Start an indie dev business -- without quitting your job

There’s a new, lucrative path to career development, and it starts in your spare time

Tech skills are in high demand. But maybe leaving your full-time IT gig in pursuit of a hot new career as a mobile developer or data scientist isn’t the best bet. Or perhaps your employer doesn’t offer enough growth opportunity and you want to expand your skills and experience without giving up all your benefits and starting from scratch.

There’s another, more flexible way to cash in on today’s high demand for tech: Start a part-time business in your spare time. According to "Freelancing in America: A National Survey of the New Workforce," 14 million Americans engage in a part-time business (also known as moonlighting, freelancing, or running a side hustle). And in tech there is no shortage of part-time projects and contracts on offer, some of which will be in your wheelhouse, while others will provide an opportunity to learn new skills.

We spoke with a number of developers who have struck up successful side businesses with an eye toward finding out whether starting a part-time business is right for you.

Get your side business up and running

Skill development, increased income, and the option to become a full-time entrepreneur are common motivations for starting a part-time business. But you’ll need to consider what exactly you’d like to accomplish before launching your side business. Much of your success will depend on your capacity for additional work, your current skills, your desire to acquire new skills, and most important, your motivation. Yes, your skills are in high demand, but following through consistently in your spare time to make your side business work can be challenging.

“After reading 'The 4-Hour Work Week' by Tim Ferris, I wanted to develop a lifestyle with greater time and location flexibility as well as income,” explains Corey Creech, a web consultant based in central Florida.

But Creech notes that sacrificing leisure time to build a business is part of the deal.

“If you want a successful business, it’s going to mean less time with friends, ditching the latest TV series, and putting all of your effort into your business,” says Creech.

The fastest way to start a business is to sell services to a client as a freelancer. This type of business can be started for less than $100: obtain a business license, open a business bank account, and put up a simple website. How quickly you start to earn money will depend on your sales ability and network. For many freelance businesses, landing the first client presents the greatest challenge.

The first and best place to find clients is your personal network of contacts. Writing handcrafted emails to people in your network can be a great way to land a first contract, Creech says.

“When I decided I wanted to get back into web development, I knew that in order to validate the idea I had to get at least three people to pay me for my services. I also had to do it in my spare time. To make things more challenging, I gave myself 72 hours to find three paying clients with Facebook,” explains Creech. He soon landed his first few clients and accepted payments through PayPal. Creech started his business while working as a field network engineer. If your network is limited, offering your services through an online services platform may be a good option.

Make the most of freelance marketplaces

Bidding on client projects through freelance marketplaces such as Upwork can simplify the marketing process.

“On freelance sites, you’re competing against a large number of people from around the world, so they are very competitive,” explains Nick Loper, host of the Side Hustle Podcast. Loper has interviewed more than 100 people who have built part-time businesses in technology, consulting, and other industries.

“Despite the competition, you can still win on these services if you put in the effort to read the project description and come up with a detailed response,” Loper adds. “I hired a virtual assistant from Macedonia on Upwork who worked with me for about two years. That relationship started with her writing a cover letter that demonstrated an understanding of my needs that stood out compared to other candidates.”

But doesn’t the global nature of freelance marketplace websites mean a race to the bottom for freelance pay?

Preston Hunter’s experience offers a stark counterpoint to that assumption. In 2015, Hunter, a developer based in Tempe, Ariz., earned approximately $80,000 through Upwork as a part-time business while holding down his day job.

“When I first started out, I was typically billing around $15 per hour. Over time, I’ve raised my hourly rate to about $86, and I often turn down client requests today,” he explains.

“I help clients build databases and web apps. For example, they may have an Excel spreadsheet and some ideas about putting it on the web,” he says, noting that he focuses on database projects using MySQL, Microsoft SQL, and related technologies. “I typically work about 10 hours per week on Upwork.”

Toptal: Freelance network for high-end talent

Describing itself as an exclusive network of top talent, Toptal is becoming a popular option for developers and designers to land clients.

