In the year of the pandemic and job loss, side gigs saved the day

It was the worst of years. People lost jobs, lost homes, had their salaries cut, trudged home, emptied their savings. Through it all, a streak of ingenuity shone through — the middle-class reinvented itself and its skill sets and came up with a variety of side gigs

Updated - December 31, 2020 11:47 am IST

Published - December 26, 2020 04:02 pm IST

As people face job loss, pay cuts, crashing businesses, fear, and uncertainty around their work, they are increasingly looking at diversifying income opportunities

As people face job loss, pay cuts, crashing businesses, fear, and uncertainty around their work, they are increasingly looking at diversifying income opportunities

A week after the ‘Janta Curfew’ was announced in March, Kevin Simon, 40, put up a Facebook post asking if anyone needed anything urgently. A friend messaged that a couple in their 80s was looking for someone to deliver medicines. Kevin and his partner, Merin Mathew, 37, who live in Thiruvananthapuram, did just that. From there, requests began to pour in: for baby products, groceries, cleaning supplies, and more.

Two-and-a-half months later, the lockdown was relaxed and people began to ask for non-essentials. Sensing a business opportunity, and considering that their 16-year-old event management company had nosedived, the couple started Cartwheel Concierge Ventures.

Merin describes it as “global demand and local supply,” with requests coming in from across the world for Kerala-based services. “We once had to deliver a tall cake with whipped cream to Pattambi eight hours away, for a birthday, because a mother was very keen on a particular baker in Thiruvananthapuram,” she says. There have been other requests: like getting a house ready (cleaned up, bills paid, groceries stocked) for a senior citizen returning from Dubai, where she had been stuck for 10 months; or a delivery of pork curry to Thiruvananthapuram from a restaurant in Kochi. “We anyway come from a position of providing a service; that’s what we were doing with events,” says Merin.

Their events business, while still on, has been hard hit. “We did some 10 weddings in November 2019. This year, it’s been less than half that,” says Merin, adding that they’ve had to give up their office and let go of the staff, employing them on a freelance basis now.

The hit job

As people face job loss, pay cuts, crashing businesses, fear, and uncertainty around their work, they are increasingly looking at diversifying income opportunities. “Everyone is being forced to think differently and leave behind the role cloaks they were so comfortable with pre-pandemic,” says Vishwapriya Kochhar, HR consultant, corporate coach and co-founder, BlewMinds, Gurugram.

Sunaina Magan, 40, from Noida, had to shut her gallery at the start of the pandemic. As founder-director at Vernssage Gallery, she had been in business six years, when the pandemic forced her to turn “from curator to supplier”. Sunaina’s housing society was sealed and barricaded, and the complex and residents had no access even to basic groceries. “We managed to call a vendor to set up shop just outside the complex so we could at least buy milk and some vegetables,” she says. The episode got her thinking about health, accessing the best produce, and the safest way to shop.

In April this year, Sunaina started VOrganics, an online store, with her IT professional brother setting up its backend and with goods sourced from farmers, home chefs, and mom-and-pop shops. With over a decade’s experience in corporate luxury brand management, Sunaina had the marketing know-how, and she focused all her energy on the store, coordinating with suppliers and delivery agents.

“With VOrganics, I am going to build a team and I will look at a bigger warehousing space,” she says.

Opportunity harnessing

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review ( HBR ) published the results of a series of studies involving over 1,000 people. They found that participants in the U.S. worked on side hustles for 13 hours a week on average, across four days. Two studies also found that “psychological empowerment from side-hustles enriches full-time work performance.” An article in HBR reported: “We found that 45% of individuals said that their top motive for having a side hustle was to increase pay and prestige.”

Side Hustle Nation, run by Nick Loper, who calls himself Chief Side Hustler, put out data recently from a survey of about 1,600 people that claimed 45% of Americans reported having a second job. It attributed the popularity of the trend to a “proactive desire and unprecedented ability to make extra money — fuelled by technology and social media”, and an “economic necessity”. Interestingly, while only half the people surveyed loved their primary jobs, 76% loved their side hustles.

No one understands this coming together of factors better than 33-year-old Anuj Singh (name changed to protect identity) . Anuj has been in the education sector for a decade, selling value-added programmes to schools. He currently works full-time for a company but uses his spare time to manage the financial portfolios of friends and family, making long-term investments for them.

