Skip to content

I just finished editing my interview with Shannon Kennedy for Lingsprout. Unlike my last few interviews which were focused tutorials, this one was just a story. It’s not that she wouldn’t have something great to teach. She does and she teaches it on her site Eurolinguiste, but her story is just epic.

As a music student, she had some language learning requirements and just took them really seriously. She simultaneously learned multiple languages to a B level (which is European for “intermediate/able to get by”), and then went on to take on other languages such as Mandarin that aren’t even required of classical musicians.


shannon-kennedy640x360

Check it out here: A story of learning two languages at once

There’s a new documentary on YouTube on the extreme demographic shifts that have been happening in China over the past few decades. In short it’s about the how China became the world’s factory and how in many ways it’s now suffering from its own economic success now that wages are no longer nearly as cheap as they were even a decade ago and new competitors jump in to fill the demand at the bottom end. I’ve seen effects of this first hand in Vietnam over the past several months.

I love a well-made piece on China and it’s hard not to sympathize with and like the main character. The area I feel like the documentary could have done better though, is technology. Technological change offers a lot of risk to Chinese migrant workers (automation, robotics, etc) and it also offers a lot of promise—new opportunities, ways to repair the environmental damage brought by China’s rapid industrialization and things we can’t even see at present. I think that the effects of technology will ultimately overwhelm the longer-term predictions of the film, though it’s impossible to say whether the net effect will be a positive or not.

4/5, worth a watch.

I recently interviewed Lindsay Dow for Lingsprout and asked her about using social media for language learning. She talked about Snapchat, Instagram and Periscope, which made me feel a bit old but it was pretty fun talking to her! Also the thing I liked about both Snapchat and Periscope is their ephemeral nature, which makes speaking a language you’re learning a lot less scary than YouTube, for example.


lindsay-dow640x360

Check it out here: Language practice on social media

I recorded another video for Lingsprout and it looks like this is going to be a regular thing. Gabriel Wyner taught me how to make my own language learning resources and also why phonics is so important.

He’s the author of possibly the most highly acclaimed book written on language learning. What made it even more fun was that he was teaching how to make phonics resources. I love that. I made phonics a cornerstone of the curriculum in the English school I used to run in Taiwan, and as you might notice if you check out the phonics tag here, I recorded quite the list of Phonics Friday videos.


gabriel-wyner640x360

Check it out here: Making your own effective language learning resources

Since the first interview with Chris Parker went well, I did second video interview for Lingsprout. This time I interviewed Jeremy Ginsburg AKA “the Vietnomad”, whose incredible story was on Benny Lewis’s blog.


jeremy-ginsburg640x360

Unlike the previous interview I did, this one was more of a “how to” than a story. I dug in and pushed pretty hard on one topic—What can you do in terms of social interactions to learn a foreign language in a country as a beginner?

Check it out here: How to befriend locals and learn their language with Jeremy Ginsburg

I did a video interview of Chris Parker of Fluent in Mandarin on Lingsprout. It requires a login to view, but everything on the site is free:

An interview with Chris Parker

It was about 15 minutes and covered his background as a monolingual kid in the UK, his transition to being a foreign guest on Chinese TV what his friends back home thought when they saw it. Check it out here: Becoming fluent in Mandarin with Chris Parker

Apologies for the downtime. I’ve recently upgraded my web hosting to a server with solid state drives and a bit more memory. There were also some old insecure wp installations to get rid of.

Hopefully the site will be a bit snappier and thanks for your patience!

The English teaching market is massive and growing. For a lot of people from the US, UK or commonwealth countries, it’s a great way to travel while young and experience more of the world. Online teaching is growing at an even more explosive rate—14.2% per year in Asia, 13.8% per year in Latin America. (Ambient Insight: 2011-2016 World Wide English Language Learning Market Overview)

Why teach English online?

Teaching online has a few advantages over traditional classroom teaching. It’s flexible, it’s efficient and it’s also becoming the first place aspiring students look.

