Last week I read this excellent post from the Mad Fientist encouraging everyone to start their own business. Take a minute to read it, if you haven’t already. There is a lot of good advice on why we should start our own businesses and the various benefits of such ventures.
Here at Brewing FIRE, I’ve been thinking about side hustles a lot lately. I don’t want to work a 9-to-5 for the rest of my life, hence why I’m focusing on FI. Also, I’d like to explore other opportunities that are more meaningful to me, something I’m passionate about.
My only current side hustle is my brewing gig at a local Brewpub. This is certainly something I’m passionate about, and the income is pretty good for the number of hours I put in. But it’s not the perfect side hustle.
Why not? For one, it’s hard work. There is a lot of sweat equity involved in hauling 55 lb sacks of grain around, mashing into a giant tun, hauling out 500 lbs of spent grain, and incessantly cleaning and scrubbing everything. The bigger issue is time. A typical brew day is 8 hours long, so it’s a large time commitment. Between a full-time job and being there for our toddler as she grows up, I don’t want to give up all my free time for a side job (or even my career for that matter).
So this got me thinking about my perfect side hustle.
What My Perfect Side Hustle Looks Like
An ideal side hustle involves the intersection of interest, talent, and an unmet need. If one of these elements is missing, the business is likely to falter. Here’s my checklist for deciding if an idea makes for a good side hustle:
- Am I passionate about the area of work?
- Do I have a particular talent or set of skills that can be leveraged?
- Am I solving a problem, or fulfilling an unmet need?
- Is the side hustle scalable?
- Does the side hustle allow flexibility?
The first three points above are pretty self-explanatory, and naturally appear on most people’s lists when brainstorming a new business. I added the last two, because they’re important to my situation.
By scalable, I mean, “are there any efficiencies that can be achieved as the business grows, or is input always directly correlated to output?” This can apply to both time and money. For example, if it takes me 30 minutes to create a thingamajig that I sell on Etsy, regardless whether I make 1 or 20 thingamajigs, then the idea is not scalable. On the other hand, if I create an eBook that takes me 30 hours to write but can sell a limitless amount of copies with no further work, then the idea can scale as the business grows.
Flexibility is also important to finding my perfect side hustle. I want as much flexibility in my schedule as possible. I would prefer work that does not have fixed hours, and does not require me to be somewhere at a specific time on specific days. This probably precludes me from having any sort of storefront or regularly scheduled work, which is OK.
Before I start brainstorming, I wanted to revisit some of the entrepreneurial shenanigans I’ve tested out in the past to see if I can divine any inspiration there.
A Brief List of Past Side Hustles
Here are some of the activities I’ve engaged in over the years, roughly in chronological order.
Smashing Pumpkins Bootlegger
I was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan in the mid 90s. So much so, I spent an inordinate amount of time collecting every single album, b-side, and demo from Billy Corgan and Co. during that period. I scoured every corner of the earth to complete my SP discography. And then I had a great idea- why not sell the complete collection to other rabid fans?
For a few months, I sold ripped CDs on eBay including the full collection of Smashing Pumpkins works. It was very popular. I made anywhere between $25-100 per CD sold, and earned well over $1,000 in the short period I was selling these CDs. Only one problem – this is copyright infringement, and I was shut down by eBay soon after.
Blink 182 Fan Site Moderator
Yes, I created my first website back in 1998. And yes, I really liked Blink 182 circa the Dude Ranch era. The domain was Blink182Land.com, and it featured all of the information I could gather on the band, including a bio, discography, lyrics, images, guitar tabs etc…
Incredibly, I was the #2 ranked result for Blink 182 on Yahoo! at the time (Google wasn’t started yet). If there were monetization methods back then, I could probably have made a killing.
Unfortunately, Scott Raynor left the band around this time. Travis Barker stepped in to replace him, and I lost interest in the group. They went on to become incredibly popular, and I let my domain name expire. Sigh.
Verdict: missed opportunity.
Cast Away Antenna Topper Peddler
This one’s bizarre. You remember that movie Cast Away, where Tom Hanks is stranded on an island and befriends a bloody volleyball named Wilson? Well they made a small version of Wilson that could go on top of car antennas. It was distributed through Blockbuster Video, which I had some ties with at the time.
A friend of mine got me a case of these antenna toppers. I sold them on eBay, and we split the profits. For some reason they were stupidly popular, and I was able to sell them for $50-60 apiece. Unfortunately, we had limited quantities of these items, and so the side hustle sputtered out.
Verdict: not scalable.
Nintento Repair Man
I’m a nostalgic guy sometimes. When I see kids with their Fortnite and Dance Dance Revolution or whatever they play these days, it brings me back to the olden days of Atari and The Power Glove. I prefer Zelda to WoW any day. So naturally, I decided to restore original Nintendo (NES) systems.
I bought up approximately 25 NES consoles and all the peripherals in various states of disrepair, and then began fixing them. My greatest asset was that I could restore full functionality to the 72-pin connectors using gold plating at my employer.
On average, I could buy all the parts for a system for $20, fix it, then turn around and sell it for $50. It worked, but it was time consuming and a bit laborious.
Verdict: not scalable.
LED Ornament Builder
Back around 2010, I had a friend that was a glassblower in her spare time. Every year around Christmas, she would blow tons of small glass ornaments in the shape of animals, and sell them at local craft fairs.
This particular year I came up with a plan. I would build tiny LED lights that could be placed inside the glass ornaments so they would glow. Brilliant!
I made dozens of the lights, and they looked great inside the ornaments. However, this was another case of a laborious process that was difficult to scale. I didn’t actually charge her to make the LEDs, because it would have eaten into most of her profits on the ornaments.
The upside? My business partner became my wife 6 years later.
Verdict: bad business, but big win for the Brewing FIRE household.
Finding My Perfect Side Hustle
So what have I learned from these random attempts at producing side income?
- Stop doing illegal shit. Selling copyright material is not a sustainable business practice.
- Weigh the effort versus the output. If it takes too long, or costs too much to produce, it’s not going to work out.
- Stick to your talents. It looks like I profile as a DIYer with opportunistic tendencies. I’m good at building and fixing things, and decent at finding an unmet need.
Taking these lessons into account, here are a few ideas I’m contemplating for my next business.
Chemical Consultant. This is a obvious choice for many professionals as they transition out of full-time work. Part of my daily job is troubleshooting for my customers, as well as our manufacturing department. It would be a logical next step to continue consulting for these companies as an independent contractor. However, it’s not exactly something I’m passionate about.
Technical Writer. This is similar to the consultant path. I’ve written countless numbers of white papers, technical data sheets and Standard Operating Procedures. My dry humor doesn’t translate as well into SOPs, but I can curtail the wit in the name of profit.
Chicken Coop Builder. This goes back to my do-it-yourself sensibilities. We normally sell 15 young chickens that we’ve raised every summer, and it would make sense to offer a small coop to people looking to buy some hens. I’ve already got a few chicken coop builds under my belt, so it would just be a matter of streamlining the process. I may test out the theory this spring, and will report back with details.
So what do you think? What’s the strangest work you’ve engaged in as a side hustle? How did you figure out what you could do for a side business?