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Dec 12, 2019

9 Steps To Start A Service-Based Side Hustle

Dollar sign in a heart shape

These steps will help you quit your day job and get paid doing what you love

A lot of my friends couldn’t wait to start their own businesses. Many of them complain about their jobs and bring up great ideas for new ventures. Some got moving with something on the side, while many others never get to start anything.

I also know of people who started small businesses at the side, paid thousands to build a website to learn that nobody cares enough to visit. Some promoted their businesses on social media to realise that people are more interested to see posts with their own faces.

For most of them, getting started randomly got them moving in circles down the road, from being excited in the beginning, to getting burned out, unfulfilled and nothing to show for it.

Unlike these people, you can work your way to starting a side hustle while keeping your cushy 9-to-5 job, without losing your monthly income. It is a lot of hard work and mentally straining. But with consistent action, once your side hustle gains some traction and regular cashflow, quitting your day job will be a no-brainer.

1. Start with asking yourself why

In 2003, I found myself a dream job of working at a small design and print studio. The small size of the company gave me the freedom of time and space to design posters and advertisements for clients.

The job was fun and I learned a lot along the way. But I’ve always wanted to give myself the challenge to build something of my own. A good job didn’t satisfy me. Instead, I wanted to be the one providing good jobs to others. I figured I wanted to have my own clients, my own business systems and live on my own terms.

Hence I started asking these questions which I urge you to ask yourself too:

Why should my business exist? — In the early days, inspired by a freelancing online marketplace,, I had the vision to improve the lives of graphic designers everywhere by hiring them into our virtual team and providing them with regular graphic work. This used to be what I dreamed of and now this is our company’s mission, led by designers for designers.

Why should people care? — We are advocates of helping brands put themselves out there through storytelling. Instead of using words, we use visuals. Many people who are struggling with this still do it themselves (DIY) in the hopes of saving money. Instead, they lose time, ironically losing the opportunity to grow their own business to make more money. We are here to resolve this pain point for as many people as possible.

Point is, you have to be clear and as honest as possible with your reasons for starting a side hustle and before leaving your day job. Besides yearning to jump out of bed without that draggy feeling, a strong purpose will motivate you to overcome challenges that you will surely face along the way.

2. Figure out what’s the problem, not the solution

A lot of people, myself included tend to fall in love with their own business ideas and think their ideas are unique and will change the world. Unfortunately, most businesses ended up being a problem themselves.

Some love the work they are doing so much that they think others will also love their products the same way and pay them for it. However, to start in this way disappointed many new entrepreneurs, leaving them dumbfounded and giving up too early.

If you feel the same way, don’t despair, because building a client base is easy if you have a problem worth solving.

Nobody will ever pay you to solve your problems… but they’ll line up if you can solve theirs. — Remit Sethi

Ask yourself these questions:

What is the problem you are solving?

Is it profitable so that you can sustain?

Chances are there is someone else doing the same thing as you are, so why do you need to offer a similar solution? Here are more questions to ask yourself:

Are you filling an unmet need?

Is there a problem so big that many people are frantically looking for a solution?

If it’s something you want to solve, then why?

What is your competition doing?

What are you doing that differentiates yourself from them?

How do you know if you are helping your client?

How do you know they need help?

There are all kinds of people in this world. Look at what they are frustrated with. In my case, when I first started in 2005 with no customer, I started by checking newspaper recruitment advertisements. I know there are people posting job offers there on a daily basis.

When I look upon the section of advertisements looking for designers, most of them say at least one thing, “fast turnaround”. I didn’t have any other work commitment on hand at that time, so I did what they wanted, called them up and told them I can provide designs in less than 3 days, first design free-of-charge.

Not everyone accepted my offer, but at least one did and once trust was developed between us, they started to send more work my way and paying me for what’s worth.

3. Decide Who You Want to Work With

I’m sure you wish to work with people you have some chemistry with. You will want to work with people whose values align with yours.

For example, in my case, my business helps business coaches with graphic design services. There are many coaches who need graphic design services, but I choose to only work with those who understand how design can impact their businesses, not just to make them look good.

