In 2019, after more than two decades of working in the online tech industry, I decided to start my own online business. I had some ideas about what I did and didn’t want to do. I wanted to be independent; I didn’t want to work for someone else’s company anymore. I didn’t want to hire staff because I know what a big responsibility it is to employ people. That meant a business I could do by myself, not a tech company like those I had worked in before. I had a young family, so I did need to make money, at least enough to replace the senior salaries I had earned previously. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest, though, so I could only start something that wouldn’t require much capital. I wanted to love whatever I did because I knew I would be spending a significant amount of time on it.
I gave myself this challenge at the beginning, and this book is the result.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”[i]
One thing you will find at the start is there is so much information out there, but no blueprint for how to create a profitable company. It was tough to work everything out, even for someone with experience in online technology.
On YouTube, there are millions of hours of videos on almost every aspect of online business, all free. They only feature specific business models, though, like podcasting or e-commerce, and the information is all in bits and pieces. YouTube is just one channel; there’s also Google search results page, blogs by the thousands, podcasts, and forum chats. And, of course, Facebook.
I was bombarded by advertisements promoting “secret” solutions, inviting me to buy an online course or e-book. They use a technique called “click funnels.” When someone enters an email address, they receive offers for e-books, courses, and products. They appear persistently in their email inbox and across social media.
How could anyone verify what is true? Or know what is right for them? Create a business plan? Even if you could connect the information from all the different sources, you have no idea how long it might take to generate an income—if at all.
No wonder so many people choose to keep their day job.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
While working at agile tech companies, I learned that sometimes testing is the best way to discover. Without more information to go on, I decided to try some of the models myself, starting with “drop-shipping.”
This kind of online store looks like any other, but the products it sells are held by a third party, which sends a purchased product to the customer. It is simplified e-commerce without the headaches of managing inventory and shipping. The idea sounded good, and there were many positive stories about how much money you can earn. I set up a WordPress website with a connection to Alibaba: a marketplace for millions of goods made in China. I designed a niche shop, with products for shaving and men’s grooming. I even started to work on the store’s branding.
At this point, though, I discovered how much money you need to spend on Facebook advertising, and not just at the start. Anybody can buy the products directly from Alibaba, so there is no competitive advantage. To make a drop-shipping store successful, you need to spend time and money on paid advertising to bring in customers. I calculated that if my sales revenue were double my ad spend, I would still have to pay $50,000 for every $100,000 in revenue. Then subtract other costs before earning “income.” And I knew from experience how hard it is to generate a 2x return on advertising spend.
I learned that the people who are successful at drop-shipping open multiple stores and try hundreds of different products. There are many moving parts that I didn’t think through at the start, such as the payment process, returns policy, and terms and conditions, to mention a few. I quickly realized that running and managing an online store wasn’t what I wanted to do, even if it could make money. And certainly not if I had to invest thousands (or hundreds of thousands) in advertising to do it.
Back to the drawing board…
I spent some time investigating Google Maps, which I knew was being used more and more as a search engine, especially to find local businesses. Advertising is still at an early stage in Maps compared to Google’s main search page. I planned to create a service to help local companies appear in searches and acquire new customers. I found a company that sells a platform to manage this advertising, but it was $5,000 to sign up. I moved on quickly.
Then I tried creating a course for people on how to start an online business. I saw so many advertisements for courses on “how to build online courses,” but as I went further into it, I saw that you need to pay for advertising, too. And depending on the price you charge for the course, you might need to do a lot of selling. I didn’t want to get back into sales again.
I tested and researched for several months, and I noticed a pattern amongst all the noise. There seemed to be two different approaches to making money online: the “side hustle” and the “passion” approaches is how I started to think of them. In a side hustle, people start and change activity quickly if they don’t make money. The people who build a business around their passion are fewer in number but more interesting for me. I knew from experience that doing something you love makes you more successful.
[i] The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge