How to run a successful side hustle, from someone whose side hustles bring in $30,000 a year

Steve and Courtney Adcock retired in their 30s.
Courtesy Steve Adcock

In 2016, when I was 35 years old, I quit my full-time technology job with $890,000 in the bank to pursue a life of travel and adventure with my wife. But as I started my next chapter, I didn't want to leave my side hustles behind. When I worked in an office, I enjoyed the challenge of earning money outside of a traditional office setting. Now I had even more time to invest in my side businesses to help them grow.

Today, I generate around $30,000 a year from my side hustles. I contribute regularly to major media publications like CNBC and MarketWatch, I sell my photography on stock websites, and I write weekly on my own site.

If you're curious about starting a side hustle, my best advice is to focus on the things you love to do. If you pick something just because it seems potentially lucrative, you might not stick with it. Start small and figure out some low-cost ways you can prove that it is a money maker, whether that is starting an Etsy or Fulfillment by Amazon store, or placing some ads online, and begin to scale up from there. 

I have found that my side hustles have helped me stay busy, focused and motivated. If you are currently dealing with a job loss or furlough, your next opportunity could be one that you create for yourself.

Here are three things I've learned about growing side businesses over the years that still help me today. 

Side hustles aren't passive income 

I started a money blog back in 2014 called "Think Save Retire" to track my progress toward financial independence. At first, the blog was more of an experiment, a challenge to see just how big of a blog I could build. Over time, it became my main passion. By the time I sold the blog in August of 2019, I had made it into a platform that got over 100,000 monthly page views and brought in between $1,200 and $1,600 a month, mainly from display ads and email sponsorship campaigns.

Over the course of this five year period, I learned that side hustles are not passive income. Passive income is income that does not require effort or active work, like dividends from stocks or monthly payments from selling a business. In contrast, side hustles are very active, and consistency is key. 

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To build up the blog into something that was active and highly influential, networking was also critical. I grew my presence on Twitter, making sure I was providing valuable insights, in addition to engaging with big names in my space. I would email other bloggers and ask to guest post on their blogs. This way I was able to reach new audiences with my work and to develop key relationships.

Nights and weekends were also expected. I worked a full-time job, so blogging after the sun went down, or on Saturdays and Sundays, was what I needed to do to keep up a consistent flow of content, stay active on social media, learn about search engine optimization, and to respond to all the emails that I was getting. When I got new ideas for blog posts, I'd stop what I was doing and immediately write them down.

It was a fun process but one that was a little hard to turn off. After a few years at it, I had to take a step back and think about how sustainable it was. Even if something is going great, if you have a gut check that you need to shift or reframe the work you're doing, listen to that feeling. 

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Side hustle success can come in unexpected forms 

Photography has long been a hobby of mine, and in 2016 I began to sell some stock photography, as well as maintain a photo gallery on Etsy. For me, this has been the toughest side hustle because it requires a lot of time to take the photo, edit it, and come up with a compelling description to post with it on Etsy. But I keep up this side hustle because it is almost passive income.

When I get an order, I submit a request to my printing company and they do the rest to ship it to the customer. It's relatively straightforward, but this hustle does not generate a lot of income, maybe $200 to $300 a year. The key, like with blogging, is a constant influx of new content. Running sales help, too, because people will buy things when they feel like they are getting a deal. 

With the number of photographers and artists selling their work, I've realized that it can be tough to set yourself apart from the competition. Even though this side business hasn't been as lucrative, I still enjoy it, and it has been a valuable use of my time. I consider it a success, in part because it also helped me realize how much I love writing. 

Steve and Courtney Adcock's dog Patti, next to the couple's Airstream, in a photo taken by Steve.
Photo by Steve Adcock

Choose a side hustle that will challenge you 

Working in technology, I did very little writing in my full-time job, aside from business emails. But as I grew "Think Save Retire," I realized how much I needed that creative outlet to challenge myself, and eventually, working on the blog led to opportunities to write outside of it. And being able to increase my freelance output made it possible to still bring in $30,000 a year even after I sold my blog.

But this side hustle started almost by accident. In 2018, I wrote a piece about early retirement that went viral. I was thrilled by the response and received so many questions and emails.

I was invigorated by the idea that my work was being read all around the world, and it was helping people make important decisions about their financial futures. This was a great reminder that when you pursue a side hustle, you have to be energized by the idea of devoting your time and energy to making an impact with it. 

Even more than bringing in consistent income, writing has helped me get comfortable putting myself out there. I've become less afraid of what people might think, and that has inspired me to learn more and seek out new ideas. I'm more confident now, and my writing has become a big part of who I am. As you grow your own side hustle, you may be surprised by how much it can change your life. 

Steve Adcock retired from full-time work at 35 and writes about personal finance on his blog and is a regular contributor to CNBC, MarketWatch, and Business Insider. He travels the country and lives in an off-grid home in the desert with his wife Courtney and two dogs. You can find him on Twitter at @SteveOnSpeed.

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