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The next time you ask someone what they do for a living, you might want to follow it up with a second question: “What’s your side hustle?”
These days, many people have one. The barista who serves me my morning coffee has a particularly lucrative side gig as a head shot photographer. The bartender at my local watering hole is also a dialect coach for aspiring actors. A good friend spends his off-hours buying and flipping baseball cards and other collectibles.
Maybe it’s because life is expensive. Maybe it’s because most of us are still paying down student debt. Maybe it’s because we want a creative outlet. Or maybe it’s because relying on a single income stream makes us feel vulnerable.
Whatever the reason, one thing’s for sure: Establishing your passion project as a bonafide business has never been easier or faster. And with some hard work, you might just turn your side hustle into your only hustle.
From “Side Hustle” to Just Plain “Hustle”
I’ve worked in the media and tech space in New York City for more than a decade. I’ve had full-time jobs the entire time, and I’ve had a side hustle for almost as long. I’ve done freelance writing, editing, content strategy, you name it. It was never a formal thing—as in, I wasn’t hunting down leads or securing my financial future to these past-time projects. My network has always provided a steady stream of referrals, so I never needed a website or any kind of branding. That is, until I decided to get serious.
One day, I realized that I had almost enough clients to make my side hustle my full-time job. But I needed a website to get started. The weekend following my revelation, I got up early and hit my go-to coffee shop. By that evening, with a little effort and a lot of patient friends who answered questions like “Which font do you like better?,” I had built a professional website and filed for an LLC. A few months later, I was able to leave my full-time job to focus entirely on building my content agency. I put in a lot of work during those months (including revising and improving my site many, many times), but it all started with a laptop and a Saturday morning.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. To help you avoid those same missteps, I did what I should’ve done from the beginning: spoke to some entrepreneurs who’ve been there already.
Lessons from Hustleville
Meet Alana Branston, Ali Kriegsman, and Adam Blake. They’re Millennial entrepreneurs who launched side businesses while working in demanding 40-hour+ jobs. Not only did they create businesses from the ground up, but they also found found enough success to pursue those former side hustles full-time. Alana and Ali co-founded Bulletin, a company that makes it easy for digital-first brands to get access to retail space (think WeWork for retail space). Adam founded Magna Marketing, a digital marketing agency dedicated to driving the most efficient and effective traffic to online properties. While their businesses differ, their experiences while getting their side gigs up and running have a lot in common.
Make a Plan
Before you do anything—before you even think of a name—you need to make a basic business plan. “When you’re launching something new, you’ve got to sit down and think through all of your business operations from scratch,” Adam said. “Start with the basics. Who’s my customer? How am I going to attract new business? What are my costs? Do I want to be a single freelancer, or do I want to grow this into a larger business?” There are a ton of free business plan templates on the web, ranging from very simple to very (very) thorough.
Build a Brand
“Your branding is crucial,” Adam said. “I’ve always done freelance marketing consulting, but I wasn’t building a business. Once I decided to build an actual agency, I knew I needed a brand, and that starts with a polished web presence. That makes it clear to your audience that you’re serious, not just about your business, but about helping your customers succeed. If I could go back and start over, I’d definitely spend more time on our branding.”
Know Your Competition
No matter what your side hustle is, it’s more than likely that someone out there is doing the same thing. That’s why it pays to scope out the competition while you’re setting up your new gig. Find some key competitors, and spend an afternoon learning about them. How do they talk about their products or services? How much do they charge? Who’s their target customer? Even things like where they’ll ship to and what materials they use can be useful. Once you know all that, figure out how you’re different. That’ll help inform your brand and your messaging.
Prepare to Pivot
The business you start out to build may not look quite the same after six months or a year. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very common—and very smart. After a few months on the market, you may find that your customers want or need something a little different from you. This is exactly what happened with Bulletin. “Our initial idea was to build a better Etsy,” Alana explains. “We built what was essentially a shoppable magazine that mixed content and commerce, but I think we really underestimated the size of the marketplace. After that, we changed our model—a few times, actually—before we got to the one we have today.”
Look, building a successful side gig isn’t always easy. But getting it off the ground is. With a little time and some helpful hints from the folks who’ve done it before, you can launch a passion project that pays the bills. If I can pull it off, you can, too.