You decide who you want to work with, by looking back at what is the problem you are solving.

You want to make sure you solve the client’s problems with the least time spent with the least cost possible producing the maximum result you can give. You are not compromising the quality. You are simply doing the best with what you have.

To do that, you need to find a group or niche of people who are very much in common and you will serve that group only until you’ve covered enough to move on to the next group.

You need to prioritise the group you wish to serve and leave the rest out. Otherwise, you are not serving anyone.

For example, if you are a yoga teacher and realise many pregnant ladies are afraid of a difficult delivery, you may provide classes that are gentle and safe for them to strengthen their core muscles for delivery.

They will not go to the normal yoga classes but will go for yours as it caters to what they need.

4. Give and help others as much as you can

I used to think that starting a business is only about giving more money. Truth is, it’s all about giving. You can start by giving something to someone for free. As Joe Polish says

The World gives to the givers and takes from the takers.

When I started way back in 2005, I designed posters for retail stores for free. Why? This builds trust between myself and my clients.

If they don’t know me, why will they work with me? They wanted to know if I’m reliable. They wanted to know their time working with me is well-spent with great results to show.

Starting out for free opens the first door to get myself known for someone who can solve their problem.

After that, it’s up to me to deliver the results. If they are delighted, there’s a chance they will recommend me to someone else. Meanwhile, with what I have done with my beta clients, I have a success story to tell. You can call it a testimonial, case study or portfolio to share in public.

I used to think that marketing is about promoting myself. Truth is, it’s all about building relationships with people and giving my time to help them gain the results they want. Marketing is all about gaining trust by listening to others and fulfilling their needs before yours.

You have to find these people because, in the beginning, they do not know you exist to come running to you for help.

Back to the example of you as a yoga teacher for pregnant ladies, you may wish to start by giving away free yoga tryout coupons at fairs for pregnant ladies, or hospitals and women clinics.

Be prepared you may not have a crowd joining your classes. But start with whatever you have, no shame with the numbers because you are helping at least one person overcome his or her problem anyway.

Small successes compound over time. Stay consistent and true to your goals. Reserving at least one hour a day to work on this. People will notice your act of generosity and more clients will come your way. Once you’re seeing a bit of growth, that’s where you consider charging people for your service.

5. Get some freelance work

You may wish to start as a freelancer first by tailoring your services based on clients’ requests. This means each request may be very different and you have to customise it to the specific client.

When I first started freelancing, bringing home an income was the first thing in mind. Hence I did everything from logo design to packaging to illustration. So long I was able to use a software that I’m an expert in (ie. Adobe), I would charge someone in exchange for work.

If you wish to start off the same way, know that it’s similar to being in the first year of art school. That’s when you will be exposed to many things in the artsy world like sketching to photography.

While freelancing, you have to cover everything from your finances to work on the designs and final delivery. It’s a great starting point to find a firm footing for yourself to make a decent living.

At some point, I did some work without money in return for selected people. I was strategic about this since it’s an investment of a lot of my time. This was not done through cold email or cold call. These are people I’ve already connected with as mentioned in step #2. This was also when I know my bank has enough to allow me to do some free work.

Next, I go to their website to have a look at what they have, such as lead magnets, workbooks, ebooks, cheatsheets or anything that I can provide in the field of graphics. Most likely they can be improved upon and I get to work.

Then I sent them a message with the work done and let them use it in any way they want. That’s all. However, be prepared that not all of them are willing to buy. Sometimes timing plays a part. I have received responses that they are happy to do it themselves or they don’t need better designs. But they are appreciative and we keep in touch till this day.

People work with people they know and trust. When I first started, prospects did not know me, giving away my time for free allowed us to know each other better. After I got my foot in the door, that was my chance to know what works for these people. Then, I learned as much as I can on what makes me different from other designers. We don’t always have to make a sale.

This is one good way to build up your professional portfolio.

6. Decide on one solution

As I figure out how marketing works, doing everything for everyone makes it harder for anyone to remember me. Sticking to one small area of design allows me to go deeper into the subject and getting micro-famous in that area.