Working online tends to be flexible

If you’re teaching online, you can teach from anywhere. This means you don’t have to worry about visas. You don’t have to travel if you don’t want to. Or you could move to someplace really inexpensive in Eastern Europe or SE Asia and teach students from first world countries at a salary much higher than you would earn locally. It’s fantastic work for a Digital Nomad who wants to save more money.

There are several ways of teaching languages online that fairly closely mirror the experience of teaching at a university or in a cram school. Those are pretty inflexible, but there are also a lot of options that give you more scheduling flexibility. TutorABC is kind of a middle of the road option that will give you some training materials and guidance, but expects you to get a TEFL certificate and to be available during certain times that have high student demand. At the top of the flexibility spectrum, Italki and Verbling offer the teacher full freedom to chose the hours they are available.

Efficiency—there’s no commute better than no commute

It should go without saying that if you teach online you have the best commute in the world.

online english teacher's commute

More and more students are moving online

The major reason why online English learning is growing at roughly 14% per year for in Asia and Latin America is that the students are moving online. Children are generally augmenting traditional schooling with some educational apps and other products, but many, many adults are moving to online classes. One of the starkest examples is in Japan.

A couple of years ago, the Japanese “eikaiwa” or English conversation class market went through yet another shock as has become common over the past few decades. The market as a whole is growing, but not at anything like the rate that it was during the 80s. This time however, the largest online school RareJob, came out a huge winner. Founded in 2007 in the Philippines, RareJob had about 70,000 students in October of 2012 and grew to over 200,000 by early 2014. At the same time, more and more Japanese students have been joining online learning platforms such as Italki.

Teaching offline is still huge. It still offers pretty all the benefits I got from doing it a decade ago. But online teaching is growing quickly, which means there are special opportunities for people who jump in now.

Who can teach English online?

The requirements vary from job to job, of course. But you should be able to find some sort of English teaching job online if you:

  • Are a Native English speaker
  • Have a reliable internet connection suitable for video chat
  • Are over 16 years old
  • Have at least a willingness to learn how to teach effectively
  • Can take payment online (Paypal, etc)
  • Enjoy talking with people

You can get better teaching work if you meet any of the criteria below:

  • Have experience teaching
  • Are physically attractive, friendly and/or competent looking
  • Know how to market your services
  • Have a teaching certification or degree
  • Know a language spoken by a lot of English learners (Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, etc)
  • Have a very flexible schedule

Basically, most people who are reading this article can teach online. About half the platforms I’ve seen want teachers with some experience. Requirements for specific degrees are rare outside of the online classrooms affiliated with brick and mortar institutions, and requirements for teaching certificates are pretty rare as well. I don’t know of any online platforms that require teachers to be bilingual, but it’s definitely an asset. I’ve see quite a few taking advantage of their foreign language skills to connect with students and teach them more effectively, especially beginners who just can’t understand that much English yet.

The downsides of teaching online

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few things that aren’t ideal about teaching a foreign language over video chat. It’s a huge, global opportunity but there are some areas where it falls short compared to actually being in a classroom environment.

Your improvement as a teacher is up to you

In general, you can’t expect to get much help or training from your schools. It’s somewhat questionable whether an in person school will really give you that much training. When I was running an English school in Taiwan, I had an extensive training system that involved trainees watch dozens of classes, take notes and slowly ease into teaching 5 minute segments, 15 minute segments, full classes and then one week substitutions before being given a class of their own to take over for a full semester. I gave them feedback and made sure they mastered each skill they needed along the way. Many brick and mortar schools don’t put so much into training, but some do. You can be almost certain an online school won’t.

Even if you’re a traditional language school that doesn’t offer much training, you can still probably find some opportunity to watch a more experienced teacher teach the same material you teach. You could also probably ask them questions at lunch or between classes.

