I built my side hustle during a layoff and you can too

Six years ago, on a blistering hot Tuesday morning in August, I received an email from the HR manager of the company where I had worked for the past seven years. By 5pm that day, I was laid off.

It would be convenient — for the purposes of this article — to tell you that I left that day feeling empowered and carefree. It would, however, be a complete lie. It doesn’t matter whether you love or loathe your job, a layoff hurts.

I was 32 at the time and apprehensive about finding another opportunity that would be as exhilarating and demanding as the ones I had held in the first decade of my career.

When it's time to move beyond a job search

Six months (and close to 100 applications) later, I received yet another rejection. Something inside of me snapped.

I decided to make a change. I would stop spending all my time and energy doing the interview song-and-dance just to see if I fit someone else’s idea of a successful candidate. I wasn’t going to wait for a company to influence the future of my career. I realised: Jobs come and go, but my career need not be dependent on them. Enter my “side hustle.”

Think of a side hustle as something that supplements your job search. You don’t have to stop job hunting. But I challenge you to spend a couple of hours this week thinking about other creative ways you can generate income. If designed thoughtfully, a side hustle can pay just as much as a full-time job, or more. It’s also a great way to build some career insurance, or create a fallback option.

Here’s what I learned about launching a side hustle and taking control of my career during many months of unemployment.

First, I figured out my secret strengths

After getting laid off, in typical hustler-mode, I spent so much time job searching and networking, that I forgot to focus on something really basic (and really important): gaining skills. Six months down the line, I had neither a job nor a new skill set.

That’s when I changed tracks. To start, I spent some time thinking about my current skill sets and how I might be able to monetise them. A few months before being laid off, I had begun writing occasionally as an independent journalist, focusing on the expanding tech and startup scene in my region. This was more of a passion project than a consistent additional source of income.

The lowest hanging fruit seemed to be the writing. I already had working relationships in the tech media space and used my network to book regular assignments that paid on par with the industry rates. Often, I’d pitch several ideas with no response from the other end, despite diligent follow ups. Getting used to that rejection was hard, but I began focusing on the learning instead. I was now able to keep tabs on the latest developments in the startup ecosystem, and also network with a wide range of people from across the world.

The takeaway:

Conduct your own skills audit. Ask close friends and mentors to help you identify your natural abilities through which you create value. Use your existing network to help introduce you to their connections in your field of interest so that you can expand your network in a targeted and accelerated fashion.

Second, I learned how to stand out

Right from the beginning, I decided to carve a niche for myself and focus specifically on reporting about startups, technology and entrepreneurship in the Middle East. At the time, the startup ecosystem was rapidly growing in this region, and I saw an opportunity to be a new voice in a nascent market.

I did my research, absorbing everything I could about this sector, kept tabs on who the up-and-coming founders and firms might be, and I regularly pitched story ideas to my existing editors. More importantly, I deliberately sought out senior writers and editors in the business media sector so I could improve my skills and build credibility.

The Takeaway:

You need to stand out in order to attract the best opportunities and pay. This will require building a niche skill set — one that is desired, but that also can’t be easily replicated. The key is to focus on not just what you’re good at, but what you’re truly passionate about. Passion often gives us a deeper, unique perspective into our areas of interest — not to mention greater endurance when it comes to getting the work done. This combination will help separate you from the crowd in the long run.

Finally, I learned how to diversify my income streams and scale my side hustle

Just like an investment portfolio, diversification is essential to a portfolio career, meaning you need to create multiple income-generating work streams. In my case, that meant creating different side hustles that drew from my main gig: business and tech reporting. When I began working as an independent journalist, I did a cursory search of my local and regional market to understand which business journalists had an established profile and discovered that many of them supplemented their journalistic work by also being invited to host/facilitate/moderate everything from award shows to product launches to major conferences.

During my research, I realized none of these journalists had prior experience in big business and few had experience interviewing global business icons. Initially, I didn’t have enough “work experience” to be a speaker yet. For a whole year, I looked up local conferences and pitched to every single one of them. It took time and persistence, but eventually, I was able to chair some of the biggest technology conferences that year.

The takeaway:

Research business opportunities that are connected to your side hustle. For example, if you are an experienced voice coach, besides training students in voice, could you also train up-and-coming voice coaches on the art of being an educator? Thinking outside-the-box will help you find ways to scale your business and also give you flexibility in the event one of your income streams is affected.

My side hustle served as a “magnet” for quality opportunities and gave me the purpose and validation I needed to redefine how I looked at my “career.” I also learned that the barometer of professional success has nothing to do with whether you have a full-time job or not.

Written by: Natasha D’Souza
© 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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