July 24, 2024
What you need to succeed


Sarah and Jamie McCauley are landlords, YouTubers, Walmart pallet flippers, eBay resellers and Amazon product reviewers — and those are just their active streams of income.

The McCauleys make their money by researching what makes side hustles profitable, testing them and teaching others how to do the same on YouTube. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based couple earned nearly $140,000 from eight streams of income last year, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

They’re particularly good at two types of gigs, they say: anything involving real estate and their YouTube channel itself, where they share their side hustle exploits with at least 146,000 subscribers.

“If you’re looking to just make some extra money on the side, maybe pay off a credit card debt or pay for a vacation, I think that is doable for nearly everybody,” says Jamie.

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The McCauleys are part of a side hustle revolution, a growing number of Americans who supplement income with multiple jobs. More U.S adults — about 39%, according to Bankrate — have side hustles today than ever before, whether out of necessity, precaution or a desire to increase their earning power.

Ease of starting is at an all-time high: Platforms like Amazon, Airbnb and Fiverr offer instant access to paying customers. But with competition also rising, it’s hard to build a side hustle that regularly brings in revenue.

Make It spoke with a selection of Americans with successful side hustles to learn how they built their businesses, and used them to fund a wide variety of financial goals. Every respondent highlighted four common traits that helped drive their success:

They tailor their product to their audience

No matter what you sell, you need people willing to buy it. Jenny Woo says her side hustle is successful for a simple reason: She researches her audiences intensely, and tailors her products specifically to them.

Woo is an adjunct lecturer at the University of California, Irvine, a freelance business consultant and the teacher of an online course about emotional intelligence. Her one-woman side hustle, called Mind Brain Emotion, sells 12 different emotional intelligence-themed card games.

It brought in $1.71 million on Amazon last year, according to documents reviewed by Make It.

Dr. Jenny Woo, founder and CEO of Mind Brain Emotion.

Photo: Jenny Woo

Woo’s first deck of cards, “52 Essential Conversations,” was tailored toward parents who — like her — wanted to connect with their kids and build their emotional intelligence skills. She joined parenting Facebook groups and observed users’ posting, commenting and liking habits, she says.

After selling $10,000 worth of the game in a 2018 Kickstarter campaign, Woo kept researching. She conducted a survey of her consumers, and learned that “overwhelmed” teachers looking to support children’s social and emotional development made up a significant portion of her audience, she says.

Her second deck, “52 Essential Relationship Skills,” was built for those teachers. It didn’t sell as well as her first deck, but it taught Woo that she could broaden, and combine, her audiences.

Woo applied that lesson to her third game, “52 Coping Skills.” She started with her own experiences working with college students during the Covid-19 pandemic and combined it with her continued research on teachers and parents, she says.

It’s now Mind Brain Emotion’s top-selling game, says Woo.

They find a platform suited for their product

Woo sells on Amazon, which has a broad reach, to collectively rope in Mind Brain Emotion’s hyper-specific audiences. Tim Riegel’s products have a more singular customer base, so he sells on Etsy, a marketplace known largely for homemade and handmade goods.

Riegel, a full-time general manager at a sheltered workshop, makes firepits from recycled tank ends in Lamar, Missouri, and sells them under the name Mozark Fire Pits. His average product weighs 225 pounds, and sells for $950.

Mozark Fire Pits brought in approximately $202,000 on Etsy last year, according to documents reviewed by Make It. Riegel maintains a 40% profit margin, he says.

Riegel chose Etsy over platforms like Amazon, Wayfair and Overstock because it felt more user-friendly, and a better fit for his personalized products, he says. He also sells on Facebook Marketplace, which costs him more in advertising — but less in shipping costs for customers within a 200-mile radius, he adds.

Tim Riegel turns propane gas tank ends into fire pits and sells them on Etsy.

Tim Riegel

That kind of platform analysis is valuable, no matter what kind of side hustle you run.

