My first side hustle
If you Google it, you’ll find approximately a ton of results, a lot of which suggest easy business ideas you can start today around your 9–5.
A side hustle is basically a cool way of describing your second job, your freelance gigs, or knack for flipping random stuff on eBay.
What compels a minority to spend their free-time in this way, when most of us are “recharging” AKA re-watching the entire 10 seasons of Friends on Netflix?
Money is the obvious answer or maybe a lack of job satisfaction. But I also think there are common personality traits. Side hustlers are the kind of people that have to have a project on the go. They are restless and unorthodox. They find themselves miserable if they ever have time off. God forbid.
Two distinct motivations led me to my first side hustle.
Firstly, I had this crazy idea that it would be cool to be able to pay my rent without touching my salary, in other words, with a second source of income.
I’m probably more driven by money than I would care to admit. Although strangely not in a particularly materialistic way: I’m a saver. You won’t meet many other 22 year-olds with a financial 5 Year Plan (Joseph Stalin style) and extensive knowledge of Lifetime ISA’s and Index Tracker Funds.
I’ve also got a “personal development disorder”: I’ve listened to so many podcasts that I’m in danger of equating my self-worth with my one-page CV.
Here’s how this particular scheme came about…
Finding a side hustle or business idea
I’m as skeptical as the next person when it comes to “self-help” types trying to sell you their latest course or ebook with an 86% discount and the secret to life thrown in. That said, I work in marketing so I’m fascinated by all these gurus and how they’ve grown their mailing lists.
On one particular Tuesday evening, I had extended the benefit of doubt to a free webinar on how to start a consulting business. Because that’s how all millennials unwind after work, right?
I won’t endorse the individual, if only because I haven’t paid for any of their content, but I do want to share the golden nugget I took away from the webinar and how it actually gave me a business idea. (The other key takeaway here is you can get inspiration from anywhere, there’s no need to be picky.)
The golden nugget was this sentence template:
I help [niche] to [solve problem] by [service offered].
While doubtfully original, I can strongly recommend doing this exercise.
Whether you are starting a side hustle or a full-time business, you need to work out who, specifically, you are helping, the problem you address, and how you go about it — ideally better than anyone else.
What did I have to offer?
I began by writing down a list of anything I felt I had to offer other people, however trivial. This list wasn’t very long so I settled on Search Engine Optimisation (or SEO). A fancy marketing term for getting websites to rank highly on Google, which is part of my 9–5 job.
If you wanted to do this exercise yourself, don’t feel obliged to pick something technical — a hobby like baking or dog-walking is absolutely fine.
Identifying a niche and problem
Now on its own, SEO was not a business idea per say. With only 12 months’ experience, I would have struggled to find work as a freelancer.
Identifying a niche was where my seed of an idea grew legs.
Ideally, the niche you are looking to target should be something you know really well. Something that gives you an edge.
I didn’t have a particular affinity for a sub-culture or a hobby in mind. So I reframed the question to focus on problem-solving: which industries tend to have terrible websites and could really benefit from SEO?
Well, I’d recently started learning to drive again and had spent ages trawling through ugly websites to find an instructor. I couldn’t believe a) how much local competition there was and b) how awful these sites were.
By sheer circumstance, I had uncovered an opportunity.
It didn’t matter that I was relatively inexperienced. I had found a market where the bar was set so low that I could come across as a specialist anyway.
I cannot recommend taking this narrow approach enough.
Rather than trying to sell yourself as one of a million copywriters, be the go-to copywriter for a niche subject or industry. It doesn’t matter if it’s garden furniture. Create your own sphere of expertise and you minimise the competition. A small specific portfolio goes a long way.
To echo the message of the webinar: you only really need to know more than someone else to appear to them as an expert. It’s all about perspective.
My mission sentence:
I help [local independent driving instructors] to [generate more business online] by [creating them user-friendly and search engine optimised websites].
And there it was: my feasible business idea. If you have a side-hustle or business of your own, can you describe it in a single sentence?
Validating your side hustle idea
Anyone can come up with a business idea. The key is to validate it — the sooner the better, before you waste too much time, energy or money on it.
