As side hustles become more common — and perhaps necessary — let’s take a look at some of the most popular options … and what you might consider doing instead.
This is coming from years of experience in hosting the award-winning Side Hustle Show podcast, and I should note that ALL the business models listed CAN work, it’s just a matter of finding one that fits your needs and goals.
Many popular side hustles are limited by your own time — i.e. trading hours for dollars. And that’s fine, but I just want you to get the best return on the time you invest.
Before you begin any side hustle, ask yourself what your goals are. Do you want to make an extra:
- $50 a month?
- $500 a month?
- $5,000 a month?
- $50,000 a month?
The path you pursue will depend on where you want that path to ultimately lead. So let’s get into it.
I’ll outline some popular side hustles, and present some alternatives you might consider.
Providing some type of freelance service is a popular side hustle, and one that I often recommend for people who need to make extra money quickly.
It’s seriously a great way to start and something I’ve done myself, too.
The limitation with freelancing or consulting of course is that you only have so many hours in the day — which puts a natural cap on your earning potential.
You may also face the challenge of clients hiring YOU (your knowledge/expertise)—instead of the RESULT you deliver for them. Your expertise is definitely a good selling point, but can be tough to grow out of if you want to expand.
What to Do Instead
If your goal is to build something that grows beyond yourself, consider an agency or matchmaker model from the beginning.
What do I mean by that?
- freelance writing, consider starting a content writing agency.
- doing graphic design, consider starting a design agency.
- cleaning houses, consider starting a cleaning company.
There are examples in The Side Hustle Show archives of all of these. For instance, Gabe Arnold started Copywriter Today and grew it $20,000 a month.
His strategy? Bring on other people to write the content and focus on getting clients.
You don’t even need to be an expert in the business you start. Russ Perry, the founder Design Pickle, a mega popular graphic design service, admitted to me, “I sucked at design.”)
This works even in offline businesses. Chris Schwab built a residential house cleaning business to $60k a month in 2 years—while never doing any cleaning himself.
2. Taking Surveys
Look up any list of ways to make extra money and you’re sure to find some online survey options. (Heck, I include them as an option too!)
These are websites and apps like Swagbucks, Survey Junkie, and Inbox Dollars. And while you can definitely make a little money answering surveys and watching videos, I think you’ll find the effective hourly rate to be pretty sad.
Exception: Three survey resources I do really like are:
- Respondent – Matches you up with paid research studies online and in-person and often pays $100 an hour or more.
- User Interviews – Well-paying professional and consumer studies. Check our full User Interviews review for more.
- Rare Patient Voice – $100 an hour for patients with rare (and not-so-rare) medical conditions.
What to Do Instead
Instead of being the person answering the questions, flip the script and become the interviewer. Ask people and business owners what their pains are.
What problems and challenges are they facing? How much is that costing them?
After you’ve done your homework, think of what solution you could offer. How could you help them make that pain go away?
John Logar is an absolute pro at this, and followed this exact method to pre-sell over $120,000 worth of work. It was just from simple conversations and learning about real (expensive) problems.
For more on this, I highly recommend Dane Maxwell’s book, Start from Zero.
You can even do this in your own life. I call this the “what sucks?” method of coming up with business ideas.
It’s simple: how it works is you go through your day making mental note of everything that sucks. If it sucks for you, it probably sucks for other people too. Solve that pain, and you’ve got a business idea you can test.
Now don’t get me wrong — I love blogging! The problem is, most people don’t go about it the right way.
I know because I was that person for my first 5 years as a blogger! While I loved the creative process of and building the writing habit, I spent countless hours creating content that almost nobody read.
Most blogs I see fail as a business because they don’t have a:
- clear value proposition (what’s in it for me, the reader?).
- plan to generate traffic.
- great revenue model.
What to Do Instead
Instead of a generic personal blog, build a helpful, authoritative resource on one topic.
Consider picking up Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand. It’s not about blogging specifically but it will help you think through your customer’s journey and how you can help them.
When I come to your site, it should be immediately apparent how you can help me and why I should stick around.
With each post you write, think of how you’ll get people to read it. Will it rank in Google? Will you get traffic from Pinterest? Will you do manual outreach?
And what’s the goal of the site? Will you monetize with:
- Ad revenue?
