Have you ever heard entrepreneurial stories like, "I wrote an ebook and made $28,573 on the first day," and wondered how success apparently comes so easily to some people?
Have you ever put a product out there and gotten $0 in sales? Or do you struggle to even come up with a business idea that could plausibly make money?
Are you ever perplexed by the question of how you could even make $1 online?
For years I tried and failed to create an online business that would attract even a single paying customer. Eventually I figured out how. I want to show you what I learned. My hope is that I can help make your path to entrepreneurial success a few years shorter than mine was.
What I want to show you is what I think is an almost guaranteed way to make at least a little bit of money online. Building an online business that makes money isn't magic; it's a learnable and repeatable process. This is especially true if you start out with the modest goal of just making a few thousand bucks rather than trying to make millions.
Who This Article Is For
If you're a programmer who's currently employeed full-time or freelancing full-time and you want to switch to making your living from "passive income" so you can quit your day job, you're the person I had in mind when writing this, because your starting point is similar to my starting point.
If you have a family to support, or if you live in a city that's not a big tech hub, or if you're a solo entrepreneur who can't find co-founders who share your ambitions, then this article is especially for you.
This article is not for someone who's not willing to be flexible about the way he or she achieves entrepreneurial success. I'm going to suggest some things in this article that, as a developer, you might find unappealing because they're not very technically interesting. The reality is that in order to become a successful entrepreneur, you're probably going to have to undergo some non-trivial mindset shifts, develop a lot of new skills, and operate well outside your comfort zone much of the time.
Before I get into the meat of this article I need to lay some groundwork. It's very possible that, like me years ago, you believe some things about making money online that aren't true. If left uncorrected, these false beliefs can cost a lot of wasted time.
Here's what I'm going to cover in this article:
- How I tried to start a startup and how and why it failed
- The business idea I tried after that failed startup and why it (quite modestly) succeeded
- The business I'm working on now and how I'm planning to get to my first dollar of revenue
The first thing I want to discuss is why I was ever interested in the idea of making money online in the first place. Specifically, I wanted to start a startup.
Why I Wanted To Start A Startup
At some point in time, I think around 2008, I realized that I really didn't enjoy having a job. It's not that I wasn't enjoying programming, it's that I saw a job as taking up way too big a portion of my waking hours. I especially didn't like the idea that a job would last until age 65 or so. I also didn't like taking orders from other people, especially when the orders were dumb ones. I wanted to figure out a way to not have to have a job.
At this time in my life I perceived that I had two career options: 1) work at a job for 30-40 years and be miserable until I retired, or 2) start a startup, get rich at a relatively young age, and do whatever I wanted for the rest of my life.
How I Started a Startup and Why it Didn't Work
Between 2008 and 2011 I worked on a handful of startup ideas, most of which only lasted a few months. Here are some of the ideas I worked on in the early days:
- Lunch Hub, a site where office co-workers could collaboratively decide where to eat lunch
- Owl Draw You Anything, a site where you could pay me to draw something for you
- ToastySites, a platform for websites for Toastmasters clubs
- Food Near You, a searchable directory of locally-grown food
Other than a few dollars of Google AdSense revenue, none of these "startups" made any money. Then, in 2011, I started a project which would turn out to be the first of my projects to make some money.
The product I developed was scheduling software for hair salons. I called it Snip.
I had an understanding at the time that starting a startup as a solo founder was a big mistake, so I got a co-founder. Long story short, the co-founder arrangement didn't last long due to a (friendly) disagreement about the startup's direction. Soon I was a solo founder. I also had other partnership attempts later but none of them worked out. It's really hard to find a co-founder who's really serious and willing to put in time.
I also tried to get some investment money and I wasn't able to pull that off either. Part of the reason was that I probably didn't try hard enough, but also part of the reason was that I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which I think is probably a relatively hard place to get VC money.
So my "startup" had no funding and no co-founders. That almost takes away all the qualities that would qualify it as a startup! I had to support myself through a day job (and later freelancing), so I worked evenings and weekends to try to make the startup work work. I slowly discovered that salon owners are really hard to sell to. They don't use the computer much, meaning it's hard to reach them without spending a lot of time or money. I also discovered that, surprisingly, most salon owners think of $30 a month as a large amount of money. Across five years of effort, Snip at its peak made about $430/mo. I eventually admitted defeat and moved on.
Over the course of those five years I realized, bit by bit, that I had been working under the wrong paradigm.
Why Startups Are The Wrong Paradigm for Most Developers
When I started Snip I was patterning off the only paradigm I knew: a small team of programmers with some VC money, building and selling a web application.
If you read about startups online you mostly hear about the big, successful ones: Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, etc. This seems to lead most would-be startup founders to think, "I need to figure out a web app to build and get a bunch of people to use it."
Unfortunately, I think this paradigm—build a web app and get a bunch of people to use it—is a really bad fit for most "regular" people. By "regular" people I mean people like me who are trying to get a side project off the ground to replace their day job income.
