John MacAdam

Building a Sustainable Side Hustle

Oct 13, 2020

My journey building a profitable side business over the past 13 years.

Have you ever built a fire for the sake of building a fire? The kind of fire you want started quickly. You grab a few twigs and maybe throw in some leaves. But then it starts to fade so you scramble and throw in more leaves. Eventually, you toss a few thicker branches on top and hope they are dry enough to catch. These types of fires never seem to last long. They are more work than it's worth to get started and keep burning for long.

These fires are a lot like certain side hustles. The type of business started quickly. Sell a few products or maybe land a couple of projects. The type of side hustle that is focused on turning a profit too early. Entrepreneurship is trendy. Making money from a side business is appealing.

I get the appeal. For 13 years I have had a side business. But my side hustle took a long time to make any money. If my side hustle were a fire, it didn't even catch flame for a few years. However, years later, business is good and the fire is burning hot.

This post is a reflection on how I built a sustainable side business. A reflection on each phase of the process - my mindset, my priorities, and the rewards. Like a nice fire you can enjoy for hours, it took time to create.

First, I had to gather some firewood

I am a professional transportation engineer. My full time job is working to make roadways safer in Ohio. I started this job in 2005 and I like it. The job, the people, the projects and the pay have all been rewarding.

My side hustle started a couple of years later, in 2007. I am a nerd at heart and have been making websites since high school. So, I started building websites for myself, for friends, family, and local churches. More than a year of building websites that did not make any money.

With no profits from my side hustle, money was not a motivating factor. But these projects were not a waste of time. Each project seemed to bring me a new technical skill: Wordpress! Responsive Design! New CSS tricks! Javascript! MySQL! (See how excited I was?!). These learning opportunities provided the skills I would need for a long term, sustainable business.

A year or so in and no profits. But the firewood was being collected.

Then I needed to collect different types of firewood

Different types of wood are needed for a long-lasting fire. You need different sizes and eventually a fire hot enough to burn thick logs. Much like twigs and branches are not enough for a serious fire, technical skills are not enough to run a sustainable side hustle. I was technically skilled enough to build websites for clients. But without any marketing, project management, or communication skills - I was not making any money. Not too surprising.

Along with a few pro-bono projects, I started to build my first products - simple web applications. I created these products for one reason: to solve a problem I was dealing with myself. Here is one example: as a transportation engineer, I worked a lot with maps. There were a lot of latitudes and longitudes involved. I often turned to tools like Google Maps for a better sense of the geographic location. One thing always annoyed me - location information was provided in the "degrees, minutes, seconds" format (like 40° 0' 6", -83° 1' 18.92"). Most online mapping tools wanted the decimal format (like 40.001666,-83.021922). Like a good nerd, I created my own solution as a web app. Then I published it to the Chrome Webstore so other people could use it.

I repeated this process for many web apps, and then eventually for mobile apps as well. The process went something like this:

Different types of firewood were being collected. The "shipping a product" and "sharing it with others" type.

Eventually I started laying out the fire wood

Once the firewood is collected, it is time to start setting up the fire. You know, flammable stuff on the bottom, kindling above, bigger pieces stacked nicely (I like the "Lincoln Log" approach), and thick logs on standby.

A lot of building a side business is fairly non-sexy stuff. And I had plenty of non-sexy side hustle experiences over the years. Like getting up at 5AM every day for years and working on your side projects. Like staying up until 2AM some nights trying figuring out Xcode. Like debugging for three straight hours to find out you were missing a semicolon the entire time. Like slowly giving up sports to spend more time on your client projects. Like obsessing over mobile apps so much that your friends start getting annoyed. Like attending meetups and community developer groups in cities more than two hours away. Like leaving a few hours late for vacation to finish an app update.

You get the idea. You often hear entrepreneurs talk about the grind. About putting the time in. In my experience, it is real. There is no shortcut. You have to trust the process and put in the hours.

Two years in and still no profits from the business. But the fire was taking form.

Years later, I lit the kindling on fire

Okay, time to bring out the matches. When you have taken the time to set up a fire properly, starting it is painless.

At some point, I had to start working with paying clients. And showcasing my previous work (pro-bono projects and personal products) allowed me to land a couple of for-profit projects. I still remember how excited I was when my first check from a paying client arrived!

