How to Build a Profitable Side Hustle

FIRECracker
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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
FIRECracker
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One of the best things we did before retiring was learn to write. Even though it took us over 100 rejections, 7 years of blood, sweat, and tears to finally publish a children’s book, and I’ve wanted to quit so many times I lost count but I don’t regret it for a second. And while publishing a children’s novel never paid enough for us to quit our jobs (an acquaintance once asked “are you able to retire because of your children’s book?” and I laughed so hard I fell down), it did help us develop the skills we needed to start this blog and eventually get a Penguin Random House book deal.

Which is why I’m a huge proponent of starting side hustles. You will pick up skills and even though they may not seem valuable right away, you have no idea what it will lead to later on. Even if you don’t make enough to fully retire, you might just make enough to significantly reduce the portfolio size you need. And sometimes, you might even land a big enough deal to quit completely.

Today, we’re going to talk to a personal finance writer who did just that.

Meet Jim Wang, a personal finance writer for over 10+ years, who has been featured in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Marketplace Money, Entrepreneur, BusinessWeek, U.S. News and World Report, and more!

After starting a blog called “Bargaineering”, which has since been sold for a huge sum (as in 7 figures), he was able to quit his job. Now that he no longer needs to work, he’s working on his new passion project, Wallet Hacks, a personal finance blog. Now we get to look into how he was able to build Bargaineering, and how he grew it enough that he was able to quit.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself and Wallet Hacks.

Wallet Hacks is my personal finance blog where I share the strategies and tactics I use to navigate life and it’s many mysteries. I think that many aspects of life, but more so with money, are made to be complicated so that people can make money from folks who lack the intelligence, knowledge, or patience to learn it on their own.

You see it often with finance because it’s such an integral part of life. How many people are out there paying too much in fees to a mutual fund just because they don’t know that an index fund can cost as little as 0.14% a year? (that’s Vanguard’s 500 Index Investor shares, Admiral Shares and the ETF are just 0.04%!) I hope to use the blog to demystify money in a way that people who lack the time or patience can still benefit from knowledge.

 

How did you come up with the idea for Bargaineering, the website you sold?

It was a journal. It started at around the time WordPress appeared (2004) and I liked the idea of publishing online – I could write my little money journal, read it while I was at work, and all would be well.

When it started, I was trying to figure out my work’s 401(k), health plan, and all the other little money decisions that no class ever prepares you for. All the instructions seem to be meant for folks who had already filled it out – ever try to read the instructions for filling out your W-4?

As the site grew, I started reading and writing more about anything else money-related that I was pondering – mundane things like where to get my photos developed – and eventually it got big enough I could quit my job.

 

What made you want to become an entrepreneur?

I think I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a kid, I used to write Jim Wang Enterprises LLC on paper to make my own company stationary while I was watching TV.

What appeals to me about being an entrepreneur is that I don’t need the safety net and security of a full-time job (which, is hardly secure or safe if you really think about it). The safety net comes with a cost – you don’t capture 100% of the value you create (the company’s profit).

I’d rather surrender the safety net and keep 100%. Plus I really didn’t like implementing other people’s terrible ideas.

 

You write a lot about wanting to create passive income streams. Entrepreneurship is the exact opposite of passive. So what’s up with that?

It depends on how you view passive income. For me, passive means I don’t have to do active work to generate that income. When I invest in dividend stocks, it’s passive income even though I still have to manage the portfolio. It’s not a lot of time but it’s still time – it’s not 100% passive.

I have also reframed my view of work. I view blogging less as work and more as a video game. People have spent many many hours on their phones and computers building virtual farms, castles, islands, and armies … I’ve just spent that time building virtual real estate. My reward is money I can use in the real world.

 

Coming from an Asian background, my parents thought I was nuts for quitting a stable nine-to-five job with a steady paycheck. What resulted for me was a big fight and we didn’t speak to each other for almost a year. What was your experience like with your parents?

My parents were not the traditional autocratic Asian parents. They were far more pragmatic, especially when compared with my Asian friends’ parents. What also helped was that they were from Taiwan, probably one of the more forward thinking Asian countries when it comes to societal roles and expectations (I have not studied this, it’s just what I’ve seen having gone to various parts of China and Taiwan).

My dad just asked me “Are you sure?” It wasn’t in an emotionally subversively way, like “are you sure you aren’t making a terrible mistake you will regret for the rest of your life?”

He just wanted to talk it through because he wanted to understand. It was a helpful conversation because I had to explain it in a way that he could understand, which is how you ever know if you fully understand something!

