How to successfully manage a side hustle

Tips from an entrepreneurship instructor

The side hustle isn’t on the sidelines anymore.

A recent study found that one out of every three Canadians is currently managing some kind of business outside their day job. Another 35% would like to start one someday. That’s a clear majority of working Canadians intrigued by the potential of extra income or creative fulfilment. Mathematically speaking, you’re probably one of them.

“‘Side hustle’ is the term that’s in vogue, but people have been doing this forever.”

These kinds of side businesses scratch an itch that has existed in humans for a long time.

“‘Side hustle’ is the term that’s in vogue, but people have been doing this forever,” says Drew Wolsey, interim chair of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business. “I mean, any person who’s ever had a full-time job and a part-time job had a side hustle. They just wouldn’t have called it that.”

What is new, however, is the internet, which has made it easier than ever for would-be entrepreneurs to get the word out about their homegrown projects, without having to risk it all and abandon their 9-to-5 in the process.

Still, not all startup ventures are created equally. Here are some of Wolsey’s tips on what you can do to make sure your side business stays afloat – and maybe even becomes your main hustle one day.

1. Talk to people

colleagues having a conversation over coffee

When we come up with an idea we love, we often assume that other people feel the same way. “We can often be wrong,” Wolsey says.

To make sure you’re on the right track, he suggests first conducting what the industry calls “customer-discovery interviews” – basically, conversations with potential customers.

Find people interested in your field, tell them your idea, and listen to what they have to say. And be specific: if you suspect people are just being polite, ask how much money they would actually spend on your service. You might get confirmation that your idea is perfect.

More likely, you’ll gain what Wolsey calls “unexpected insights” that will help you tweak your idea and make it even more likely to succeed.

2. Find a risk-free starting point

dude serving food in a food truck

Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-Up popularized the idea of failing quickly as a means of learning from your mistakes and improving as fast as possible. So one of Wolsey’s first questions for aspiring side hustlers is: How can you try your business out for the least amount of money?

Usually, it’s a question of scale. NAIT, for instance, is full of culinary students dreaming of opening their own restaurant. But it’s a lot cheaper to buy a food truck – and cheaper still to set up a kiosk at a farmers’ market on the weekends.

“You just have to be creative,” Wolsey says, “and accept the fact that you’re going to put something out to customers that isn’t perfect.”

Think of ways to get your idea out there in small, manageable ways, and slowly build up from there.

3. DIY financial management

two people review financial paperwork

Even if your side hustle’s expenses are low, chances are its cash flow will be, too. So it doesn’t make sense to waste what little income you do earn on outsourcing tasks like financial management.

“You’ve got to be able to figure things out as you go.”

“Especially at the start, you’re not going to have the money to pay an accountant,” Wolsey says. “You’ve got to be able to figure things out as you go.”

Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help you figure out how to manage your business’s expenses yourself. The ATB Entrepreneur Centre, for instance, offers free workshops on a variety of topics, from bookkeeping to managing debt.

4. Marketing: dark magic, explained

a dial showing how to get customers

When people find out that Wolsey teaches entrepreneurship, they invariably ask him how they should market their business. Really, he says, what they’re looking for is a magic bullet. Unfortunately, there isn’t one.

“Marketing isn’t a dark magic. It can be understood.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s all guesswork. “Marketing isn’t a dark magic,” Wolsey says. “It can be understood. And once you figure out your customers, it can be fairly simple.”

The most effective place to market your business, he says, is wherever your customers are already looking. Consider your options – TV? Radio? Billboards? Social media? And put your product in the best possible place to be noticed. Even a minuscule marketing budget can go a long way if you know how to use it.

5. Learn to manage your time

a woman reviews her project schedule

No matter how many jobs you’re trying to juggle, there are still only 24 hours in a day.

So when you add a side hustle to your existing schedule, ask yourself: where is that extra time going to come from? Does it mean less time spent exercising, watching TV or with family? Many would-be entrepreneurs don’t frame it in these terms and end up underestimating the commitment.

Related: 5 time management tips for home and work

Meanwhile, Wolsey says, remember that during regular business hours, your responsibility is to your primary employer. Resist the temptation to steal time from your day job to fuel your passion project.

6. Remember the fun factor

a woman having fun opening her store

The ideal side hustle achieves two things: it gives you personal satisfaction, and it earns you extra income. But if you find yourself at the point where your side hustle is actually making the rest of your life less enjoyable, then it might be time to rethink whether it’s worth continuing.

“If it’s making your life worse, why are you doing it?”

“If it’s making your life worse, why are you doing it?” Wolsey says. “The enjoyment is a big factor for work-life balance. If it’s not there, then you may have to fix something.”

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