It’s like searching for gold in a huge field. You stand a higher chance of hitting a gold mine if you find one spot and drill as deep as you can rather than scrape the surface far and wide to drill a thousand spots.

Ask yourself what’s the common problem most of your clients are facing. This may not be the “best spot”. But it’s a good sign for you to focus on at least for a while. Here’s where you may wish to specialise or so-called unleash your superpower to solve this problem.

You may face a situation where you don’t enjoy digging this spot as much as another one. Keep in mind your reasons for starting a business in the first place. Then ask yourself these questions:

Can I project this business to be profitable in the long term if I carry on?

Can I still lead the lifestyle I wish to have?

In my case, many of my customers need to keep changing content to suit different collaterals on a regular basis. This rang a bell for me to focus on the ongoing consistency of design elements to keep a brand coherent.

7. Structure your offering

Once you’ve decided which problem to solve, the next thing is to package your skills and know-how into a set of deliverables. This will be a format where you handover your service to your clients in the form of a product.

Another mistake I made was getting stuck in my ‘freelance job’ waiting to take orders, not knowing what’s to come. I have been an order-taker, doing anything to fulfil clients’ requirements.

With different requests, almost every process that leads up to each deliverable is customised and tailor-made. For every request, I had to start from scratch and create something from the ground up. It’s like opening a restaurant without a menu.

This resulted in extreme burnout.

Conversely, when you structure your offering, your services will look similar to a pre-mix chocolate cake. Instead of allowing any client to tell you what they want in the chocolate cake, you are the one to decide the fixed set of ingredients added to this pre-mix.

You would have known what to put in your box of pre-mix based on your lessons learned from all of the above steps. The fun part is, you get to mix and match and test out which recipe works best to the clients you know will need the most.

8. Under-promise and over-deliver

In our current business model, we offer unlimited graphic design at a fixed fee per month. For us, when it comes to design work delivery, it’s always hard to guarantee timeliness.

Rather than tell customers we can deliver in 24 hours but do not send only after a day or two, we always mention that we can deliver the designs within 3 days, but we usually end up doing so in say 1 to 2 days.

Also, it’s not in our promise that we will complete all design work in a month. But instead of taking our time to work on the designs and let the customers pay for the next month, we always do our best to complete as much customer requests as possible so that they are free to cancel the subscription if they have nothing for us.

Before prospects work with us, some of them are wary that we will intentionally drag the timelines so that we can keep earning the renewal fees each month. This is never the reason why we offer a monthly subscription, and we over-deliver by delivering all designs as fast as we can to prove it.

Next, have a quality-check process in place.After every design task is done, we don’t just send it across to the customer in that minute. All designers have to run through two rounds of checks to make sure all that has been asked for gets done. Though our checks may not be perfect all the time, our customers are receiving more value for the price of one.

9. Win referrals

There are tons of advice on this and I’ve tried some of them such as ‘asking current customers to recommend us’. It’s not that this won’t work for you.

Thing is in our case, just by reminding them literally to recommend us did not work for us, because they will recommend us anyway for these reasons:

What we have done has helped relieve their pain.

Someone asked them for a recommendation,

More than one person say something good about us,

We are very thankful and appreciative of many of our customers going all the way to post what we have done for them and recommending us to their communities. That really works to get our brand out in public. However, they did not do that because we told them to do so. They did it on their own free will.

In this way, their posts do not look like a series of sponsored advertisements but more like them sharing their delight in the hopes to help others who are looking high and low for such a service. Word-of-mouth can bring you recurring business and income, I highly recommend that you leverage it.

Go for it

Ideally, you would want to have at least 6 months of income stashed in your bank before quitting your day job. All the better if you work your way to put in at least a few hours a day in your side hustle so that it generates an additional income for you.

On top of the above 9 steps, always put in massive action to find the best ways that work for yourself. Then double down on that by putting in your fullest commitment to those that have proven to work well and do this consistently.

You can do this.

Get started now!