 

At what point did you yourself find the confidence to quit your job? Was it an income target or what?

It really comes down to a feeling – quitting your job is half numbers and half confidence.

For the math, I needed it to hit an income target and have a cushion saved up. I felt that if the site made 5x my annual income, that bought me five years to fiddle around and keep going.

Even when it happened though, I didn’t quit. I was still a little scared to make that leap. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed the people I worked with, and it was challenging me in other ways (the engineering side of my brain!).

Eventually though, the site made so much money that I had to quit to devote more time and energy to it. It gave me no choice because if the site ever fell apart or something, I’d have regretted NOT quitting.

 

Personally, the biggest difference for me from going from a regular job to doing something entrepreneurial is how many hats I had to wear. When I was working, I pretty much knew what my job was. As an entrepreneur, I had to do everything. Did you find that as well? And how did you cope?

Yes, 100%. Fortunately though, I found that I could ease into it and learn on the go. Anything I understood but didn’t want to do any more (like taxes and accounting) I could easily outsource to someone I trusted. Just find a few vendors, meet a few people, and pick someone to take it over for you. I understand my taxes and the various rules because I’m ultimately responsible but someone else actually does it.

 

And on that note, the other thing I had to deal with was learning to deal with failure. I cringe whenever I think of all the times I screw something up. Did you find that as well? And how did you cope?

I think there are big failures and there are little failures.

The big failures are the ones where you devote a ton of time (months and months) and the project you thought would be a big hit is a dud. I’ve been a part of several companies that have taken a ton of my time but they haven’t worked out. Sometimes that comes with a financial loss too.

The little failures are where you devote less time – like blog posts – but are still failures. You write a blog post, it falls flat, you move on.

I’ve learned two things about failure – the more you fail, the less it hurts. I’ve written a lot of blog posts that have failed. Some of them were good ones too! But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn about what works and what doesn’t… which is the second thing, you have to learn from your mistakes (I know, it’s a super old saying).

But by that I mean you have to learn what worked and what doesn’t, study what others are doing in your field, and try to make your next tries even better. Your fail rate will go down, you’ll string up a few successes and use that to fuel you forward.

 

What’s the biggest mistake you made as an entrepreneur?

I’ve been fortunate to avoid any critical errors that sank me but there is one “mistake” that stands out but that I was happy to make.

I remember seeing my friend’s J.D. Roth’s blog, Get Rich Slowly, ranking well in search engine results. I told him that he should put affiliate links on those pages and so he did and would eventually sell his site for millions. MILLIONS!

I take full credit for his success! (just kidding)

But it was a mistake because I should bought his site and put the ads on there myself!

Looking back though, I’m fine with that mistake. JD is a good friend and it’s fun to have a friend on the same entrepreneurial journey.

 

And as a counterpoint to that, what is the thing you were the most proud of? That thing you didn’t think you could do but you ended up pulling off with flying colors?

Two things honestly – first was the success of Bargaineering far exceeding any of my expectations. The fact that it would be worth millions of dollars still boggles my mind.

Also, Wallet Hacks is more popular than Bargaineering ever was and it’s only two and a half years old. The internet is bigger now, with easier ways of getting traffic, and the blogging community is far larger… so it all makes sense, but it’s kind of fun to “do it all over again.” I’m surprised I could start a new personal finance blog and not have it be crickets.

 

If you could go back in time, what advice would you have you given yourself back when you started Bargaineering?

Enjoy the ride more. The experience ended with me, at 30, holding a bag of money of a size I’d never thought I’d earn in a lifetime.

 

And finally, to all of our readers who want to start their own side hustle as a digital entrepreneur like you, what advice would you give them?

Start it right now and learn as much as you can. I needed a writing tutor to help me score high enough on the SAT II Writing exam so I could get into college. I write for a living now. You never know what can happen so just go for it… even if your first thing fails, it’s a testing ground for your next thing and next thing until you hit a success.

***

Sound advice from a entrepreneur who built up his site and sold it for millions. Have you ever wanted to side gig? What’s your biggest obstacle? Do you have any questions for Jim? Chime in below!

Want to find out more about Jim? Visit his blog Wallet Hacks where he shares tips on demystifies money, shares life hacking tips, and talks about passive income streams.

You can read his top 3 posts here:
https://wallethacks.com/building-a-rock-solid-financial-foundation/
https://wallethacks.com/financial-fortress/
https://wallethacks.com/7-income-sources-streams-of-millionaires/

***

Announcement: Starting this week, we will be temporarily stepping back from posting 3 times week to twice a week (Mondays and Fridays) to focus on writing our book. Wanderer will continue writing investment posts on alternating Mondays and the “Reader Cases” and “Let’s go Exploring!” travel series will continue on Fridays. See you on Friday and thanks again for reading and being a part of this wonderful community!



