"Side gigs" have entered our vernacular to describe any job, hobby, or practice meant to generate income in addition to a full-time or mainstream career. This is partially due to the rise of the "gig economy" thanks to apps like Uber and Airbnb, which allow anyone with a smartphone and a product or service to connect with other people in their area for an exchange. In theory, side gigs are fun, easy ways to make some fast cash on the side--but in reality, they're a bit harder to pull off.

The Main Problems

There are a few main problems with side gigs that makes it difficult to use them in generating a profit:

  • They conflict with your main gig. You're already working 40 hours a week, which means you won't get much time to focus on your other work.
  • Competition is high. Side gigging is hugely popular, so you'll face stiff competition no matter where you try to enter.
  • There are too many options. You can do anything, from selling art to running a podcast. But not everything is going to be successful.

How to Be Profitable

Generic tips like "work hard" and "choose a gig that can make you lots of money" are obvious, but these are the lesser-known secrets of what you need to do to make a side gig profitable--and they aren't all pleasant:

1. It takes a ton of research.

Striking a profit means you need to know exactly what you're getting into, what your competition is like, what your target market is like, and what the risks and opportunities are. You can't let your whims or instincts guide you (unless you already have many years of experience in a given industry). For example, if you want to be a landlord and turn a profit renting properties (or flipping properties), you first need to research the property itself, the neighborhood, other properties in the neighborhood, and if you're new to being a landlord, all the legal requirements for landlords in your area.

2. There's a steep curve for profitability.

You should also be prepared for a steep curve in profitability in most disciplines. For example, entry-level artists will likely make very little money, while experienced artists make significant profits. The most popular YouTube stars may make millions of dollars, while even netting a few thousand views regularly won't amount to much. This means you should probably focus your efforts in one key area, rather than spreading your work around.

3. Eliminating the competition is a top priority.

Since every market is flooded with competition, your first job is to eliminate that competition. The best way to do this is to focus on one specific niche that isn't being covered, rather than a general audience. Choose a target market that isn't being addressed, and you'll have a pseudo-monopoly on that population.

4. You should probably like what you do.

Side gigging is going to take a lot of your free time, since you'll also be dealing with a full-time job and adult responsibilities. Even if profitability is your main goal, you should probably focus on a gig that you personally enjoy. That way, you'll feel good pursuing it even on your most stressful days, and you'll be less likely to abandon your investment later on.

5. You need to fail a few times.

Approximately 95 percent of bloggers eventually abandon their blogs. Why? Because they get tired of what they're doing or because they realize they aren't going to get anywhere. If you go into a side gig expecting to get rich, you're going to be devastated when things don't progress as you imagined. However, if you go in accepting that failure is a near-inevitability, you'll be much more likely to learn from your mistakes and keep going, regardless.

6. Frugality is everything.

The average cost to start a business is $30,000, but that doesn't mean you can't start one for just a few hundred dollars. Remember, your profitability is based on how much money you spend just as much as it's based on how much money you bring in. If you're successful in controlling your costs, you could end up seeing just as much profit as someone with a substantially higher revenue stream and proportionally higher expenses. Invest minimally until you know what you're doing.

7. It's all about demand.

No matter what kind of side gig you're pursuing, the only way you're going to get money is if people are willing to spend that money. That means your first goal is drumming up demand. This sounds like a basic concept, but it's one most people miss in their excitement to start something new; they focus on what they want to do, instead of what other people want them to do. They build momentum on their own favorite ideas, and neglect to consider a target audience. If you want to be successful, you need to flip that perspective.

Side gigging isn't for everybody, and it certainly doesn't guarantee a profit. Before you jump into a side gig, do your research, evaluate where you stand in your current job, and test the waters. There's no harm in experimenting, but you need to think rationally and invest conservatively if you want to be profitable.

Published on: Jul 28, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.