How to Start Making Money on the Side

Recently a former co-worker and friend asked me about how I started making money on the side:

I’ve toyed around with a lot of ideas around how to start making money on the side and how to then move from that being side income to my main source of income, but I haven’t pursued anything too closely. I’ve actually picked up a huge work load in applications support at my day job. I’m now the primary support person for items processing, online banking, telephone banking, the company Intranet, the new auto-dialer, all instances of Sugar CRM ( we currently have 3), the online survey tool, the online enrollment tool, and last but not least I’m the main IT contact for the website. So things got really hectic for me, but I’ve realized that if I let myself get lost in that chaos it will only become harder to start making income on the side. For now I’m learning PHP and MySQL and hosting a website using Apache so that I can hopefully branch off and do some freelance work.

So you’re making more working for yourself than you did at your day job?

Yes, I’m able to make a living off of doing web design and IT consulting full-time as an independent contractor. The issues I have are not unique to my business though and that’s managing cash-flow. What that means is that although I make enough over time, it doesn’t always come in at the same rate I need it to go out for bills. In other words, it averages out alright, but isn’t always timed right. For example, this month I’m scheduled to make a $400 profit over my bills (something that never hardly happened when I was at my day job), but right now I don’t have anything. It’s like that pretty much every month and that’s because I didn’t have a savings account when I quit and I still don’t. (EDIT: I do now.)

I don’t think the itch to leave will ever really go away (unless you die inside), but there are ways to test the waters before you jump in. First of all, start thinking of your day job as your biggest client and try to stop ‘expecting’ a paycheck and start trying to ‘earn’ a paycheck. This will put you in the mindset you’ll need when dealing with clients outside of a employee relationship. When I left I had one boss, but now I have over 20 (the number of current clients). My time is not my own. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. I have to work for them just like I had to work for my past employer. The difference is that if I work more, I get more (and I can charge more). I also get to sleep in and do whatever I want. 🙂

My recommendation to you would be to take advantage of where you’re at and LISTEN to what people are saying. What I mean by this is if you can start to hear what people’s problems are, stuff they complain about, and/or what their pain points are, that’s the beginning of discovering a product, service, or business that you could start in order to solve that need. You’re in a better position in some ways than I am for finding out that information. I would love to find out what problems commercial loan officers have or what problems their clients have. If you can find a problem that you can solve + a customer that is both willing and able to pay for that solution, you have a business idea. This is called customer development.

The key is to iterate your business idea until you have what’s called a product/market fit. Eric Ries talks about this in his book, Lean Startups, but you can also read Steve Blank’s work on it. They’ve worked together so they have similar ideas. But basically, the premise is to 1) discover a problem 2) hypothesize a solution 3) interview potential customers about the solution 4) refine the solution. Once you get to a product that the customer would be MAD at you if you took away from them, you have a product/market fit and then you get funding and build like crazy. There are other subtle variations (like starting with a product instead of a customer), but being customer-centric in everything you do will pay dividends.

One business idea that I don’t mind sharing with you is a “LED light bulb replacement service” where you go to a company like First Merchants and say, “I’d like to save you 40% off your lighting bill and would be happy to show you how it works by converting one of your branches to LED lighting at cost – if you like it, we’ll do the rest of your branches too, if not, we’ll go on our way and thank you for your time.” Essentially, you’re going in, finding out how many bulbs they have, estimating the cost upfront and the cost savings, and then swapping them out in one day. You can even do a buy-back on existing fluorescent light bulbs that you can either trash or sell to someone else. A similar idea is to paint their roofs white.

A typical day for me is waking up around 8, checking my email for emergency work, working on some projects for customers (usually web edits), reading up on subjects in my field, visit a customer at their location or at a restaurant for a meeting, attend a networking meeting or meetup at night, and then in bed by midnight. I recently joined a networking group called BNI and am active on I run my own group called Indianapolis Marketing and attend several others as well as Tech Point meetings, which are put on by the State of Indiana. I use blogging to content market online, but that’s less successful than in-person networking for me. I’d be interested in hearing what you’re working on at work or in your ‘spare time’.

