2020 Annual Review and Q4 Progress Report

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I don’t think many of us predicted 2020 turning out the way it did, but it wasn’t all bad.

In the spring, I remember wishing for a “fast forward” button, a way to just get beyond the lockdowns, anxiety, and isolation.

But playing ostrich and putting my head in the sand wasn’t really an option — not for my family or my work.

(Even though my plans to get a massage once a month were pretty quickly dashed!)

This post looks back on Q4 and 2020 as a whole to share:

  • How my business grew (or shrunk)
  • The projects I worked on
  • The most popular content of the year
  • And more

Ready? Let’s do it!

Why Progress?

So why a “progress” report? Because that’s what it’s all about.

To me, progress means forward motion, or actively taking the steps to improve each day. It’s one thing we can control.

Progress is universal; everyone can make progress toward their goals in some meaningful way, however small the steps may seem.

I’ve even got a physical productivity journal called The Progress Journal.

It centers on 5 key habits I’ve found make me feel more effective and happier when I do them consistently. You can learn more about the journal and what’s inside here:

5 Ways to Be More Effective Every Day – In Just 5 Minutes

Growth of the Nation

The primary metric I track is profit, though I stopped keeping a daily record of this. But profit is a “lagging indicator” — in many cases I can have more influence over other metrics that ultimately increase that profit. Among those are:

  • website traffic
  • podcast downloads
  • email subscribers

Twitter followers and Facebook likes are great, but these are the numbers I pay the most attention to. And like the great Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.”

Blog Traffic Growth

The site generated around 7500 visits a day during Q4, up slightly compared with last year.

q4 2020 blog traffic growth

The big spike came when my Thanksgiving episode and corresponding blog post on 11 Creative Side Hustles were featured on Google Discover.

There are a few things you can do to optimize your content for Google Discover, but it doesn’t seem like something you can proactively submit for.

In other words, it’s bonus traffic. Do all the things you’d normally do, and you might get featured, but don’t bank on it.

(Earlier in the year, my posts on Low Startup Cost Business Ideas and Popular Side Hustles were also featured — though the traffic spikes were not that dramatic.)

The November Google core algorithm update seemed to benefit the site, worth maybe a 5-10% bump in organic traffic.

For the full year, the site had 2.9 million visits — up 22% vs. 2019.

2020 full year traffic growth

Aside from a few algorithm-induced movements, the traffic picture was pretty steady.

Could I get from 7500 visits a day to 10,000 consistently? That’s only 10 new articles bringing in 250 people. Or moving existing content up the ranks. It seems doable.

Podcast Download Growth

The Side Hustle Show averaged 10,600 downloads per day in Q4, up around 14% vs. Q4 last year.

q4 2020 podcast growth

For the full year, you can see the big impact of the Covid lockdowns:

2020 full year podcast growth

(Though the y-axis doesn’t start at zero, which makes the dip look worse than it really was.)

Still, in 2020 The Side Hustle Show logged 4 million downloads! For the sake of comparison, 2019 was 3.5 million.

Like the blog traffic, the show performs remarkably consistently, even if it’s not “hockey stick” growth.

Email List Growth

I started 2020 with around 66,000 email subscribers, and ended the year with close to 75,000:

2020 email list growth

I still deleted inactive subscribers several times during the year but have been trying to work on new ways of growing the subscriber base and better serving those who are already subscribed.

The subscribers I want most are Side Hustle Show listeners. Those are the people I feel like I have the best relationship with — as opposed to the person who finds the site through some random Google search.

But recent attempts to drive sign-ups haven’t really hit home. I’ll keep experimenting!

These numbers are from my email service provider, ActiveCampaign. You can read my full ActiveCampaign review and check out my video demo here.

Profit Growth

Overall, the bottom line was up about 10% compared with last year. Considering everything that went on in 2020, that’s a huge win.

But I sold off one of my projects (more on that below), so I’ll need to replace that income to keep things steady this year. (“Need” is a strong word.)

