For Sal Farzin, leaving a 20-year career in tech to become a TikTok influencer seemed completely out of the question.
Online, he's a celebrity. But offline, Farzin is the sole income provider for himself, his wife and four children. For professionals who have home and family responsibilities, the employee-to-entrepreneur transition is easier said than done, and fraught with financial risk.
Still, there's no denying the Austinite has struck social media gold in recent years. Farzin's TikTok account SimplySalFinds, an Amazon product recommendations channel, began in 2020 as a side hustle to offset a pandemic-induced furlough. Since then, the account has attracted 2.8 million followers and morphed into a money-making machine, producing tens of thousands of dollars in affiliate link commissions and brand deals per month, per financial documentation reviewed by CNET.
Amid Great Resignation fever and a flurry of recent tech layoffs, many Americans are re-examining what they want out of their careers and lives, as well as what it will take financially to pivot. Farzin transitioned to full-time influencer last December, but not before reaching certain personal finance benchmarks first, such as setting up a self-employed retirement account, paying down debt and stashing away a whopping three-year emergency fund.
If you've thought about going all-in on a side hustle or career pivot, but are intimidated by the instability, here's how one family mitigated that risk, along with what financial experts say you should have in place before making the leap.
@simplysalfinds How to work remotely from anywhere! 💼 Shoutout to @worky_life for sponsring this vid! #worky_partner#amazonfinds#amazontiktok#officefinds#officehacks#wfhlife#salfinds♬ original sound - Simply Sal Finds
The side hustle of a lifetime wasn't supposed to happen
Farzin's initial foray into TikTok began as a result of being teased by his kids.
"'You're too old for TikTok, dad!' They told me when I saw them on the app at the dinner table," Farzin said. The spring of 2020 saw temporary furloughs for many Americans, with Farzin being one of them, and the family needed to look into supplementary sources of income. Curious, the playful TikTok jab led him and his wife down a rabbit hole as they began to study which videos were going viral on TikTok -- and why.
They also researched various online business ideas that could be managed without a huge time commitment, as Farzin's furlough was temporary. As shoppers who loved discovering unique finds on Amazon, a recommendations channel that earned money from affiliate links via Amazon's Associates progam emerged as a potential strategy.
The research paid off. SimplySalFinds' first video, published on July 1, 2020, immediately went viral, attracting 50,000 followers to the account in the first month alone, according to data from SocialBlade, a social media analytics company. The meticulously edited videos, which often pack over 20 clips into about 15 seconds, eschew common TikTok practices like dancing and pointing, instead using sped-up footage and rapid transitions to create visually irresistible content.
@simplysalfinds The last one saves me so much time!#amazonfinds#tiktokmademebuyit#amazonhome#kitchenhacks#showertok#organizedhome#salfinds♬ original sound - Simply Sal Finds
SimplySalFinds became a family effort, with dad doing the voiceovers and video clips being filmed by the kids, who were paid for their time out of the channel's earnings. Thanks to killer content, brand sponsors came knocking, but Farzin said the balancing act was a struggle. "I just wasn't able to maximize potential earnings by balancing a corporate job, which was pretty demanding at times, with opportunities that Amazon or other brands were approaching me with. I couldn't do a lot of the stuff that I really wanted to do during the day because I had a full-time job," he said.
Eventually, the social media star signed on with a creator management company to offload contracting and brand deals, a move he says diversified his income streams and led to more overall business. "About 35% of the revenue we do comes from brand deals now," Farzin said.
The channel's content is "a really fantastic example" of someone who's found success without using typical TikTok gimmicks like green-screen effects, said Hilary Billings, co-founder of The Attentioneers, a consulting agency that specializes in short-form video, and is not affiliated with Farzin.
"He's not pushing anyone to buy anything. All he's doing is being a trusted resource, which makes people want to follow him even more," Billings said. "When users are scrolling through their feeds, they have an expectation as to what they're going to see. You have to work harder to create that pattern interrupt [in short-form video] in order to grab attention in a very short amount of time."
@simplysalfinds How to power nap like a pro 😴#amazonfinds#tiktokmademebuyit#sunglasses#fashiontok#salfinds♬ original sound - Simply Sal Finds
Salary + side hustle: The new normal
In an inflationary economy, more people are supplementing their day jobs with side hustles to make ends meet.
Two out of five Americans have a side hustle, according to a Harris poll commissioned by Zapier, a marketing automation company. Respondents in that study said their secondary jobs generated an average of $12,589 per year, but respondents in a separate study conducted by Qualtrics and commissioned by LendingTree reported average earnings of just under $5,700 per year, indicating a wide range in top-line revenue.
Farzin's earnings from TikTok helped the family save enough money to move into a bigger home in Austin, Texas, a goal of theirs as their children enter adolescence. "Over the last few months, it's really blown up in terms of the opportunities and brand deals that have come in," Farzin said. He notes that the flat-fee upfront payments of brand deals were a welcome diversification from affiliate link revenue, which depends heavily on algorithmic distribution. They positioned him to seriously consider exiting his corporate career, particularly after appearing with Amazon as a speaker at its creator summit last fall.
