Creating a Side Business

Building a career post-college is something that I’ll be writing more about in the near future. It’s an incredibly demanding and exhausting endeavor, and one that I have watched many friends accomplish with a range of success and setbacks, grace and missteps. I’ll be writing more about career planning and preparation in the future, but for now I want to say that living in a state of uncertainty and striving in the wake of graduation is about par for the course.

So that’s where the idea of a side business can come in.

You may have noticed that I’ve been quite absent for a while. This was not really my plan, but was the result of building my freelancing business and dealing with all the time demands, logistical problems, and psychological impacts of starting and growing a business. I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go. But for now I thought I would share some of the lessons of a “side gig” in how it can help with income, security, and purpose for recent grads and current students.

Building a Freelance Business

There are innumerable blogs, books, podcasts, and courses on building a freelance business in fields as diverse as writing, video production, public speaking, graphic design, voice over acting, and more. This is essentially taking the part-time job to a different level: instead of paying the extra bills or generating ‘fun money’ from babysitting or delivering pizzas, it’s a way of making money through offering specific skills and services.

I was a student blogger for my university. They paid me to write two blog posts each week about my experiences on campus, in classes, and as a member of the university community. I learned a lot through that experience, and I had my first taste of the satisfaction of getting paid for my written thoughts.

I started working as a freelance writer in 2013, just as my student days were coming to a close. I wish I had started sooner—the more you build a portfolio and let the world know what you’re doing, the better able you are to create and grow a business.

A nice element of creating a side business is that you can decide how busy you want to be. You can gain experience and a bit of money and reputation while working four hours a week. Or you can throw yourself in full-tilt and then have to sink or swim. It’s a good model for starting as a student—if you keep things very part time for a while, you’ll have a foundation to stand on when you graduate. For those of us who started after the end of school… it’s a bit more of a scramble.

If the idea of a side business/freelancing/a solo entrepreneur position is at all appealing, start now. Start as a student. Get to work. 

How do you get work?

This is the most common question I hear on the subject. The biggest thing you can do to find work as a freelancer is to start telling people that you are looking for work.

That’s right. If you want to be a freelance writer, start telling people you are a freelance writer.

You need the skills, a portfolio, and eventually things like a website, business cards, and references. That stuff is all important. But the biggest thing you need to do to find work in your freelance field is to start telling people you want it.

My first three freelance writing jobs came from:

  • A friend’s high school friend who had started a business was hiring article writers
  • My boyfriend met a writer at a bar and found out his company was hiring, and introduced us over email
  • A family member started a small business and needed help creating a website 

That’s it. My first three jobs came from connections, close and far. The initial ‘in’ for the job was the simple act of having my community know that I was wanting to become a professional writer, and then when they heard of people needing writers they simply gave my name.

The nuts and bolts

Once you’re in the door, you need to be able to do two things: prove you can do the job, and then do the job.

Proof

The best proof is usually a portfolio. It can also be a resume and a great cover letter, but the best thing to do is to gather examples of projects you’ve done in the past. This can include student projects and things you did just for the fun of it. But it needs to be of a professional quality and available for people who are interested in working with you.

For that, you really do need a website. Creating it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. You just need to display your work in one place so that you can direct people to your proof that you are capable of doing the project you’ve set out to do.

Feel free to check out my freelancing website as one example. Since most of my projects are writing, I display the title of the project, an image, and a quick explanation of the project. If the article or blog is available to the public, I include a link. And that’s it! Quick, simple, and extremely effective. (I won’t lie, though, this design took weeks of trial and error before I got it to look so sleek). If you make videos, create a show reel. If you do graphic design, share examples of projects. If you do public speaking, share videos and the logos of the organizations who have invited you to speak.

A critical element of this is that it doesn’t matter if you were paid to accomplish the items in your portfolio. You aren’t saying anything about your salary; you are demonstrating your ability. So volunteer vs. paid vs. your own project that you made up in your head does not matter. If the work was good, claim it with pride.

Doing the Job

Once you’ve got the job, you’ve got to make it happen. And that can be harder than it seems like it should be. Sometimes this will mean mastering new skills. Other times it will be applying old skills in new ways (such as learning to speak to different audiences, or how to utilize new tools). You also will probably have to adjust to doing things on your own time and with yourself as the primary source of criticism and creativity.

The good news is, this is a pattern that college students are familiar with. If you think about it, you are basically finding someone to assign you homework and then pay you to do it.

Just remember that the stakes are higher in the business world. You want to be able to add each new job to your portfolio, and want to know that you can accomplish what you set out to do. You want to build a reputation as a person who can get things done. So make sure that you do what you’ve been hired to do. Even if the project is outside what would normally be comfortable and you have to stretch your abilities, make sure you find the way to make that happen.

Building Your Business

A side business can make a huge difference in providing flexibility and improving your skills for a future career. My writing business has led to a surprising range of opportunities in multiple fields and with some people I never would have imagined working with. It has also led to a portfolio of skills that I could undoubtedly leverage into a future job if I decided to go that direction with my career.

In the meantime, I’m building my business. I’m working hard for paying clients and I’m taking on interesting volunteer projects that build my portfolio. I’m pushing myself to learn new skills, and then immediately putting those skills to use. I’m also having to become more and more of a businesswoman—someone who is increasingly comfortable networking, handing out my business card, and following up on leads for new business.

The hardest part is beginning. And then it’s finding that second client, once you’ve found your first. You have to learn to think in new ways and redirect some of your energy.

It’s a great idea to start this process as a student. It will open doors that you aren’t even aware exist yet.

 

If you want to talk with me about help with building your portfolio, let me know. I’ve really enjoyed helping a few people launch their websites and make progress in establishing their side businesses. 

If you enjoyed this post, check out "Inventing an Internship," "The Confused Graduate," and "Saying 'Yes'" about my experience being offered a job creating a photography book for the band Bastille. Please share your own experiences, questions, and comments below.