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Thoughts on working the side hustle

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For more than 10 years, I’ve been working on website projects outside of my main career. It’s related, of course, but runs at a completely different pace. Today’s blog is a reflection of the experience.

Background

I always intended to do work-outside-of-work as a bit of a hobby. I spun up a small hobby company called Purple Toaster in January 2010. I did a bit of work here and there before that, but that was when I first solidified it with a name and went forward from there. It took me 3 days of solid thinking to come up with that name: I remember pacing around my apartment and not getting a whole lot done until I invented the name. You can imagine I figured it out once I wandered into the kitchen on day 3. Thank goodness, my life could continue. It also helped the domain was available since it feels like practically any decent name is taken these days.

(I’m slightly guilting of domain squatting too but that’s another story.)

Purple Toaster initially did some IT support for dentists but the majority of work was on websites. I did Wordpress and Drupal websites until I got sick of using (and spending time updating) such sites on shared hosting and moved on to a serverless CMS that I called Koi CMS. I’m still specialising in dental websites by the way, which is a good niche I think!

Why do I do it?

The main reason is to feel that sense of getting things done. Fast. Without a lot of boundaries, you can be creative and deliver small projects in much less time than you could otherwise in an enterprise. It’s satisfying to be able to quote, design, develop, test and release within a matter of days. From scratch. That alone is very liberating.

Another reason is that I like to keep on top of technology. This works hand-in-hand with the pace because you can easily try new things, especially thanks to the way it’s easy to get started on certain cloud providers with just a credit card. It’s quite difficult to obtain working knowledge of technology unless you’re actually using it on a daily basis. So the experience is quite valuable.

There’s also the acquisition of new skills. Doing a bit of sales, quoting, support, and pretty much anything all rolled into one gig means you can try your hand at new things. Some are more exciting than others: I know that I’m not a huge fan of invoicing and accounting, but I understand the necessity in order to get paid!

Pitfalls

Employment contracts often have a clause about outside work and my current role is no different. I did enquire at the time of signing and I was told:

Ah, you’ll need to complete an Outside Work Approval form and have that signed by the director of the division.

So it sounded difficult, considering I had no idea who the director was at the time, but in the end it turned out to be ‘no big deal’. Great. But it’s always nice to be careful.

I also find a lot of my down time is either spent working on side projects or even just thinking about side projects and I think having plenty of time to get away from technology is so easy to procrastinate about. And here I am, punching out another blog of course!

More recently

The last two months have been a little tough. Thanks to word-of-mouth referrals, I’ve actually doubled the number of clients I have in a matter of 2 months. No jokes about going from 1 to 2 clients: the difference has been quite a lot more major than that. We’re talking 7 new websites in as many weeks. I would probably have even more clients if I didn’t pace myself and (unfortunately) not get back to some in proper time with quotes. It’s turning into more of a job than a hobby.

This has caused a bit of stress since the hours are long. I do a full day of work, then come home and do a few more hours of work at night on the hustle. The weekends are also peppered with side work. It’s not all bad news - of course clients pay for the service - but sometimes you just want a few minutes of rest rather than a few dollars.

Speaking of which, pricing is really hard. How do you price your services? It feels a bit like 50% magic and 50% science, so probably like a lot of things in life. Do you keep raising prices until people don’t pay? What if you high-ball and then feel guilty because you are over-charging? What if you end up paying tax?

I’ve actually had to enlisted my wife in recent times just to get through some of the website migrations. She’s picked up Markdown famously, but I feel like it’s a bit of a test of the relationship every time I ask her to convert an existing website into a series of well-formed Markdown files. Probably time to invest in that Wordpress2Markdown converter perhaps. I feel like such a tool would be magic: cleaning up as it goes. Possible, but pretty darn hard to pull off.

What’s next?

Probably a bit of a break from building websites to be honest. Once sites are migrated and are singing along nicely, there’s not a whole lot of work to do on them thankfully, mainly due to the serverless + static hosting architecture of my CMS. I’d like to focus a bit more on writing, playing retro games and something music related. Although that may end up being web-related again!

I’m definitely up for the next side challenge however. I’ve invested about 2 years in building a CMS that I can use and customers can use too. It’s been fun, but I think continuously building out new sites doesn’t really cover any new ground and I’ve only been adding little tweaks to the CMS here and there.