Getting A Side Hustle Going Part 2
Part 1 in this 3 part Side Hustle series focused primarily on selling your skills to make a little extra money through gig-economy websites like Fiverr.
But there is more than one way to skin a cat and customer service and personal interactions are not everyone's cup of tea. As someone who is a little introverted (the idea of being dumped in a room full of strangers and be expected to "mingle" or make small talk is my idea of hell) I struggled at first with that side of the Hustle but I've discovered that as long as I'm talking about something I have deep knowledge on (more knowledge than the person I'm speaking to), I'm pretty much OK. That resulted in consulting in my field of expertise to be fairly easy and pretty lucrative.
But it wasn't always like that.
When I lived in the UK I had a good job which I enjoyed but wanted to get a Side Hustle going. I was still young then and was convinced I was destined to be a billionaire entrepreneur. I'm not so sure that's for me any more. Anyhoo, the big issue was that my job was hectic with a capital H, I had to work long hours, my commutes ranged from 1 hour to 5 hours as when I was in the UK I had to travel between different company buildings and to add to the complexity I was globally responsible for a number of suppliers so spent around 12 weeks a year either in India or South Africa.
So I needed to find a Side Hustle that could work around my availability not the other way around.
The obvious answer was some kind of online shop. I could make it online only, I wouldn't need to deal with the public other than via email (which I could do whilst I was at work) and I could package sales at night and post them on my way to or from work. If I had to go abroad, I could just shut the shop for a week or leave a note saying "All order will be dispatched after ......blah blah blah".
That was the sum total of my thinking at the time but it was enough to make a plan.
This was around 2010 and online shopping in the UK was thriving. One of the greatest advantages of an online business in the UK in my opinion is her Majesty's Royal Mail. The UK is a small island and there are (or was) literally thousands of post offices, one in pretty much every village and town. You would probably have to drive maximum 2-3 miles to find a Post Office and that was if you were in the middle of nowhere. Also they are quick, you could post a parcel in Lands End (the southern tip of Great Britain) and it would be delivered in John O' Groats (the northern tip) by 9am the next morning, and that wasn't some special courier service, that was the standard first class, and at that time a first class stamp cost just R6 / $0.53 / £0.41.
So logistics were easy peasy.
The second task was where and how to sell stuff. That was an easy choice, at the time eBay ruled the roost in the UK and you could literally buy anything on there. Pretty much everyone between 16 & 60 had an account. You only paid for successful sales (no subscription) and it instantly gave you an online presence with credit card processing (through Paypal) and all the useful stuff like stock management, order management etc.
That was a no brainer. eBay it was to be.
So all that was really left was what to sell and where to buy it. The easy bit if you will (not).
This I think was where the magic started to happen. I messed around trying to buy playstations , iphones and Xbox games and all the high end stuff I thought I could get rich on. It became very clear very quickly when you are not really a business (I wasn't registered as a business, I had a bearly open ebay shop and I wasn't VAT registered), nobody is really interested in wholesaling stuff to you, never mind the most sought after kit in the country.
It was a problem. I knew I wanted to be in gadgets and electronics and that kind of thing as that was what I was interested in and knew about, I was a tech early adopter, a very expensive pastime that probably cost me 5 years of early retirement looking back. I get to look at my tech graveyard most days but still can't bring myself to part with most of it!
I had been watching the TV show Dragon's Den (The UK version of Shark Tank) and had just read the autobiography of Duncan Bannatyne. Duncan is an interesting chap from Scotland, his current net worth is R5.6bn / $360m / £280m, he is now 71 years old but what resonated with me when I read his book is that he didn't start trying to make serious money until he was 30 years old. When he did get focussed however, he went from Ice Cream vans, to Elderly Care Homes, to Health Gyms, not exactly a logical progression. My most important takeaway from his book was that he didn't have a clue how to get into any of those industries but said that the British government creates a set of rules for every possible business in the UK and if you ask them for it they'll send them to you. Then if you use common sense and the rules from that government instruction manual, you can't really fail. That complexity busting statement blew my 33 year old mind.
So I knew I wanted to sell gadgets, I knew I couldn't buy them wholesale in the UK. Where do gadgets get made? China. I went on the internet and got the government pamphlet on importing to the UK from China, and guess what? As long as you pay your import duty and VAT when you bring something into the country and you don't buy from a list of dangerous items, you can pretty much do what you want!
So that was the "Where" I was going to buy stuff, I already had the "What" and the only thing that was left was the "Who".
I should state at this point that it seems super easy now to buy from China, but in 2010, websites like Wish.com. Bangood.com and Gearbest.com simply didn't exist. It took me a few weeks of searching through the crap to finally discover a brand new site that had just launched. That site wa called Aliexpress.com and it was chocked full of stuff and was open to the public to buy whatever you needed from China online with a credit card. I immediately placed small orders for every gadget I could find that I thought I could sell. It turned out my first successful products that the UK population was crying out for was USB memory sticks. I now like to think I played some small part in the drawers full of useless Angry Birds shaped memory sticks we all have at the back of the kitchen drawer now!
I was in the business of being in business.
For the next year I sold literally thousands of memory sticks in every shape and size and colour you can think of. I even came very close to the tough had of the law when The Independent newspaper (I even managed to find the article online) listed me in a "10 Best Memory Sticks" article at number 4 for a Lego USB drive. About 2 weeks later I got a cease and desist letter from Lego's lawyers along with a nice letter telling me that Lego owned the rights to any shaped "Play Brick" I could ever think of and that they would crush me like the cockroach I am if I kept on ripping them off (they didn't actually word it like that, but that's what I heard in my head when I read the letter). That was my first and last lesson in copyright fraud and whilst it was fairly innocent, ignorance is no defence, and I could have been financially ruined if Lego's lawyers had been having a worse day when they saw that article. This is one of the risks of importing from China, those guys love to copy. I wasn't the one doing the counterfeiting, I was buying a cool USB drive in good faith assuming the manufacturer had a licence to produce the item. One piece of advice I would give to anybody planning a retail Side Hustle is don't be tempted to sell fakes, it's pure greed and whilst the potential returns might look good, it's not sustainable and the second you get caught, your entire stock is unsellable which will probably be more money than you already made.