If you sell a service, instead of a good, you might consider platforms like Fiverr and Upwork — popular among photo editors, marketing writers and voiceover artists — or Taskrabbit, known for labor-intensive side hustles like cleaning or repair work.

Or, opt out of those platforms entirely. If your gig is something that many other people also do, try finding marketplaces with more narrow niches like Contently, Skyword or ServiceScape, recommends side hustle expert Kathy Kristof.

“One of the problems I see with a lot of freelancers is that they go to the best-known online platforms … and those platforms are so saturated with people who have been there for, often, decades,” says Kristof, whose blog SideHusl has reviewed more than 500 different side gigs.

They stand out on saturated platforms

No matter your platform, you’ll need to stand out. A good listing can help: clear and concise, written for your intended audience, free of typos, with high-quality graphics and some search engine optimization (SEO).

Becky Powell, a kindergarten teacher based in Beaverton, Oregon, has a side hustle selling worksheets for other educators on an online platform called Teachers Pay Teachers. Many of her worksheets focus on her personal specialty, teaching children sight-reading skills.

Her side hustle didn’t take off until she embraced SEO. When she uploaded her first worksheets, she titled them, “Creating sight words with pattern blocks.” Sales slowly trickled in.

Her husband Jerome, who has a business background, suggested a simpler title, like “Hands-on sight words.” The sight-reading worksheets quickly became her bestselling products, Powell says.

Kindergarten teacher Becky Powell’s side hustle — making worksheets for other educators — brings in six figures per year.

Becky Powell

Powell’s store brought in $125,500 in 2022 revenue, according to documents reviewed by Make It. Her husband also sells worksheets on the platform, and they’ve used their combined earnings to fund vacations and pay down their mortgage and student loans, Powell says.

“You have to have passion and knowledge,” she says. “You also have to have a business sense [and understand] SEO.”

Once you gain enough customers, work to turn your sales into positive reviews, so you appear higher in platforms’ search results, Kristof advises. Customer service, prompt shipping and quality control can usually earn you a good online reputation.

They know when to change direction or walk away

The McCauleys have a rule for their ever-changing collection of side hustles: “You either have to be one of the first to get there, or your approach has to be very unique and different to be successful,” Sarah says.

But being first or unique doesn’t guarantee long-term success. In 2020, the couple was early to a side hustle trend: pallet flipping. At local warehouses, they’d buy pallets of returned goods from Amazon, Walmart or Target. They’d unbox the pallets, discover their contents and resell the items for a hopeful profit.

From December 2020 to December 2022, the McCauleys made about $19,500 in pallet-flipping profits, they estimate. Their most popular unboxing YouTube video got 5.4 million viewers, translating to an additional $30,000 in advertising revenue, says Jamie.

Last year, more Americans hopped on the pallet-flipping trend. Pallet prices rose, resale values dropped and a slew of unboxing videos diluted the McCauleys’ viewership. “The pallets became not really worth our time … from the standpoint of time over money,” says Sarah.

The McCauleys filmed and posted their pallet-flipping experiences on their YouTube channel.

Jamie and Sarah McCauley

Four years ago, the McCauleys would’ve simply moved onto their next side hustle. Now, they’re feeling the strain of constantly building new gigs from scratch, and starting to reorganize their income streams into a smaller number of longer-term projects.

Instead of flipping their current home renovation project in Northern Michigan for a profit, for example — something they’ve done multiple times — they’ll keep it as their own vacation house and part-time Airbnb rental, they say.

“We always knew [side hustling] was going to have an expiration date,” says Jamie. “It’s a young person’s game, to always be looking for what’s next.”

Want to make extra money outside of your day job? Sign up for CNBC’s new online course How to Earn Passive Income Online to learn about common passive income streams, tips to get started and real-life success stories. CNBC Make It readers can use special discount code CNBC40 to get 40% off through August 15, 2024.

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