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How to Turn a Side-Hustle Into a Real and Viable Business

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In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fascinating shift was underway. Each year, an ever-growing portion of the workforce was counting on freelance work for some or all of their income. It was a phenomenon that many industry observers referred to as the rise of the gig economy.

By 2020, there were 64.8 million freelance workers in the US alone. And experts predicted that a full 50.9% of the US workforce would be freelancing by 2028. Then the pandemic changed everything. Suddenly, millions of workers with full-time jobs found themselves out of work and exploring their options.

Their predicament sent the freelance boom into hyper-drive. But it also changed the nature of the decisions workers faced. Before the pandemic, most workers were content to use their freelance work to augment the income from their full-time job. But now, a growing portion of the workforce is looking for ways to turn their freelance work into full-time businesses of their own.

The scope of the change is staggering. In 2021, approximately 380 out of every 100,000 US adults became entrepreneurs each month. That’s the highest percentage of new entrepreneurship in 25 years and more people are joining them every day.

But the fact is, it’s not easy to turn a side hustle into a full-time business of your own. Starting a business requires funding. And it also requires multidisciplinary expertise that most people simply don’t have.

There is some good news, however. It’s that there are lots of resources available to help new entrepreneurs to find their way and make the most of whatever budget they do have.

This is one of those resources.

To help those looking to make the transition from gig worker to full-time entrepreneur, here’s a guide to launching a one-person business on a shoestring budget. We’ll cover where it’s safe to cut corners, where it isn’t, and how to market your new business without a massive budget. If you’re ready, let’s dive in.

Step 1: Begin Your Journey With Incorporation

If you’re planning to turn your side hustle into a business, you must recognize one simple fact early on. It’s that people will only take your new business as seriously as you do. So, it’s not enough to dream up a name and start promoting it all over town. You have to turn your new business into a real, tangible legal entity.

That means you’re going to have to decide on a business structure and incorporate your new business. But there are several options you can pick to do so. Unless you have a lawyer in the family—and if you do, you’ll want to stay on their good side—you must begin by researching your available incorporation options.

Ideally, you’ll want to choose the best fit that provides you with the right mix of liability protection, tax benefits, and flexibility. For example, if you’re planning to stay as a one-person show for the foreseeable future, an LLC might suffice. But if you’ve got larger aspirations, an S or C corporation could be a better fit.

Be aware though, that depending on where you live, you’ll need to pay a fee to register your business. In some places, you’ll also pay an annual fee to continue operating—but the fees are typically small and the benefits are worth the cost. And this is an area where you don’t have to splurge.

You can cut some corners here by handling the necessary filings yourself. You don’t have to hire anyone to do it for you. It’s not anywhere near as difficult as you might think.


Step 2: Build an Online Presence

Once you’ve got yourself a bona fide business, the next step is to create an online presence for it. Besides doing quality work, this is the step that could determine how far your business will ultimately go. Fortunately—creating a robust online presence for your business isn’t anywhere near as hard or as costly as it used to be.

Step one is to secure a domain name and build a website. Depending on the nature of your work, you might need to devote some significant efforts to do so. For example, if you’re a graphic designer, you need your business’s website to show clients how fantastic your work is. If you’re trying to build an eCommerce brand, you’ll need a site with a built-in shopping cart system, payment processing, and drop shipping integrations.

The good news here is that most solo businesses can turn to any of the multitudes of low-cost website builders to get a high-quality website up and running. Most won’t cost more than $20 per month and come with everything you need to get started.

Beyond a website, the other components of your business’s online presence will consist of social media accounts, which shouldn’t cost a thing.

Step 3: Identify Your Target Market

You may have noticed by now that the steps we’ve covered so far aren’t very challenging — nor are they particularly costly. But your next steps will require you to spend a bit more money. That’s because they’ll involve marketing your business to potential new customers to keep your bottom line healthy. And although there are ways to contain some of those costs—which we’ll discuss—some spending will be inevitable.

Before you move on, though, you’re going to need to figure out who you need to target to avoid wasting what little upfront marketing budget you have to commit to the effort. To identify your target market, you should begin by creating a profile of the clients you had as a part-time freelancer. You’ll want to identify what they have in common, as well as what services they needed most often.

The idea is to try and define what your ideal customer looks like so you can find more prospects that fit their description.

And if you’ve had a diverse set of clients up to this point, don’t fret. You can use their individual profiles to create multiple target audiences. In some ways, you may be better off that way. It’ll make it much easier for you to employ market segmentation in your later marketing efforts.

At this stage, however, you should focus on identifying the customer profile that represents the largest targetable audience — so you won’t run out of potential customers as you’re getting off the ground.

Step 4: Devise and Execute a Startup Marketing Strategy

With your online presence all set up and your target audience identified, the next thing you’ll have to do is get to work attracting potential customers. And that means devising an appropriate marketing strategy and executing it to perfection.

how much you’ll need to spend will depend on your particular skill set and willingness to get in the trenches and work. But it’s just fine to start off with a limited marketing budget. In fact, some marketing experts see that as a natural place to start.

When starting on a limited budget, the one thing everyone has is ‘time’. We all have the same 24 hours. So use this time to your advantage and build your product, brand, or service.

When starting any business, you need a consistent flow of customers!

To attain them, you need to work hard to drive potential customers to your website. When money is limited, you need to make use of writing website content so it ranks on Google and drives traffic. You do this by building relationships with other website owners who can recommend your website and business.

As your customer base grows and you become busy, ‘time’ then becomes a problem. But now, you have ‘money’. With this regular flow of money, you can start outsourcing your digital marketing to an expert and grow your online business even more by using Google ads, Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, email marketing, SEO etc. Using experts in their field allows you to stay focused on what matters most to you…your business!

John Cammidge, Google Ads specialist from the UK.

Even when you reach the point where it makes sense to outsource some of your marketing workloads, there will always be a place for you to contribute to your own cause. You might, for example, contribute a regular blog column to your website and social channels. Doing that helps to keep you connected to your customers. You might also use your specific skills to create an online course that will function as a traffic magnet on your website in perpetuity.

Step 5: Make Your Early Customers Your Raison d’Être

At this point, all that’s left to do is to keep working on your marketing efforts and wait for them to bear fruit. But when they start to—in the form of new customers calling on your business—you’re going to need to pivot fast.

To put things simply, you need to make your initial customers the center of your world. 

That’s because keeping your first batch of new customers happy is the secret to making your business’s early growth sustainable. In short—you need to prioritize customer retention in the earliest stages of your business if you want to build the kind of financial wherewithal you’ll need to be more selective later on.

And the best part of reaching this stage is that it means you’ve successfully turned your side hustle into a real and viable business. At this point, your new company is no longer theoretical. It’s real and it’s—hopefully—paying your bills.

From there, the sky’s the limit.

Your new business will take you as far as you’re willing to go. And you’ll never have to return to anyone else’s payroll again. Before you know it, you’ll be the one cutting paychecks to others.

But that’s a topic for an entirely different article—which you’re welcome to write now that you’ve got the requisite business experience.


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5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers

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5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers

Who doesn’t like to have a good experience consuming content?

I know I do. And isn’t that what we – as both a consumer of content and a marketer of content – all want?

What if you create such a good experience that your audience doesn’t even realize it’s an “experience?” Here’s a helpful mish-mash of easy-to-do things to make that possible.

1. Write with an inclusive heart

There’s nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone who constantly talks about themselves. Check your text to see how often you write the words – I, me, we, and us. Now, count how often the word “you” is used. If the first-person uses are disproportionate to the second-person uses, edit to delete many first-person references and add more “you” to the text.

You want to let your audience know they are included in the conversation. I like this tip shared in Take Binary Bias Out of Your Content Conversations by Content Marketing World speaker Ruth Carter: Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns.

Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns, says @rbcarter via @Brandlovellc @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

2. Make your content shine brighter with an AI assist

Content published online should look different than the research papers and essays you wrote in school. While you should adhere to grammar rules and follow a style guide as best as possible, you also should prioritize readability. That requires scannable and easily digestible text – headings, bulleted text, short sentences, brief paragraphs, etc.

Use a text-polishing aid such as Hemingway Editor (free and paid versions) to cut the dead weight from your writing. Here’s how its color-coded review system works and the improvements to make:

  • Yellow – lengthy, complex sentences, and common errors
    • Fix: Shorten or split sentences.
  • Red – dense and complicated text
    • Fix: Remove hurdles and keep your readers on a simpler path.
  • Pink – lengthy words that could be shortened
    • Fix: Scroll the mouse over the problematic word to identify potential substitutes.
  • Blue – adverbs and weakening phrases
    • Fix: Delete them or find a better way to convey the thought.
  • Green – passive voice
    • Fix: Rewrite for active voice.

Grammarly’s paid version works well, too. The premium version includes an AI-powered writing assistant, readability reports, a plagiarism checker, citation suggestions, and more than 400 additional grammar checks.

In the image below, Grammarly suggests a way to rephrase the sentence from:

“It is not good enough any longer to simply produce content “like a media company would”.

To:

“It is no longer good enough to produce content “as a media company would”.

Much cleaner, right?

3. Ask questions

See what I did with the intro (and here)? I posed questions to try to engage with you. When someone asks a question – even in writing – the person hearing (or reading) it is likely to pause for a split second to consider their answer. The reader’s role changes from a passive participant to an active one. Using this technique also can encourage your readers to interact with the author, maybe in the form of an answer in the comments.

4. Include links

Many content marketers include internal and external links in their text for their SEO value. But you also should add links to help your readers. Consider including links to help a reader who wants to learn more about the topic. You can do this in a couple of ways:

  • You can link the descriptive text in the article to content relevant to those words (as I did in this bullet point)
  • You can list the headlines of related articles as a standalone feature (see the gray box labeled Handpicked Related Content at the end of this article).

Add links to guide readers to more information on a topic – not just for SEO purposes says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

You also can include on-page links or bookmarks in the beginning (a table of contents, of sorts) in longer pieces to help the reader more quickly access the content they seek to help you learn more about a topic. This helps the reader and keeps visitors on your website longer.

5. Don’t forget the ‘invisible’ text

Alt text is often an afterthought – if you think about it all. Yet, it’s essential to have a great content experience for people who use text-to-speech readers. Though it doesn’t take too much time, I find that customizing the image description content instead of relying on the default technology works better for audience understanding.

First, ask if a listener would miss something if they didn’t have the image explained. If they wouldn’t, the image is decorative and probably doesn’t need alt text. You publish it for aesthetic reasons, such as to break up a text-heavy page. Or it may repeat information already appearing in the text (like I did in the Hemingway and Grammarly examples above).

If the listener would miss out if the image weren’t explained well, it is informative and requires alt text. General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text. That’s a short sentence or two to convey the image’s message. Don’t forget to include punctuation.

General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text, says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

For both decorative and informative images, include the photo credits, permissions, and copyright information, in the caption section.

For example, if I were writing an article about Best Dogs for Families, I would include an image of a mini Bernedoodle as an example because they make great family pets. Let’s use this image of my adorable puppy, Henri, and I’ll show you both a good and bad example of alt text.

An almost useless alt-text version: “An image showing a dog.”

Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.

It wastes valuable characters with the phrase “an image showing.”

Use the available characters for a more descriptive alt text: “Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.”

It’s more descriptive, and I only used 112 characters, including spaces.

Want to learn more? Alexa Heinrich, an award-winning social media strategist, has a helpful article on writing effective image descriptions called The Art of Alt Text. @A11yAwareness on Twitter is also a great resource for accessibility tips.

Improve your content and better the experience

Do any of these suggestions feel too hard to execute? I hope not. They don’t need a bigger budget to execute. They don’t need a lengthy approval process to implement. And they don’t demand much more time in production.

They just need you to remember to execute them the next time you write (and the time after that, and the time after that, and the … well, you get the idea.)

If you have an easy-to-implement tip to improve the content experience, please leave it in the comments. I may include it in a future update.

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

If you have an idea for an original article you’d like to share with the CMI audience, you could get it published on the site. First, read our blogging guidelines and write or adjust your draft accordingly. Then submit the post for consideration following the process outlined in the guidelines.

In appreciation for guest contributors’ work, we’re offering free registration to one paid event or free enrollment in Content Marketing University to anyone who gets two new posts accepted and published on the CMI site in 2023.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023

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The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023

Product marketing is essential, even if you only sell one or two products at your organization.

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3 email marketing shifts to make in 2023

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3 email marketing shifts to make in 2023

Whew! We made it to 2023! As we closed in on the end of the year in December, the finish line seemed awfully far away. Many marketers told me they were busier than ever. 

I myself was fielding calls for strategy help, working on business deals and managing the chaos all the way to the eve of Christmas Eve, something that rarely happens in my 20-plus-year career. 

Look back and celebrate, then move on

The first business for 2023 will be to step back, clear your head and take stock of all the great things you accomplished in 2022 despite the odds (i.e., coming out of COVID, going into a rebound and COVID round 2, moving into supply-chain shortages and other hiccups, facing down a potential recession) and how they affected the work you did to succeed.

And now it’s 2023. I hope you got your budget request approved and you’re ready to move ahead with a clean slate and new KPIs to hit. You’re probably wondering, “What can I do now to grow my program?

3 directional changes to grow your email program

Naturally, every marketer’s goals will be unique. We have different audiences, challenges, resources and goals. But I’m focusing on three major directional changes with my clients this year. Which of these could help you succeed this year?

1. Stop sending so many emails

Yeah, I know. That sounds strange coming from somebody who believes wholeheartedly in email and its power to build your business. But even I have my limits!

Email during this last holiday shopping season was insane. In my 20+ years in the email industry, I cannot remember a time, even during the lockdown days of COVID-19, when my inbox was so full. 

I’m not the only one who noticed. Your customers also perceived that their inboxes were getting blasted to the North Pole. And they complained about it, as the Washington Post reported (“Retailers fire off more emails than ever trying to get you to shop“).

I didn’t run any numbers to measure volume, isolate cadences or track frequency curves. But every time I turned around, I saw emails pouring into my inbox. 

My advice for everyone on frequency: If you throttled up during the holiday, now it’s time to throttle back.

This should be a regularly scheduled move. But it’s important to make sure your executives understand that higher email frequency, volume and cadence aren’t the new email norm. 

If you commit to this heavier schedule, you’ll drive yourself crazy and push your audience away, to other brands or social media.

If you did increase cadence, what did it do for you? You might have hit your numbers, but consider the long-term costs: 

  • More unsubscribes.
  • More spam complaints.
  • Deliverability problems.
  • Lower revenue per email. 

Take what you learned from your holiday cadence as an opportunity to discover whether it’s a workable strategy or only as a “break glass in case of emergency” move.

My advice? Slow down. Return to your regular volume, frequency and cadence. Think of your customers and their reactions to being inundated with emails over 60 days.

2. Stop spamming

In that Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, I was encouraged that it cited one of my email gripes — visiting websites and then getting emails without granting permission first. 

I could have given the Post a salty quote about my experiences with SafeOpt and predatory email experiences (“Business stress is no excuse to spam“) for visitors to its clients’ websites. 

Successful email marketers believe in the sanctity of permission. That permission-based practice is what you want to be involved in. Buying a list means you don’t hire a company to sell you one, whether it’s a data broker or a tech provider like SafeOpt. 

Spamming people doesn’t work in the long term. Sure, I’ve heard stories from people who say they use purchased lists or companies like SafeOpt and it makes them money. But that’s a singular view of the impact. 

Email is the only marketing channel where you can do it wrong but still make money. But does that make it right? 

The problem with the “it made us money” argument is that there’s nowhere to go after that. Are you measuring how many customers you lost because you spammed them or the hits your sender reputation took? 

You might hit a short-term goal but lose the long-term battle. When you become known as an unreliable sender, you risk losing access to your customers’ inboxes.

Aside from the permission violation, emailing visitors after they leave your site is a wasted effort for three reasons:

  • A visit is not the same as intent. You don’t know why they landed on your site. Maybe they typed your URL as a mistake or discovered immediately that your brand wasn’t what they wanted. Chasing them with emails won’t bring them back.
  • You aren’t measuring interest. Did they visit multiple pages or check out your “About” or FAQ pages? As with intent, just landing on a page doesn’t signal interest.
  • They didn’t give you their email address. If they had interest or intent, they would want to connect with your brand. No email address, no permission.

Good email practice holds that email performs best when it’s permission-based. Most ESPs and ISPs operate on that principle, as do many email laws and regulations.

But even in the U.S., where opt-out email is still legal, that doesn’t mean you should send an email without permission just because somebody landed on your website.

3. Do one new thing

Many email marketers will start the year with a list of 15 things they want to do over the next two months. I try to temper those exuberant visions by focusing on achievable goals with this question: 

“What one thing could you do this year that could make a great difference in your email program’s success?”

When I started a job as head of strategy for Acxiom, I wanted to come up with a long list of goals to impress my new boss. I showed it to my mentor, the great David Baker and he said, “Can you guarantee that you can do all of these things and not just do them but hit them out of the park?”

Hmmmm…

“That’s why you don’t put down that many goals,” he said. “Go in with just one. When that one is done, come up with the next one. Then do another. If you propose five projects, your boss will assume you will do five projects. If you don’t, it just means you didn’t get it done.”

That was some of the best advice I’ve ever received and I pass it on to you. 

Come up with one goal, project or change that will drive your program forward. Take it to your boss and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do this year.”

To find that one project, look at your martech and then review MarTech’s six most popular articles from 2022 for expert advice.

You’ll find plenty of ideas and tips to help you nail down your one big idea to drive growth and bring success. But be realistic. You don’t know what events could affect your operations. 

Drive your email program forward in 2023

The new year has barely begun, but I had a little trouble getting motivated to take on what’s shaping up to be a beast of a year. You, too?

I enjoyed my time off over the holidays. Got in some golf with my dad and his buddies, ate great food and took time to step back and appreciate the phenomenal people I work with and our amazing industry. 

What gets me going at last? Reaching out to my team, friends and you. Much of my motivation comes from fellow marketers — what you need, what you worry about and what I can do to help you succeed. 

If you’re on the struggle bus with me, borrow some motivation from your coworkers and teammates, so we can gather together 12 months from now and toast each other for making it through another year. 

It’s time to strap on your marketer helmet and hit the starter. Here’s to another great year together. Let’s get the job done!


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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About the author

Ryan Phelan

As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.

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