So for me, it was time to diversify, quickly.
The next part was my biggest success and actually a bit of an accident. By this time, things were getting bigger so I took on my step-son to run operations and logistics (order management, mailing etc.) and I kept buying new products. I needed some light bulbs and noticed there was a new invention, an LED light bulb that used about 20% of the power of a conventional light bulb.
Well lets throw a few on the next order and give them a whirl.
Those bulbs sat on the Office (spare room) floor for months and it was only one day I was giving my step-son a hard time for the mess I commented that I'd ask him to list those bulbs in the shop weeks ago and he needed to up his game if he was going to keep getting paid (he resigned shortly after), after a bunch of muttering under his breath, he listed the new fangled LED bulbs and we were getting out of the USB drive business.
Over the next 12 months I estimate we sold around 20,000 LED bulbs. We were ordering so many from China, the DHL guy new our first names he was at the house so much. Even better was that we were selling them for around R140 / $9 / £7 plus postage each. We were buying them for around R20 / $1.30 / £1 each. We even went through a crisis when we forgot about Chinese New Year. We had piles of orders and China literally shuts down for 2 weeks in February. That was another important lesson I learned; never sell a product you don't have in your hand, a lot can go wrong between ordering and getting a delivery and it will always go wrong when you have open orders and no stock.
Obviously Ebay took around 10-15% in fees and we had the postage costs to the customer but apart from that we had no costs. By the time I had paid eBay, Royal Mail, Her Majesty's Revenue Service and my step son, I had an after tax profit margin of just over 40%.
20,000 bulbs at R140 / $9 / £7 was an annual turnover of just a little over R2.8m / $180,000 / £140,000 and my cut of that was 40% , so R1.1M / $72,000 / £55,000 after tax. Bearing in mind that was 11 years ago, that was more than my full time job.
I kept that Side Hustle going for 3 years before the opportunity came up to move to South Africa. It had been a great run and had given us a great cash injection but LED bulbs were now mainstream, sales were slowly dying and prices were reducing quickly, you could buy them at the local grocery store and I couldn't compete with their buying power. If I hadn't been emigrating, I'm sure I would have found another product to replace LED bulbs and we'd still be going today.
The point of that story was that even back in 2010 when I was doing a super busy international job, it was actually really easy to get a lucrative Side Hustle going. I never met any supplier or customer in person and I never had to speak to anyone on the phone. I hired an employee to do all the heavy lifting and I was basically the ideas man and tracked the finances. There was never any complicated paperwork to do, I kept a simple spreadsheet of money in and money out and used that to do my tax return every year and never got any surprise bills or audits. I never had to deal with any complexities with being an importer, the supplier did the paperwork automatically and the courier sent me an invoice for customs duty and VAT, not once did I have to learn any complicated tax rules, customs and excise rules or really any other rules than pay your taxes and keep records of the money. All I needed was a laptop and a credit card with a decent limit and the rest was just a process.
I kept waiting for it get complex and it never did, it was so easy to do.
11 years on in 2021 it is 50 times easier than it was then. you can set-up a shop today on Shopify.com, and be selling before the day is out. Aliexpress.com still exists and so does Banggood and Gearbest. You now have the advantage of Facebook marketplace, Instagram, Twitter and every other social media network to do free marketing of your stuff, it couldn't be easier.
You may be thinking that because it's easier, there's more competition and you may be right to an extent. However, through my entire 2010 Side Hustle I was constantly asking myself "This is so easy, why isn't everyone doing it?", I was even cagey when I spoke to people because I didn't want them to find out how easy it was in case they stole my customers.
And do you know what? over that 3-4 years, 100's of people knew what I was doing, how I was doing it and that I was making more money at it than the salary of most people I knew.
And do you know how many people copied that easy idea? None, nada, zip, zero, not one. Not a single person who could see I was making more money than most corporate execs for a few hours work per week of effort did anything even similar.
Why? I still don't really know.
I suspect it's something to do with the differences in the way those people and I think. Maybe they're happy with their lot, maybe they don't want to be wealthier than they are, maybe they're scared, may be they lack the self confidence to take a risk. I will probably never know but what I do know is that the only thing separating the people in my life that have done financially well and the people who have done less well, is that spark to go and get something going, take a little risk and maybe have to admit to a failure or two.
So if you are considering a Side Hustle but don't want to be "Customer Facing" or want to do something you can control when you work a little better. Then an online shop is a good choice in my opinion. The set-up costs are tiny these days and no specialist knowledge is required. I actually got my Import/export license (you need one of those in South Africa) last week so am flipping around a few ideas of my own for a little sequel to my 2010 Side Hustle.
Hopefully this real-life story has been useful as a part 2 of the Side Hustle Series. I think I'm going to do a part 3 after all in an area I have little or no skills at but am currently learning about and which seems to be the new Side Hustle of choice for the younger generation. That is Digital Marketing. It looks complicated and competitive but like I've said about the approach above, I bet it's not as complicated a s it looks.
As always, I'd love to hear your comments on this topic, or any other, in the comment section below. And in true Digital Marketing style, if you enjoyed this article and you think somebody else could, feel free to help me out by hitting the share button (look at me being all markety!)
Until then, keep living.