Side Hustles 

How the gig economy helps local folks make ends meet

Bill Keys sits on a street corner in Paʻia behind a tiny desk upon which sits a crumbling old Smith-Corona typewriter. A sign hung on the front of the desk reads, “Poems about anyone or anything.” It’s early evening and visitors to the artsy beach town are milling about, waiting for tables and peering through shop windows. Keys smiles as they pass by, and occasionally some folks stop and inquire about his services. A mere $20 will buy you an entirely original work of poetry on the topic of your choice, created on the spot.

Photo by Dan Collins

In a matter of minutes, a pair of young women approach and Keys engages them in friendly conversation. Whether they employ his services or not, it’s this human interaction that he calls “the magic.” Keys begins tapping away at the keys, thoughtfully. Minutes later, the two women, both named Samantha, read the poem out loud with broad smiles on their faces. “Double Trouble” is the title he’s given it, and they seem more than willing to hand over the 20 bucks the two have cobbled together from the loose bills in their purses. It’s clear that the real service being offered here is the novelty of chatting with a street poet, and the finished poem is merely a souvenir of the experience.

It seems like this must be a side hustle, but Keys insists that—while it may have started that way—street poetry is now his primary source of income. When the conversation turns to the cost of living in Hawaiʻi, the native New Yorker explains that he keeps his expenses down by living in a van, but one that has refrigeration, so he can prepare his own meals. He has a place in New York he expects to return to one day, but for now he’s content to call the beach home. Meanwhile, he’s earning a living as a retail poet—and without actually publishing anything. Quite a feat, really.

As home rental rates climb ever higher and essentials like gasoline and groceries fetch record prices in Maui County, even folks with full-time jobs often have to rely on extra income from side gigs to make ends meet. Some fill obvious needs, like gardening, house cleaning, or dog walking. Others rely on the growing array of smartphone apps that provide access to the gig economy. Let’s look at some ways to make an extra buck on the side.

Selling fresh coconuts
Perhaps Hawaiʻi’s first side gig, hacking open coconuts for visitors might be the easiest one to break into. Coconuts are cheap (or free) and easy to come by. Those on public land can typically be harvested for free because falling coconuts are a liability to the county, but ask first. Some landowners will actually pay you to take them. You’ll need a coconut tree climbing device that won’t scar the trunks. And you need to know what stage they are in. Tourists want young coconuts with lots of fresh coconut water and a little bit of soft meat and they’ll pay about $10 apiece. Part of the experience is watching the vendor risk losing fingers hacking the nut open with a machete, so first, hone your skills.

Surfboard repair
Surfboards are fragile and get lots of dings, which will eventually suck water and cause the board to take on weight. So, every surfer needs dings repaired. Most are content to slap a little Solarez on the rails, but if you’ve spent a thousand bucks or more on a nice, clean board, you want to keep it that way. So people with the skill and workspace necessary can find work fixing boards all winter long. You’ll need a clean, well-ventilated, indoor space to mix and apply fiberglass or epoxy resin, gloves, and a respirator for sanding

Mobile auto detailing
Auto detailing is tedious work, but can make a big difference in how much a used car is worth, or how well passengers review their Turo rental or Uber ride. Users of the Turo app are constantly picking up, cleaning out, and delivering cars. Some would surely appreciate some help from time to time. So, if you don’t mind digging out moldy French fries from beneath car seats and scrubbing gum out of carpet with a toothbrush, polishing up other people’s rides can be a lucrative sideline. The investment is small—just a strong shop vacuum and a few cleaning supplies.

Selling baked goods
Auntie’s recipe for banana bread might just cover the electric bill. Under Hawaiʻi’s cottage food law, it is legal to sell home-baked goods at farmers’ markets or on the roadside, however the transactions must take place in person. Wholesale and online sales are prohibited unless the food is made in an inspected commercial kitchen. It helps to give out your contact information and keep regular hours at the same place, so repeat customers can find you.

Photo by Dan Collins

Lei making for weddings, events
While it may lead to accusations of cultural appropriation, lei-making in Hawaiʻi is big business, and those with the skills to create traditional leis from plumeria blossoms, ti leaves, ferns, or aʻaliʻi seeds can earn a nice chunk of cash supplying just one wedding or graduation ceremony. Materials are essentially free, if you know where to collect them. In addition to those worn around the neck, there are haka leis, worn like a crown, kupeʻe, worn on wrists or ankles, and even money leis, made from folded dollar bills.

Dog walking
Here’s a need so obvious and so universal that several developers have come up with competing apps. There are more than a dozen with similar features, but the top two in terms of number of users are Rover and Wag! All of them include secure payments and some offer insurance, training, certification, or other perks. Dog owners like the apps because they can track their pets’ location and activity. Walkers must pass a criminal background check and share the fees with the app. A half-hour walk generally costs $15-20. If you plan to walk dogs on Maui, you’ll also have to compete with the Hound’s Tooth Social Club, a slick, independently-operated dog walking and mobile pet care startup. Samantha Navarro thought the apps were too impersonal, so she started her own website with the intention of providing comfort for both the dogs and their owners. She arrived three years ago from San Diego, barely 20 years old, with just two suitcases in hand. “Maui has always provided for me and really given me somewhere to learn about myself,” she said. She sees this as a chance to give back to her adopted community. “I’m allowing other people to enjoy the island,” she explained, “knowing that even the smallest family member is taken care of.”