What I’ve Been Working On

Here are some of the projects I focused on during Q4.

I Sold a Business

In October, I finalized the sale of one of my longest-running side hustles, a directory and review website called Virtual Assistant Assistant.

The full story will be on the blog and podcast shortly, but this was a rewarding culmination to a project I started way back in 2011.

My plan is to invest the energy and attention I was giving to the VA site to Side Hustle Nation and to family stuff.

(Finally) Hiring an Executive Assistant

Speaking of virtual assistants, I finally hired an executive assistant to help with email management and content production.

I got several strong candidates through Gina Horkey’s Virtual Assistant Finder.

A Renewed Attempt at Driving Traffic from Pinterest

I kept seeing other Pinterest accounts crushing it in the personal finance space, and couldn’t resist making another attempt at driving traffic from the platform.

This is despite an overwhelming body of analytical evidence that Pinterest traffic doesn’t perform as well as Google search traffic, and requires way more upkeep.

For example, an average site visit from Google is worth around $0.05. A Pinterest visit is worth about $0.01.

But the lure of another “free” traffic source with a search engine element was/is enticing … but remains a source of frustration.

I connected with an experienced Pinterest account manager, bought a couple training courses for her, and Q4 traffic from Pinterest was exactly the same as Q3 was (without all the additional investment).

We’d need to at least 5x traffic just to break even on her salary, let alone start making the hire profitable. I know it’s feasible based on what other similar accounts are achieving, but for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to crack the Pinterest algorithms yet.

Getting Some Bookkeeping Help

One resolution was to step out of my daily bookkeeping habit. I felt like I had to do the daily revenue and expense tracking because the transaction volume was high enough I feared getting behind would make it even more difficult to reconcile later.

And if I’m being honest, I liked the little dopamine rush of payments coming in and logging those in my spreadsheet.

But definitely not the best use of my limited hours.

I tested several software solutions, including:

  • Freshbooks – Excellent for service providers, but harder to pull in revenue from multiple (non-client) sources.
  • Zipbooks – Nice interface, but had a hard time pulling transactions from PayPal. In fact, automatically synced PayPal transactions didn’t include the fee. (That’s kind of important!)
  • Quickbooks Online – Powerful interface, but wasn’t particularly dummy-proof. Perhaps best used by real accountants and bookkeepers.
  • Wave Apps – Free tool, but had a hard time bulk-updating categories of sales and expenses. For low transaction volume, this could be a fit.

I ended up going with Bench.co. This is kind of a software + service, where you get a dedicated human bookkeeper to help each month.

The application has some frustrating shortcomings, especially when it comes to categorizing revenue and expenses and the inability to run mid-month reports, but is at least helping me get out of the bookkeeping weeds I was in every day.

Custom Spotify Playlists

It’s no secret Spotify has been making some big investments in the podcasting world, but it’s less clear how individual content creators can benefit from that.

One thing I wanted to test was creating some custom Spotify playlists to try and introduce blog traffic to The Side Hustle Show in an app they probably already have on their phone.

To do this for your own show, build a playlist of related episodes and set it to public. Then you can just grab the link to share.

I used Beaver Builder to embed several of these into relevant posts, like this:

Suggested Playlist: Flipping Profits

Buying low and selling high is the fastest way to multiply money. Here's how to get it done.

Add to Spotify

I created playlists for:

  • Local Business Ideas (36 likes)
  • Make Money Online (43 likes)
  • Flipping Profits (374 likes)
  • Affiliate Marketing (48 likes)
  • 20 Questions with Nick (1 like … that might be me!)

As far as results go, I took these 30-day stats from my Spotify for Podcasters dashboard at the beginning of October:

  • Starts: 21,870
  • Streams: 16,438
  • Listeners: 4,617

At the beginning of January, all metrics were showing healthy increases:

  • Starts: 28,426 (up 30%)
  • Streams: 21,627 (up 31%
  • Listeners: 6,609 (up 43%)

How much of those gains can be attributed to the playlists vs. the overall increase in Spotify podcast market share, I don’t know. Taken alone, a 43% increase in listeners in 3 months would be fantastic, but I can’t say how many of those were already Side Hustle Show listeners cannibalized from another podcast app.