Less certainty

Any language school can go out of business or shut down. But things are moving quickly in the online world. What’s an incredible opportunity now might be gone in a few years. One individual site might suddenly lose 70% of their site traffic due to an update in Google’s search ranking algorithms and have to start firing teachers. A school might suddenly pivot from using teachers for one on one classes to hosting their own pre-recorded classes. You really have to be willing to tolerate a bit more uncertainty if you’re working online. Fortunately, you’ll likely have multiple platforms you’re teaching on and maybe other income streams as well.

The entire world is competing with you

The entire world is competing with you online
Crowd, by James Cridland

Remember that school I mentioned in the section about more students moving online? The biggest online English school in Japan? Well, RareJob Inc is based in the Philippines. Their teachers make about $2 per hour. If you’re in any country where English is the native language, you probably don’t want to teach for $2 per hour. But that’s what you’re competing against. Everybody is on the internet.

There are other teachers such as Gabby Wallace who have built huge personal brands and teach large numbers of students directly. Next in line are people with niche brands who teach groups on their own sites. Even tutoring one on one on a large platform can turn out well.  Chad Hansen has earned over $100k tutoring individual students on Verbling. But remember, if you <i>can’t</i> differentiate yourself, the wage floor is very low in an online market.

Platforms for online language teaching

Using someone else’s platform is the easiest way to get started. If you’re on your own, you’ve got to figure out how to find students. You’ll need your own website, marketing channel and more. In exchange for a (usually) modest cut of what students pay, you get placement on a high traffic site, there’s usually a decent pipeline of paying students, and the platform handles payment processing for you. Unless you already have a following, this is a great trade.

There are many, many different platforms for teaching a language online, and it’s not possible to cover all of them. Instead, I’ll list four of the largest options—TutorABC, Italki, Verbling and Udemy.

TutorABC

TutorABC is based in Taiwan and focuses on EFL for Chinese speakers. They have their own system and they have a pretty strong pipeline of students. Unlike most online schools, they provide some training! Since they promote a conversational approach to learning, you don’t need to know that much about grammar, phonics or other features of English. As long as you’re patient, and enthusiastic you can probably get by fine.

On the downside, the pay isn’t that great. It’s only $8 per hour base plus some amount that depends on student reviews. According to reviews on Glassdoor, after bonuses, it’s about $10 per hour. They also insist that teachers are available for at least some of their times with the highest student demand (i.e. their evenings and weekends).

Recap

  • Bachelor’s degree or ESL teaching experience required
  • Teachers must have some availability during peak hours
  • Training provided
  • Conversational methods expected
  • Pays ~$10/hour

Italki

Italki is based in Hong Kong. It’s a massive platform that currently has over 1.5M language students learning over 100 different languages. There are a lot of free features—language learners can message each other, do language exchanges, write journal entries in the languages they’re learning and correct the journals others are writing in their native language.

There are two types of paid Italki tutors. There are “professional” teachers, who have to go through an application process. In general, they have to have some experience actually teaching classes in their language, but the process isn’t entirely transparent. The second type is “informal” teachers. As far as I can tell there isn’t really much of any lower bar for conversation teachers as long as they speak the language fluently.

Teachers can choose their own prices on iTalki. Professional teachers tend to charge more than conversation teachers, but there’s a huge range for both. Professional teachers who are native English speakers tend to be in the $15-20 per hour range with a few making as much as $45 per hour for specialized test preparation or business courses. Native English-speaking informal teachers are centered around $13-$17 per hour. Italki takes 15%.

After lessons are scheduled on the platform, students exchange Skype information and do their classes over video chat. Since Italki has a Chinese ICP license, they’re not blocked in China. They also support Alipay in addition to Paypal, so they’re Chinese students and teachers are very well represented.

Recap

  • Massive platform for 100+ languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Italki takes 15%
  • Teachers are divided into “Professional” and “Informal” categories
  • Lessons are arranged via chat and taught on Skype
  • Well supported in China

Verbling

Verbling is a tech start-up based in San Francisco. Like Italki, it’s a platform for learners and teachers of many different languages. I would say it’s got a huge technology lead over the competition. Disclosure here: I was one of the two engineers employed on their small team up until the end of this summer, so I am definitely a bit biased! I’ll let the ongoing roll-out of new features speak for itself.

