How to find the right niche for your side hustle, from a former Tony Robbins producer who built a 6-figure business selling digital courses

  • Amy Porterfield is a content creator who made more than $13 million in 2020 through three digital courses, according to a letter sent to BI from her accountant that summarized Porterfield's income sources.
  • Before she became an entrepreneur, Porterfield worked as the director of content development for popular performance coach Tony Robbins, where she learned the powerful role of digital courses in business marketing.
  • Porterfield told Business Insider how she leveraged her corporate skillset to build a side hustle selling digital courses, and her advice on starting a business during the pandemic. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Many people leave the corporate world for the appeal of being their own boss — only to discover that the life of an entrepreneur means you often feel like you have not one, but several, bosses. 

That's how Amy Porterfield, an online marketing expert and owner of a six-figure company, felt when she started her own business. 

Before she became an entrepreneur, Porterfield was working in the corporate world as the director of content development for popular performance coach Tony Robbins. That's where she caught the entrepreneurial bug and was introduced to the powerful role of digital courses, or online presentations often used in business marketing.

After seven years working for Robbins, she decided to leave her job and start her own consulting business managing social media for small business owners. There was just one problem. She absolutely hated it. Her eight clients were now telling her what to do at any minute of the day, she told Business Insider.

"I didn't know how to set boundaries, so I was the yes girl," she said. Entrepreneurship didn't look at all like she expected. "I thought I'd be on a beach with a laptop, Mai Tai in hand."

So she stopped consulting, coaching, and working for other people by selling digital courses to entrepreneurs who also want to create courses online. Her online courses raked in more than $13 million in 2019 and 2020, according to a letter sent to BI from her accountant that summarized Porterfield's income sources.

Here's how Porterfield leveraged her corporate skillset to build a side hustle selling digital courses, and her advice on starting a business during the pandemic. 

Launch, iterate, re-launch

Porterfield said her first attempt at creating a digital course was a big failure. She wanted to teach authors how to use social media to launch a book. But despite having experience with social media strategies, she didn't know enough about book publishing in order for her course to be successful. 

The entrepreneur charged customers $197 for her first course, and she only made $267 after expenses. She made less than the money and time spent on drafting the course. 

"I was in tears, but I learned that in order to make it work, I needed to get really clear on where I've gotten results,  and teach based on the results I got," she said. "Everyone is an expert in something, but you just got to get clear about what it is." 

Self-reflecting on work where you've gotten positive results doesn't mean that it has to be the same work you currently do at your job, Porterfield noted. In fact, a teachable skill can range from beating a marathon record to a secret recipe for caramel candied apples, she said.

You don't need to master a certain skill to be able to teacher either. You just need to be 10% ahead of your students, she said. Porterfield eventually found her niche and now focuses on her two programs: A $397 curriculum that teaches people how to build successful email lists and a $1,997 package on how entrepreneurs can launch a digital course teaching anything from scratch. 

"You only need one or two digital courses to be successful," she said. "Just create one and validate the fact the people are buying your product, launch it again with a better marketing strategy, and launch it again. 

Know your market niche

Porterfield's business serves entrepreneurs who are typically still in their 9-to-5 jobs and have a side hustle. That is her target, and she recommended that entrepreneurs figure out exactly who their businesses are created for.  

You need to identify your overall market, but you also need to define a subset or a niche of the bigger market that you plan to serve, she said.

For example, a personal finance coach might have an overall market of people interested in the financial sphere. However, you don't want to teach everyone how to budget, invest, and spend their money. A subset of a personal finance coach's market might be to teach parents how to save and invest for their kids' college funds, Porterfield added. 

"Finding a niche in the market you serve takes time," she said. "It'll become more clear and refining as you grow your business over the next year or two."

The right time is now 

Porterfield believes now is the best time for entrepreneurs to start a side hustle, especially if they're interested in creating a digital course. 

Her argument is backed by research. Side hustles have actually become more popular during the coronavirus pandemic. According to a recent survey conducted by Harvard Business School Online, 54% of people said they are considering starting a side gig.

In fact, experts have advised that taking on a side gig during the novel coronavirus pandemic can provide more financial security, or a plan B just in case things go really wrong.

Porterfield explained that the demand for online learning has dramatically increased since the coronavirus outbreak, which allowed her and other entrepreneurs to see successes for their recent course launches. Not only are people more open to learning new things, but the pandemic has also encouraged people to try new things, she said. 

"The world has changed dramatically, and there are people who are either furloughed, laid off, or just contemplating whether they're headed towards the right career direction," Porterfield said. "Now is the time for people to reevaluate, reassess, and try out new ideas." 

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