Small Changes to the Email Newsletter

I’ve been testing a slightly different format to my Thursday newsletter, attempting to curate and include interesting and relevant links to other sites.

My theory is this would make the newsletter more valuable, interesting, and compelling for subscribers. It would also give me a chance to promote relevant archive content and affiliate offers.

Down the road, I could introduce some sort of subscriber referral program.

The near-term metric I wanted to track was whether or not people would unsubscribe at a lower rate?

So far, the data suggests not. For the 5 weeks before and after the change, the average unsubscribe rate was 0.23%. (One unsubscribe for every 434 recipients.)

Ahrefs Site Audit

Ahrefs sponsored several Side Hustle Show episodes during Q4, in part to promote their new free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools.

If you punch in your site (and verify ownership), you’ll get a detailed report on potential issues that may be holding you back in the search results. Depending on the size of your site, this may take several hours to run.

The main issues my report found were:

  • Broken images
  • Broken links
  • Titles too long
  • Missing meta descriptions

After cleaning those up, my search positions and traffic are slightly improved. (Though it could be the result of the November core update instead.)

Testing a New “Join” Page

For the last 3+ years, my big above-the-fold button on the Side Hustle Nation homepage said “Start Here”, and pointed to a page that explained a bit more about the whys and hows of side hustling.

At the very bottom, there were the calls-to-action to join the email list, subscribe to the show, and join the community. There was about 400 words of text before someone could subscribe.

I wanted to test a much leaner “start here” page, and came up with this instead:

new side hustle nation join page

Four bullet points. Simple, clean … and ineffective.

This version with the more prominent opt-in actually converted slightly worse than the old version. I guess that’s why you test!

What’s perhaps more interesting is I also swapped out the header navigation link from “Start Here” to “Join Free” — which resulted in a drastic 50% drop in traffic. My best guess is that blog visitors are eager to start, but hesitant to join.

So I’ve reverted back to a longer-form “Start Here” page to direct website traffic to, and kept the simpler “Join” page for use as a podcast call-to-action.

My Top 10 Blog Posts of 2020

As measured by pageviews in Google Analytics. Did you miss any of these?

1. 99 Side Hustle Business Ideas You Can Start Today

This often-updated list post of side hustle ideas accounted for 10% of all the traffic to Side Hustle Nation last year. It’s easily the most popular piece of content I’ve ever written for the site.

2. 63 Apps That Pay You: The Best Money Making Apps

This took quite a while to research and compile so I’m happy to see performing well.

3. Reselling Shoes: How I Make $10,000 a Month Flipping Sneakers

I’m still amazed by the traffic this guest post from JV Ortiz receives. The downside is it’s the only piece of content related to sneaker flipping I’ve got, so I’m not doing much with the traffic.

4. The 22 Best Items to Flip for a Profit: $50-5000 a Month Part-Time

The first completely-new-in-2020 post to make this list, this one has gained a lot of traction in the second half of the year.

5. Online Focus Groups: 17 Paid Research Companies that Pay Up to $100 an Hour for Your Opinion

I first wrote this on a whim after participating in an in-person focus group in San Francisco. It’s proven to be super popular and I’ve updated it a few times since originally hitting publish.

6. 71 Passive Income Ideas To Stop Trading Time for Money

Like the Oracle of Omaha says, “If you don’t find a way to make money in your sleep, you’ll work until you die.” I believe it’s critically important to allocate some of your time and resources to building passive income.

7. The 42 Best Business Ideas for Kids – Beyond the Lemonade Stand!

Get the little ones started down the entrepreneurial path early!

8. How to Make Extra Money in 2020: 150+ Ways to Earn Cash Fast

I did a major overhaul of this page this year, consolidating, removing, and re-organizing content — even deleting some of the comments on the post, in an attempt to get more search exposure. So far, I haven’t been able to break into the top half of Page 1 of the SERPs.