Courtesy Ashley Day

Driving passengers for Uber/Lyft
These apps were among the first to disrupt the traditional marketplace, putting so much pressure on the taxi industry that some municipalities moved to ban app-based car services. Successful drivers suggest trying for long rides, like from the airport to the resort areas. Paying attention to flight schedules and working peak hours is a smart strategy. Always ask for a good review. Uber requires cars to be four-door models, less than 15 years old, and in good condition. Drivers must be licensed and have at least one year experience behind the wheel (3 years if under 25). Ashley Day was an early adopter. She began driving for Uber in 2017 and loves the connections that she’s made. “Uber is the most amazing networking tool ever invented,” she said. “I’ve met so many people from all walks of life that I would never have ever dreamed of.” Some remain friends and she is now in touch with folks from all over the world. She doesn’t mind sharing local wisdom and culture and playing tour guide from time to time. “They ask me a lot of questions about cultural stuff and the history of Hawaiʻi,” she explained, “things that they would never find out without talking to somebody who grew up here.” Her advice for novice drivers? “Be safe and be mindful of your own mindset, your behavior and your attitude,” she said. “We attract what we’re projecting…so if you’re positive and have a good attitude, you can be put in some pretty interesting situations—even wonderful situations.” But she’s also conscious of the risk, especially to women drivers. “I’ve had some crazy, even hostile situations where I’ve had to turn down people trying to get into my car and actually had to call the police,” she said.

Renting out cars with Turo
As the pandemic began to wind down and tourism picked back up, people made money hand-over-fist by renting out used cars when the big rental agencies got caught without enough vehicles in stock. Access to customers and insurance coverage are two major advantages of renting through Turo, rather than on Craigslist or elsewhere. Cars must be 12 years old or newer, under 130,000 miles, with clean title. John DeMarsh has been renting out two cars on the app for the past couple of years. Prices have stabilized a bit, he said. “It’s not like a ‘get rich quick’ thing, like it was last summer,” when supply was far lower than demand, he said, “but it’s more of a stable business.”

Restaurant delivery (DoorDash/Hopper/Postmates/UberEats)
Restaurant delivery services make it easy to order a hot meal to-go without leaving the house or office. Hopper was Maui’s first restaurant delivery service and the only one locally owned and operated. Shannon Delacruz works as a brand ambassador for Hopper, but drives for them as well, and worked previously for DoorDash and Instacart. Delacruz said that Hopper’s local ownership allows them to build better relationships and a sense of trust with the restaurants and customers. “We have our regulars, you know, and they only see the same drivers all the time,” he said. “With DoorDash and Bite Squad it’s a different driver every time.” He likes being part of a local family-owned business rather than making money for some faceless tech company on the U.S. Mainland. Hopper drivers must be at least 18, have a reliable vehicle, an iPhone or Android phone, valid driver’s license, insurance, and a clean driving record.

Grocery delivery (Instacart)
For those who just can’t spend another minute wandering the aisles at the grocery store, it’s Instacart to the rescue! Shoppers select what they want from a particular store (or stores) and purchase online. Then Instacart dispatches a personal shopper to go get the items requested. This is especially useful for stores Like Costco that don’t offer curbside service. And you don’t have to be a Costco member to shop there using Instacart. You order online and the company provides employees with the membership and a company debit card to make the purchases. Each item is verified with a quick scan of the UPC code, to make sure it’s the same product and size ordered. Industrious couples or families with multiple smartphones can fan out and work like a team to gather the items. Personal shoppers earn a base wage plus tips.

Courtesy Adobe Stock

Yard care, weeding, mowing
The old standby for teenagers everywhere. A used gas push mower in decent condition typically costs a couple hundred bucks, but unless you want to limit yourself to the lawns on your street, you’ll need a pickup truck to reach your market. Advertising on Craigslist or the NextDoor app is a free, easy way to attract clients. Working outdoors can be pleasant, but keep in mind that mowers, trimmers, saws, and leaf blowers all break down, so if you don’t know a good small engine mechanic, you might need to become one.

Packing, moving, hauling
Nobody likes to pack and move, but if you have a strong back and don’t mind a little dust, it’s not hard to find work packing and labeling other people’s belongings. Just remember to lift with your legs, not your back. Anyone with a legal pickup truck can do dump runs or haul yard waste away to be composted. If your ad on CraigsList isn’t getting results, you can try an app like TaskRabbit that matches freelance labor with local demand. Or have business cards or flyers made up and deliver them to every yard sale you can find.

Cleaning vacation homes
This may be an obvious niche, but with the crackdown on illegal vacation rentals, it’s also a shrinking one. Many people who invest in vacation rentals prefer to hire someone to clean and reset their Airbnb or VRBO rental. Unlike a hotel, they can’t hire full-time housekeepers, but would love to find someone who can slip in midday, tidy up, sanitize, and replace sheets and towels. You might even be able to do it during your lunch hour. If the owner is off-island, they may also want you to greet arriving guests or troubleshoot problems.

Organizing/personal assistant
It takes a special type of person to wade knee-deep through someone else’s mess, but we all have a friend or relative who could use a hand before being invited to star in the next reboot of Hoarders. Often this kind of work comes all at once, during spring cleaning or before a move, so you can log a lot of hours in a short period of time.

Translating text (
Are you bilingual? If so, you can earn money translating online. When a client submits a document, it first goes through translation software that does the bulk of the work. Then you edit the text, returning it to the client for approval. To become a translator, you must pass a test in the languages that you’re fluent in.

The street corner poet has no patience for technology, however, preferring to rely on a rusty Smith-Corona and his wits to keep him afloat. But Keys could probably use a hot meal, delivered to the corner of Baldwin Ave. and Hana Highway. And before long, a mobile typewriter repair service might be in order, too.

Poem by Bill Keys

Dan Collins