- Affiliate products?
- Your own products and services?
Depending on which you choose, that will dictate your calls to action and how you structure your content.
One model of website I’ve seen shortcut the traffic ramp-up period is what I call the “modern comparison shopping site.” This is the model exercised by sites like Fin vs. Fin, which grew to $20,000 a month within the first year by writing in-depth product comparison posts.
Check out my free video course on how to start your website quickly and affordably.
4. Real Estate
Real estate investing is one of the oldest side hustles out there and remains popular today.
And I think that’s for good reason. I mean, building a portfolio of houses and having other people pay them off is awesome. It can be a path to escape the rat race and a build a serious nest egg.
But real estate is also super easy to screw up.
It’s (often) expensive to get started and can be slow to diversify. Costly and unforeseen problems—like my friends who had to re-do their foundation for $90k!—can eat up years worth of your profit all at once.
If you’re dead set on the traditional model of buy-and-hold single family rental properties, by all means, go for it. It can work, and probably works better the more homes you own.
(And if your local market is too expensive, you might check out a site like Roofstock to search income properties elsewhere.)
Plus, you can take advantage of leverage and certain tax benefits for property owners.
What to Do Instead
I’ve been burned a bit by that type of direct ownership, but do see the value of real estate as an asset class, so I’ve added it to my portfolio in different ways.
For example, I invest in Real Estate Investment Trusts (both traditionally traded REITSs and “eREITs” like Fundrise). This allows me to earn passive income from a diversified portfolio of properties. And I’ve never had a tenant call in the middle of the night to say their hot water heater is leaking!
Companies like Fundrise allow you to spread your risk around to a range of properties in multiple geographical locations—with really low minimum investments. I’m talking $10, compared to the usual 20% down payment on a house.
(If you don’t like the idea of tenants at all, you might consider this interesting “raw land” flipping model, which one guest dubbed “the best passive income model.”)
I also have a portion of my portfolio dedicated to short-term real estate-backed loans on Groundfloor, which lets you lend a minimum of $10 on pre-vetted fix-and-flip projects.
The downside to all these is you trade many of the benefits real estate investors swear by — leverage, tangible assets, depreciation — for being totally hands-off. So pick the path that aligns with your goals and do your due diligence.
5. Network Marketing
Despite 99%+ failure rates, people are still drawn like flies to network marketing “opportunities.”
You know, the kind of thing where that friend you haven’t heard from in years suddenly wants to sell you essential oils, jewelry, pots and pans, or the latest magic pill.
Now I’m not saying that all “direct sales” companies are scams.
I mean, the failure rates for other business models can be pretty high too.
Heck, I’ve had my share!
Why is Network Marketing Such a Popular Side Hustle?
With the odds of success so low in network marketing, what’s the attraction? What makes every new person who signs on think they’ll be different?
Well, I think there are a few reasons:
- These companies do an excellent job selling the dream (work from home, be your own boss, promote a product you love, etc.)
- It’s a “business in a box”, which is appealing not to have to create something entirely from scratch.
- The commitment, barrier to entry, and startup costs are usually very low.
What Makes it Hard to Succeed?
The biggest challenge with network marketing is just that: your “network.” Unless you have a systematic way to keep that network—that audience of buyers—growing, you’re dead in the water.
And since most people who sign up for these aren’t natural marketers or salespeople, that’s a tough road.
When you eventually tap out your audience of warm contacts, you stall out and give up.
On top of that:
- You’re only making a percentage of each sale, and the product has to be marked up enough to share profit with your upline and the company itself. That can make commodity-type products more expensive and harder to sell.
- Many items are one-off purchases, which means you have no recurring income.
- You’ll risk damaging relationships trying to pitch someone else’s product.
- The demand may diminish for “fad” products.
- You’re married to a specific solution, instead of addressing the larger problem.
That last one comes from advice from Greg Hickman: “fall in love with the problem, NOT the solution.”
What to Do Instead
So what can you do instead of signing up for the latest MLM? I think there are a couple options.
Licensing, Franchising, or Buying a Business
First, if the “business in a box” or “business with training wheels” concept appeals to you, you might consider licensing or franchising.
Yes, your startup costs will be significantly higher, but your success rates will be higher as well. You can speak with other licensees or business owners, who — unlike in network marketing — have no incentive to tell you how great it is.