But I still did not look through my business with profit as the primary goal. Remember, I was only just lighting the fire. I still had to keep a close eye on the flame to ensure it was going to last. I wanted to make sure when people were paying me, they felt like it was a good investment. I wanted the clients to want to pay me because my service added more value to their end goals.

Trying to squeeze more money from my earliest clients would have been a mistake. Each opportunity could have been perceived one of two ways: make more money or continue to learn. Here are a few examples of opportunities I was faced with during these early years:

Client Question: Could we make this website look more appealing?
Potential Answer: If you pay me $200 more.
Answer to Client: Yes.
Self-Talk: I can use this as an opportunity to learn more about UI/UX design.

Client Question: Could we add a "smart form" on this page?
Potential Answer: That was not in our original agreement.
Answer to Client: Yes.
Self-Talk: I can use this as an opportunity to learn a few new Javascript tools.

Client Question: How can our staff update the information on this page?
Potential Answer: For a small monthly maintenance fee I can keep the content updated for you.
Answer to Client: I can install a content management system. Then I can create a simple tutorial video for your staff to follow.
Self-Talk: I better learn how to do those things.

I used each opportunity as a learning experience. I was playing the long game. Squeezing a little more money from my first clients was not the best way to position myself as a professional. As my skills continued to grow, I was able to attract better clients. The patience eventually paid off.

I first earned money from my side business in 2009. Although calling it a business was a bit of a stretch. In all of 2009 my business earned me... wait for it...

$1,240

Not much, but hey, it was more than $0. For the next few years, I did not get much better at earning money from my business. However, I never stopped working. I made a few websites for clients. I had a few apps making money from the App Store. I kept learning new technical skills. I kept improving my soft skills. And I continued to build the habit of putting in the time.

Looking back, I was creating the building blocks for a more successful future. The fire was started. It was easier to envision what the fire could look like in the future.

Then I had to keep it burning

Once a fire reaches a certain point it is much easier to keep it going. But, you still have to keep an eye on it, move it around from time to time, and continue to feed it.

As I continued to grow my skill-set, I realized something. People were not only interested in me as a web developer. They were also trusting me as a consultant of sorts. A lot of my early clients did not know exactly what they wanted. Instead of coming to me with an exact list of requirements, they would often provide a couple of other websites they liked with a half notion of which sections they liked. I had to pry beneath the surface. I had to help them identify exactly why they liked another website. I was learning a lot more than technical skills. I was starting to use both sides of my brain when dealing with clients.

My mindset was still to say yes to every request. Yes, I can add that to your website. Yes, I can help you figure this out. Even when I was not sure exactly how to achieve it. I said yes. They were not paying me much... what was the worst thing that could happen? Something about committing to each project and every task forced me to learn the skills (technical skills and non-technical skills) quicker than if I had found a random course to follow.

This "keep the fire burning" phase was fun and started to be financially rewarding as well.

Then the large firewood started burning

The flame was spreading and the temperature was rising. It was only a matter of time before the logs caught fire.

When a good opportunity came my way (see the second half of this blog post), I was able to seize it. That opportunity in late 2015 was a turning point. My business has earned more in the past few years than I imagined it ever would.

When the thick logs are burning it becomes simple to keep a fire going. The hot coals at the base make it much easier.

I had to change my mindset with how I approached my business. It was finally earning a serious profit. I no longer need to say yes to every opportunity. During these years, there were a lot of decisions that, in hindsight, make a lot of sense. However, in the midst of these decisions, they were more difficult to make.

Potential Decision: Dropping a $50 /month maintenance client.
My initial reaction: This is easy money each month. The client (a friend) will be offended.
Eventual results: Landed my first $75 /hr client.

Potential Decision: Spending $300 in Google Adwords.
My initial reaction: Ads are weird. Probably a waste of money.
Eventual results: Landed a $7,000 client.

Potential Decision: Turning down a $30,000 project.
My initial reaction: Take the project - this is a lot of money!
Eventual results: Well, I will never know for sure. But, there were a lot of red flags in the scope and schedule. Experience taught me to stay away from these projects.

Once a fire is burning nice and hot, enjoy it! Enjoy the conversations around it or the heat on a cool night.

But, of course, make sure to get off your butt from time to time and throw in a log or two. This fire didn't build itself.



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