9. 50 Ways to Get Free Money: Legit $400+ Inside!

This post was doing really well — until it got knocked down by the May Google algorithm update. In November, it began to see some signs of life again.

10. HealthyWage Review: Get Paid Up to $10,000 to Lose Weight

Want to lose weight this year? HealthyWage is an interesting way to bet on the success of your diet plan — and put your money where your mouth is.

My Top 10 Podcast Episodes of 2020

As measured by total number of downloads. Which ones were your favorites?

1. 369: How to Start a Side Hustle: 7 Key Steps

2. 388: The Path from “No Skills” to $3k a Month on the Side, with Chris Misterek

3. 372: How to Monetize a Website: 15 Legit Strategies to Try, with Dave Chesson

4. 387: Retiring Early with Real Estate: $15k a Month in Passive Cash Flow, with Dustin Heiner

5. 381: How to Grow a Blog to 6 Figures a Month with Jennifer Maker Marx

6. 400: 6 Low Startup Cost Business Ideas from Side Hustle Nation

7. 390: How to Get Freelance Clients on YouTube: The Surprising 6-Figure Strategy, with Joshua Lisec

8. 413: How I make $10,000+ on YouTube WITHOUT Filming or Being on Camera with Jon Corres

9. 420: 11 Creative Side Hustles That Make Real Money – Part 3

10. 411: $40k a Month in 15-20 Hours a Week [Where Are They Now? w/ Nate Dodson]

These are a bit front-loaded to the beginning of the year, so I tried to include some later episodes that out-performed their peers released around the same time.

Cool Biz / Lifestyle Stuff

The kids went back to preschool a couple days a week. After 7 months with them at home full-time, while still trying to run the business, this was the perfect pressure release valve.

They’re pumped to interact with other humans and the time apart has been good for everyone. Every morning it’s a school day they’re so excited to run out the door!

Fingers crossed they can stay open through the winter.

Playgrounds re-opened … and then re-closed. Another thing that helped our sanity this fall was the reopening of parks and playgrounds. That greatly expanded our options for our daily adventures!

Christmas at home. While Christmas definitely looked a bit different this year, we had a blast playing Santa, watching the kids’ reactions, and FaceTiming with family all day.

This was only the second time since living in California we hadn’t made a trip up to Washington for the holidays.

What I Bought

A couple exciting new purchases to report this time around…

A New Laptop

On Cyber Monday I splurged on a new Dell XPS 15 laptop, with quadruple the RAM of my old 13-incher.

Dell had a nice sale going on, plus Rakuten had a limited time 15% cash back offer, and Chase threw in an extra 5% cash back on top of that — so it was a great deal.

Stacking cash back for the win!

The best feature? Unlocking it with the fingerprint reader! It’s so cool!

Muse Headband

Technically this was a Christmas present for Bryn, but since we’ve always struggled with developing a mindfulness/meditation practice, my theory was a little biofeedback gamification couldn’t hurt.

It’s probably too early to tell if the habit will stick, but we’ve both been better about carving out the time for it so far.

What I Read

These were my favorite reads from Q4.

Robert Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

My highlights:

  • “Do what you need to do to make it better.”
  • “It’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities.” [on being an early riser]
  • “Create an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity.”
  • “True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.”
  • “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year.”
  • “No one wants to follow a pessimist.”
  • “If you’re in the business of making something, be in the business of making something great.”