Just to be extra clear, I don't mean I think startups are bad fit for most people because startups are too hard and most people aren't up to the challenge or anything like that. I mean that the shape of most people's circumstances and goals doesn't fit through a startup-shaped hole. I'll explain what I mean.
First, the goal of a startup founder doesn't match the entrepreneurial goal of most people. My personal goal was to replace my income. If I could replace my developer salary with product income of $100K/year or $500K/year or even $50K/year, that would be a success to me. That would of course absolutely not be a success for a Silicon Valley startup. A Silicon Valley startup needs to have a big exit in the many millions of dollars in order to be considered successful. The startup goal of getting acquired is way different from the solo entrepreneur's goal of income replacement.
Second, most people who have a desire to replace their day-job income with an online business probably don't have a team of co-founders. It's really hard to find co-founders who are interested, competent, serious, and available. This means you don't have the bandwidth of 3-4 people building the business, which means you probably won't have the necessary speed to bring a software product to market within a reasonable amount of time. Plus, if you're reading from the startup script and comparing it to your own situation, being co-founderless can make you feel like a failure right out of the gate, a feeling that has a non-negligible effect on your morale and therefore prospects for success.
Third, most people probably aren't situated in an environment that allows them to raise VC money sufficiently easily. A person living in a "flyover state" with a full-time job, kids, and no co-founders is probably going to have a pretty tough time raising money. Plus raising VC actually works counter to the goal of income replacement. When you get VC money, you're committing yourself to an exit or IPO, and as I said earlier, that's a different goal than just replacing your income.
So I think startups are a bad fit for most would-be entrepreneurs. What do I think would be a better fit?
A Less Risky Approach to Entrepeneurship
A startup founder fears failure, meaning he or she fears running out of VC money before the big exit happens.
A person like me also fears failure, but a different kind. For me, the worst case scenario is to limp along for years trying to build a startup and never having any clear indication as to whether the startup will ultimately work or not. I would suspect that most people in a similar situation to mine have a similar fear.
My years of trying unsuccessfully to start an online business left me humbled and hungry for what I call a "paint-by-numbers" approach to entrepreneurship. At some point I thought to myself, "Okay, apparently I'm not particularly smart or talented when it comes to business. So let me stop trying to be creative or unconventional. Let me just find some other successful entrepreneur and copy exactly what they did."
This decision to simply copy other successful people turns out to have been one of the smartest entrepreneurial moves I've ever made. The patten I decided to copy was the info product pattern.
You're probably familiar with the term "info product". (Patrick McKenzie has famously said that he hates the term "info product". So if you have an aversion to that term, you're not alone.) Basically, what I mean when I say info product is an e-book, video package, online course, or some combination of those types of things.
Side note: I understand that info products conjure up some certain not-incredibly-positive thoughts and feelings. Just keep in mind that just because some people on the internet might create sleazy info products with sleazy marketing doesn't mean one can't create high-quality info products with good, truthful, non-annoying marketing.
I'm personally a big fan of info products as a "practice" business for one very important reason: you can keep the effort proportionate to the certainty of the payoff.
What I mean by keeping the effort proportionate to the certainty of the payoff is that you don't have to spend six months building a software product before you'll find out if anyone will really pay for it.
The first test you can do is write a few blog posts. Did anyone care about your blog post? If so, maybe that's a viable seed for an info product down the line.
If you write a blog post that gets positive attention online, you can do another test by writing some more blog posts. Can you consistently get attention around that topic? If so, you might be onto something.
The next test is that you can put together a "free guide" or "cheat sheet" or checklist that people can download in exchange for subscribing to your email list.
If that works, you can try to sell them a, say, $49 e-book that addresses the pain points you've come to understand that your audience has. Assuming that sells, you can come up with a $99 "e-book plus video" package.
I could continue to go up with the dollar amounts (I believe Ramit Sethi sells $X0,000 products online) but you probably get the idea.
Now that I've described info products in the abstract, let me give a concrete example of how I built a modestly successful info product myself.
My $868 Launch
In August of 2016 I launched an e-book called Angular for Rails Developers. This launch earned me $868.
Maybe $868 doesn't sound very impressive to you, or maybe you would be overjoyd to have an $868 launch. For me at the time it was a huge win and represented a new high in my entrepreneurial career. It led to me earning over $1,000/month for the first time in my life in September 2016.
I described a lot of the details of how I built Angular on Rails in an Indie Hackers interview I did but I'll cover some of them again here. Here's what I did in broad strokes:
- Noticed that there's not much documentation online for working with Angular and Rails together
- Started a blog at AngularOnRails.com where I wrote a few posts that got a lot of traffic
- Collected the emails of people who were interested in Angular + Rails
- Pre-sold a $49 e-book on Gumroad to my email list to gage interest
- Wrote the book and launched it to my email list
- Developed a $99 video package and launched that
I think one of the main reasons this business worked was because I never built anything without first checking to see if there was demand for it.