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29 thoughts on “How to Build a Profitable Side Hustle”

    1. Nice interview! I’ve seen that exact pic of you and your fam every time you get interviewed with a personal finance blog lol. Great job, you’re my inspiration. Keep up the great work guys!

      P.S. As an asian personal finance blogger myself, I understand that whole asian parents thing where they can be slightly pushy regarding their views versus yours. But maybe deep down, it’s out of love and they want to protect you from hurting yourself too badly not realizing the world is way different from when they were young.

      1. It’s 100% out of love and for your best interests, but the world is different, you may be different, and there are a whole host of other reasons. I’m just saying that I’ve seen so many negative outcomes that I won’t be an autocratic parent in that way. 🙂

    2. Hey Jim,

      I actually do have a question. How do you monetize wallethacks now to make more money than your previous website? Any recommendations that I should do right now? My personal finance blog is getting only a couple of hundred views a month, not in the tens to hundreds of thousands yet.

      Thanks a bunch!

      1. Hi Jack – I monetize it the same way, affiliates and display advertising. It’s the same methods, I’m just reaching more people. At a couple hundred views a month, you need more people before you start thinking about earning.

        Good luck!

  1. Great interview, and it was cool to learn more about Jim, as I’ve seen his name and Wallet Hacks around the web. Hi Jim! I look forward to meeting you some day.

    I loved the part where he summed the entrepreneurial journey by saying something like these two sentences, “I started out hearing crickets, and it ended with me holding a bag of money bigger than I’d ever imagined holding in my life.” So cool.

    I’m in the first 1/3 stage of that journey with my three main businesses: branded corporate apparel, real-estate, and my blog. I started my entrepreneurial journey living in my parents basement with just my computer hearing crickets, and now 5 years later I sell $300K of clothing a year working from home, own two houses with a net worth of $250K, and my blog is starting to get 200+ views a day regularly. My dream is to follow FIREcracker’s and Wanderer’s blazed trail, and eventually turn my blog into a platform to build a writing career.

    Congrats to you, Jim, for making it happen, and reminding me to enjoy the journey. It’s not about finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s all about chasing your dream and enjoying all the cool colors, sights, and sounds that the earth has as you walk underneath the rainbow toward your own personal pot of gold.

    1. As you probably know from your business selling clothes, it can be a long journey. If you can’t enjoy it while it happens and you don’t know whether it’ll end in massive success or massive failure, at least enjoy the trip and learn something even if you don’t get the financial returns you hope for!

  2. Bargaineering was such a good blog in the early days of PF blogging, had no idea it was sold. Good for him, best to his success.

  3. Great interview. Jim is a great pioneer. Only a few people were willing to put in the time and energy to blog in those early days. It was a lot more difficult to blog too. I started in 2010 and by that time, all the supporting technical pieces were in place. Jim, JD, and other early bloggers paved the way for us and I’m very grateful.
    Thanks Jim! 🙂

    1. Joe! Thank you for the kind words – the tools are a lot easier now (and the plugins you can get for WordPress these days are incredible!) but it all still comes down to knowledge and storytelling. The tools are just tools. 🙂

  4. Good stuff FireCracker! I’ve followed Jim for quite awhile now at Wallet Hacks, but never knew much about his earlier blog (other than it existed).

    It was also good to hear the full story (and the fact that he made 7 figures from it). There’s definitely more than one road to financial independence!

  5. Excellent interview! I’m happy to have heard the full story about Jim’s first blog as I’d been curious about it. This interview was very inspirational and much appreciated! 🙂

  6. interesting post. i made a basic little website just to learn how and what works. i think i just want to write humor in personal finance like an apprenticeship with the eye on writing content on my wild years in new orleans. i’m not even sure if the subscriber stuff is where i want it much less start an email list or putting on some ads. i’m hesitating to try and drive any traffic until these things are in place. it’s kind of like not wanting to fire that bullet yet and there really is no rush.

    gonna go check out wallet hacks. i already read this wacky site regularly.

  7. I love this interview!!! It’s so uplifting and honest.

    “I view blogging less as work and more as a video game. People have spent many many hours on their phones and computers building virtual farms, castles, islands, and armies … I’ve just spent that time building virtual real estate.”
    I’m going to remember that for a very very very long time.

