When is a side hustle a good idea?

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All ancillary activities are not created equal. Anything that takes away from your main business requires serious consideration before embarking on it. Additional projects have the potential to add or subtract. They can make or break an entrepreneur and his business.

Depending on who you talk to, you get a different impression of what an afterthought entails. Some see it as an additional income stream, allowing them to diversify and not have all their eggs in one proverbial basket. Others are so focused and aware of where their attention is that they are proud non-serious entrepreneurs and tunnel vision with their business.

Without a clear idea in your head, you could be sidetracked by what works for someone else. Here’s how to identify the side project type of yours and make the right decision for the future.

Your main activity

Let’s use the analogy of a car for your main activity. You invested in your car and now you are responsible for running it. Your car will take you where you want to go. It is reliable and it serves you well.

All the energy and focus that goes into your car comes back to you. You take care of it, it takes care of you in return. You keep it clean and maintained with regular maintenance. You handle it well, it runs smoothly. You make the car look and sound good and it stands out. You get out what you put in, sometimes more.

Multiply in the short term by improving the engine

Starting some side projects is like putting a better engine in your car. With the same effort, it goes further, faster and more efficiently. You burn less fuel over more miles. If your car is solid and can handle it, upgrading the engine is a good decision.

In side project terms, these are the ones that ramp up your efforts while channeling energy in the same direction. It’s the press and media appearances that put you in front of your perfect audience, the podcast tour with popular shows, the talks and events where you meet prospective clients. It’s the company you invest in that shares the same audience, but doesn’t cost you any time. It’s the upgrades and improvements that allow you to do more for your customers.

Once your assets, processes and people are firmly in place, side projects that act as engines mean you can do more and better. You can make your mark in less time and make a bigger impact. They multiply. The trick is to recognize the valuable experiments and the relevant trials, not the unnecessary distractions.

Long-term multiplication with trailers

Some side projects work as trailers for your car. They are add-ons that may slow it down at first. The car has to get used to the trailer. It has to learn to steer and brake. In the short term, carrying the trailer costs your car resources and you have to work harder to drive at the same speed.

Over time, however, it will get better. The car and the trailer can do more together. They are a more serious outfit. They carry more payload, run well and can increase output while using the same wheels and the same driver. Efficiency improvements have been made in every lane and the car is getting used to being part of a larger vehicle. The specs have changed and you’re racing on a different road.

In terms of side projects, these are the additional projects that are in line with your main activity. The vertical or horizontal integration. The restaurant meals at home maintenance. It may require a different menu and more hands on deck, but the kitchen space is shared and the new offerings bring the same loyal customers more. It is the agency that offers a different service to its existing clients. The coffee shop that buys a coffee roaster or opens a new shop. The author is writing another book. The fitness center invests in machines for making fitness equipment or cool sportswear.

As with the engine, the car must first be solid. A trailer on a car that is not fit for purpose means that both will break down. For a car that is comfortable with adding trailers, each additional trailer is a smaller burden. There is a system and progress seems to be effortless.

Subtract and share by buying a scooter

Some side projects are the automotive analogy of buying a scooter. You’ve taken the time to work on your car, sharpen the engine, make sure it runs well, and then you trade the transport. Maybe the scooter will fit in the car, but you can’t drive both at the same time. On paper it makes no sense. You had a great car, ready for a new engine and multiple trailers, and ended up jumping ship for an alternate mode.

In side project terms, this is the unrelated effort. Having two jobs with no skill crossover. Build a scalable business while getting booked for irrelevant gigs. It’s the tech company that has a bake sale on the weekend, the agency owner that starts a wedding ring, or the landscaper that makes clothes for dogs. No crossover, no economies of scale, no point.

A side project is a scooter when its success can only come at the expense of your car. For a car owner considering a scooter, something is going wrong. They have probably become bored with their car or take it for granted. The passion is gone and there is no inclination to revive it. In terms of time and energy, something has to be done with it. Cars rarely tick off without a little TLC every now and then, so the cost of the scooter should include the losses the car can now incur.

Motorcycle, trailer or scooter?

When in doubt, work on your car. Build the solid foundation, scale it up and be able to handle a new engine or new additions. If there’s no passion left or you’re on a soggy squib or slow burner, it might be time to start all over again.

Occasionally, side issues go very well and eventually become the main focus of an entrepreneur. But for someone with an established business, they’re much less likely to be worth the risk. There is rarely a good reason to divide your attention completely. Watch out for motorbikes and trailers and avoid the scooters.

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