November 23

How I built a side hustle in SG


As a final year social work student in the U.K., I still remember the last day of our academic term like it was yesterday. My friends and I were at the tram stop, waiting for the tram that would take us into the city for our first (and last) meal together as a class.

It was a bittersweet moment. We were not going to see each other again in university after this, as all of us were going onto our placements.

My friend looked at me, and smiled.

Look what I got! Twinnings teabags! I got them from the leftover coffee table just now!

But I didn’t take the ginger and lemon ones because I hate them.

I laugh.

Yeah, I know.

I dig around in my pockets, taking out the ginger and lemon ones.

Because I took them.

We couldn’t stop laughing after that.

As university students, you’re in an in-between place. You are doing ‘adult’ things like living on your own in university, being responsible for your own cooking and washing, and sorting out the rest of your life admin (oh, just tell me about those struggles with insurance!)

But you’re not quite so independent, financially. Unless you got a scholarship, you’re probably still receiving an allowance from your parents, and scrapping by on the little that you have.

That’s where a side hustle can come in to help you to become more financially independent, and to no longer suffer the pain of having to go to your parents to ask for more money. Who wants to suffer the ignominy of having to tell your parents why you need more money? You couldn’t possibly tell them you want it for the club entrance fees, could you?

It’s time to hustle.

The myths of side-hustling

In my work as a speaker at universities, I’ve worked with a number of students. Whenever I ask them about paid work, they tell me something like:

  1. I’m not sure I could fully focus on my studies, and it might affect my future prospects.
  2. I want to enjoy the full university experience.
  3. I’m not going to earn much anyway.
University, doesn't have to be all about the study
University, doesn’t have to be all about the study

I want to address some of these myths today, sharing from my own experience.

My own experience

Between September 2018 to July 2019, for a period of 9 months, I was a student blogger for university. The university paid me £20 per article of 1000 words, and commissioned me to write 2 pieces a month. These would be pieces on experiences in university, or advice on how to score better for your essays.

Monthly, this would add up to about SG$72.

Beyond that, I also became a speaker and trainer. Once, a 20 minute speech at a conference gave me a cool £200 (SG$360), whilst conducting another public speaking training workshop paid me £90 (SG$162).

Speaking and training became other side-hustles that I learnt during my time at university.
Speaking and training became other side-hustles that I learnt during my time at university.

It didn’t look like great money, but it was money that helped me to go for experiences without worrying too much about the cost.

Finding myself at a Jerry Seinfeld show, live, was probably one highlight, made possible by side-hustling.
Finding myself at a Jerry Seinfeld show, live, was probably one highlight, made possible by side-hustling.

Money, can be liberating. It also gave me the chance to treat myself to technology products that I wanted, such as a new pair of speakers.

You actually learn more from these side hustles

For those who say that they will be distracted by their side hustle at university, I would say that might happen if you were doing something that was unrelated to your degree.

I had a friend who worked as a catering assistant whilst in university. Sometimes, she would be so tired after a day of studying that she would just scoop the food, and have it go ‘SPLAT!’ onto the student’s plate, without little thought.

Granted, you may not learn as much from these physical, menial jobs, but side-hustles that require significant thinking can help you to grow in your own skills at university.

Here, I also want to focus your attention on what the point of university is. Many of us think that university is intended for us to learn knowledge. That’s true. But it’s also meant for us to learn skills, or the application of knowledge. There’s not much point knowing something that you cannot apply.

For example, you could read all you wanted about digital marketing techniques, but until you take on a side-hustle that may involve you copy-writing, you may not know the skills needed to drive the results in digital marketing.

If you were training to be a social worker, as much as the knowledge of the theories is important, the skills of counselling, communicating, are also vital.
If you were training to be a social worker, as much as the knowledge of the theories is important, the skills of counselling, communicating, are also vital.

That’s why taking on a side-hustle can be a way you build up your skills, for eventual life after university.

The hard work actually helps you with life after university

You may look at me speaking in front of crowds, and think that I was born with such a skill.


I was so painfully shy when I started that I spent more time looking into my cup, than at the audience.

But all that weekly effort spent at the Public Speaking Society eventually gave me a second life after university. After university, I applied for 102 jobs, and failed more than 26 interviews. Not knowing how else to earn money to keep myself going, I wrote articles for sites around the net. What started as a small income eventually became an income that surpassed what I was earning in my first full-time job.

What you may initially see as a distraction may build you greater independence from a job. Rather than depending on a full-time employer for a salary, you can now depend on your skills.

Thus, rather than seeing this side-hustle as a distraction, why not see it as a chance to add concrete evidence of your skills? Employers would be more than impressed knowing that you’ve taken efforts to apply your knowledge in the real world.

Where can you start?

What are some practical things you can do to start? In Singapore, some feasible side-hustles include:

  1. Fitness trainers (such as in yoga, barre, or personal training)
  2. Tuition teachers
  3. Freelance writers
  4. Trainers with academies such as Adam Khoo’s

Apply to get the certificates, and you can start immediately.

What are you waiting for?

But of course, the question is how.

How do you get started? How do you find your first client? How do you earn enough money so you can quit your job?

The 'PCP' framework for making a side-hustle work in SG
The ‘PCP’ framework for making a side-hustle work in SG

Having worked with many freelancers, here are the best tips they have shared.

Do it for free initially to gain experience and build portfolio

Different industries will have different ways to get a foot in the door. But when you’re starting out, offering your service for free can help you to get the necessary experience that will enable you to eventually charge for your service.

When I first began writing, I got my name out there by offering to guest post on sites, for free. I would write to people, and ask if I could contribute to your site.

With this portfolio of experience, it eventually allowed clients to trust me.

