- "Before you set up shop, articulate and define the problem that you solve for your ideal client," writes Aleenah Ansari.
- "Your rates as a freelancer or side hustler are a direct reflection of your value and expertise, which is always improving over time."
- "Never underestimate the value of community building."
Last year, I realized that as much as I enjoyed my 9-to-5 working in marketing in the tech world, I wanted to create something that could take full ownership of, and that could grow as my skill set changed.
I wanted to find a way to get paid to write about the topics I cared about most, like representation in media, salary negotiation, and mental health. And I wanted to empower more people to land their dream jobs and build their personal brands.
A piece of advice that is often given about side hustles is to build a business around what people ask you for help for, and that was true for me as well.
The inspiration for my side hustle came from a job I had at my college's writing centers, helping people strengthen their resumes and personal statements, and get more confident about interviews. My favorite part of the job was the conversations I had with the people that came in for guidance, asking questions and being a sounding board to help people to understand themselves better.
After I graduated, I found that I was still helping friends and other students with one on one career advice, and continuing to write for independent zines. So at the start of 2021, I doubled down on freelance writing, speaking engagements, and one on one coaching.
These multiple streams of income bring in $1,300 a month and my business is continuing to grow.
Here's my best advice for starting a side hustle, and some of the lessons I've learned along the way.
Before you can launch a business or a gig, author and entrepreneur Rachel Rodgers says to start by identifying the problem that you solve for your clients. Getting clear on how I take my clients from point A to point B was a key part of getting customers and organizations to work with me.
In the case of my business, my goal is to help people stand out during the job application process by identifying how they make an impact at work, and then figuring out how to effectively communicate those accomplishments in their resumes and during the interview process
So for me, point A is when a client comes to me after applying to dozens of jobs but not hearing back. Point B is when the client has a stronger resume, portfolio, and digital presence and gets further in the job search.
Before you set up shop, articulate and define the problem that you solve for your ideal client. This will be a core way of communicating your value to others.
Video by Lauren Shamo
When I'm evaluating if I want to take on an assignment or project, I've found that the work often falls into three categories: pay, prestige, and passion.
Start with a baseline rate so you know when you want to say yes or no. When it comes to my writing, for example, I've set my minimum at $175 per story, which means that I have had to learn to say "no" to opportunities that are below this threshold. In these moments, I remind myself that saying "no" now can open me up to say "yes" further down the line.
Ideally, you want your payment to align with the rates you've set for yourself, and your rates should align with the value that you're offering. However, if payment for a project is lower than you expected, but it can offer opportunities to raise your profile, reach a new audience, or establish yourself as a subject matter expert, it may be worth considering.
Sometimes, I'll take projects or speaking engagements because I want to support folks who might not have the career resources they need, or because I'm part of professional development groups that have supported me in other ways. For example, I'm more inclined to do webinars for free if it's for a community organization or focuses on supporting young BIPOC professionals who need mentorship or support during the job search process.
It is possible to find clients or projects that align with pay, prestige, and passion at the same time. For example, I work for many publications that encourage me to lean into my identity as a queer Pakistani woman who's passionate about representation in media, which has empowered me to interview people I admire like like author Charles Yu, American-Pakistani photographer Simrah Farrukh, and creative director Badal Patel, and get compensated for this work.
As a freelancer, one of the hardest questions for me to answer was, "What are your rates?" As someone who's traditionally worked according to salary or hourly rates that were given to me, I had no idea where to start on how to value my writing.
I have learned that your rates as a freelancer or side hustler are a direct reflection of your value and expertise, which grow over time.
A helpful tip I learned is that pricing something by the hour isn't the most valuable metric because as your skillset improves, you'll likely get faster at doing the work. Instead, come up with a rate per project, which for me, often encompasses the time it takes to research, interview, transcribe, and draft a story.
If you run a different kind of service-based business, you might base your rates based on the amount of time it takes you to research the problem space or client you're working with, time with the content, and any follow-up messages or resources you share.
If you run a service-based business, you may price your business based on the outcome or the holistic experience that you're offering for clients. For example, I shifted from offering one-off career services like a resume review or mock interview to offering a package of services for clients who are entering the job search, which includes career services and one-on-one coaching to help them come up with a job search strategy.
Make sure that you're reevaluating your rates on a regular basis. I follow the advice of a business coach who advised me to raise the price of my services every three to five clients or success stories, or when I complete a new certification or program, which has been one way that my business revenue has continued to grow alongside my expertise.
One of the hardest parts of running my business was making the initial investment in the necessary resources: my website, bookkeeping software, professional organizations, and the networking events or webinars that would enable me to level up my work.
I started with the most basic tool that would help me build credibility, a personal website with links to my writing samples. Although the price of $150 a year to host my site was a pretty steep price tag for me at the time, I know it has helped me get more business. Most importantly, it is a corner of the internet where I showcase myself and build an email list that's owned by me, rather than solely rely on social media channels that can experience outages and unexpected algorithm changes.
Once I knew that I could confidently make back the cost of my website, I started investing in additional resources that could help me reach more people or find more opportunities for clients like coaching, conferences, and events where I could learn about how to grow my business.
Video by Tala Hadavi
For example, I began to connect with other freelance writers and small business owners by attending virtual networking events and connecting with writers on Twitter and LinkedIn. One of the most valuable resources I found was Sonia's Opportunities of the Week, an email newsletter that almost exclusively includes paid writing opportunities.
I've made back the newsletter's $3/month price tag a hundred times over, and it's helped me find writers and publications to follow on Twitter so I can pitch myself for future writing opportunities.
My best advice when you're reaching out to people that you'd like to work with or learn from, is be specific with your ask. Tell them why you're reaching out, the connection you have if any, and do your homework to see if they have answered any of your specific questions before in another context. Building and maintaining these relationships can lead to anchor clients that can provide you with consistent work.
Never underestimate the value of community building, especially if you're a business owner. I believe that every conversation is a learning opportunity, which is why I set the goal of meeting with at least one new writer or editor a month.
This is an opportunity for me to connect with other people to share story ideas, learn about new publications, and ask questions about rates or publications to work with. Plus, the more people know about your dreams, the more they'll think of you for relevant opportunities, amplify your impact, and nudge you in the right direction.
And then, once you have done all this work, don't be afraid to put yourself out there and share it. Get testimonials from the people who value your service or product and let that act as a bridge to your next job or client.
Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who strives to lift as she climbs. She is passionate about representation in the media, and loves talking about her favorite murals and why Seattle is her chosen home.
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