33, was laid off from his day job in May 2001. Suddenly he was faced with a tough question: look for another job, or dare to take this entrepreneurial gig full time?

Fortunately for guitar players roaming the Web, Carmen chose the latter. But even with two years of business-building behind him, he faced some serious challenges in taking his part-time hobby down the full-time road. "[When it was part time,] I cared about it, but I wasn't trying to achieve something-it was just something fun," says Carmen, founder of String This! Inc. "[I thought,] 'It would be fun if it turned into something, but if it doesn't I've got a full-time job.' But when [the business] was what I was living off of.it became a lot more stressful."

Those are just a few of the issues entrepreneurs deal with in taking a business full time, says Romanus Wolter, author of Kick Start Your Dream Business. Giving up the security of a steady paycheck for a life of selling can be disconcerting at first, to say the least. Says Wolter, "It's like, 'OK, this is fun,' but every day you get up now, you're going to have to sell your business."

NEXT STEP

Still, starting part time at first has its benefits-checking out the market, making mistakes when you still have a paycheck coming in, building a client base and finding out whether there really is a clear demand for your product. And only you can decide when the time is right to go full time. "It's ultimately up to the entrepreneur-no one can tell you 'This is the time,'" cautions Wolter. "There are a lot of benefits and obstacles. You have to decide yourself-does it work with your schedule? Your family? Your life?"

Wolter suggests using vacation time from your full-time job to do a test run. In that one- or two-week period, you can find out what it's like to devote your whole day to the business. "Having your own business is a way of life," says Wolter. "You need to do a reality check-do you really like it?"

Carmen didn't have the luxury of using vacation time, so he just jumped right in after his layoff. He spent his first days taking a close look at his business plan and all his business functions to find out what needed to change. "We did a lot of tweaking to the business to make it more profitable," says Carmen. "When you run the business as a hobby, you don't give it as much of a critical eye. [When it's full time,] you go through everything with a fine-tooth comb."

Carmen's eye landed on his shipping and handling charges specifically. He thoroughly audited his costs and changed his shipping policy and pricing to his new calculations. The plan worked so well, Carmen decided to sell his six-figure-grossing business last month. Now, with the experience of starting part time to learn the ropes, he plans to start another business. This time, he'll hit the floor running and be a full-time entrepreneur from the start. Though Carmen hasn't settled on a business to start yet, he is sure of one thing: "I've caught the bug." The entrepreneurial one, that is.

The part-time to full-time road isn't easy, but it can be an exhilarating journey. Says Wolter, "If you follow the steps of testing it in the marketplace, it can work for any business." And it can be a fun trip.