Starting a new business is hard work. Even if you have a brilliant idea, the skills to make it happen and a market opportunity to exploit, it’s tough developing a business and making it sustainable. Imagine doing all that work while also having a job. It might seem that you’ll be making your life twice as hard, but having a side hustle is growing in popularity and those who try it are not only having startup success but also enjoying the process.
Take Callum Murray. Nowadays he’s the CEO and founder of Amiqus an award-winning legal services platform that employs over 30 staff based in the vibrant Seed Haus building in Leith. Five years ago, he was running a small painting and decorating business out the back of his car. Amongst the tins of paint and dustsheets in the boot, he kept a smart suit so at the drop of a paintbrush, he could slip out of his overalls and into a business-ready suit and pitch his idea to clients and investors.
Murray had what is known a ‘side hustle’ – a secondary business or job that brings in, or has the potential to bring in, extra income. He’s not alone. According to Henley Business school, one in four of the UK population has a side hustle, and it’s growing in popularity, especially amongst younger generations who are looking for fulfilment beyond the traditional 9-5 and want to earn additional income without the risk of going all in.
I started my business on the side while working full time and it led to a fascination with why and how people make ideas happen. I discovered that while an idea for a business is as unique as the person who builds it, there are tried and tested approaches we can all learn from. There are tactics that can make a side hustle more likely to succeed and for people to enjoy the process of going into business for themselves.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Building a business is tough – that’s why it’s a hustle.
However, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Building a business is tough – that’s why it’s a hustle. Side hustling involves time, effort and hard work, all done alongside your current commitments. But if you start small, work on an idea that excites and motivates you, and build it step by step, you’ll increase your chance of success and find fulfilment in the process.
That’s how Murray did it. He started with an idea born through personal experience – a bad experience at that. His first business was hit by the financial crash; clients delayed paying for work he’d already completed and cash flow soon dried up. Desperate to keep the business afloat he pursued the debt he was owed through the court, but with no luck. At 22 he was forced to dissolve his business and lay off staff.
The civil court system let Murray down at his time of most need. It got him thinking, he explains: “My frustrations of trying to engage with the legal profession to try and solve a problem made me realise that hundreds of thousands of small businesses would have this type of problem.” He spotted a gap in the market and dreamt of making legal services as easy and accessible for everyone as booking a flight online. To make it happen he needed time, money and a network of experts and supporters.
“I had nil in financial capital,” say Murray, “but I did have good will and social capital. I had the ability to go out and network.” Working as a painter and decorator gave him the financial stability to get a new business off the ground. That money bought him time to explore his idea and gain additional sources of funding, including grants from The Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust and a year’s fellowship salary from The Royal Society of Edinburgh to research machine learning in the legal sector.
"I had good will and social capital and the ability to go out and network." Callum Murray
Over the years, I’ve pulled in extra cash to weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship – working part-time or doing consultancy, getting investment from startup accelerators and traditional bank loans, I’ve even sold clothes on EBay. Any good financial advisor will tell you that as well managing income, you need to keep costs low. As Murray says: “I’m not an expensive person. I can keep my personal overheads low, which means I was able to go out and do stuff.”
As well as keeping an eye on the finances here are some other ways to start a business on the side.
1. Dream big but start small
Ambition is great – it gets us out of bed in the morning and striving for more. But without a plan, your dreams can come to nothing. You have to start. And by starting small you bypass the fear centres of the brain, lower the stakes, and are more likely to rack up the wins that will keep you motivated, positive and moving forward.
2. Make time
To fit a side project into your schedule you must make the time. That isn’t easy. It involves saying ‘no’ to nice offers, setting boundaries, and reprioritising what’s in your schedule so there’s space to make things happen. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making time; the important thing is just to do it. Don’t feel bad when you really don’t have the time, but make the most of when you do. You’ll surprise yourself by what you can achieve, even when you’re feeling tired and uninspired.
...by starting small you bypass the fear centres of the brain, lower the stakes, and are more likely to rack up the wins that will keep you motivated, positive and moving forward.
3. Forget perfectionism
You don’t have the time or money to keep tinkering. Make something and get it out to people quickly and often. Think of each version as an experiment to gather data to inform what you’re doing next. Focus on the people your business is serving and use their feedback to improve. By doing this in small increments you learn fast and improve your idea as it takes shape in the world and it stops you forging ahead with a failed plan when the evidence tells you to quit.
4. Connect with others
Working in isolation is the worst thing you can do for your idea’s survival. So, find friends and peers who can support you, early users who can test and feed back, communities of people who are interested in what you do, and networks of people on a similar journey. Relationships will help you and your idea thrive.
5. Focus on the process not the outcome
If you’re hankering for startup success, you’re best placing your bets elsewhere as the odds are stacked against you – the sad fact is 90 per cent of startups will fail. Don’t aim for a narrow definition of success. As you build and test your idea, learn from the experience, notice what you enjoy, reflect on what works and what you’d like to do more of, seek out engagement, and be motivated by what excites, challenges and stimulates you. And when things go wrong, you’ll have the resilience to keep going.
While you can use various metrics to determine the success of your idea, whether you have the right solution to a problem, or how well you’re growing and reaching the market, the metrics for a happy hustle are personal. Only you can define your success. It all starts by starting.
These approaches will help you overcome the barriers many of us face when starting something. They will help you start, build momentum and keep going. You just need to start.
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A version of this article first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper.