Operations

Don’t quit your day job: The dream is an eCommerce side gig that runs itself

We’ve all heard stories of people who drop everything to pursue their passion and build a huge business doing it. And we’ve also heard stories of those hustlers who work sixteen hours a day: eight at their day job and eight at their side gigs.

But that’s not the only way to pursue a new business idea and make some money from it. Far from it.

Here’s the real dream: an eCommerce side gig that runs on autopilot. One where the bulk of the work can be done upfront, to create a framework that makes subsequent updates quicker and less difficult. The dream is a gig that generates passive revenue year-round without having to invest so much time that you burn out, but where you still maintain complete control over every decision.

That sounds like a fantasy. But tons of people are stewarding side gigs just like this, adding supplemental income (and in some cases, much more than that), without the uncertainty of going in full time or the stress of essentially working two jobs.

We’ll take a look at some successful types of eCommerce business that can provide a (mostly) passive revenue stream, allowing the entrepreneurs who run them to continue working their day jobs and not worry about burning out or never seeing their family and friends.

Build an online course to share your knowledge

Being a teacher is a difficult job. It takes hours of prep for every class, the ability to juggle the needs of multiple students, at different levels and with different problems at all once, and an understanding of how to evaluate work and give helpful feedback. You might think that working as an online instructor requires the same type of investment, but platforms like Teachable, Podia, Thinkific, and Udemy make it easier than ever to create and sell an online course. You can take all the knowledge and expertise you’ve gained through years of schooling and professional development and monetize it with a structured online course.

The requirements will differ depending on your platform, but like most eCommerce side gigs, online courses can be built so that the bulk of the work is done upfront. Take ClickMinded, an SEO course built by Tommy Griffith. While managing SEO for PayPal, Griffith was asked to lead training for the team. After receiving positive feedback from his peers, he realized there might be interest in the content from people outside of PayPal. He decided to offer the training to a wider audience.

Griffith took the framework he had developed for his PayPal training and expanded on it to create a course about the fundamentals of SEO. While the course has gone through many iterations over the years, he was able to continue at his position at PayPal (and later at Airbnb), while the course brought in a mostly passive income stream, requiring only occasional content updates. And he’s not alone; there are thousands of courses offered through these platforms, most of which are asynchronous.

Rather than live, instructor-led sessions, these courses use prerecorded webinars and supplemental material like eBooks and blog posts to deliver educational content to students. That makes them perfect for an eCommerce side gig, because the work to create them is upfront. Once you’ve developed the materials, the course can be sold and resold over and over again, bringing in revenue without additional work. Of course, it is important to make sure the content of your class is up-to-date, but the groundwork is laid out beforehand and updates are usually less work than the initial creation.

These courses also often serve another purpose. Instructors are able to promote their own personal brand and expand their network through the students who attend their course. That can lead to additional income via things like speaking, consulting, or paid writing.

Monetize your creative output with POD

There are thousands of artists and musicians selling their work through eCommerce stores around the world. Musicians are promoting their music on Bandcamp and artists are using print on demand (POD) platforms like RedBubble and Printful to turn their passion into something tangible. With so many platforms available to help facilitate an artistic side project, it’s no surprise that people like Printful customer Dionna Dorsey are seeing lots of success with side projects.

Dorsey runs District of Clothing, an eCommerce apparel brand, while also working full time as a creative director. She takes messages of inspiration and empowerment and distills their message down into straightforward t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats. Using a print on demand platform has enabled her to create these different pieces of clothing in less time than it would have taken to produce them herself.

Print on demand means you don’t have to worry about the logistics of printing, warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping. You can focus all your effort on finding and serving your customers.

Since she doesn’t have to worry about the logistics of printing, warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping, she can spend more of her time on promoting her new brand. Starting out in 2014, she leveraged her existing community to find influencers who could feature her shirts on their respective blogs and social media accounts.

