Earlier this year, I faced a major setback in my career. It forced me out of my comfort zone — my position at the university I’d been working at for seven years. It came as a shock that I’d suddenly have to leave in six months. I was overwhelmed by the anxiety of not knowing what my next step would be.
Fast forward six months: I left my university position as the proud owner of an online Spanish school. Looking back, I can tell how much I’ve grown over just a few months compared to my previous stable years at the university. But none of it would have happened if I had not started a side project three years ago while I was still working at the university with no plans to leave. I’m now a big advocate of side project/side hustle, especially for people who are working in academia, like I was.
My 4 major advantages of owning a side business/hustle:
1. Connecting to the “real world”
It’s easy to lose connection to the outside world when you’ve been immersed in academia for so long. In academia, we play by a particular set of rules that only work in the ivory tower. Thanks to my side project, I learned how to set up a business, a website, and run social media campaigns. I learned important business vocabulary terms, such as SEO (search engine optimization) and KPI (key performance index), which I would still be ignorant of if I’d confined myself in my comfort zone of academia.
It’s important to possess skills that are in demand in the outside world, as it’s difficult to land a tenured position in academia. And I’ve found that most skills and experiences for an academic job are not applicable to jobs outside of that circle. Gaining skills that are in demand in the market helps make the transition to jobs in other sectors easier when an academic job just doesn’t work out.
Building my online business from scratch forced me to learn such new skills. It was a steep learning curve, of course — for example, I had to learn how to build a website with WordPress, something I’d never done before. But the determination of making the business work gave me the motivation to overcome all the frustration that came along with it, and I eventually learned through lots of trial and error.
2. Expanding my network
Being an introvert, I often feel slightly socially awkward in a group. After starting my side project, I became more proactive about engaging in business networking activities and talking about my business with new people I met. In the beginning, I was shy and unsure of telling people around me about my online business, but after attending many business meetups and seeing how others talked about their own, I started to feel comfortable talking about mine. Since I now talk more openly about my work, I often get new insights and perspectives, which I would otherwise never have if I limited myself to the circle of academia.
3. Build something that I own
In my job in academia, I was in an auxiliary position. I didn’t own the results of the projects I worked on. In my side business, I am entitled to all the effort and results I have made — be it the books I have published, the blog posts I have written, or even something as small as the Instagram posts I have made. I can build my own brand and oversee how it develops, which has become my motivation for devoting my time and effort to actively growing my business.
4. The ability to deal with crises
During the same period when I was dealing with my career setback, I also needed to cope with the departure of my business partner for my side business. We had some disagreements over her buyout arrangement, which was emotionally straining. I had some sleepless nights over our arguments, but I came out stronger and armed with more wisdom and resources for dealing with crises. And I learn an important lesson: never start a business with a partner without a formal departure agreement.
Looking back at where I was six months ago, I realize I have come a long way and achieved a lot. It has never been easier to start a side project or business than it is now, given how many tools and resources there are available online. There are books, blogs, and podcasts that details the process. Starting a small online business, such as an online store, requires relatively low upfront costs and makes the process pretty low risk, in my experience.
Getting started with a side project
There are infinite possibilities and options for what you can do on the side. All you will need to do is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, and you are guaranteed to gain a lot more than you expect in the process.
Jeanie Tsui is a tango dancer who spends a lot of late nights in milongas (“tango balls”). When she’s not dancing the tango, she’s working on her online Spanish school Master Spanish Now. She has written two books on helping tango dancers learn Spanish, and her next book will help people to learn Spanish for work and business.
Image via Unsplash