How to navigate the employee-to-entrepreneur transition
Making the jump from employee to entrepreneur can feel scary at times. Here are actions you can take now to ease the transition.
1. Rewire how you think about money
Often, taking a risk in your career means overcoming persistent and/or unproductive thought patterns about money, which are often deeply ingrained, according to credentialed psychologists and financial therapists.
"If we have a 9-to-5 job, it's difficult to transition from that career to a non-traditional one because historically we don't have very many models that tell us we will be safe and secure," said Traci Williams, a board-certified psychologist and certified financial therapist.
"A lot of people have thoughts about the worst-case scenario. If you can counter those thoughts by focusing on what your reality is -- that you are making enough money for this transition and have prepared enough for the future -- you'll be able to better manage that anxiety," Williams said.
Farzin says the passion he developed for building SimplySalFinds also revealed career fatigue with an industry he had been in for decades. "Once we were settled into our new home, my wife and I had a heart-to-heart conversation about what the future was going to look like," Farzin said. "Despite the fact that I'd been in the ad tech space for nearly 20 years, I think my aspiration to continue on that path had taken a backseat."
Conversations with loved ones can help you plan your next money move, and you want to include them in your decision when the result may be a change in day-to-day life, said Megan Ford, financial therapist and an advisor for Stackin, a financial wellness app.
"It's always advisable to think carefully and have conversations with people who will be impacted by this change," Ford said. "A partner or spouse who will be impacted by a change in employment direction may have to maneuver differently within the household."
@simplysalfinds How to stay cool during a heatwave 🥵 #amazonfinds#tiktokmademebuyit#icemaker#hacks#salfinds♬ original sound - Simply Sal Finds
2. Stack cash to build confidence
The future is uncertain, and belts remain tight as recession fears persist. Typical personal finance advice advocates for three to six months' worth of expenses in liquid cash as a safety net, but if you're removing your day job from the picture, consider padding your savings with extra funds. Farzin and his wife decided they wanted a 36-month emergency fund in the bank, a number he reached in late 2022, before walking away from a corporate paycheck.
"Establishing this emergency fund was top-of-mind for me at the beginning of last year. Whatever funds we were making, whether it was through my work or the SimplySalFinds channel, we always made sure to tuck away at least 20%," Farzin said. "This is something we needed to do. I realized the only way we were going to do it is if we set up an auto draft."
Automate contributions to high-yield savings accounts, 401(k)s and other wealth-building accounts to cut down on mental friction.
3. Set up accounts and systems properly
You can recreate most of the financial perks of your day job as an entrepreneur, but to do so effectively you need to know what they are.
First, register your business as a limited liability company or corporation. This gives you an extra layer of legal protection. If your business were to ever be sued or face a financial judgment, your business assets will be up for grabs, but your personal assets will remain safe.
Then, if you haven't already, set up separate business checking accounts. Doing so will make it easier to keep personal and business expenses separate. If you manage income or expenses through a third-party payments app like Venmo, Cash App or PayPal, be sure to classify expenses as business or personal activity accordingly. This will make it way easier to take deductions when filing your taxes, which will save you money.
You may need an Employer Identification Number to set up a business bank account. Once your LLC or corporation is official, you can request an EIN from the IRS for free. Also consider setting up a self-employed retirement account, such as a SEP IRA, and automating contributions.
Lastly, if you think you'll want to tap retirement funds in the future before the age of 59.5, consider initiating a Roth IRA conversion, in which you transfer funds from a pretax retirement account like a 401(k) to a Roth IRA. You'll pay taxes on this money when you transfer it, since you hadn't yet done so, but money that has been contributed to a Roth IRA can be pulled back out without penalties if you hold it for at least five years.
All of this can feel, well, overwhelming at first. Keep your eyes on the future and what you want to cultivate for yourself and your family.
"My oldest, Neela, is 17," Farzin said. "She's going to college, and planning for college for the kids is another important piece that we had to think about, because that's going to come sooner rather than later. Future-proofing those types of financial decisions have been really top of mind for us overall."
@simplysalfinds BEST way to cool down in the summer! #amazonfinds#tiktokmademebuyit#amazonhome#hacks#salfinds♬ original sound - Simply Sal Finds
Pursue your next career move in a mindful, intentional way
The employee-to-entrepreneur transition can feel intimidating at times. However, if your current career situation is no longer workable, the best time to start taking matters into your own hands is now.
"When I used to work my corporate job back in Los Angeles, I commuted 90 miles each way," Farzin said. "I lost valuable time with my wife and kids as they grew up. My wife and I agreed that we owe it to ourselves to start investing back in our family and health. SimplySalFinds helps us do that."