Illustration by Olenka Malarecka
Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Passion economy

The passion economy: Why more people are making a living doing what they love


Published on January 25, 2021

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After nearly a year in isolation, you might feel like you’re a different person than you were last January. Maybe you’ve learned new things about yourself you never noticed before. Like, sitting at the breakfast table feels better than sitting in traffic. And extra hours of quiet solitude cause your mind to wonder to a different view of the future and where you want to be this time next year. 

It feels like a time to ask the big questions. What do you love? Where do you want to live? What do you want to do with your life? 

In the wake of the pandemic, many have lost their jobs, but found their calling. Instead of trying to get back to business as usual, they’ve been looking for a new way forward. Under the radar, there’s been a quiet convergence of opportunity and technology helping many reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs who make a living doing what they love

Li Jin, the founder of Atelier, is helping people do just that. Her venture capital firm is investing in what she calls the “passion economy,” which Jin sees as part of a larger trend she calls the “enterprization of consumer.” 

After tracking the rise of digital platforms powering the passion economy and pointing to their potential in her influential post, The Passion Economy and The Future of Work, she discovered a passion of her own: lowering the barrier to entry for new entrepreneurs. 

“I'm backing new platforms that give people new ways of earning income and new paths to professions that had historically been gatekept or hard to access.”

Photo of Li Jin, founder of Atelier and Side Hustle Stack
Li Jin, founder of Atelier and Side Hustle Stack

In the wake of the pandemic, many have lost their jobs, but found their calling. 

In the past, opportunity was limited to a fortunate few. Aspiring startup founders would pitch and pivot and re-pitch ideas to a group of monied gatekeepers, hoping to sell investors on the promise of delivering enormous returns. 

Now, content creators can open their own gates. This emerging group isn’t looking to ride a giant wave before it crests. They’re looking to make their own waves. Instead of trying to find the next big thing that might attract the maximum number of people and let them retire before 30, they’re focused on finding the followers who resonate with their particular point of view. And to do that, they’re leaning into their weirdness.

Jin’s goal is to help create a world where these people can do what they love for a living by turning those niche skills into new businesses. She noticed an explosion of new platforms that were connecting people to work opportunities in different forums, and allowing them to monetize their work and distribute to their customers/fans/audience directly. But something was missing.

“A lot of [platforms] were offering a value proposition of not just making money, but actually doing work that had some creative element and allowed people to express themselves,” she recalls. “But it was hard for people to find these platforms, to know which ones they could work on if they had a certain skill set. It was even difficult for me as an investor who talks to these companies all day to keep track of all of the new platforms. I felt like it would be useful to create a centralized resource that compiled all of them.”

Jin’s goal is to help create a world where people can do what they love for a living by turning niche skills into new businesses.

So she came up with an idea for her own personal side project. Side Hustle Stack is a resource that guides passion economy entrepreneurs to the right platforms for their work categories. After launching in December, the site is already seeing more than 2 million monthly page views, showcasing the widespread desire for monetizing through side hustles.

Whereas Adam Davidson’s Passion Economy podcast often spotlights entrepreneurs building new businesses offline, Jin is inspired by the possibilities created by the digital platforms that are helping people monetize their unique skills. 

“That’s a direct result of my focus, which is venture investing in software businesses,” she says. “I'm always thinking about what's new, what's changed, what’s the catalyst driving this now?”

Two main catalysts had been propelling the passion economy: jobs being sent offshore and lower-skilled work becoming increasingly automated. But in 2020, a new catalyst arrived. 

“I think the pandemic has definitely accelerated it,” she says. “A lot more people are becoming entrepreneurs. People who are being laid off are becoming entrepreneurs. People who are sitting at home, having this existential crisis and reevaluating their lives are becoming entrepreneurs. People who are in a situation of financial need are taking initiative and signing up to these platforms and figuring out how they can make a little bit of side income and some of it becomes a main source of income.”

The pandemic is also accelerating flexible work and online based work opportunities. “A lot of that maps well to the passion economy, because it's people who are taking their skill set and trying to monetize that. They’re thinking: ‘What is the product I can offer right now, that can be delivered online, in a virtual world?’”

Meanwhile, new software platforms are not only helping people connect with customers and build an audience, some even enable you to create digital products. 

“I'm focused on that today—the technological aspect driving the passion economy,” says Jin. “A lot of the platforms I'm interested in do create offline forms of work—all of the Etsy sellers have an offline physical product they're selling. Patreon creators are oftentimes musicians who are performing live shows or artists who are creating physical art objects, but they are digitizing their relationship with their audience and scaling it up using these platforms.

New software platforms are not only helping people connect with customers and build an audience, some even enable you to create digital products. 

When she's not investing and helping entrepreneurs find the resources they need, Li spends time on her other passion—painting

The digital platforms featured on Side Hustle Stack are opening the doors to entrepreneurship for a broader swath of the workforce. But there’s a flip side to the new accessibility.

“Success is still just as hard to attain, maybe even more so, because there's now a lot of other entrepreneurs to compete with for the same customers,” says Jin. “You see this in the Shopify numbers. Shopify now has about 100,000 merchants worldwide. That's 100,000 new e-commerce stores that didn't used to exist. Some of them overlap in consumer categories that they're competing for. So yes, it's easier to get started. You can start a newsletter business with a few clicks on Substack. You can start a subscription business on Patreon. You can start a content subscription business on OnlyFans. You can sell things on Etsy. But getting to scale, getting to success, and making it your full time income is still really challenging.”

So how do you make sure you stand out in the crowd of hungry new business owners?

“For every sort of online creator, you can have an audience, which social platforms will distill into a single number: your number of followers. That number belies the variance among your audience of super fans, casual fans, medium engaged fans, people who would like die for you and purchase anything that you make.”

“I think the 1,000 true fans model maps well to medium-engaged fans. They want to support you. If you're asking them for money, they might chip in $10. The 100 true fans model, which I wrote about is really about superfans and how to get those people to pay an even higher amount for something that you're doing. For most people who are monetizing to that degree, they actually need a bigger audience to even find those 100 true fans.”

“The teaching world is one exception to this,” says Jin. “If you're teaching a course that has real ROI to a small segment of the population of Earth, and you can deliver the value and knowledge that they're looking for, you can monetize that to a high degree without cultivating a huge audience that encompasses a lot more people.”

“For every sort of online creator, you can have an audience, which social platforms will distill into a single number: your number of followers. That number belies the variance among your audience."

So maybe you’re reading this and you’re starting to do the math. You’re excited about the possibility and ready to make the leap. But how do find and cultivate your passion? And how do you know if your passion can be profitable? 

Jin says she thought about creating an online survey on Side Hustle Stack that could help identify uniquely marketable skills and match those to unmet needs in the marketplace.  

“If anyone wants to help me build that, that would be appreciated. There, I'll just throw out a job opportunity!” says Jin. “The bigger piece of research, which is outside of the scope of my job as an investor is, how do people even find what they're passionate about in the first place?”

“That's a much bigger question,” she says. “It probably has to do with everything that happens between childhood and adulthood. From the moment that you're born to the moment in which you enter the professional world, that's probably the most formative stage in your life when you're cultivating interests and developing passions.”

“I'm not an expert in childhood development and how to figure out one’s passions, but I think it's about exposing yourself to new ideas, trying out different hobbies, reading lots of things, and just being intuitive. Pay attention to what you're gravitating towards, and see if there's a market need you could fulfill through pursuing that.”

To learn more about Li Jin’s work at Atelier and Side Hustle Stack, follow her on Twitter at @ljin18.