Making It Work: COVID has helped drive the rise of the side hustle

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COVID-19 has stimulated the side hustle sector

If the pandemic has closed your front door, consider opening a window

Michael Wiebe is a good person to ask about side hustles. Even before COVID-19, the Vancouver city councillor was moonlighting as co-owner of popular Main Street eatery Eight 1/2 Restaurant Lounge. When the pandemic forced its shuttering in March, Wiebe and his team opened a sandwich service for takeout only, at the side of the building. Aptly named Side Hustle Sandwiches, the place was an instant hit, with its finely crafted ingredients and hilarious names (credit general manager Alex Sparling for monikers like The Dr. Bahn Mi Henry) inspiring mass lineups.

“When COVID hit, we started to have some conversations about what the future of Eight 1/2 was,” recalls Wiebe, who has started exploring options to use the restaurant as a sort of community hub.

Part of that was letting other creators like Sparling fulfil a long-held dream of operating a sandwich shop. Bartender Adriana Goettisheim runs her own cocktail menu at the restaurant while teaching at East Side Boxing, and they’re in talks to bring on an independent pastry maker. “I love this opportunity for people to showcase their brands,” Wiebe says. “Everyone needs a side hustle.”

Of course, that was hardly a no-brainer for others in the B.C. business community who found themselves with spare time during the pandemic. Jeff Duncan, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Meetingmax, doesn’t hold back when describing the state of his event tech company in a post-pandemic world.

“If there’s a worse business to be in during COVID, I don’t know of one,” he says with a chuckle. “We put together large gatherings of international attendees in the U.S.—that’s about as bad as it could possibly get. And unfortunately, it was the first industry to go.”

But Duncan had a backup plan. A chance meeting with celebrity Harry Jowsey (at the Kim Dotcom mansion in New Zealand, no less) about a year earlier led to his helping out with the Heartbreak Island star’s finances. When COVID struck, Duncan took over managing Jowsey full-time.

Good timing: this year, Jowsey starred on Too Hot to Handle, one of the most successful reality TV shows to date. Duncan soon found himself flush with clients from that show as well as reality hits Love Is Blind and Tiger King. He also just inked Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk and her rocker husband, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace.

Duncan guesses that when it’s appropriate, Meetingmax and its 20-some employees will be back up running full speed and he’ll have two business endeavours to look after. But unlike most of us, he’s going to look back on 2020 fondly. “Without the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have afforded the time, nor would the stars have aligned as they needed to,” he says. Literally.

Longtime friends Taylor Hook and Sawyer Pahl also see some benefits of COVID19. Vancouver-based Hook works in sales for Amazon, while Pahl is an engineer out of Calgary. They created and funded Balco Life and its flagship product, the Balco Bar, over Zoom.

The bar, an extension you can hook onto your patio (or other surface), acts as a table for a standing desk, dinner table or anything else. The duo, who had been working on the project for some time, bill it as a perfect COVID-19 product, given that “everyone’s at home, everyone needs a little more space,” Hook says.

He and Pahl, who made 100 bars after a successful trial run and testing by friends and family, aim to sell them online for $168. “We both looked at this as a real-world MBA,” Hook explains. “It’s completely bootstrapped. It just makes it a lot more flexible, and a lot more fun for us.”

Looking ahead, Wiebe hopes to help give City of Vancouver policy more flexibility, by cutting certain red tape and letting chefs sell their sauces commercially, for example. He doesn’t think he’s alone. 

COVID has allowed people to stop, reflect on who they are and what they want to do and surround themselves with people who want to do it,” Wiebe argues. “That’s what I’m hoping for, to kind of change the way business is done in spaces where we all support and enjoy each other.”

Hustle and Go

Those who have done it share their best tips on how to start a side hustle

Do something you’re passionate about

By definition, a side hustle isn’t someone’s main endeavour, so you have to be committed and genuinely enjoy the process. Former standup comedian Alex Sparling, GM of Eight 1/2 Restaurant Lounge and the driving force behind its offshoot, Side Hustle Sandwiches, saw a chance to develop community. “Standup is an opportunity to make people feel good for five to 30 minutes a night, five to seven nights a week,” he says. “If we could do that for eight hours a day, I think it’s important.”

Put in work when you don’t need to

Meetingmax CEO Jeff Duncan only got into the agency business because of previous connections he built and worked on, even when he had very little time. “The reason I created success was that when I didn’t need value from anyone, I was willing to invest it into them,” Duncan recalls. “And if I hadn’t had done that, I never would have been able to reap the benefits. But I never went into it like that. I was just doing what was right—assisting someone who needed it.”

Solve your own problems

Taylor Hook was looking for a way to find space in his tiny Vancouver apartment when he and longtime friend Sawyer Pahl created the Balco Bar, a multifunctional surface. “As an apartment-living guy, Taylor was drawn to it,” Pahl says. “That’s always a good way to start a business. It’s a Tim Ferriss quote: If you scratch your own itch, you’ll have a market of at least one.”