Marc Randolph’s That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea

My Kindle highlights:

  • “Back in 1997, you could raise $2 million with a PowerPoint. In fact, you had to. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the most fundamental had to do with time. In 1997 there was now Squarespace. No Stripe, no AdSense. No Optimizely. No cloud. If you wanted to build a website, you had to have engineers and programmers build it for you. You had to have servers to serve the pages. You had to figure out a way to accept credit cards. You had to do your own analytics. Forget a weekend. Try six months. And you needed money for that.”
  • “People don’t want hot tubs–not really. They don’t want free snacks or Ping-Pong tables or kombucha on tap. What they really want is freedom and responsibility. They want to be loosely coupled but tightly aligned.”
  • “It’s the maxim of startup life: You’re going to get things wrong. You just don’t want to get the same things wrong twice.”
  • “When I was 21 years old, fresh out of college and about to start my first job, my father gave me a handwritten list of instructions. The whole thing took up les than half a page, in my father’s neat engineer’s handwriting. It read: “Randolph’s Rules for Success”:
    • Do at least 10% more than you are asked.
    • Never, ever, to anybody present as fact opinions on things you don’t know. Take great care and discipline.
    • Be courteous and considerate always — up and down.
    • Don’t knock, don’t complain — stick to constructive, serious criticism.
    • Don’t be afraid to make decisions when you have the facts on which to make them.
    • Quantify where possible.
    • Be open-minded but skeptical.
    • Be prompt.
  • “Fulfilling your goals, making your dreams a reality, nourished by the love of your family. Forget money, forget stock options. That’s success.”

Guy Raz’ How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs

My highlights:

  • “No matter what kind of business you are thinking of starting–whether it’s a product or a service, whether it’s your side hustle or your main thing, whether it’s for men or women, kids or adults–the intersection of personal passion and problem solving is where good ideas are born and lasting businesses are built.”
  • “Customers don’t pay for passion. They pay for things they can use.”
  • “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas,” Graham wrote. “It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself. It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.”
  • “Failing is scary. Wasting your life is dangerous.” (There’s a whole chapter on risk, under the illustration of dangerous vs. scary.)
  • “Having a fallback plan does not mean you are building an escape hatch from your dream. It’s not an excuse not to try hard, nor is it a ready-made reason to quit. It just means you’ve given yourself a cushion at the bottom of your entrepreneurial leap of faith so that if you do crash, you can bounce back to fight another day.” (on the virtue of side hustles)
  • “Good entrepreneurs–successful ones–have a way of not letting their fear of failure slow them down.”
  • “Engineering word of mouth is about converting all that wonderful name recognition you’ve just achieved from the buzz into sales. It’s about getting your product into people’s hands so they can then put its name in the ears of all their friends. This is how we field the growth of the How I Built This podcast and how we continued to grow to reach nearly 3 million people each week. Our listeners tell their friends. And by the way … we encourage them to do so! Because word of mouth is not a billboard or an article or an interview. It’s a dialogue. A conversation. It’s a text message from one friend to another telling them, “You’ve gotta try this.””
  • “There is only one reliable way to engineer word of mouth: you have to make a really good product. Actually that’s not precisely true. It can’t just be really good. It has to be so good that someone has to recommend it.”
  • “In many ways, the scariest part of entrepreneurship is success. It’s reaching your destination, your objective. Because that’s when the work really starts. When you’ve got to decide: What now? What next?”

What’s Next?

Especially in light of 2020, I’m not big on annual goals.

Still, some ideas on my list include:

  • Creating more helpful SEO-friendly content. I still love writing and the optimization / monetization game is pretty fun.
  • Finishing the $1k 100 Ways book project. It’s taken WAY longer than I anticipated, but hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Creating one or more “mini products” — either to sell or to use as podcast lead magnets.
  • Rethinking my email onboarding sequence(s).

Your Turn

How did 2020 shape up for you? What are your big goals or plans for the first few months of this year?

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Nick Loper

About the Author

Nick Loper is a side hustle expert who loves helping people earn more money and start businesses they care about. He hosts the award-winning Side Hustle Show, where he's interviewed over 500 successful entrepreneurs, and is the bestselling author of Buy Buttons, The Side Hustle, and $1,000 100 Ways.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur, Forbes, TIME, Newsweek, Business Insider, MSN, Yahoo Finance, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Hubspot, Ahrefs, Shopify, Investopedia, VICE, Vox, Mashable, ChooseFI, The Penny Hoarder, GoBankingRates, and more.

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