Tim Ferris’ classic book about an elusive 4-hour work week has sold over a million copies since its publication.
While not all aspects of his book apply to me, I’ve supported myself for the past decade with my side project, which peaked at $100,000/month in revenue and has only ever required limited maintenance.
It’s common wisdom in the startup world that success requires countless hours of hard work, but my story shows that’s not always the case.
The 1 Billion User Side Project
In 2007, I launched my side project: Directlyrics. Ten years later it’s reached the milestone of over 1 billion visits. That's a huge number, especially given that it's only ever been run part-time by myself and a single content editor.
Directlyrics has some magical characteristics. As one of the top lyrics sites for almost 10 years, it attracts millions of visitors from search engines every month, and those pageviews generate revenue from advertising.
But the truly magical part is that it doesn’t really need me to keep it running.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
The story behind Directlyrics starts way back in 2004. I was in high school, I’d taught myself how to code, and I was looking for something to build next.
I noticed that the owner of a particular lyrics website had been manually adding new pages to his site. That felt very inefficient to me, so I pitched him on letting me build a database, and he agreed.
Soon enough, I discovered a massively effective approach to search engine optimization (SEO): I would hunt for announcements of upcoming song releases, add those songs to my site (without any lyrics), and by the time the song was released I would already be ranking #1 in Google.
With nothing but SEO, my website became so successful that within a year we were able to sell it to LiveUniverse, an LA-based company that was run by a self-proclaimed co-founder of MySpace. I promised to stay on board for a 50% revenue deal.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill very quickly.
LiveUniverse bought several other lyrics properties and moved them all onto a single server, triggering a Google ban that removed us all from the search index. They were also sued by several publishers, as they refused to make any deals regarding licensing the song lyrics. And to top it all off, I wasn’t getting paid anything from our revenue share deal.
It ended up as a nightmare.
The Road to 1 Billion Visitors
Fast-forward a year. I needed to pay to renew one of my domain names, but I thought it was a waste not to actually make use of it, so I got a new server, built a new lyrics site, and launched it a month later: Directlyrics.com.
Directlyrics grew quickly, but the space also got more competitive. There were five major properties — AZLyrics, MetroLyrics, LyricsMode, Sing365.com, and me — all fighting to be on top of the Google results to get a piece of those 100M+ lyrics searches each month.
We all found creative ways to improve in the rankings, but we also quickly copied each other to avoid being outpaced.
Those were also the golden days of revenue.
I joined as a partner in a network of music and entertainment websites owned by the now-defunct BuzzMedia. They sold ads to big brands that paid up to $30 per thousand views (CPM). All the traffic I was bringing in turned it into a great partnership. BuzzMedia even bought a minority share in Directlyrics at a multi-million dollar valuation.
Hello $30 CPM full-page takeover ad, complete with video.
But all of this revenue also attracted the attention of the song lyrics’ publishers.
Early in 2010 I made the decision to become fully licensed, which significantly cut into my revenue. MetroLyrics did the same before me, and AZLyrics eventually followed suit.
Also, by 2013 ringtone revenue was all but gone due to tighter regulations on sales and outright bans on invoicing through customers' phone bills in the US.
But traffic was still strong overall. At its peak, Directlyrics attracted over 25 million visitors in a single month.
Living the 4-Hour Work Week
Since its inception, the stack behind Directlyrics has remained more or less the same:
- single cloud-based server
- content delivery network to keep the site fast and scalable
- advertising partner for revenue
- part-time editor to contribute new content daily
- visitors from search engines
- financial reporting by an accountant
And that’s all there is to it.
My editor Kevin has been with Directlyrics for 7 years. In the early days I would spend time hunting for new upcoming songs, but Kevin took on that role as well. He works part-time for a fixed fee from Spain and chooses his own hours.
I don’t do any customer support. Visitors see lyrics sites as commodity tools, and they don’t really need any support. If the site doesn’t work for them, they simply click the back button and choose another website.
While I’ve never actually measured the time expenditure, Directlyrics comes very close to demanding only those elusive 4 hours/week, which are spent sending emails, SEO, 3rd party services, fixing bugs and handling other issues.
I derive my personal income from the website’s revenue, and with it I’ve been able to live more than comfortably with my family in one of the nicest cities in the world for the past decade.
Since the website generates more than enough revenue while demanding so little attention from me, I’m free to focus on what I enjoy most, which — ironically — is building products.
I’ve joined a green travel startup, founded my own music and entertainment startup, conducted random research for my blog, worked as a white-hat hacker, launched several side projects, and even taken on a job as the CTO at Holland’s leading property portal.
Sometimes I come back to invest more time in Directlyrics. When I identify a new (technical) opportunity, I’ll review whether it benefits growth or revenue, and if so, I’ll incorporate it into the site. Otherwise I’ll put it aside.
This extra work comes in chunks and is substantially more than a few hours a week. But those hours are actually the most fun and productive for me.
Strong and Steady
Although my side project isn’t as exciting as working on the next big thing, its exceptional value lies in its hardiness and longevity. That’s allowed me to do what I do best, and spend time on the things that I love.
I think it’s amazing that the internet allows a single person to reach 1 billion visitors from all around the globe as a side project, and I hope it inspires you!
If you have any feedback or questions, comment below. I’m happy to answer most questions.
By the way, if you’re curious about the state of the song lyrics industry, I recommend reading this excellent overview of the boom and the bust.