Lessons from women entrepreneurs on how to make your side hustle a hit

Women entrepreneur with laptop

In this day and age, words like ‘side hustle’ and ‘entrepreneur’ have generated a lot of buzz, as a growing number of people look to earn extra cash or kickstart a passion project outside of their day job.

In fact, recent ING research found that nearly half (48%) of all Australians have a side hustle or are planning to start one. 

But while social media and online marketplaces have made it more accessible for people to start their own businesses, whether it’s an Instagram bakery or an Etsy art store, statistics show a gender imbalance still exists in the realm of entrepreneurship. 

For instance, as reported by SBS, of the 355,000 startups that were registered in Australia in October last year, only 22% were all women-led. That figure has only risen by 3% over the past two decades. 

Susie Jones is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Cynch Security, a Melbourne-based cybersecurity business. As an entrepreneur herself, Jones says women face more barriers than men when founding their own businesses. 

One barrier is the gender pay gap. Since launching a startup will usually require a certain amount of capital upfront, Jones says “fewer women are in a starting position to take the financial risk of founding a startup.” 

She adds that it’s also been well-documented that investors are less likely to invest in female-founded startups. 

Plus the fact that women are still expected to bear more responsibility in the home means “they simply have less time to dedicate to a startup”, says Jones. Case in point: Mozo’s Pink Recession report found that 83% of women generally act as a primary carer for their children compared to just 17% of men. 

Given how daunting it can be to start a business especially in the context of those additional challenges, it certainly helps to hear from others who have been in your shoes. So, we spoke to two women entrepreneurs about their journeys of growing their ventures to the thriving small businesses they are today, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Annie Lau, founder of Zen Botanics

Zen Botanics founder Annie Lau
Source: Zen Botanics, Instagram.

For Annie Lau, her organic skincare business Zen Botanics started out more as a “hobby” while she was working her corporate day job. Her intention back in 2015 was to make skincare for family and friends, without the expectation that it would eventually become a full-time business. 

In hindsight though, she says it’s important to never see your business as a hobby unless you want it to be. 

“I had a lot of fear so I never wanted to leave my safe cushy corporate job. It wasn’t until I was pregnant that my entire mindset changed, in terms of the life I envisioned for myself and the person I wanted to be for my family,” Lau says. 

Lau started to pour more time and energy into the process of growing her business and her efforts began to pay off. 

“We focused a lot on establishing a stronger online presence with the help of social media which helped grow our email list. Becoming more strategic with our product line and offerings also helped us focus better on our marketing efforts and ensured we didn’t overcommit. We secured a fabulous stockist in Nepal (it helps a lot when she’s also your friend!) and things really excelled,” she says. 

“Before we knew it, we reached a crossroad stage of the business where I knew the business just couldn’t grow unless I committed more hours into it and I’ve never looked back.”

But transitioning into a full-time business owner has come with its own challenges. Lau says one of her biggest struggles has been with time management and wearing all hats of the business. 

“To overcome that, I’ve learned to delegate tasks that don’t require my personal involvement and to prioritise my day with just three must-dos so I don’t end the day feeling like I haven’t accomplished anything,” she said. 

For instance, her husband has now taken on a bigger role of helping to fulfil orders, giving Lau herself more time to focus on the marketing and sales side of the business.

Another challenge is that without the big marketing dollars like other big brands, Lau has had to figure out more grassroots ways to increase Zen Botanics’ reach and expand its customer base. 

“We started becoming more strategic with our Instagram posts through hashtags and stories to grow organically, and then I educated myself in the big world of Facebook ads and building email lists,” she says. 

Michelle Dang, freelance creative

Freelance creative Michelle Dang
Source: Supplied.

Not all side hustles need to have the end goal of becoming full-time businesses. That’s the case for Michelle Dang, a freelance creative who says she doesn't plan on giving up her 9-5 job in tech sales for her side gig building collateral such as photos and videos for clients. 

Either way, Dang says that’s a big question you should address early on: “Do you want to do this forever? Or do you just want this to continue to be a small side hustle?”

“Really have those difficult conversations with yourself and make sure you’re setting yourself up to execute a three year plan,” she says. 

For Dang, her “truth statement” is that while she isn’t looking to take her side hustle full-time, it’s something she enjoys and also gives her many opportunities to provide mentorship to other women in a similar field. 

Dang began her freelance career as early as year 10, when her hobby in photography made her a port of call for all the 18th and 21st birthdays taking place within her and her sister’s social circles. 

But it was during university when Dang really started to build up her client base by finding her niche. 

“I noticed that a lot of small businesses, mostly boutique stores and startups, were looking for decent collateral. Just through a casual search on Instagram, I would find jewellery companies or out-of-home businesses that had pretty shoddy photography so I really thought that was a market,” she says. 

Dang would then cold call many of those businesses and pitch herself as a student, an experimental photographer, and the target audience that they were trying to reach.

“That usually got me a foot in the door quite easily, just to have an in-person conversation,” she says.

Eventually word of mouth and solid self-branding helped her land contracts with bigger clients. 

“I took many opportunities to push back if I thought something wasn’t going to work, and I think respectfully challenging things and being at the age I was really added value to what I could bring to the table - I could be more than just a photographer, I could be a business partner as well,” she says.

“I think that [branding] really shone through and helped me get more clients because they trusted me and they would trust me with their friends.” 

Tips for women business owners 

For other women out there looking to dig their toes into a side hustle and become their own boss, Lau, Dang and Jones have offered a few more tips:

  • Invest in yourself: Running a business will likely demand you to have all sorts of skillsets, some of which you may not be very well-versed in. So Lau recommends “tak[ing] the time to learn new things that can be beneficial for your business (even if it is self-development)”. It’s also crucial to leave gaps in your week for ‘me-time’ so you don’t risk burning out! For instance, Lau balances work and life by having a clear structure on weekdays, aiming to have no more than an one hour lunch break and at least four hours of deep work and to finish up by 4pm to pick up her son Cody from daycare. That leaves her evening clear to “enjoy undistracted, guilt-free family (and Netflix!) time”. 
  • Find a support community: Dang acknowledges that many of her initial hurdles were more psychological and revolved around “imposter syndrome”. She recalls a stint in club photography where she was the only “female, Asian and petite person” there while all the other photographers were “guys in track pants and hoodies”. So she says having an online support network can help you less alone in those situations and give you invaluable industry insight. For her, that meant connecting with other female photographers over Instagram. 
  • Automate your finances: As your side hustle picks up pace, it can get harder to manage all aspects of your business manually, so both Dang and Lau recommend automating where possible. For instance, since making the transition from excel spreadsheets to online accounting software Xero, Lau says things have become much easier come tax time. She also uses another cloud-based software Square for invoicing, as it integrates well with Xero so she can know where the business stands at all times with its stockist/wholesale accounts. “It really helps to have good systems in place right from the get-go - especially with a reliable, efficient accountant and tax agent whom you can communicate well with,” she says. 
  • Save up for your side hustle: While some side hustles require less capital to kickstart, others may see you forking out tens of thousands of dollars upfront. To avoid unexpected costs and give yourself the financial means to grow your venture, Jones recommends “saving more money than you think you’ll need while you have other income”, in other words, building in a buffer. It will also pay to do your research on investors who are interested in your industry and may potentially back your business in the future, and then find ways to be introduced to them.

Wondering what other sources of finance are available to startups? Read our guide on how to fund your new business.