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How to make money on the internet

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I've been thinking a lot over the years about how to make money as just a guy with an internet connection and some useful knowledge and skills. The ultimate goal would be 100% passive income, where I don't have to do anything to keep the money coming in. Usually that's called retirement, and it happens when you have enough saved and invested that you can live off the interest, but by my math, I'm $666,083.54 short of that goal at time of writing (yes, the number is that specific).

So how do I get there? What are my options?

Option 1: Sell your time to an employer

This is what I'm currently doing and what I've done for my entire adult life. There are a lot of benefits to this. There's stability, benefits, and by being part of an organization, you can focus on your job's responsibilites without also needing to be an accountant and a marketer and a project manager.

But there are also downsides. As an employee, you tend to lack control over your career or how much money you make. You can negotiate, but it's ultimately someone else's decision to give you a promotion or a raise. I also live in America, where "right to work" laws mean that you can get fired at any time for any reason, which gives employers a lot of power over employees. There have also been a ton of layoffs in my industry over the past year or so, my workplace included, so I'm very aware that this can go away with little to no warning.

The worst part about traditional employment, at least for me, is the hiring process. The last time I went through it, I had one company that would have put me through the following if I hadn't accepted another offer:

  1. Phone screening
  2. Take-home work sample
  3. Code review of the work sample
  4. Follow up questions about the work sample
  5. Coding interview
  6. System design interview
  7. Soft skills interview
  8. Another soft skills interview

That's too many interviews! Imagine doing this with 5 different companies to try to get the best offer or find the best fit. No thank you.

As an aside about the work sample, there's a way to do it where the sample is about assessing someone's general skill level by having a candidate build a small project that's representative of the skills needed for the job. This was not that. It seemed like they had a problem they were trying to solve with their product, and they were using candidates as unpaid labor to solve it for them. Also, everyone in the interviews seemed very tired when I met them, so I think I made the right call by taking another offer.

Suffice it to say that have basically zero interest in going through that process again. If my current job goes away, I'm way more likely to try something else entirely. So what are my other options?

Option 2: Freelance

I've considered freelancing before, and it does have a certain appeal. You get to be your own boss, make your own hours, and set your own rates. However, by becoming a one-person operation, you have to do all the business stuff that would be someone else's entire job in traditional employment. Either that or hire someone do those things for you. There's also way less stability and no one to stop you from working 80 hour weeks other than yourself (or your family or whatever).

The lack of a safety net is one reason I haven't really pursued freelance. Another big reason is that I am terrible at marketing and selling my skills. I had a friend refer me to someone who wanted help setting up a Shopify store, and I essentially found the guide for non-technical folks to set up their stores and told them they probably didn't need me.

I just don't have the hustle grindset needed for freelance. What else is there? Maybe something geared toward people who make stuff on the internet rather than "work"?

Option 3: Advertise

I've got a fair amount of writing on this site now, and while I assume that I'm the only person who's read any of it, there's a chance that running ads could generate some income. Don't worry, I'm not going to do that, but it is one of the primary funding models for creative works. Traditional broadcast media, YouTube, podcasts, etc. often rely on advertising to fund their work.

Here's the thing, though–advertising sucks, especially online. It used to make sense before the internet. You'd run an ad in the newspaper for your business, advertise soap during daytime television, or put up a billboard for your personal injury lawer firm because the people who were likely to see the ad were people likely to need your products or services. For some reason, though, advertisers decided that the best way to advertise online was to be as creepy and invasive as possible.

Seriously, I don't understand the logic of how targeted advertising is supposed to work. Why would anyone want to buy something from a digital stalker? If I talk about running shoes with someone and then suddenly get a bunch of ads for running shoes, that's going to make me trust your business more?

I feel like there's a huge missed opportunity for advertisers. Instead of choosing ads based on a person's (stolen) data profile, they could be chosen based on the contents of the page where the ad is being run. Take this article for example. It's about making money online, and it mentions interviews and touches on some web development topics. What would make more sense as an ad here? Something random based on your search history or something like a job board for developers or an investment company? Use one of those stupid LLMs to figure it out. Call it "AI powered advertising" and make a bunch of money.

Anyway, advertising's out. What else?

Option 4: Sell stuff

This is different from setting up a business that sells products or services to people. I'm talking about merch here. It seems like most creative endeavors, after they've built up a following, end up selling branded merchandise. Design a logo or a reference to your thing, and then slap it on hats, mugs, T-shirts, etc. and sell them to your audience. The limiting factor here is having an audience, and like I said before, I'm pretty sure this site is just for me (I don't know, I don't have analytics and don't really want them).

My problem with this is the unnecessary consumption. You probably have enough T-shirts already, so do you really need to buy another one from your favorite band at the concert? I mean, you may want to, and they're probably making more money from merch than from album sales or streaming, but that's more of a condemnation of the industry than an endorsement of merch. It's just more stuff being made to eventually end up in landfills, and I don't love that.

The only viable merch I can think of for myself would be coffee mugs with pictures of my cats on them. Would you buy that? Seems unlikely, but let me know at dustin@dustinwhisman.com.

Is there anything a little less wasteful?

Option 5: Patreon

I could have called this memberships or something else, but it really seems like Patreon is the dominant player, unless you're looking for something else, in which case I guess there's OnlyFans. I like the membership idea more than advertising or merch, since it's more explicitly about direct support and isn't as wasteful.

My biggest issue with this, other than the near-monopoly nature of Patreon, is that I'm tired of subscriptions, and there are only so many projects I can support at once. There are plenty that I'd like to support, but I can't justify the cost. As a result, I mostly end up only supporting projects that have exclusive bonus content that I want.

On the creator side, I don't want my stuff to be paywalled, and I also don't want to stress anyone's budgets or force them to choose what to support. With Patreon, I'd also probably have to curate my content to fit their model/platform, and I'd just rather not do that.

So what's left?

Option 6: Buy me a coffee

This is the tip jar model, where you have the option for people to support you, but it's not required, and they can choose how much to give and how often. This has the direct support appeal of Patreon, but without the subscription fatigue problem.

This is probably not nearly as profitable as other options, but I think it fits well with the personal site/blog or side projects that I tend to work on outside of my day job. As such, I decided to go ahead and set up a buy me a coffee page. At time of writing, it's set up with the default settings, but there are some features I may look into, like an exclusive monthly newsletter or commissions for accessibility audits or other consulting work.

Going forward, I think this is how I'd like to monetize all my side projects. I built Stripe integration into an old side project that never took off, and I waste too much time maintaining it. With this, all I need to do is add the link to whatever site I'm building, and if it makes money, great! If not, it doesn't cost me anything, so no worries there.

I probably missed some options

There are definitely other ways to make money online, but I don't think I'm well-suited for a lot of them. I'd make a terrible influencer, and I have enough moral fiber to avoid the really lucrative grifts that seem to make a lot of people rich. I'll stick with the day job and maybe enough side income to buy some cat toys–that's good enough for me.