Launching in lockdown: people who made their side-hustle their business in lockdown

Anna Thompson
Anna Thompson
Discover content team
6 min read
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With extra time on their hands, many people have launched e-commerce businesses during lockdown – and with global online sales booming, their timing couldn’t be better. If you’re also thinking of taking the next step with your side hustle, read on for advice on how to make it a hit online.

2020 was a year of stress and disruption, but arguably it created room for innovation to thrive. With the arrival of the pandemic and subsequent shift to working from home, people found themselves with extra time on their hands.

For some, this meant trying out new hobbies (hello baking, hello banana bread); for others, the chance to up their fitness regimes and send Peloton’s share price soaring. But for a more entrepreneurial group, the time has been spent making a real go of transforming that hobby that has always been in the background, into cold hard cash. And so, 2020 became the year of the side hustle – specifically, selling stuff online.

With economic uncertainties amidst the pandemic, side hustles have, for many, become more than just a passion project – they are a necessity to make ends meet. In America, for example, over 27% of people with a side hustle rely on the extra income to cover regular monthly bills and expenses1.

If you’ve been thinking about turning your side hustle into a fully-fledged e-commerce business, your timing is on point: online shopping soared during lockdown – in the first six months of 2020 alone, retail e-commerce website traffic worldwide grew from 16.07 billion monthly visits to 21.96 billion2. Add to that the fact that 44% of consumers tried new brands during the pandemic3, and suddenly the thought of entering a thriving market of customers open to new products and ideas has never been more appealing.

Until now, you may have just been selling your product to friends and family, but it’s time to think big. Whatever you like to make in your free time – cakes, jewelry, or something altogether more niche – there’s almost certainly going to be an audience out there for it. You just need to know where to look, and which online channels to choose to reach them.

These days, with the abundance of online marketplaces and user-friendly e-commerce software, setting up shop online can be done in no time at all. Often, the power of social media does most of the marketing for you, as the founders of Summer Morning Studiosdiscovered. The brand makes candles “too pretty to burn”, and was launched during the pandemic – perfect timing as consumers spent more money on homewear.

“It was really quick for us. Creating an Instagram account and putting the idea out there was a massive first step but as soon as we shared product pictures, we began quickly gaining followers and had people messaging us wanting to buy the candles, all before we'd even launched,” founder Ailidh says6.

Using Instagram (or indeed any of the leading social media platforms) to launch your e-commerce brand means you don’t need a business degree or lots of money to get started – simply a great idea and a Wi-Fi connection. “Instagram is hugely powerful. You have free access to a wealth of information, facts, mentors, insights and audiences all from the comfort of your sofa,” Ailidh explains.

Elsewhere, the rapid growth of the direct-to-consumer subscription-box market has given rise to countless new businesses over the last year. Broadly speaking, the subscription economy is split into two categories: replenishment services – saving the consumer the trouble of remembering to buy something they continuously need; or curation services – acting as a surprise gift to themselves in the mail, offering an additional yet affordable luxury.

The subscription economy is thriving right now, but before you race for a slice of the pie, beware some of the pitfalls. Many businesses entice users through discount deals or trial periods, but this acquisition strategy often fails to follow up afterwards, leading one third of subscribers to cancel when their three-month trial is over6. Make sure that doesn’t happen to your business with our guide to subscription marketing.

Student Caroline Haegman was inspired to start her subscription-box business when her university course was put on hold during lockdown. Spending so much time indoors with her partner made her realize how much they both craved the romance of their pre-pandemic life. So, she set up Box427, which delivers “the full date night experience at home.” For a monthly fee, customers receive a box containing activities, curated playlists, snacks and “mood setters” like candles. Box42 partners with other small, independent businesses to source the food and drinks.

"I started the company during lockdown because that's when I started really seeing a gap in the market," says Caroline8. "Previously, although I'd had different ideas, I'd never had enough time to commit to launching a business." Yet, the instant success of Box42 has made her gamble seem worth it.

