April 20, 2020

Five years ago, when Winson Lai created a terrarium for a friend, he never regarded it as anything more than a trifling pursuit. His friend, however, was so impressed with the gift that he asked Lai if he had considered selling his work. After mulling over the idea for a while, he decided to put his past experience as a graphic and web designer to good use, and start an online store to sell his sui generis plant creations. After arduous rounds of research and development, Qing was finally born. His showpiece, a rendition of the Keshiki bonsai, deviates from the strict traditions of a typical bonsai cultivation and uses commonplace, garden-variety plants to create extraordinary succulent arrangements. “I loved the idea of breaking rules and elevating something ordinary into something beautiful,” he says. “The possibilities are limitless.” Today, his passion has morphed into a flourishing business with a growing base of customers.

These days, with technology revolutionising the way we conduct business, barriers to entry are lower than before. Online retail outlet Etsy, which provides a commercial space for artisan entrepreneurs has transformed many hobbies into fruitful enterprises. Digital platforms like TikTok and Smule (move over YouTube) have also given the hoi polloi a chance to showcase their (hidden) talents to a wider audience, from the convenience of their homes. While it may seem relatively straightforward, it takes more than just passion to be a successful business owner. Here are five tips that could help to transform your side hustle into a rewarding career.

Have a solid plan

In order to monetise your hobby, it is vital to draw out a strategy. A good way to get your feet wet and test the entrepreneurial waters (without drowning) is to start part-time before making the transition to a full-time career. Be realistic about your goals, how long it will take to achieve them and adapt as you go along. Alexander Yuen, co-owner of Meta Illusions, who majored in psychology at the National University of Singapore, always had a passion for magic. It started with card tricks in secondary school, before evolving into more daring fire stunts. When he decided to take his hobby one step further by turning it into a career, he spent months learning other aspects of the business like crafting proposals, carrying out marketing campaigns and growing sales, so that he could continue doing what he loved. Make sure you cover all your bases, as there are several moving parts to a business.

Use visuals to sell your products

Alicia Shaffer, one of Etsy’s most inspiring sellers, made headlines in 2015 for drawing nearly US$1 million on the platform. The owner of Three Bird Nest, an online clothing store, attributes her success to her obsession with visuals. From the styling of her products to the models she works with, everything must be impeccably curated. “You have to look at your shop from the shopper’s perspective. I ask myself: Would I be enticed to buy my own item just by looking at it? What would make this appealing, so that I would want to click on the item?” she says. Shaffer also engages with her customers to get feedback on whether the photographs on her website are visually appealing enough, and if they have any suggestions for improvements. “I think carefully about the way I style each and every product. Everything has to be purposeful and well-thought-out,” she adds.

Be committed to your craft

If you are trying to balance between having a full-time job and running a hobby business, you have to be disciplined about the way you use your time. Be prepared to lose a few hours of sleep every night and have no semblance of a social life (for the first year at least). Something has got to give, if you eventually want to achieve success. Personal home trainer Carl Chia thinks that a hobby is a vastly different endeavour compared to a business, because it requires less commitment. “You have to treat your business as a business and step away from the hobby mindset. Be clear about what you want to offer—be it a product or a service,” he says. “You can’t half-ass anything because customers will know.”

Build a strong online presence

Having a compelling online presence can amplify your business growth. Leverage on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to influence the masses with a minimum budget. A top tip? Use hashtags to allow new people to find you and to expand your audience organically. Alyssa K, creator of @splashrunway, used Instagram as a tool to market her watercolour painting workshops. Through the social media platform, she formed connections with fellow artists, participated in art challenges, and engaged regularly with the online art community. Over time, her following grew. “I got better at painting, and slowly, I started getting requests for custom artwork and watercolour workshops,” she says. “I enjoy teaching and sharing my love for watercolour with others; I am lucky that my hobby appeals to the general public.”

Don’t stop networking

Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing and networking as a form of self-promotion. Join groups in your industry and attend related events to meet like-minded individuals who could inspire or help you with your professional goals. It is important to prepare a short and concise “elevator speech” for such gatherings, so you will know what to say to get them interested. In 2017, when Hee Chun Jia left her lucrative job in a bank to start multi-label contemporary jewellery brand The House Of Rajput, she actively participated in local craft bazaars like The Boutique Fairs Singapore to showcase each designer’s products to a wider community. Lai himself has also done a fair share of pop-up events to promote Qing. After receiving positive feedback from the first few, he started focusing on more niche ones where he was able to connect and market to a more distinct crowd. “The Public Garden pop-up was the one that elevated my online hobby and provided exposure to the right people,” he says. Eventually, he found himself collaborating with big names like Isetan for their Japanese week, where he was invited to exhibit and sell his designs.