Side-hustle mindset versus product-business mindset

If you occupy the same technocratic sphere I do, you know what a “side hustle” is. In fact, there’s a good chance you either have one, or feel like you ought to have one.

Note: I’m not a big fan of the term “side hustle”. It has seedy connotations. But it seems to be the most commonly understood term for a product one develops on the side in order to bring in a second stream of income. So I’ll use it here.

Nearly everyone who has a side hustle dreams of it someday becoming so successful that it becomes their primary source of income. For many, this is an achievable dream. But there are growing pains in making that transition.

I’ve made the transition from selling one e-book on the side, to working full time on a media and education business. So I feel like I have a little bit of insight into this process. And from what I’ve seen, one of the biggest dangers you’ll face as you make the transition from side hustle to product business is failing to also make a mindset transition at the same time.

The thing is, a side-hustle mindset can doom a product business.

When you have a side hustle, every bit of income from it feels like gravy. Of course it’s not; not really. You put a significant amount of work into that side product, and until you recoup that lost time the project is  a net loss. But it feels like gravy.

When you have a product business, nothing is gravy anymore. It’s just income. And it’s either enough to cover the month’s expenses… or it’s not.

When you have a side hustle, a sale is something you throw at launch, or for fun, or to get a little extra cash to fund a vacation trip.

When you have a product business, discounts are something you plan out carefully as part of your overall yearly strategy for operating in the black. Because, as any retailer will tell you, promotional sales make up a huge percentage of revenue. They aren’t “bonuses” anymore; they are pillars.

When you have a side hustle, you can start thinking about a second product when the inspiration strikes.

When you have a product business, you have to plan what you’ll be launching in six months, and what you’ll be launching a year from now.

With a side-hustle, you can obsess over whatever interests you, no matter how niche, obscure, speculative, or anachronistic.

With a product business, you have to balance your personal interests with a practical awareness of where a market exists—and a weather eye to the directions in which that market is moving.

When you have a side hustle, you can obsess over every part of the business. You can set things up exactly the way you think they should be run.

When you have a product business, you have to choose processes and tools with an eye towards delegation. Or else you’ll make yourself irreplaceable, and drown under the workload.

With a side hustle you don’t have to scale if you don’t want to.

With a product business you must grow. Your expenses will increase. Your market will gradually move out from under you.  Competition will appear. Your growing product library will require maintenance. For a thousand different reasons, growth is necessary for sustainability.

With a side hustle you can fail (relatively) harmlessly.

With a product business you can’t afford to move on an idea without validating it thoroughly.

With a side hustle you can focus most of your energy on developing your own expertise in the problem domain.

With a product business you need to spend at least at much time developing your audience as you do developing yourself.

With a side hustle, you may be able to coast on reputation, depending on how much you have.

With a product business, eventually you will have to learn to market yourself.

The hardest difference to get used to, in my experience, is this:

With a side hustle, everyone is rooting for you. They see you building something on the side and they say “good for you!”, and they think about maybe doing the same thing themselves someday.

With a product business, fatigue eventually sets in. People will get tired of hearing from you. They may not understand that having a product business means you have to not only establish awareness, but maintain awareness. Where once people were universally supportive, you will start to hear from a few people who are tired of you perpetually “selling”.

In my experience these people are usually looking at your business as a side-hustle, and making assumptions based on that perspective. If you fail to recognize the disconnect between their perspective and yours, this kind of feedback can be disproportionately discouraging.

Bottom line:

My advice if you want to develop your side hustle into something bigger is that you start adopting the product business mindset now. Don’t wait until you are “surprised by success”.

You’ll save yourself some painful adjustments down the road.