Verbling has a free “Community” chat feature I mentioned in an earlier guide on how to learn a language for under $500. It also has one on one tutoring and a newer, “Tandem” option for students to take lesson with a partner at a discounted price. European languages are particularly well represented on the platform, but unfortunately Verbling is blocked by the Chinese firewall. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any Chinese students or teachers, but it means that only the small fraction who have a VPN or other way around the firewall can use the site from within China.

Unlike iTalki, Verbling doesn’t separate teachers into professional and informal categories. There’s a high bar for all of them. Without a degree, certification or impressive experience there’s a good chance of your application being rejected. The upside of this is that Verbling doesn’t feel as much like a race to the bottom as some other platforms do. I’ve actually noticed some teachers listed both on Verbling and on iTalki with different rates! In general, I think an English teacher can charge about $20-25 per hour on Verbling. As with iTalki, there’s quite a bit of variation and a lot of it comes down to how good a teacher’s ratings, reviews and welcome videos are.

Recap

  • Large platform for many languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Verbling takes 15%
  • Teacher applications must pass a high bar
  • Lessons are launched from the platform via Google Hangouts
  • Blocked in China
  • Rapidly improving platform

Udemy

Udemy is a completely different kind of beast from TutorABC, Italki, or Verbling. Rather than teach one on one lessons, instructors record videos and upload them to Udemy to be watched by however many students purchase the course. Then students can interact with the teacher via forums integrated into each video lesson on the platform.

Like the online tutoring options, Udemy instructors live and die by the ratings their students give them. Unlike the others, Udemy has huge winners. It also has a lot of courses that teachers spent weeks creating that generate little to no earnings. Udemy is also continually growing and changing, so anything specific I write about earnings splits will likely soon go out of date. That said, they take about 50%, but there are some circumstances when instructors can make a higher share.

One of Udemy’s major advantages and disadvantages is its formidable email marketing of discounts. If you allow Udemy to discount your courses, you can get massive distribution. On the other hand, it’s very likely they’ll discount your $397 English course to $19 for a weekend to make sales. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re planning, creating and pricing your course.

In general, I suggest Udemy for people who have some free time and who aren’t in a big hurry to earn more. It offers an opportunity for 95% passive income if you make a great course, but it’s high risk. Some instructors have earned over a million dollars from their courses. Many, many more have failed to earn enough for it to have been worth their while. It’s absolutely a viable way to go, but it requires some strategy and you probably won’t do very well until you have multiple courses up. In this way, it’s somewhat similar to writing ebooks for the kindle store.

Recap

  • Large platform for subjects languages
  • English-language site
  • Instructors create, and upload video courses
  • Students watch videos and can ask teachers questions in forums
  • Instructors set their own prices but Udemy often runs promotions
  • Possible to achieve huge success
  • Mostly passive income is possible
  • Most sales go to a small number of instructors

More on platforms

Every platform mentioned above has some common characteristics:

  • All of them are a great help to those who don’t know how to market.
  • All of them have technology that most language teachers wouldn’t know build or set up.
  • All of them have policies that either hamper or forbid teachers from taking their students off the platform.

As a consequence, one thing holds true regardless of whether you’re tutoring one on one, teaching classes to groups or creating educational content. Platforms are a better deal when you’re starting out than if you have a huge following. After you have more success, it makes more sense to build your own site like Gabby Wallace did.

Concluding advice

There are a ton of ways to teach English online and even this lengthy article could only cover the largest of them. If you’re looking for quick, simple advice then I’d choose based on your current situation.

If you’re living someplace cheap and don’t have much experience teaching, try TutorABC and Italki (as an informal teacher).

If you have more teaching experience, apply to Verbling and Italki (as a professional teacher).

If you have time (e.g. you teach English 20 hours a week in Korea), then try Udemy.

If you’re already very good at teaching online or building courses on platforms, then start building your own following.

If you want to teach but have no experience and no savings, then teach offline first.