Your portfolio of past clients (even if they might have been done for free), is a big marker of trust.

Make sure you ask for a testimonial after you do something.

Charge a low fee whilst you are still in university

Nicholas, who earns a 5-figure income per month, from personal training in fitness today, started in university, charging a low fee.

Take this as experience building.

Recently, I was trying to hire a photography student who was still studying. I was surprised at what he charged, despite his lack of a complementary portfolio.

Take a guess.


Flat. With no negotiation.

It was ridiculous. Whilst I understand that you shouldn’t undervalue your work, if you’re first starting out, doing things for a low fee can still help you to improve your skill.

This also helps you to understand your unique offering, in the market. If you’re just like everyone else, the only reason for someone to book you, is your fee. And that’s why my first advice, is always to be price-competitive.

Keep asking for the money

Whilst this might make you look money-faced, asking for the money can be as simple as,

Will there be remuneration for this?

Most people will say no. After all, if they could get it for free, why should they pay?

This depends on how important this client is. I often differentiate based on:

  1. How reputable the client is (is the client from a MNC or a famous company?)
  2. If the client has a network value (for example, if this client could refer me to others in his network that could use such services, that would be valuable)
  3. If this client is a foot in the door to making a foothold in another industry
    1. For example, as I was trained in social work, and not finance, it has been difficult to get paying work in publications related to finance, which tend to pay the best.
Here, this example from Michael Port's book, The Referable Speaker, shares how a speaker like Dr Elliot has crossed industries. Often, doing free work for an industry you might not be familiar in can be a good way to get a foot in the door.
Here, this example from Michael Port’s book, The Referable Speaker, shares how a speaker like Dr Elliot has crossed industries. Often, doing free work for an industry you might not be familiar in can be a good way to get a foot in the door.

Secure your first regular client

Getting your first regular client can be the first step towards a sustainable side-hustle.

But often, clients would want to know that you are reliable.

Alan Stevens, my speaking coach, once told me that a veteran journalist once gave him some well-meaning advice.

Never miss a deadline,

never waste a word.

I find this great advice for those who are starting out in their side-hustles.

Being on time with your output, or being on time for the classes you teach, can often be the biggest way to securing your regular clients.

Why reliability?

In Botelho and Powell’s book, ‘The CEO Next Door’, they mapped out the traits behind the people who eventually became CEOs. What they found was contrarian to what the industry believed.

Look at people like Steve Jobs and Obama.

You might think the most important traits were creativity, or charisma.

What they found was that reliability was the most reliable predictor of those who eventually rose to become CEOs.

Similarly, with your clients, reliably delivering what you promised can help you better secure your regular paying clients.

Different playbooks for different industries

There are different ways of making your side-hustle work in different industries.

Here I will share the ones I’m more familiar with.

  1. Writing
  2. Group fitness instructor
  3. Personal fitness instructor
  4. Freelance trainer


For those in writing, which is my background, what I think is best is often this process:

  1. Do guest posts for free, and expand your portfolio
  2. Start asking for money, whenever you agree to do guest posts, by saying ‘will I be remunerated for this process?’
  3. Secure your regular clients by consistently pitching them topics every month

I will share the rates in Singapore. For the charities that I work with, the common rate starts at $150 per article.

For finance sites that I’ve done for such as Dollarsandsense, Stacked Homes (a property portal), this can range from $200 to $300 per article.

For media sites such as Mediacorp, I’ve done Gen Y Speaks profiles for them. Each article pays $160.

By far the best paying is Singapore Press Holdings. They often engage freelancers for writing work, and rates start at $500, and can extend up to $900 if it’s a more in-depth piece.

Group fitness instructors

In the fitness industry, there are two main ways.

  1. Get a certificate in personal training/yoga, whatever your field is
  2. Ask to be an instructor at studios or bigger gyms like Fitness First, which run classes

This can range. For yoga studios, according to insiders, places like Yoga Movement pay $45 per class (which runs for an hour) if you’re inexperienced.

For bigger gyms like Fitness First, running a class will probably pay you $50 to $80, depending on your level of experience. From the different people I’ve spoken to in the industry, $80 seems to be the upper bound. If you’re already hitting that, you may be at your max rate.

Personal fitness instructors

The second, and often more profitable way is to do personal training.

When you first start, you might start at $50 an hour.

But for my friend, who won a Mr World Singapore competition, he’s been consistently able to charge $80 to 90 per session.

But that’s not the only way to earn money. Another way is through online coaching.

Online coaching programs can give you more money upfront, with a typical package costing $300 per month, with a training programme, and regular checkin sessions.

Freelance trainers

With Singapore’s expansion into upgrading the skills of adults, more and more trainers have been needed to run the courses.

But with the only barrier of entry often being the Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance, a 9-month train the trainer programme, there is an oversupply of trainers in the market.

This also means that rates are super-compressed.

There are some trainers that do training in security, which I’ve heard being paid $25 an hour.

But if you own the client, meaning that you’re the one who goes directly to the client, you get to be paid more.

I’ve trained for educational institutions like ITE and SUSS. Their rates are capped at $250 per hour.

Often training for educational institutions can bring better rates than adult training organisations.
Often training for educational institutions can bring better rates than adult training organisations.

My personal recommendation is that it’s better to nurture your own clients.

Whilst it’s good to be an adjunct trainer for accredited training organisations (ATOs), they often compress your rates to make a better margin. Even for courses like the ACLP, trainers there are paid on average $80 per hour.

What are you waiting for?

Often when you start a side-hustle, it can feel terrible at the start.

You don’t know how to find your first client, how to market yourself, how to package, and it can be a step too far.

My advice is to start first, think later.

You can always adjust along the way.


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