Side gigs, a.k.a. freelancing, moonlighting, side businesses, etc. are all the rage these days. It seems that every blogger writing about personal finance, career development, or just about anything else, is promoting and encouraging readers to start side gigs, particularly if those bloggers themselves have “made it big” with their online or offline business.
On this very blog in 2009, while this blog was still in its infancy, I talked about freelancing and the various benefits it could bring to your day job. I felt very strongly that while freelancing was shunned by many in the 9-to-5 world (at least at the time), the practice could actually compliment and enhance your career.
Since writing that post, there are numerous ways I’ve applied the skills learned as a blogger to my job in architecture, ways in which the company directly or indirectly benefitted from that skill set. Those skills include web design, web development, social media, writing skills, and much more. The reality is that, had I not decided to start blogging in 2009, it’s unlikely that I would have developed the same skill set independently.
That all sounds very rosy, but today’s post presents a countering point of view–some very compelling reasons why you may want to think twice, or reevaluate, your decision to have a side gig in place.
I think side gigs have the potential to impact your career both in a positive and in a negative way. The key is to strike the right balance between these forces. Since I’ve already laid out the benefits of freelancing, here are some reasons to be wary of working on the side:
You can lose focus. We’d all like to think that our mental bandwidth is unlimited and that we can easily switch from this to that with little consequence. The realities of human performance are far more muddy. Willpower, mental energy, and ultimately physical energy are all finite resources. When we spend them on a side gig, there is less available for personal and career use. Focused “sprints” are fine–in fact, they are sometimes the only way you can get things done with a side gig. It’s when things become a routine that burnout can set in and the lack of balance really starts to catch up to you.
You can lose balance in your life. When this blog first started out, it felt at times like I was working two full-time jobs. It was not uncommon to spend three hours or more working exclusively on my blog, on top of the 8+ hours I put in at work. Today, with two kids at home and a new house to take care of, I can’t afford to be so generous with my time. My blog time is limited to what I can squeeze in between other duties and I have to carefully consider whether writing a blog post is truly more important than any one of the other things I could be doing–and the answers are not always simple.
Liability increases. The architecture and construction industry can be very litigious. One of the reasons firms very carefully control and limit the kind of moonlighting that takes place in the profession is that companies can easily be found liable for what their employees do, even when those activities are unrelated to the company’s business. Anything that can be tied to a company–use of the company’s computers, letterhead, phone, or even a mere perception of acting on behalf of or with the approval of a company can put that firm at risk. If you’re working on your side gig at work, be careful about how you expose your company to liability, because it can come back to bite you.
You can become complacent about your salary. If your side gig is successful and brings in meaningful income for your family, it is not far-fetched to say that you could become very complacent about how much money your career brings in. If your family needs $100,000 a year to function and your side gig is bringing in $25K, you might find your motivation to pursue raises past $75K wanes. On the other hand, an individual with a strong sense of a $25K/year shortfall and no side gig would be far more motivated to pursue their employer for a raise.
You believe the grass is greener on the other side. It happens to the best of us–whatever situation we’re in, we tend to believe that should X or Y change, things would be much better. For many career employees over the last 5 years who are still working, it might seem like the right time to jump ship or start their own business–the economy is getting better and you’re probably sick of working for someone else by now. However, recognize that you’re trading a known for an unknown. While the grass really looks greener, you’ve got to go over there and mow it before you can really be sure how it will look.
Not everyone is an entrepreneur. The abundance of blogs and online business making money would have you believe that anyone has the capacity to make it big in the online arena. While that may be true, many people are simply not cut out to work for themselves. It’s often not until they’ve burned all their bridges and made the jump to self-employment that they figure this out. A career track and an employer allow you to focus on what you do best–and that’s not always running a business.
What’s the endgame? A lot of people start a side gig with the idea that it will eventually become their full-time job. It’s typically something they’re particularly good at or passionate about. If that’s your intent from the get-go, it’s hard to keep focused on a career you don’t care about. Even if you’re on the fence about jumping ship, you are less likely to devote your energy to your career. If that’s the plan, it’s okay, but don’t pretend that 100% of your head will be in the career game. Accept the fact that you side gig will dampen your career prospects–if it’ still worth a go at it, keep moving forward.
Is It Worth It?
Naturally, the question for me might be–given what I know, would I do it again? That answer is easy–yes.
The more difficult choice is whether to continue doing it–that is, running an online business while tending to a full-time career. For now, both exist in a carefully planned balance with my career and my family taking priority over my business.
Time and time again, I question the validity of maintaining that business, and thus far, I’ve come to the same conclusion each time–the business remains. The rewards, financial and otherwise, are far too great to pass up. But the questioning must remain, because sooner or later, one of the downfalls I’ve listed above might decide to rear its ugly head, and then it’s time to cut loose.