From Side Hustle to Full-Time Business
By Tim Chow
From Side Hustle to Full-Time Business
7 Tips to Get You There Faster
Before I built my career as a commercial photographer and filmmaker, I had spent more than a decade chasing money as my definition of success, doing everything from serving vegan dishes on weeknights to revolutionizing my clients’ HR departments with Saas software.
I spent many years climbing that coveted corporate ladder as a professional salesperson in the tech industry, and had found quite a bit of success in it.
In early 2017, when the company I worked for was suddenly acquired by another corporate giant, I was offered a position at the new company where I had the opportunity to keep making my six figure salary.
It terrified me.
While I had no qualms about the compensation, the offer to transition to another company for another 3-5 year stint was scary to me.
How many more 3-5 years do I have?
Is this really what I want to do for the next decade?
Like many of my peers, I was so preoccupied with the rat race that I had forgotten to look inward, to question my direction in life and whether I was being the person who I needed to be. I declined the offer and took time off for some much needed self-reflection.
What I discovered was that throughout my diverse job experiences, I had always kept my practice of photography as a hobby, eventually turning it into a side hustle for the better half of 10 years.
Growing up with entrepreneur parents, I had always wanted to build something of my own, and it became clear to me that the time had come for me to mature this side hustle into a full business.
Over the last three years, I have been able to establish a client base with recurring revenue, create job opportunities for my fellow creatives, and live life on my own terms.
The journey has not been easy, and I have much more to go, but here are 7 lessons I’ve gleaned along the way that have helped me turn my side hustle into a sustainable business.
7 Lessons Learned From Turning My Side Hustle Into a Full-Time Business
1. He who has a WHY can bear almost any HOW.
Late nights. Early mornings. 80hr work weeks.
Putting all your money into your business and borrowing more so you can pay rent and eat. The first thing you should know about starting your own business is that it is not glamorous.
You will be overworked. You will be tempted to give up. You will question yourself and your ability.
You’ll remember how sweet it was to know when your next paycheck was coming. And if you don’t have a compelling enough reason for you to carry on with your work, it’s easy to give up.
That was not an option for me. I knew that if I gave up and returned to the corporate world, I would be turning my back on what I truly wanted to do and who I truly wanted to be.
I knew that if I was going to survive this journey, I would need a strong enough WHY. It had to be more important and more meaningful than how I might feel on any given day.
Starting my own business meant two things…
1. It would allow me to have much more control over my lifestyle design.
2. I could create jobs for people who have a passion to work in my field, but who had difficulty finding opportunities.
Trust me when I say - there is no better feeling than waking up in the morning knowing the work you are about to do that day serves a higher purpose.
What WHY will drive you out of bed each morning with excitement?
What are the reasons that will keep you driven and focused long after the flame of your motivation has been snuffed by too much work and too little sleep?
2. Take yourself seriously, so others can too.
While a passion for what you do may be strong enough to sustain a side hustle, your transition into making it a full-time business will require you to see yourself as more than a hobbyist.
It wasn’t enough for me to just be a good photographer. I had to become a business owner.
When I began working for myself full-time, it was quickly apparent I would have to do a lot for the business that had nothing to do with my passion in photography and filmmaking — but they were all necessary.
I had to think about things like...
Sales & Marketing – Where is my next client going to come from?
Branding Myself and My Business – Who is my business and what do people see when they find me online?
Project Management – How am I staying organized with each project and deliver them on-time consistently?
Hiring – What do I need to outsource so I can reserve my time to work ON my business and not just IN it? Who do these people need to be? Where do I find them?
Scalability – Does the way I’ve structured my business allow me to scale? Or am I forever relegated to exchanging my time for money?
Taxes – Without an automatic deduction from an employer on my paycheck, how do my taxes change as an independent business owner?
Legal – What do I need to put in place to protect my clients and my business?
If you want others to take you seriously as a business, you need to take yourself seriously first.
3. Structure your day.
Running your own business and being your own boss is a lot of responsibility. You have a lot of different hats to wear, and it can easily get overwhelming.
Staying organized and having a structure was key to helping me move the needle on my business in a consistent and meaningful way.
Use Your Calendar
My calendar is my life. It is my safety net and the tool I rely on the most to make sure the things I need to get done will actually get done.
What gets scheduled gets done. If you put time on your calendar to work on important tasks, and have the discipline to stick to your schedule, you can relax knowing that it will be done.
Follow a Routine
The life of an entrepreneur is chaotic, and routines are your anchor.
It eliminates a lot of uncertainty throughout the day, and allows you to GSD (get stuff done) without having to spend a lot of time thinking about what you need to do next in your day.
Focus on 3 Priorities Every Day
There is no shortage of priorities and “to-dos” in your new business, but having too much on your list for the day can be unproductive.
Narrowing your priorities down to the top three things for the day will help keep you stay on track, and you’ll also feel better about being able to cross off your entire list consistently every day.
Intentional Breaks vs. Periods of Focused Work
I used to feel guilty whenever I realized I was not being as productive as I could be.
There’s always something you can work on in the course of building your own business, and I prided myself on having the “hustle muscle.” Until I learned that burning out was a real thing.
Having work-life balance is extremely important for your mental health and productivity. Instead of focusing on trying to create periods of hyper-focused work, make sure you implement periods of intentional breaks where you can completely shut off work and enjoy your life outside of it, guilt-free.
Knowing that you have intentional breaks will help you be more productive during your work hours. Win-Win!
4. Learn to sell.
First of all, I think the sleazy used car salesman archetype gave sales in general a bad rap.
Selling is a vital part of your business regardless of what you do. It’s the oxygen your business lives on, and you will rely on it to sustain your growth.
Selling is Helping
If you come from a place of value, selling is the act of helping someone solve a problem that will make their lives better in a way they find meaningful and they will thank you for it!
Sales is not pushing your product or service on someone who could not and should not buy it.
Understanding that you have real, tangible value to offer the right person allows you to approach your conversations with confidence and excitement.
Be Interested and Curious
You can’t provide any meaningful solution if you do not spend time understanding the problem first. Ask your potential client thoughtful questions to really understand their current situation, the challenges they are facing, and why it would be meaningful to solve them.
Understand Your Sales Cycle
Your sales cycle is defined by the steps you must take to close a deal or sell a product, and can be broken down into stages generally defined as: (1) Prospect, (2) Discovery, (3) Quote/Negotiation, (4) Close.
It’s a major part in gaining insight into your sales process, and tracking your deals across sales stages will help you more accurately predict your income.
Over the course of growing your business, you are going to have a lot of sales conversations.
It’s important to establish a system of organization early on so you can keep track of all the relevant information about your potential clients or customers as well as any action items that you need to manage.
One platform that has been integral to my business is salesforce.com, which allows me to track all the information I need for my customers and prospects, as well as provide important sales intelligence such as my average deal size, the number of days it takes to close deals, and where my prospects come from (lead source).
5. Sacrifice is table-stakes.
Being successful in business will require you make some sacrifices.
You don’t get to not make a sacrifice, but you do get to choose which sacrifices to make.
Would you rather go drinking tonight but have an unproductive day tomorrow with a hangover, or behave tonight and wake up early for a productive day?
Would you rather spend your money shopping frivolously on Amazon, or invest in new equipment that could open up new opportunities for your business?
In some ways, building my own business is an alienating experience. While my friends are going out on weekends and enjoying happy hours, I find myself stuck behind my monitor editing a big project or having to show up at 4 am on a Saturday morning in order to catch that beautiful golden hour sunrise for a client production.
I was short a cocktail or two, but that edit turned out to be a game changing portfolio piece, and that 4 am production led to many more jobs.
You get to choose your sacrifice.
6. Whatever you are, be a good one.
The colloquial ‘ladder of success’ is really another name for the hierarchy of competence.
In any given field, there are people who are extremely good at what they do, and there are people who are extremely bad at what they do.
Guess which side of the spectrum gets rewarded to keep doing what they do?
No matter how busy I am with my work, I never fail to find time to develop my skills as a photographer and filmmaker.
I will make time to practice lighting design on the weekends shooting personal projects. I am always studying other people’s work to improve my composition techniques, camera movements, color theory, and creative writing.
Never stop being curious and never stop learning. Demand competence in yourself and the people you work with.
What we need more of in this world are people who are good at solving problems, not people who go out there and cause more of them.
7. Play long term games with long term people.
In sports, winning the tournament is not about winning any one particular game. It’s about winning the series of games over a period of time.
As Naval Ravikant suggests, seek to play long term games with long term people. Success is built on compound interest, which is won over many turns of the game.
From your employees to your clients, from your friends to your business partners, be selective with the people and companies you work with. They are all part of your team and your ecosystem.
Think long term, and don’t be afraid to take a loss up front in favor of gaining a much more meaningful relationship or win in the long term.
In my business, I only work with clients and people who I would personally be friends with — because they all end up becoming my friends.
Why would you enter into business with anyone who you couldn’t have a relationship with?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Originally from Hong Kong, Tim Chow is a commercial photographer, filmmaker, and educator currently based in sunny Arizona. From product photography to feature length documentary films, Tim's work is focused on telling compelling, authentic stories across the world.
Dedicated to helping other young creatives grow and succeed, Tim spends his time outside of work recording for his creative podcast and mentoring up-and-coming artists in the industry.