Side hustles have never been easier. You’ve got platforms for selling like Etsy and eBay for the creators amongst you. There are virtualized connector app platforms that rely on flexible independent contractors like Uber, DoorDash, and Task Rabbit. These are great options for students working their way through who need to make money now, which results in less time for the extracurricular activities I’m championing. The flexibility of working for DoorDash or Task Rabbit works nicely with a changing school schedule. Even if you have a campus work study job, many of those don’t offer hours during the school breaks when you might still want to be earning. Same for athletes, who may be maxed out during the school sessions, but could swing being a Task Rabbit Ikea assembly expert at least a few weeks of the year. Some students may be nascent entrepreneurs, making and selling t-shirts, where this is a logical (and long-standing) effort for college students. Lots of colleges, like Juniata College have entrepreneurship centers to support undergraduate student efforts. Or maybe your passions don’t fit into the school’s extracurricular process at all.
Trust your own insights in looking at a business idea. You may well stumble across opportunities that are invisible to parents and professors and find yourself with a front row seat to the birth of a whole new industry. I would have told you six months ago that our younger son, Jake, a junior at Denison University, spent too much time playing video games. Because, in all my wisdom, I couldn’t see value in so much time being spent that way. It turns out I was totally wrong. The online game market is huge and there are lots of industry reports out there to give you the stats. Given my Launch-oriented agenda, I was happy to see Jake organizing a team of remote players and managing it. I was impressed he knew the business market demographics for the new online multiplayer game (Blizzard Overwatch). What I didn’t see until he was home for three weeks at winter break, was that he was running a business. He was negotiating on behalf of the team with potential team organizations, relaying that information back to the team, addressing individual concerns, generating sponsorship interest in the marketplace, and spending down time writing strategy papers for the team’s upcoming games. And much of this was done in a platform, Discord, universally used by gamers and completely unknown to me. (It caught my eye, as in many ways they were using it as we use Slack in our office.) Bottom line, Jake was successfully navigating an industry I didn’t see at all. He was using all their standard tools, generating current income (albeit in small amounts), managing people up, down, and sideways. And all that “wasted” video game playing time? Well, his team just joined the Hammer esports organization, so his side hustle is a very real business now. Like many entrepreneurial start-up founders before him, the smartest thing he did was ignore all the people who just didn’t get it and trust his own insights.
And, while I still am not personally sure anyone would want to play video games professionally forever, it passes my lily pad test. As a player he’s attending conferences, trade shows, and tournaments. If he’s attentive to the details and pushes himself to be a little above and beyond, he’ll build a big network over time. There’s clearly a lot of other lily pads in the pond within jumping distance, if he needs or wants to jump down the road, and it’s a very healthy pond, so there are bound to be more that no one yet envisions.
Your parents and professors may not be in a position to judge whether there’s a market for late-night cookie deliveries on campus. A small business idea can open a lot of doors for a totally different set of informational interviews, in which you may find a career. A side hustle after college can still make a lot of sense. If you’re ever between jobs, it’s a lot easier to ramp up a side hustle that’s been making $2,000 a year into a business that supports you than it is to start from scratch after you’re out of a job. In getting a side hustle, or a series of side hustles, off the ground, you’ll gain skills, figure out what you like and don’t like, and lay the basic groundwork for marketing and sales if you ever need to take it bigger faster. With a website, a network, references, and accounting already in place, all you have to do is ramp up sales, not waste time thinking about the perfect name and logo for a concept you haven’t tested while living off your savings. Running a small side business in parallel to your career will help you understand a lot of big picture things that you won’t see in a junior position. ROI becomes very real when the investment is your time and money, and the return goes in your pocket.