Breathe New Life Into Your Small Business With Side Hustles

Felicia Sullivan

You can remember a time when your business was thriving: Funds flowed in, business was booming, you showed up for your customers, and you felt fulfilled. You woke up every day with a sense of purpose. Then time passed, and the day-to-day minutia began to bog you down. You eased your foot off the gas and coasted—too tired to plan for what’s next, too busy to step up your marketing game, and too stressed to see the big picture or competitors edging into your territory—making “safe” choices instead of taking calculated business risks.

You took your eyes off the road and, as a result, your small business has become stagnant. Your sales are sluggish. Competitors chip away at your market share and snatch up your customers, technology and innovation is rendering you obsolete, and you’ve lost all the energy and verve that once fueled your success. Sound familiar?

Odds are you started your business while employed at a 9-to-5 job. It might have been a side project that turned into a thriving business—a means for you to escape cubicle life to set your own hours and claim ownership of your work and skills and make more money. Now, you’re facing the irony of feeling stuck in your own business, just as you once felt stuck in your full-time gig. Pause, take a breath, and know that this is completely normal.

Also, know that you’re in the midst of a thriving climate for small business owners. According to a January 2018 economic trends study conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business’s NFIB Research Center, 32% of business owners say now is the moment for expansion—the highest level since the survey began in 1973. NIFB notes that higher earnings and lower taxes have created a climate that empowers small business owners to start making improvements and expansion plans.

What this means for you: Now is the time for you to step back, evaluate, and potentially pivot as a means to recapture the passion you once had for your business. How? The same way you likely got to where you are in the first place: a side hustle. Side hustles can drive new services and revenue streams without having to risk abandoning your small business.

Here’s a five-step approach to pursue side ventures while you’re currently running your own business, plus tips on how to use marketing tools and your passion project to reinvigorate your business.

Step 1: Take Stock of Your Business

If you haven’t given yourself a performance review, consider doing so. Evaluating your business—not from a place of immediate frustration, but from a long-term view—helps give you the clarity and perspective to consider the areas in which you may be stuck:

  • What’s happened with your business over the past year?
  • What competitors have entered the frame?
  • How has your industry shifted and how have you kept up?
  • What are your customers, employees, and vendors saying about your business?

Take careful stock of where you are now, because your side project might be the thing that fills the gaps.

More importantly, don’t stop before asking the tough questions:

  • What would you like to be doing with your business if you had the time? What are the ideas that you’re desperate to pursue but have shelved because of the daily grind? Make your “want” list and then break it down further. In an ideal world, define the steps, regardless of how small, that can get you to that dream state.
  • What are the tools and resources needed to transform each step into reality? Evaluate if there are miniature versions of the big dream that you can achieve now and scale later, when you have time and resources.

For example, say you own a hair salon. You’re adept at your craft and you thrive on educating and mentoring stylists to hone their skills and ultimately build their own businesses—so much so that you’ve privately dreamed of having your own television show where you do just that. Going from salon owner to television show host is a giant leap, but perhaps you can start small by creating a series of free online video tutorials. Perhaps this turns into a paid online course where you create videos, podcasts, workbooks, guides, and information that will help burgeoning stylists up-level their technique and learn how to become savvy business owners.

In short, try to find the middle ground between where you are now and your ideal business state. You may not have your own Bravo TV show, but you can certainly make a splash on social media—all after hours with limited investment.

Step 2: Be a Curious Student

The best way you can serve yourself in business and in life is to be a student. Humility and curiosity propel you forward, while complacency and comfort hold you back.

Think about children. When they’re small, every experience is a first, and they ask question after question in an effort to make sense of their experience. Children never say, This is how we’ve always done things; rather they ask, Why? When you’re evaluating your business, ask yourself why you’re doing the things you’re doing, even though they may be holding you back. Then consider what you can do to change the state of play. Education—whether that means formal classes or informal mentorships—can play a tremendous role in answering some of the whys and reshaping your thinking.

If you don’t set aside time to keep your skills current and educate yourself on trends, tools, and technology that are relevant to your business, industry, and customers, you’ll fall behind. Your customers expect that you’ll keep pace, while your competitors are waiting and hoping for you to slip into the Land of Irrelevancy.

It’s a simple formula: Curiosity + Education = New ways of thinking and fresh ideas.