My three step validation process
Step 1 — market research
99 times out of 100, your “million-dollar idea” has been done before. Some bright spark has already designed the mechanised spoon that stirs your English breakfast tea. (Well I hope so, where can I get mine?)
Fortunately, we live in a day and age when validation is at our fingertips. All you have to do is Google your idea and you’ll know if it’s a no-go.
Unless you are a complete revolutionary, there are bound to be at least related companies out there, so don’t be too discouraged at first. You’ll need to spend some time to understand the market and flesh out your own offering.
Doing this myself, I found only a handful of web development companies that specifically targeted driving instructors or schools. Luckily for me, without exception, none of them seemed very good. The fact that their own websites looked horrendous gave me great hope that I could provide a better service.
Better still, hardly any of them made any reference to SEO at all, with only one or two outlining outdated practises — this could be my unique selling point or “USP”. Things were looking promising…
Step 2— peer feedback
So I had done my initial research. I had notes on my would-be competitors, what they offered and how much they charged.
The next step towards validation for me was to talk to other people about my idea. Of the three phases, I think this is the one you have to take with a pinch of salt. Some of the most successful businesses of all time — only recently Uber and Airbnb — were laughed at when pitched as concepts.
The benefit of going to friends and family is they will, in theory, give you their honest opinion. First reactions and feelings towards an idea can be insightful.
At the same time, in all likelihood, you are aproaching someone already second-guessing their response. When we are excited about something, we naturally want to share it with people who will also get excited. But you often end up with only positive reinforcement. The blind lead the blind. It’s a good idea to pitch to someone you know will play devil’s advocate.
I didn’t have a devil’s advocate, but then I think I had this role covered as my own biggest critic and a bit of a pessimist. I turned instead to my brother, a budding entrepreneur himself, and he poured so much enthusiasm on the idea that I’m not sure I would have even pursued it without him. He was so keen to get involved, we agreed to start the business together.
He designed a logo and everything.
Step 3 —talk to potential customers
When all is said and done, you only have a feasible business idea if someone wants to pay you for your product or service.
The sooner you start talking to prospective customers the better. Their opinion is make or break. They might say nice things about the concept or your beloved mission sentence but, when push comes to shove, you need to find out if they will part with their hard-earned cash. How much would they be willing to spend? What would their expectations be?
I had my big idea on the Tuesday. I had done enough market research by Wednesday to get excited and pitch the idea to others on the Thursday.
But it was the Friday that counted. This was my final test.
After spending the first hour of my driving lesson wondering how I might nonchalantly bring it up (I mean concentrating on the road), my instructor’s small talk circled back to my job — we only had so much in common.
This was my window. I came out with my side hustle idea, as causally as I could muster. Without letting on that his approval alone stood in my way.
Fortunately, the conversation was a success. In fact, he was so interested in talking websites and learning about SEO that I actually had to change the subject back to my lesson, so that I could focus on driving.
Now textbooks wouldn’t recommend validating your business idea with a single potential customer. You would carry out surveys, blah blah. In my defence, he said he had a lot of instructor friends with old websites who might be interested. I took this as good enough. Better yet, unprovoked, he started describing how the independent instructor really struggled online against the national driving schools with professional expensive websites.
This was exactly what I was looking for: a clear pain-point, straight from the mouth of my target market. Without this insider knowledge, I wouldn’t have ever pitched SEO as a solution to this very particular problem.
At the end of our session, we pulled up outside my house and proceeded to talk for 10 minutes. As it turned out, he had been thinking about leaving the franchise he worked for and going independent when his contract ended in a few months — his main concern had been having to do his own marketing…
My first customer
Bingo. His next two questions threw me: “how much and how soon?”.
And things moved quickly from there: a 15 slide project proposal with DIY branding (that in hindsight was completely overkill); an equally DIY contract I put together channelling my inner Harvey Specter, using a template I had borrowed from YouTube, you get the picture…
Okay, sure, I got lucky with my timing.
But to an extent, I think luck is always involved with successful ventures. Side hustles are no different.
So do it. Put the key in the ignition and get the wheels turning. Craft yourself a mission sentence (you got me, I made that one up), and start some conversations.
You never know where they might lead.