So, are you feeling inspired to take the leap and turn your side hustle into an e-commerce player? Read on for all the tips to transform your hobby into a thriving business!

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First step: competitor analysis

You may have great confidence in your business idea, but it’s still important to survey the existing market landscape before you enter it, and that’s where a good old-fashioned bit of Google research comes in.

Conducting a competitor analysis to see what your competitors are up to will help you strengthen your proposition by identifying gaps in the market where you could position your brand to cash in. A thorough competitor analysis will look at your competitors’ pricing, social media strategies, and website analytics – amongst other things – from which you can learn best practices and uncover market trends that will improve your business strategies going forward.

Our competitor analysis guide explains how to conduct one, step by step, and includes a free downloadable template to help you get started.

Hire help

It’s never been easier to launch an e-commerce business online, so you’ll likely do much of the work yourself. Added to that, start-up budgets are tight anyway, but if you do need a little help for certain tasks, support agencies such as Upwork9 and Fiverr10 let you hire contractors for one-off or recurring jobs that might pop up – such as website building or copywriting.

Use social media to gain attention  

This is your golden marketing weapon. It’s (mostly) free to use, and is your entry point to connect with a global audience of millions.

As a new brand, social media can help you create buzz around your products, find new customers, and grow an engaged audience – providing you invest in your social media strategy. If you’re willing to spend a little cash, social media platforms have the analytics to offer you sophisticated advert targeting to reach audiences by location, age, and gender – even by education level, relationship status and life events.

Check out our guide to selling on social for all the tips to get your business noticed on the leading social media platforms, from hashtags to the tools that will give your presence on each a boost.

Get to know your customers

As a new business, spending time talking to your customers is the key to nurturing and improving your product offering. It’s how you’ll learn what’s working about your business, what isn’t, and what customers want more of. Ask for feedback on social media, add polls on Instagram Stories, invite comments on your website…however you do it, just don’t stop listening. There’s always work to be done and ways to improve.

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Consider online marketplaces

For the time-poor entrepreneurs out there, online marketplaces are your saviour, instantly connecting you to an active global audience of millions. Selling through an online marketplace means much of the hard work of being an e-commerce merchant is done for you – setting up shop on Amazon or Etsy, for example, means everything from product listing to fulfilment will be taken care of for you, leaving you more time to spend on other areas of the business.

Yet, there are some drawbacks, notably the fees you’ll have to pay to list on these platforms. Dive into our guide to the leading online marketplaces to discover the pros and cons of each, and find the right one to help your side hustle launch with a bang.   

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Delivery, delivery, delivery

This is arguably one of the most important parts of your e-commerce operation – customers want choice and flexibility in their delivery options, and if you’re not offering that, they’ll abandon the purchase.  

In fact, the average cart abandonment rate online is close to 70%. That’s an astronomical figure. Extra costs are the number one reason for abandonment, which is why offering your customers free shipping can be the difference between making a sale and losing it at the last moment. Look at where you can absorb the cost of free shipping elsewhere – it will be worth it once you see your sales conversion rate jump up.  

Express and On Demand Delivery rate highly with customers, too, as does the ability to track their delivery. Don’t forget to optimize your checkout (and indeed whole website) for mobile. Smaller screens can make the checkout process even more fiddly, so use autofill and keep field entry requirements to a minimum to make the process as simple as possible.

So, there you have it – some tips to help you get your side hustle off the ground. For even more e-commerce advice, check out these articles, guides and free downloads covering everything from customer service to international shipping. A worldwide online audience awaits your next move! 

1 - Dollar Sprout, March 2021

2 - Statista, November 2020

3 - Webinterpret, October 2020

4 - Summer Morning Studios

5 - The Independent, October 2020

6 - Discover.DHL, June 2019

7 - Box 42

8 - BBC News, September 2020

9 - Upwork

10 - Fiverr

11 - Baymard Institute, SleekNote, March 2021