You may not have your side project defined just yet, but start by immersing yourself in education. Whether it’s a podcast related to your industry that you listen to on the drive to work, online Skillshare classes you dial into after work, or Facebook groups, blogs, or online tutorial videos where you meet (or learn from) peers talking shop and exchanging ideas, education nowadays is affordable (often, it’s free) and accessible if you have an internet connection or a library card.

Self-education may open doors to side projects or it can give you incredible ideas on how to energize yourself to reinvigorate your small business.

Step 3: Start Small and Have Fun

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by big ideas. Who has the time, money, or resources to make bold moves and big plans when you have vendor negotiations and taxing employees to handle? Here’s the thing—small steps lead to big actions. No one starts from a place of boiling an ocean; they start from adding water to a saucepan and turning on the gas.

Explore your creative and practical self through small, fun assignments or hobbies—whether it’s baking a batch of cookies with new ingredients, flavors, or techniques, or learning how to write a simple software program. Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham was famously quoted as saying, “Do things that don’t scale.”

What he means by this is to keep things small and simple. Put all your passion into your project without thinking of ways you can automate, systematize, or monetize it. The beginnings of something new are always about exploration, depth, inefficiency, and getting lost. You’re wading through the dark of something new, and the light comes with your grasp and understanding of it. Don’t ignore the beginnings, the failures, and the missteps—because they’re transformative and will be the thing that yanks you out of the day-to-day. Get lost in your side project, because that’s where you’ll find what you’ll pursue next in your business.

For example, planning guru Erin Condren is a fashion designer turned stay-at-home-mom turned successful day planner giant. She started off by designing baby announcements and holiday cards that she sold at local shopping parties. Her flair for creativity and colorful, vibrant designs fueled her business to shift from annual cards and point-in-time announcements to being a market leader in the day planner industry—a market that didn’t have a history of fun, flamboyance, and vivid stickers. Condren didn’t start out with her trademarked LifePlanner™—she played small, setting up shop out of her home, talking to her customers, learning about the limitations of the card market she was in and the potential for her to make an impact in the planner business.

Step 4: Make the Time

When pursuing side projects, people shy away and say they’re so busy or they never have any time, and yet they somehow have time to binge watch Game of Thrones. If you feel you have no time to invest in a potentially lucrative side hustle, then look at your work day (and your evenings and weekends) and identify where your time actually goes. You may be surprised by how much time you’ll find that could be spent differently.

Once you’ve identified the side project you want to pursue, schedule it. Block off time in your calendar each week and treat it as you would any other business appointment. Just because an appointment is with yourself doesn’t mean that you can skip it.

Commit to finding a way to reignite your enthusiasm for your business. You may find that there’s an unexpected benefit to finding the time to pursue an attractive side hustle: Making time for your passion project can energize you for when you have to return to the daily grind.

Step 5: Use Your Customers as a Testing Ground

Listen to your customers, because they are the ultimate focus group. You can test out new ideas in your newsletters, social media, and in-store, and receive immediate feedback before you go full-scale. Customer feedback is invaluable, because it gives you a clear sense of market demand (is this something they want and are willing to pay for?) and price elasticity (how much can you charge for your new product or service?), and shifts your side project from a hobby to a potentially profitable extension of your existing business.

For example, if you have a bakery, offer up free samples of your new goods and invite your customers’ feedback. If you are a graphic designer and want to incorporate digital strategy into your offering, beta-test this with your existing clients at a discounted rate, in exchange for their feedback and testimonials. Independent of analyzing the market and your customers’ desire for your side project, you’ll also learn if you’re good enough to pursue it.

While every side gig won’t turn into a revenue driver, odds are that they’ll help you improve an aspect of your business that was perhaps lacking when you were on cruise control. Maybe when you were soliciting input on your venture, customers gave you important feedback on other aspects of your business that you can improve upon.

In short, side hustles yield so many benefits for the small business owner. They can lead to viable new business and product lines, or they can strengthen and refine your existing business. Unbeknownst to you, the time you’ve devoted to removing yourself from being knee-deep in your business has given you a critical new perspective and creative, fresh ways of thinking.

And, if you find that you still don’t have the time or energy to dream up a side hustle for yourself, consider the many ways you can get quick cash injections if your business is struggling or if you’re in between ventures. From launching a jewelry repair business to pet-sitting and freelance writing, you can find smart ways of making extra coin—often from the convenience of your own home.

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