This Side Hustle Spotlight Q&A features Jeff Neal, a 38-year-old father whose primary occupation is selling industrial parts and services to manufacturing plants in Pennsylvania. He runs his cricket-breeding side hustle, Critter Depot, out of Lancaster, which “has a rich history of agriculture, [making] it a good location to procure additional supplies and products that complement cricket rearing.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Neal
When did you start your side hustle, and where did you find the inspiration for it?
In 2016, my daughter had a bearded dragon. She really loved it, so it was important that I helped her care for it. But buying crickets was becoming expensive, so I started researching how to breed them. It was really easy because crickets are rampant breeders. It does take some time to rotate their cages, but I eventually had a surplus of crickets. I knew there was a market for it online (because that’s where I found the original idea to breed them). So I started letting people know in reptile forums that I had crickets to sell. I had immediate interest, and people kept coming back. So I stuck with it.
What were some of the first steps you took to get your side hustle off the ground?
I’m a prototypical millennial side-hustler, and this wasn’t my first time trying out a side hustle. What I learned from past mistakes was that I should not invest time, money or energy in websites or marketing until I had a product and a way to source that product. So when I started breeding crickets, I had a lightbulb moment that this was the product, and I could source that product. Once I had that lightbulb moment, I felt comfortable putting together a Shopify website and trying to promote that website to other reptile owners I met through reptile forums.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while building your side hustle, and how did you navigate them?
Learning how to ship crickets was a big hurdle. And even after doing this for seven years, I’m still trying to master shipping. The issue with shipping live animals is that the packaging has to be very specific. Meaning, it has to be vented — or insulated — depending on the time of the year and weather. Otherwise, your customers will receive deceased animals, which is a terrible experience. This means that you need expensive packaging and can’t use free packaging products from the post office. So that adds to the expenses — also learning which shipping services to use. Next-day delivery is ideal but is often cost-prohibitive for many people. So you need to find that sweet spot for how long the animals can last en route while also understanding what the weather forecast looks like. This can often include a lot of communication with the customers. So that was something I wasn’t prepared for, especially when I entered my first foray into winter shipping.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Neal
How long did it take you to begin seeing consistent monthly and/or yearly revenue from your side hustle?
It was right away that I saw revenue. I was making posts on reptile forums and getting instant replies for interest. When I saw the demand, I knew I should try to ramp up as best I could. But back to winter shipping — that was a big loss because I had to reship so many orders for free due to dead-on-arrivals. Or, because I was out of stock, I had to issue refunds. So that was very challenging. But once I got out of that first winter, I was able to get back into profitability.
How much average revenue does your side hustle bring in monthly and/or yearly?
I earn about $30,000 per year in additional income from the side hustle.
What’s the highest monthly or annual revenue the side hustle’s seen to date? Has your side hustle’s income surpassed that of your full-time job at any point?
Yes, it surpassed my full-time job during the summer of 2020 after Covid. It seemed everyone bought a bearded dragon, which I’m guessing was due to Covid and the lockdowns. And because all the local pet shops were closed, everyone went online looking for live insects. In August of 2020, the website saw $27,000 in revenue. That was the highest monthly revenue I’ve seen.
What do you enjoy most about your side hustle?
It’s profitable and gives me something to do with the kids. I’m the sole provider for a household of six, and it’s nice having that extra income for my wife and me to do extras during vacations and weekend trips.
What’s your advice for other side-hustlers who hope to grow lucrative ventures of their own?
First, find a product and how to source it. Don’t spend time, money and energy on building out a website and marketing that website without first knowing which product you are going to sell and where you are going to get that product from. Also, take note of what skills you learn when you start a side hustle. Many side hustles flop, and that’s okay. You will learn many business skills trying a side hustle, and those skills are transferable to your full-time job, which can help you advance in your career. So don’t worry about a side hustle failing. There is much to learn from failure.