How I Would Launch Another Info Product Business
In the process of having built Angular on Rails I think I might have stumbled upon a pretty good formula for repeatably building a modestly successful online business. If for some reason someone held a gun to my head and said, "Build a successful technical e-book business or I'll shoot!" here's what I think I would do.
Angular on Rails worked as a topic because, when I started writing, there was very little material out there covering how to use Angular and Rails together. There was no entity that had a direct business incentive to write about the Angular/Rails combination. Google, the company behind Angular, has an incentive to produce documentation for Angular, and Basecamp, the company behind Rails, has an incentive to produce documentation for Rails, but there's no entity behind the Angular/Rails combination, and so there was no one person or entity who felt responsible for documenting that combination.
There must be a huge number of these cases where Technology A is well-documented and Technology B is well-documented but the A + B combination is very poorly documented. Whenever the demand for documentation for A + B exceeds the supply for that documentation, that's an opportunity. The only catch is that the A + B combo has to be sufficiently popular.
The details of the process for identifying an underdocumented combination of technologies are beyond the scope of this article. For the sake of brevity, let's just say I choose React + Phoenix as the topic for my next info product business.
Once I've identified my topic, I'd carry out the same basic steps I carried out for Angular on Rails:
- Start a blog at ReactPhoenix.com (in reality this domain is already taken)
- Write a few long, definitive posts covering specific topics, like how to deploy a React + Phoenix app
- Put together a "Free Guide to Getting Started with React and Phoenix" which people could get by subscribing to my email list
- Wait to get a few hundred subscribers and then pre-sell a $49 e-book on Gumroad to my email list to gage interest
- Write the book and launch it to my email list
- Develop a $99 video package and launch that
I wouldn't go into this endeavor expecting to get rich, but I would expect to make at least a dollar. And if you've never made a dollar online before, all the things you have to learn how to do just to get to that dollar are great practice for when you want to do it again but bigger.
What's Next For Me
Angular on Rails has been good practice for me but I don't want to maintain it for the next ten years. I have ambitions to become a multimillionaire and I don't think Angular on Rails can get me to my multimillion-dollar goals.
Angular on Rails also has some other drawbacks as a business:
- Most of the people who subscribe to my email list seem to be interested in building side projects as opposed to maintaining revenue-generating applications, meaning my subscribers don't have very deep pockets
- Angular moves and changes very quickly, meaning my content is constantly going out of date and needs frequent updating
- I actually believe that most web applications should not be single-page applications and that the single-page application craze is a force for ill in the web development world (this could be a huge blog post in itself)
- Unlike other people’s self-published books apparently did, mine never led to any real consulting gigs, probably for the "side project" reason listed above
Plus Angular on Rails' revenue has been declining. I went from making over $1,000/month in September and October of 2016 to making $300-500/month from December to March 2017 to making less than $200/month in June and July 2017. Part of this might be the trough of sorrow. Part of it is definitely neglect.
In any case, I don't have the will to try to revive the business due to the reasons listed above. I'd rather take what I've learned and start over with a business that has bigger potential, a business I would feel excited about maintaining for the next ten years.
I would want to flip the above characteristics so my new business has the following qualities:
- The people who subscribe to my email list are business owners
- The things I write about are evergreen principles as opposed to quickly-obselescing tactics
- The things I'm recommending to readers are actually things I feel good about (unlike single-page application architecture as a default application architecture)
- The topics in which I gain expertise can easily lead to consulting gigs
The idea I came up with is something I'm calling LandingPageBreakdowns.com. I drew inspiration from UserOnboard, where creator Samuel Hulick does teardowns of big companies' onboarding experiences and (as far as I understand) consults for companies on how to improve their onboarding processes.
As a test of the idea and to drive some early traffic, I put up a post on the Indie Hackers forum offering to do breakdowns of people's landing pages for free. I got an insane response with over 90 replies. (I'm still working through those requests, by the way. If you were one of the people who requested a breakdown, bear with me. They take more time than you might think.)
My plan to get Landing Page Breakdowns to its first dollar in revenue is this:
- Write a free guide (e.g. "The Landing Page Checklist") that people can download in exchange for subscribing to my email list
- Once I get a few hundred subscribers or whatever feels right, pre-sell a $49 e-book to my list
- Write the book and launch it
- Use the authority lent to me by having written the e-book to get paying gigs doing landing page breakdowns
- All the while, write helpful content on LandingPageBreakdowns.com and in other places (like on Indie Hackers!)
I'm doing freelance programming full-time on top of this and I also have a wife and two kids, so it will be slow going. I've found that the schedule that works for me is to spend one hour per weekday on my product business. I've found that if I put in effort consistently almost every day, I can make meaningful progress even if the amount of time spent each day isn't huge.
If you're someone who hasn't yet successfully created a product business but wants to, I hope this article was helpful in moving you a little bit further down the path.
I would love to hear your reactions in the comments. Does my advice seem worth trying? Why or why not? Is there anything you would like to know that I didn't talk about? I'm very happy to try to answer any questions you might have or share any part of my background you're curious about.