I know you sell your skills at SEO out to companies but I wasn’t sure if you were still scooping up domain names and putting content with ads up or not. Right now I have a few ideas that I’m going to try to do some research on what kind of market might be out there for these services and if it’s something I could/should pursue. For starters I’d like to design an app. In my head I could see where small companies would really enjoy and benefit from having someone build an app for them. I’d also still really enjoy designing a “portal” similar to what our company Intranet offers, but better on every level. Another thing similar to this is I’d like to design a workflow creator tool. The one inside our company Intranet is completely flawed and my employer began hunting for an outside tool to buy to fill this need. I also am looking at starting a few different blogs around things I’m passionate about such as weight loss, video games, “manly skills”, and adventure. I’m sure to really gain profit from these areas I’d have to really pin point a specific something inside of those categories but currently I’m just looking for experience. Once I see the possibility I think I could really define it more.

Do you still do the blog for money stuff?

I’m really glad they’ve plugged you in and are using you so much at your day job. The opposite of that is brutal and part of the reason I left. They weren’t using me at all and I had nothing to do. Let me tell you from experience applying at other jobs and learning what I’ve been learning over the last 6 months that any and all programming knowledge is the key to the future in the workplace. Make sure you’re learning as much as you can about PHP, SQL, and how to manipulate and query databases. The trends are all going towards software programming, big data analysis, and cloud computing. You’re in a good spot now, but you may be able to take what you’re learning and be more valuable elsewhere. That’s usually the only way to actually get a real ‘raise’.

I still have blogs that make me money, but it’s not my primary income and while it seems like ‘passive’ income, it’s really not. If I don’t keep writing and backlinking, the blogs stop making any real money after about a month of non-activity. That’s why it’s so important for businesses to have a blog and a strong social media presence because if they don’t, they don’t show up in Google where they need to. Think about it, there are so many websites out there now that Google can’t possibly keep them all at the top – so they favor the ones with fresh content. This applies to small businesses, blogs, or anything else online. Let me give you a real-world example:

I had a blog that was making $25 in October, but I wrote like crazy all of November and December. By the end of December, I made $600 from that blog, but after not writing anything for January and February, it’s back to $25. Now some of that was Christmas traffic, but it’s happening across all of my blogs. Unless I write on them and keep them relevant, they aren’t relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of money to be made in blogs, but you have to do the same thing I told you with starting out a business. You have to find real problems people are having with the product, write to those problems with how your affiliate products are the answer – and the people will come. It’s still work though.

The best thing you can do is to just do something. You’re not going to get good at it until you try and fail. It’s okay to fail, it’s how you learn. I have way more blogs that failed when I first started, but I started two new blogs in December that now equal my top site. I learned from all of my mistakes and can now do it better, faster. As far as apps go, I don’t want to discourage you from trying, but there are some big learning curves and substantial marketing issues to overcome in the marketplace once you’ve made one. My advice there is to pick a platform, make a simple program, then make iterations of the program, making it do more and more or do a different programs over time, learning as you go. You can actually use your apps as a platform to market your new app releases, meaning your best app should probably be your tenth app (and it makes sense that it would be that way anyway).

I make more net now than I did “net” at my day job, but while my schedule is different, it’s sometimes twice the work. That’s because when you run your own business you have to work to get the business, and then you have to work to do the business so it’s almost double the work. At my past employer, the work came to me so half of the work was already done. I didn’t have to run an internal marketing campaign around the company asking for work and specifying why I should be the one to do it. Although, come to think of it, I probably should have. It would have riled a lot of feathers, but it strikes me as a better way to live within an organization. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll figure out what you want to do, but remember to enjoy the moments you have. Enjoy your family, and such.