Related: How to Buy a Franchise
For example, Jordan Berry bought a pair of laundromats.
He recommended resources like Biz Buy Sell and Franchise Direct to see what opportunities might be out there. I especially like the idea of buying a business that already has a proven track record. That reduces your risk significantly, since someone else has already done the hardest part—getting the thing off the ground!
Side Hustle Show guest Codie Sanchez mentioned that the SBA has attractive financing options with as little as 10% down, and she actually teaches a whole course on how to buy a small business the smart way.
The typical purchase price is 2-4x annual earnings, but everything is negotiable.
Johnny Robinson was able to expand his window cleaning business with the creative acquisition of a competitor who was retiring. The deal they worked out was just $1,000 down and a percentage of the future work he booked from the seller’s roster of clients.
Sell Shovels into the Gold Rush
The other idea to consider is that many network marketing companies tap into the “gold rush” mentality. They focus on fads or trending topics like CBD oil or the latest anti-aging products.
And as a student of history, you know that the best gold rush entrepreneurs weren’t the ones mining for gold—they were the ones selling the shovels. When you see a hot MLM that “everyone” is talking about, what proverbial shovels could you sell into that gold rush?
This is an older example, but another friend of mine did just that when she started an e-commerce business in the essential oil space.
The Oil Collection sells diffuser necklaces and leather bracelets to essential oil customers. In her first 7 months, she did over $100k in sales.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!
Want more? Here are 99 side hustle ideas that are sure to get your creative juices flowing.
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Stock Photos from Dean Drobot and Oleg Krugliak / Shutterstock
9 thoughts on “5 of the Most Popular Side Hustles — And What to Do Instead”
Great article, Nick. You actually provide intelligent and “do-able” alternatives. Good on you.
There are so many out there who have found a little side hustle that provides a few bucks that they can’t contain their enthusiasm and dedicate many hours of their time writing (or doing Youtube videos) about their “hustle.
That’s all just great, but so seldom are the raw hustles sustainable or scalable. They are just trading hours for dollars, the same as a “real” job … but often without any of the benefits of a “real” job.
Seling the shovels to all the energetically digging wildcat miners is by far the smarter approach. You can sell 1,000,000but you can only dig on one claim at a time (or substitute blue jeans for shovels and look up the history of Levi Jeans, LoL.
Thanks for all you do and thanks for providing a well-written blog post from time to time instead of just podcast after podcast. The written word is often far superior.
Thanks Dave — it felt good to do some writing :)
Thank you for sharing this Nick. I’ve definitely learnt a lot from this list and can now gauge the possibility of succeeding in the two things I’ve tried my hand at…MLM and freelance writing (technically a work in progress.)
With considering which side hustle is best, I think the weakest is to focus on ad content and not to do a proper research. I’ve got a long way to go to get where I want to be.
Great article with realistic alternatives for people to try as a side hustle. Thanks for the links provided as well, I will definitely be looking into them.
I love your real life examples! Really thinking out of the box there.
And a great approach to take – starting with a commonplace idea and turning it on its head. So creative.
Thanks for a great post.
Great points in this article! I started a freelance health/medical writing business recently, but you’ve got me thinking about eventually converting myself into a freelance writing agency targeting my niche. I’ve also thought about the fact that there’s a limit to how much work I can accomplish in a day on my own, so if I want to move towards a passive income model, this may be an answer.
Have you ever written or podcasted about the side hustle of “selling tradelines”? Here’s a couple links on the concept:
If you have any questions feel free to reach out to me about it.
Interesting David, I’d never heard of that.
I found this blog post to be a refreshing and informative take on side hustles. The author not only highlights popular options, but also provides alternatives for those who may be interested in something different. As someone who’s always looking for new ways to make extra money, I appreciate the range of options presented in this post. However, I couldn’t help but notice that one lucrative side hustle option was missing – transcription work. As a transcriptionist myself, I can attest to the fact that it’s a flexible and rewarding way to earn money from home. I would love to see the author add a 6th tip on transcription as a side hustle. Overall, this post is a great resource for anyone looking to supplement their income, and I highly recommend it to others. Thank you for sharing such valuable insights, and I look forward to seeing the addition of transcription as a tip!