An honest look at what happened to small businesses that didn’t work out.
Literally millions of people started small businesses during the pandemic. There was time to dream, conceptualize, and create, which is beautiful but also let’s be real: Starting a business is extremely challenging for non-millionaires. There’s just no way all those new businesses were going to be financially successful. The world only needs so many vagina candles.
At the time, I wondered if the inevitable doom of so many businesses would lead to widespread professional depression. What’s worse than taking a risk and flopping? It turns out, though, that I was mistaken. I talked to people who tried and failed to follow their dreams and they were surprisingly not jaded. To be clear, though, even though the individuals I spoke with were diverse in personal and professional backgrounds, they had in common a certain level of privilege.
“Blogging was always on my bucket list, and the pandemic gave me an excellent opportunity to work on that passion,” Harsh Goyal, a 25-year-old digital marketer in Delhi, tells me. He adopted a puppy during the pandemic, and the ups and downs of raising a dog inspired him to start a dog blog to help other new puppy parents. Sounds cute, right? It really is, but Goyal’s puppy passion project soon started to eat up all his time.
“I was treating my blog as my full-time job,” Goyal says. That would have been fine if the blog was paying the bills, but it wasn’t, so he had to pull the plug. It feels like an overall bummer but Goyal tells me that the lessons he learned from his dog blog bolstered his professional skills. “I now feel more confident about understanding customers’ pain points and needs,” Goyal says. “Everything that happened in the past two years feels like a roller-coaster ride that I enjoyed a lot.”
Goyal’s inspirational perspective shows what psychologists call “psychological flexibility.” “Psychological flexibility is often the solution to many problems,” says Alexandra Miller Clark, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist. Clark defines the trait as “being flexible and open to a new plan and seeing it as an adventure.” I mean, yeah, that’s how all of us want to approach life, right? But how?
“Psychological flexibility is often the solution to many problems.”
Well, Clark explains, you become psychologically flexible by doing some of the things that Goyal did when his plans didn’t work out the way he wanted them to — namely asking yourself what went well about your life experiment even if it didn’t totally pan out. Clark recommends practicing this in times of stress by asking yourself some important questions “Have I enjoyed the process, regardless of the outcome? Have I been growing in skills and socially-emotionally, or increased my relationship connections as a result of this side job?” she suggests.
More often than not, the people I spoke with for this piece seemed really zen about their failed side hustles. Daniella Flores, a 32-year-old software engineer in Missouri, started a gothic wedding-themed business during the pandemic. “I tried out dropshipping in the gothic wedding niche selling T-shirts and accessories with gothic wedding related sayings and illustrations — aimed at bachelorette parties and wedding parties — right at the start of the pandemic,” they tell me.
This is the kind of business idea that sounds so specific and well-thought out that I can’t imagine it failing. Unfortunately, it did. “I was able to send a few group orders but it quickly fell off as folks weren't planning weddings,” Flores tells me. “I gave it a couple of months and closed the online store because of the low demand and my heart wasn't really in it.” Flores tells me that it was a relief to close the shop. “I wanted to take that energy and point it towards my freelance writing, building my own blog and brand, and other creative projects I like to do that aren't monetized.”
Not only is Flores unphased by the public failure to buy into their obviously genius idea, they continue to side hustle. Their work as a software engineer is remote, which gives them a lot of time to spend on their blog which is — wait for it — a guide to side hustling. Flores has been running this blog since the before times, so they are perhaps uniquely poised to understand the trial and error process of passion projects.
Flores doesn’t call serial side hustling a hustle. Instead, they call it dabbling. “Dabbling brings excitement in experimentation and gives your energy the freedom to create amazing things,” they wrote on their blog. Dabbling, they say, is both a creative pursuit and a way to increase wealth. But, as they emphasized in our conversation, not everything needs to be — or should be, or can be — monetized.
Herbert Lui, a 30-year-old writer and editorial director in Tampa, wrote a book during the pandemic. Lui published his self-help book for creatives independently, made it into an online course, and started coaching creative individuals on how to take their projects from start to finish. Unfortunately, he didn’t make as much money doing that as he needed to. “I was running out of savings,” Lui tells me. So, he went back into tech.
But not only does Lui tell me that he doesn’t regret the book-writing experience, he’s also not mad about having to go back to a more traditional job. “My writing habit is alive and well and I have been able to balance it out with a full-time job. I also had a moment of clarity—I thought succeeding as an author meant doing it full-time, or at least without a full-time job, and I was totally wrong,” he says. Lui explains that having a day job has taken the pressure off of his creative process and allowed him to follow his interests.
It feels important to note that not everyone has the luxury of a stable job that takes the pressure off of their creative pursuits. Yes, everyone should get to luxuriate in their imagination, but many people don’t get to do that with the security of knowing that their bills will get paid. That doesn’t negate the importance of creative leisure pursuits, but it’s a little harder to invest (both financially and emotionally) in a project when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay rent.
Doing things you love whether or not they make money or not is something that Clark also emphasizes. “I don’t believe folks should necessarily let go of creative outlets that are hobbies in the evenings and off hours,” Clark tells me. “There is less pressure on the creator if they know they don’t depend on it for money.” Amen. Believe me, I know how tempting it is to try to make what you love to do into a job, but if you love to do something, take a cue from these entrepreneurs and do it whether it turns a profit or not. In reality, you may not have the kind of liberation from financial worry that may allow you to be your most creative self, but perhaps the joy you garner will contribute to your emotional freedom in untold ways.