“I was a part of a creative group here in Washington, DC, called the Creative Collective, and I passed out a few shirts to women with whom I worked,” Dorsey told Printful. “They all had large Instagram followings, and some of them were blog owners. Passing out shirts to them, and them taking their own pictures [and sharing on their social media and blogs] – it started to pick up steam.”

District of Clothing via Instagram.

Finding a third party provider that helped streamline production took some of the effort off Dorsey’s plate, which gave her more time to focus on building a brand and finding her audience. When starting a side gig that seeks to monetize your creative output, it’s important to understand what aspects of the business can be outsourced to a third party. Without Printful it would have been much more difficult to get District of Clothing off the ground, and it certainly would have added hours of time to the process.

Capitalizing on your creative output gives you the ability to earn a little extra on top of your full-time salary while making you happy. The authenticity that comes from that will resonate with customers seeking out the kind of products you’re creating.

Provide customers with easy access to hard-to-find products

Subscription boxes are seeing incredible success in today’s eCommerce market. With powerhouse brands like Stich Fix leading the way, it’s no surprise that customers are able to get almost anything they want via this method. From clothing and beauty to pop culture products and beef jerky, it’s never been easier to find a monthly recurring subscription box that fits a specific niche market.

With such an interest in these of niche subscription boxes, there’s also been a boom in eCommerce platforms that help offload some of the logistics of providing this type of service to customers. Companies like ShipMonk sync directly with shopping cart providers to handle all aspects of order fulfillment, from kitting and assembly to shipping, while platforms like Subbly and Cratejoy make it easy to take orders and manage subscriptions.

This makes the whole process easier and gives store owners the opportunity to focus on marketing and new customer acquisition. Take online candy subscription box Candy Japan.

When Bemmu Sepponen returned to Finland from studying abroad in Japan he found that one of the things he missed most was the candy he could find there. (If you spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably heard about the staggering variety of Kit Kats that can be purchased in Japan.) Sepponen saw this niche as an opportunity and decided to launch a candy-themed subscription box. It has since reached $10,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

Candy subscription box via Candy Japan.

Sepponen promoted his subscription box via social media and user-generated content sites like Reddit and BuzzFeed. Through those platforms Candy Japan gained its first 300 subscribers and soon plateaued.

The logistics of sourcing the candy and shipping it from Japan comprised the bulk of Sepponen’s initial work for the business, but once he figured out how to navigate the Japanese postal service it became substantially less difficult. Through sites like Hacker News, Sepponen was able to connect with people in Japan that could eventually help optimize this aspect of his business. This gave him more direct access to the Japanese candy manufacturing pipeline, which helped decrease margins on the purchase of candy and streamline the packing process.

Thanks to new subscription-specific eCommmerce tools, it is now possible to run a subscription box business with just a few hours of work per week.

Once he had his sourcing set up, the main time investment to run the business was essentially purchasing the candy, boxing it up, and shipping to customers, along with marketing and customer service. Today, solopreneurs launching subscription boxes can use platforms like ShipMonk, Subbly, or Cratejob to automate much of that process. Even many marketing tasks can be automated using platforms like Shoelace, which builds and manages retargeting ad campaigns for eCommerce stores, or Jilt, through which eCommerce shops can create automated email marketing campaigns that run on their own once set up. Customer support can also be outsourced, using services like Influx or Simplr, which can handle routine or lower level inquiries.

That makes it possible to run this type of business with just a few hours of work per week after the initial effort to put sourcing relationships in place, build out the site, and train outsourcers.

Candy Japan found a niche market and gave its customers easy access to something that would otherwise have been difficult to find. Outside of Japan, these candies would be nearly impossible to purchase. In 2010, Sepponen had to put in considerable effort to get to a point where his side gig was more or less on autopilot. This initial input, while still the most substantial effort in creating a business like this, is now much easier than it was for Sepponen due to a number of subscription-focused eCommerce tools that take care of fulfillment and logistics. Starting a new subscription box is now as easy as finding the right market and giving customers access to niche products.