    We spend way too much potential playing mobile games and it’s fine to play games to destress but some people get way to addicted and out of touch with their real life.

    My first 3 failures feels like dropping off a 10 foot balcony. I hope you’re right about it hurting less as you go because I’m seeing growing pains ahead.

    In the heat of it I’m like… “Mannnnn, this is hard. Should have just gotten a water cooler job like my friends!”

    1. Anything worth doing is hard, otherwise everyone would be doing it. 🙂

      I’ve had plenty of failures too, you just don’t hear about them because writing about failure can sometimes be a downer and most people don’t see them for what they are – lessons on how not to do things. 🙂

  8. Inspiring interview. I wonder if Jim got involved in any other business/es after he sold Bargaineering. I mean aside from blogging at WalletHacks. Though not a gamer, I really like the idea of viewing blogging as a video game.

    1. I did – I started a couple because I needed something to do and I couldn’t start another personal finance blog for a few years. Some of them fizzled out, one marketing company was acquired (more like an acquihire after me and my partners lost interest), and some are still going. Nothing like the success of the 1st pf blog but all were fun to do.

      One that’s still going on is $5 Meal Plan, a meal plan subscription business that is doing well today. I do that with a great partner, we have a strong team in place that practically runs the business, and it was a fun challenge for me to build a subscription business.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this blog post and getting to know your journey and what you did in order to achieve your financial independence! I was actually reading a Forbes article recently that discussed this topic of achieving financial independence where they give a list of items people need to keep in mind if they are seriously considering achieving financial independence.
    Here is the link to the article: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jrose/2016/03/25/financial-independence/#53f8f717984b
    All of the credit goes to Forbes for this content.

    1) Decide You Want It More than You Are Afraid Of It
    2) Create a Series of Steps that Will Get You Where You Want to Go
    3) Commit Now that You Will Live Beneath Your Means for the Rest of Your Life
    4) Block Out the Spendthrifts in Your Life
    5) Always Keep Your Career or Business Moving Forward
    6) Vow to Always Save Money – No Matter What Your Income Is
    7) Insulate Yourself in the Short Run – Creating a Safety Net
    8) Invest Everything Above That
    9) Invest No Matter What the Market is Doing
    10) Diversify Your Investments
    11) Diversify Your Income Sources Too
    12) Shield as Much Income From Taxes as Possible
    13) Get Out – and Stay Out – of Debt
    14) Make Sure You Have Enough Insurance Coverage
    15) Commit to Refocusing on Your Goal Regularly

    What are your thoughts? Do you agree with what Forbes has to say? Let me know! 🙂

    Luis
    http://luisspassiveincomesolutions.launchpad.inboxblueprint.net/

  10. Hi Jim,
    “I’d rather surrender the safety net and keep 100%. Plus I really didn’t like implementing other people’s terrible ideas.”

    Bang. That really hit me. Entrepreneurs take all the risk and all the profit–or loss. Most people would rather take smaller risks in return for smaller rewards.

    So were you born a risk taker, or did you consciously mold yourself into one, the way FIREcracker worked on becoming more extroverted and engineering-oriented?

    Thanks for the insight!
    Melissa the writing entrepreneur

    1. I find most people take fewer risks for fewer rewards for a variety of reasons, some of which are good. If you have a family and you’re the sole breadwinner, it may be irresponsible to quit your job to pursue a passion project that might not support you (that’s why side hustles are best when you don’t have a family and heavy responsibility yet!).

      I never really thought of it as a risk and I am not a risk taker. 🙂

      I ran the site as a hobby and it started earning enough (a multiple of my income) that I had to quit. It was riskier to STAY at my job, even though I enjoyed it and the people I worked with, so in that regard I think I was still less risky. 🙂

  11. Great interview. I had no idea that Jim has been blogging since 2004. I wish I’d have had the hindsight to start a blog when I was in college. I eventually want to leave my job and work from home, but I’m not there yet. While I’m making money with my site, it’s not consistent enough yet.

  12. manage my money and living in the (NYC). When I got “retired” by a big 9 financial institution and took the money and ran to Garth. I can now plan my vacations and winter getaways without worrying about how I am going to finance them. Plus, I am not a tax guru; Turner Investments advice on wise investing lets me sleep at night. I am a boomer, but have been weaned from ever owning;https://tourbestway.wordpress.com/

  13. I absolutely love side hustles. When it comes to affiliate marketing, blogging, and content marketing, something in me gets excited and motivated about the potential for “side hustle millionaire” status. It’s right around the corner for anyone to be a [side hustle millionaire], and never too late t get started despite age, employment, or anything.

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