For Gen Zers: How a Side Hustle Can Become a Million-Dollar Company


Young entrepreneurs took up side hustles in record numbers in 2021 — and there’s no sign that the gig economy will slow down in the coming year. Many ideas will fail altogether, others will be successful enough to bring in a little cushion of cash on the side, and some might even work so well that the side hustle becomes a full-time thing.

In the rarest of cases, what started as a few bucks on the side will go on to change the world.

“In the mid-90s, Kevin Plank was a University of Maryland football player who was constantly irritated with wearing heavy, sweaty shirts under his jerseys during games,” said Perry Zheng, CEO and founder of the real estate site Cash Flow Portal. “In 1996, he created an athletic undershirt for himself that stayed dry even during the most strenuous workouts. It worked so well that he decided to turn it into a side hustle. He manufactured more of these undershirts and started selling them on the East Coast out of his car. Within two years, Under Armour moved out of Plank’s trunk and into a legitimate warehouse and headquarters. Today, the company makes nearly $4 billion annually.”

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The truth, however, is that the mid-90s were a long time ago. Can today’s young entrepreneurs achieve similar success if they work hard and find unique solutions to tomorrow’s challenges?

You bet they can.

Entrepreneurial Gen Zers Need Only To Seize the Day — While Planning For Tomorrow

Because of the brand-building nature of social media, the youngest side hustlers grew up in a digital world that doubled as business school.

“Gen Z entrepreneurs know about the importance of peer-to-peer marketing,” said Matthew McSpadden, CEO of WELD Recruiting. “Many of them solidified it with the start of influencer marketing trends, both on micro and macro levels, from Instagram to TikTok to YouTube to Twitch. They know how to tell a story, and they know how to build a brand — what they need to focus on to be successful is the long game.” 

That means looking past the next social media post and building an outline for yearslong success.

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“Instead of thinking about all of the money they can make with their side hustle right now, think about what their customers’ or clients’ needs are,” said McSpadden. “What are they now? What will they be in five years, 10 years, 20 years? Then establish a business that can be flexible and adaptable. They themselves have to keep learning so they can anticipate what the future landscape of their industry and their consumer behaviors are going to look like.”

Would You Buy Whatever It Is You’re Selling?

Just as comedians and singers should write jokes and songs that they, themselves, would want to hear, entrepreneurs should start by looking for ideas close to home — just as Kevin Plank did with Under Armour.

“Side hustles that turn into million-dollar businesses generally come from ideas that solve the entrepreneur’s own problem,” said Daniel Javor, founder and CEO of the entrepreneurial site Step By Step Business. “They set out to find a solution for themselves and then realize that other people need to solve the same problem. An example is Dyson. James Dyson was frustrated with his own vacuum losing suction, so he solved the problem with the Dyson vacuum cleaner, expanded his product line over time, and now he has a billion-dollar company.”

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And Gen Zers have a lot of tools at their disposal that were not available when James Dyson got his start.

“The influx of new ways to easily get your ideas out there online has really lowered the barrier for those with limited tech skills to turn their passionate side gig into a legitimate entrepreneurial venture,” said Melissa Schneider, VP of global marketing operations at GoDaddy. “A budding entrepreneur has never been more set up for DIY success.”

Identify Your Customers — and Have Something Worth Selling When You Meet Them

No matter the product or service, all successful entrepreneurs were able to identify their customer base and meet them where they spend their time. Step one is to find out who is most likely to want what you have and where to go to engage with them.

“This will help you figure out which sales and marketing channels you want to put your message into, or where it’s important you sell your products and services,” said Schneider. “Is your story and your product primed to find a following on social media? Will your customers already be shopping for your products and services on Amazon, Etsy, or Google Shopping? Make it clear why a customer would want what you’re selling. Why are you different?  What’s your secret sauce that makes a customer want to choose you? Anywhere you’re selling online, you have to stand out from the crowd of folks putting their products and services out there. Spending the time to think about this question will help your online presence go a long way.”

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Look Like a Pro From Day 1

No matter what you’re selling, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to launch prematurely with a product, a service, marketing, packaging, or advertising that looks like it was done by amateurs. Every amateur, after all, has one thing in common — they don’t make any money.

“From your website to Instagram to Amazon, it’s increasingly easy to show up looking amazing out of the gate, which will get customers excited about what you offer and instill trust in you as a brand,” said Schneider. “Bottom line, you must start with knowing clearly who you are, who you want to connect with, and then marrying that with the now easy-to-use solutions that can help your ideas beautifully come to life and stand out in the places where people are looking for you.”

Remember, You’re Following in a Long Tradition of Winners Who Bet on Themselves

Amy Davis, a side-hustler-turned-entrepreneur who founded My Cat Needs This, knows exactly what it takes to make a hobby pay — and keep on paying.

“A successful side hustle has a clear and compelling value proposition, offers products and services of high quality, provides great customer service, and collaborates with employers in the community to create an ecosystem for success,” she said.

Davis went on to give a few examples, in her own words, of people who followed that very formula to move from side gigs to entrepreneurial superstardom:

  • Mattel: Ruth Handler (Ruth and Elliot Handler), the inventor of the Barbie doll, had also invented Hot Wheels for her son. A combination of these two toy brands led to Mattel Toys, which is now one of America’s largest mass-market toy manufacturers producing 20% of what American children play with today.
  • Google: One story about starting small but making it big is Google. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both students at Stanford University, created Google as a thesis project, a simple search engine based on linguistics, mathematics and statistics they called “BackRub.”
  • Spanx: Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, was selling fax machines door-to-door when she got the idea for her famous slimming undergarments. She started making them in her apartment and soon had a burgeoning business on her hands.
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