“Before starting with Toptal, I worked on a couple of freelance projects,” says Paulo Castro, who began freelancing while working for IBM in Brazil. While at IBM, Castro worked on IBM middleware technologies such as cloud computing, IBM’s MobileFirst platform, BPM, and business rules management for enterprise customers. After completing a few freelance projects on his own, Toptal contacted him in 2011; he has worked with Toptal since that point.

Castro’s first few projects with Toptal focused on software maintenance.

“A lot of customers have difficulties finding developers to do maintenance and support for existing software, but this kind of project was perfect for me as I was looking for part-time work and nonfixed hours,” Castro says. “This type of maintenance work was my focus for my first three clients.”

In contrast to other services, Toptal plays an active role in interviewing developers, working with end clients, and administration.

“Billing and invoicing are handled automatically, and I can count on my payments from Toptal like clockwork,” Castro added. Toptal’s end clients include a mix of large and small companies such as J.P. Morgan, Pfizer, Zendesk, and AirBnb.

Building a product-based business

Earning income from selling technology products on the side is another path for a part-time business. In contrast to a services-based business, it generally takes longer to earn money, though the long-term rewards can be significantly greater. If you already have significant skills in app development, you might want to consider building a business around a software offering.

Of course, you’ll need to find a worthwhile market niche to fill with your app or software. After all, few side-hustle businesses receive angel or venture funding; money needs to come in from direct sales to justify the effort.

Gary Vaynerchuk, a digital marketing expert and author, regularly reviews the “top app” lists in the Apple iTunes Store, especially paid apps, to find new opportunities. There’s no need to create a new idea from scratch with this approach. Instead, you can build an app that leverages existing market demand. Over time, the best-selling iOS apps include games (such as Angry Birds, Words with Friends, and Plants vs. Zombies) and productivity apps (Camera+, iScanner, and TapeACall Pro). Performing market research on previously successful apps can help spark new ideas for areas with high demand.

Beyond mobile apps, software as a service can be another lucrative option for building a side business. Consider ConvertKit, an email marketing service created by Nathan Barry. Based in Idaho, Barry created the service in early 2013 after becoming frustrated with the capabilities of existing email marketing services. Prior to starting ConvertKit, Barry’s work focused on selling premium digital books like "The App Design Handbook" and "Designing Web Applications." Barry’s approach offers clues on how to build a successful SaaS product. He clearly understood the problem (ineffective and limited email marketing) and he defined a target market (professional bloggers like Leo Babauta).

Books: Spread your knowledge as a side business

Writing is another way you can leverage your technical expertise to earn money on the side. Writing books for a traditional publisher like Apress, O’Reilly, or Wiley is one approach. When you go with a traditional, established tech publisher, you earn an advance payment (likely less than $10,000 for a technical book) and royalties on books that sell. Beyond the immediate income, writing for a respected publisher is an excellent option to set yourself apart from other professionals in your niche.

Self-publishing offers another avenue with potentially greater rewards and flexibility. There are two popular ways to self-publish a book depending on your goals, skills, and resources: by creating a self-hosted premium e-book or by using a platform like Amazon.

Jason Rodriguez, product manager at Litmus, self-published a premium e-book called "Modern HTML Email." Unlike a traditional book, "Modern HTML Email" offers extra features like code samples, templates, and other resources. The book earned more than $3,000 when it launched and revenue continues to come in.

Brandon Savage self-published "Mastering Object Oriented PHP" while working at Mozilla. The books played a role in launching his new career as a software consultant. Technical books are well-suited for the premium e-book model because it is easier to include code samples, videos, and other instructional materials to help readers learn.

For other authors, Amazon represents a significant opportunity to build a business. While working as a senior software developer building iPhone apps in San Francisco, Chis Fox began to publish Kindle books. His fiction titles, "No Such Thing as Werewolves" and "No Mere Zombie," have sold well. As of February 2016, Fox has sold 35,000 copies of his books. Fox made time to write his books every day during commutes to the office and evenings.

Should part-time mean forever?

Keeping up a part-time business and a full-time job is challenging. Maintaining a traditional job and a part-time business creates additional pressure on your life. And that is another great facet of the side hustle: You can quit at any time. You may decide to close the business once you accomplish a specific goal such as paying off college debt. Or you may follow Paulo and Corey who grew their business so much that they could resign from their day jobs.

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