“During the lockdown, I got a lot of calls because people had more time to explore the stock market themselves, and many of them set up demat accounts,” he says. Even though he doesn’t have a licence, he realised he could make the most of the opportunity. With fixed deposit rates tanking and the stock market looking up, people were looking to diversify their portfolio.

Clearly, Anuj is ready to take risks — the company he works for could find out about his moonlighting and fire him, or he could get caught by financial regulators. Not all side hustlers are necessarily such risk-takers — most of them just make the most of an opportunity that comes along.

Pandemic panned

In 2015, Rewati Rau, now 38, who’d worked for 10 years in the media, decided to launch Bikku Bakes, a home baking business, in Delhi. “I baked my first cake in Class IX, and when I’d bake for colleagues and friends, they’d all tell me I should charge for it,” she says. So Rewati changed her role to that of a consultant at the media house she worked for. “It meant my work wouldn’t change, but I just needed to go in thrice a week.” Then the pandemic began, and she saw her orders going up by 50%.

In hindsight, it seems providential. Four months into the lockdown, her newspaper shut down and she lost her job. Freelance writing neither paid well nor was steady. Rewati’s primary job became baking. She realises that her business will only grow now — people feel safer when food comes from someone’s kitchen. “Before the pandemic, my side hustle was giving me about 30% of my income. When the pandemic broke, it was 50%, and now that I am doing it full time, it’s 80%,” she says.

Not just Rewati, several other people have turned to food as a side hustle during the pandemic. It is considered a ‘safe’ gig, low investment, and something that can be done from home.

Treading lightly

A 2018 research study conducted by Henley Business School among 500 business leaders and 1,100 working adults in the U.K. found that while side hustles are increasing, the trend is not yet entirely recognised as the new normal.

It’s the reason Hyderabad-based Ajit, 38, who was offered a weekend teaching position in Delhi’s Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, doesn’t want to disclose his second name, or the name of the company he works for. He’s cautious about ‘advertising’ his part-time teaching job, even though he has the permission of the engineering company where he works full time. Having spent eight years as a management professional, specialising in compliance, he now teaches business ethics because it also aids his career growth.

Ajit hasn’t faced pay-cuts nor is he worried about losing his full-time job. In fact, he thinks that “five or 10 years down the line I will be able to divide my time equally between the two.” What Ajit didn’t realise, though, when he took this up was the amount of time he would have to spend on it, something that was possible only because of the lockdown.

According to HR consultant Vishwapriya, the income streams that have sprung during the pandemic can be divided into learning and lifestyle businesses. The former includes people lending their core skills to small companies, to students, or others, an option made possible because of work from home, digital meetings, and e-learning platforms. Lifestyle businesses include small forays in the food, fitness, beauty, entertainment, and children’s spaces.

Urvija Ghurye’s online dance classes fall in the latter category. The 28-year-old from Mumbai started wedding choreography classes three years ago. She had first done it for a friend and was pleasantly surprised when she was given a sizeable cheque at the end of it. So she started classes over the weekends and began also to lease out her space to other dance teachers. And just like that, in a few months, Rasa Raaga Dance Studio was up and running.

A corporate lawyer in a start-up company, Urvija’s job had always been flexible, but she had quit it earlier this year to do an MBA. With studies looking iffy this year and not many companies hiring, Urvija’s dance class has become more or less her mainstream job. “I still do some legal work on and off, but dance takes up most of my time. The weekends are packed,” she says. And even though the classes pay her only 70% of what her mainstream career would have, she isn’t complaining. In fact, she has expanded business to include corporate dance workshops, kids’ classes, and women’s classes groups, with a repertoire that includes Bollywood, Bolly-fit, and even Bharatanatyam.

Even as the pandemic has taken away many livelihoods at one end of the spectrum, at another it has thrown up new opportunities. When Desiree Anwar, 38, from Puducherry, lost a number of clients for her PR business in the wake of the lockdown, she began painting again, in the hope that she could brush up her skills and sell her art, as she had some years ago when she ran a coffee shop which would also display her work for sales. “I kept at what I could do rather than what I couldn’t,” she says.

Not everyone has been lucky enough to land on their feet, but it is heartening to see that there has not been a shortage of resourcefulness, creativity or courage either. Facing pay cuts, job losses and rising costs, many people have grit their teeth and made the most of an extremely rough year. This, then, is as good as it gets.

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