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Side hustle entrepreneurs chase dreams — with little downtime

For a handful of enterprising, aspirational business owners, the phrase leave work at work is blurry: they are constantly on.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. February 21, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Courtesy. Tom Grier and his business partner Matt McFarren founded eel Down Gear, a fishing-themed apparel business, in 2011.
Courtesy. Tom Grier and his business partner Matt McFarren founded eel Down Gear, a fishing-themed apparel business, in 2011.
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With four years as a U.S. Marine on his resume, Tom Grier has never had a problem hustling for work. Now overseeing an 11-person department in Bradenton for Entech, a $6.5 million, Fort Myers-based IT services firm, he bounces around all day from client meetings to employee conferences.

Then, after work and on weekends, Grier has another gig: his side hustle.

For Grier, 46, that’s Reel Down Gear, a fishing-themed apparel business he runs with his business partner, Matt McFarren, 45, who operates an unrelated screen-printing business. Reel Down is Grier’s real-life entrepreneurial dream, something he aspires to become his only hustle. “We would love it if this is all we would do,” Grier says. “We are working hard to get this to a point where it could sustain Matt and I and maybe a few other employees.”

'You make time to do the things you really love because you believe someday it will be a big success.' Tom Grier

Grier isn’t alone in his side hustle quest. From a bow tie maker and a wedding officiant to a mobile cookie seller and a voiceover professional, the region is dotted with side hustlers. Some run small businesses for their day jobs, while others, like Grier, head up offices and divisions of successful companies. Some take on the extra work merely for extra money, while others do it with the hope of building their own sustainable business someday. All of them, regardless of why, share one core entrepreneurial trait: They follow their passion.

Consider Cindy Unzicker, investor relations and events manager for the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. Five years ago, at 55-years-old, Unzicker, started a mobile cookie-selling operation. Her motivation was a bigger retirement nest egg. In the process she’s learned some key business lessons — customer service is everything, for one — and found her calling. “Being an entrepreneur is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “second only to parenting.”

The best part? “Cookies make people happy,” Unzicker says. “I’m very fortunate to have two jobs I love.”

Beyond the west coast of the state, Florida is filled with even more entrepreneurial side hustlers. The state, according to a new report from the ADP Research Institute, Illuminating the Shadow Workforce: Insights into the Gig Workforce in Business, has the highest proportion of gig workers nationwide at 22%. California, at 20% and Illinois and Texas, both at 18%, follow the Sunshine State, the report shows. (Gig workers counted in the report can be both people doing a side hustle and people working on a freelance basis for a larger entity.)

The ADP Research Institute report, released Feb. 4, analyzes payroll data from 18 million workers from 75,000 companies, in addition to direct survey results and interviews with C-suite level executives. The survey reports that in 2019, 16.4% of the workforce nationally is comprised of gig workers/side hustlers. That’s up from 14.2% in 2010.  

Grier predates the survey with Reel Down. When he and McFarren, longtime fishing buddies and friends, started the business in 2011, he says, “no one was calling things a side hustle, but that’s really what this was.”

Reel Down has the markings of many other startups. The partners started with a need, saying they couldn’t find comfortable T-shirts with a relaxed vibe design, right before the Salt Life decal craze. They designed the shirts on their own, brought the wares to a fishing festival in Cortez Village and quickly sold out.

They’ve since added straw hats, koozies, tumblers and more, all with a Florida motif. They’ve also graduated from selling from a tent to a 26-foot trailer. Sales are up about 12% to 15% a year, Grier says, and they recently added an e-commerce website. “This has been a labor of love for a long time,” Grier says.

Up next? The company plans to hire a social media marketing firm to build its presence on Instagram. Grier and McFarren meet at least twice a week in person, normally on Wednesday nights, after work, and Saturday or Sunday. On Wednesday they talk mostly about new designs and inventory. The weekends are reserved for everything else. They also talk over the phone almost every day about a variety of issues. Grier estimates he puts in 25 to 30 hours a week on Reel Down, on top of the 40-50 hours at Entech.

No surprise, finding enough time in the day to do everything he wants to with Reel Down is Grier’s No. 1 challenge, by far. Like his fellow side hustlers, Grier somehow finds the time — usually with his eyes on something bigger. “You make time to do the things you really love,” Grier says, “because you believe someday it will be a big success.”


Click on the links below to read about side hustlers in the region and how they do it.


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