Act as an intermediary with a dropshipping business

Dropshipping is one of the easiest ways to start an online business. You don’t need to manufacture a product up front or deal with warehousing and fulfillment logistics, all you need is a store and a relationship with a dropshipper. In the past, connecting with dropshippers was an arduous task that involved a lot of research, cold calling, and negotiation. Taking and fulfilling orders was a manual process that wasn’t difficult, but could be time consuming.

But there now exist dropshipping platforms like Doba and Oberlo that make it easier than ever to find products to stock your store and fulfill them for customers.

Much like subscription boxes, the success of a dropshipping side gig will be dependent on the kind of product being sold and the margins you can get. If you’re selling a dress shirt for $20 that wholesales for $15, your $5 margin will get eaten up in a hurry by the added costs of working with the wholesaler who handles fulfillment. That means there will likely be additional charges for:

  • Packaging
  • Shipping
  • Returns

With the $20 dress shirt as an example, let’s break down the costs further. The shirt itself goes for $15, but to have it packaged, let’s say it costs you an additional $1 per shirt. On top of this, there are shipping costs of around $2. That takes your profit down from $5 to $2, meaning you’ll need to sell more than twice the number of shirts to get the same return on your investment. If a customer returns the shirt and the manufacturer charges more than $2 to process it, that eats away your entire profit. To make money with this kind of business you need to be absolutely sure of the unit economics involved.

Tim Vangsness via YouTube.

This sounds confusing, but with the right information, a dropshipping business can be launched with almost all of the effort put in up front, and then run with very little time investment each week. Take Tim Vangsness, who started a dropshipping business for under $500 using Oberlo.

Vangsness, who has been running a dropshipping business since 2016, also produces a YouTube show though which he offers lessons about how to run this type of store. He’s seen success by combining Facebook Ads, Oberlo, and Shopify to create a business that doesn’t take a ton of time to run.

  • Facebook Ads: For acquiring new customers. Vangsness uses social media ads to get his products in front of potential customers, targeted based on interests.
  • Oberlo: For finding products. Oberlo gives Vangsness access to different types of products, as well as information about their popularity, price, and availability.
  • Shopify: For the storefront. Because Oberlo integrates directly with Shopify, the process of order fulfillment—which used to be a manual process of sending order information to a dropshipper—is streamlined and automated.

By utilizing a number of different platforms, each built to automate or facilitate one aspect of the customer experience, Vangsness has been able to sell a number of different products successfully. Setting up the store to run on autopilot means that this eCommerce side gig can generate more income in less time after it’s up and running.

Takeaways

These stories represent just a tiny fraction of the successful Commerce side gigs solopreneurs are launching every day. Each one can show you something about how to successfully pursue your own store. Some side projects ultimately grow into fulltime jobs, as was the case for Jeff Sheldon with Ugmonk, while others remain experiments. Regardless of how you measure the success of your own side gig, it’s important to know that each story has something you can learn.

► Start with a community

Each side gig we looked at today built a community around its product. Whether it’s through teaching, social media, crowdfunding, or blogging, a group of people who share your interest in a particular niche are your potential customer pool.

► Be passionate about the project

Side gigs should be a passion project. You’re taking time out of your day that would otherwise be spent with family and friends, so it has to be important enough to warrant that investment. The happiness you can gain from these projects also has positive effects on your day job.

► Find your measure of success

No side gig is the same, and measuring your success based on the success of others won’t work. As you’re thinking about what you want this project to be, make sure to figure out what makes it successful or not. It could be the act of creating something, making a bit of extra spending cash, or reaching like-minded people; it just has to be specific to your project.

► Use the project to learn

If you come out at the other end of a side project having gained insight into something new, consider it a success. A side gig should be an opportunity for you to experiment with something outside of your day job. You can take what you learned and apply it to new projects, finding more success with each try.

► Maintain a balance

Don’t hustle all the time. Side projects are a great way to learn something new or try out an idea you’ve always wanted to do, but they shouldn’t be a detriment to the rest of your life. Find a balance between work and life that fits your needs and don’t compromise.

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