As it has become more and more popular to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, Chiang Mai has emerged as what’s likely the most popular destination. I went there for a couple of months and here are my notes.

The advantages of being a digital nomad in Chiang Mai

  • It’s cheap
  • Housing is easy
  • Getting a local SIM is convenient and inexpensive
  • Scooters
  • There’s a great community of nomads
  • The weather and air are nice (except during burning season)
  • It’s a generally high trust society

Work from paradise
(more…)

Digital nomads are people whose means of making a living comes from the internet and isn’t connected to living in any particular location. They are the “new rich” Tim Ferriss wrote about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a spectrum of digital nomad work that ranges from “almost a normal job” to “working four hours a week from the beach while sipping coconut water”. I’ll go over some of the strategies I’ve seen below.

The rise of the digital nomad

Digital Nomad search trends

I first started hearing the term digital nomad in early 2013 amongst a few acquaintances in the tech scene in 2013. It’s only in 2015 that the movement has really been gaining steam. Many, many people who have read the The 4-Hour Workweek have since moved to cities such as Chiang Mai, Prague, Saigon or Cartagena and set about making the dream a reality. In fact, when I was in Chiang Mai a couple of months ago, it felt very much like everybody inspired by Tim Ferriss’s work had crowded into the city. The weekly Nomads and Coffee meetup organized by Johnny FD rapidly ballooned from a couple of dozen people to too many to fit in the coffee house!

The spectrum of digital nomad work

  • Almost a normal job
  • Setting your own schedule
  • Repeated income from previous work

Almost a normal job

The most conservative way to become a digital nomad is to just do the same work you were before but work remotely. Depending on your job you may or may not need to stay in a roughly compatible time zone as you were in. While you won’t exactly exactly have a 4HWW-style life, you can move someplace that’s much cheaper, save more, have new experiences, learn a foreign language and maybe even take advantage in the arbitrage of local economies to invest in yourself. Piano lessons are cheaper in Prague than in New York!

It can be hard to find a job that will hire remotely (and pay first world rates) but if that’s your goal, then a good place to start would be weworkremotely.com. Some famous companies that work mostly remotely are Automattic (the maker of WordPress, which powers this site) and Github. There are others, too.

An easier option is just work for your existing or previous employer remotely. A lot of people I know have been able to do that, including myself! After developing a good working relationship and proving your ability to generate meaningful business results, it’s usually not too hard to work out. In larger companies this can be difficult, but there’s often some leeway. For an American programmer, for example, health care costs are far higher in the US than they would be working remotely from a developed Asian country. This means it’s possible for the worker to retain the same level of income and benefits while saving money for the employer.

Setting your own schedule

The next level of freedom is to do some kind of work where you don’t have to work the same hours every week. It’s very likely you don’t need “full-time” employment to sustain yourself as a digital nomad. This is even true if you’re teaching English in Taiwan, China, Korea or elsewhere. If your employer makes you work 40 hours a week, it destroys some of the benefit of living in a cheaper country.

The solution is to start doing project-based freelance work. Ideal types of work for this kind of set-up are copywriting, blogging, design, translation and editing. Project-based gigs are also doable for software people, but quite a bit of work goes into finding high quality sources of work.

Repeated income from previous work

While it’s great to be able to set one’s own schedule, what really makes it possible to break into the ranks of the “New Rich” described in the 4-hour workweek is repeated income from previous work. This usually means either building your own marketing machine or building a product to plug into somebody else’s marketing machine.

Since it’s such an appealing prospect the rest of this article is devoted to how to decouple your earning powers from your working hours. The main options are:

  • Affiliate marketing
  • web publishing
  • writing ebooks
  • video publishing
  • creating courses
  • creating applications to sell
  • creating software as a service
  • selling physical products

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing just means getting paid to help sell products or services others have created. Many creators use 3rd party services such as Clickbank or ShareASale to connect with affiliate marketers, but many others have created their own internal programs. If you trust the merchant to be running their program ethically, the payout is always better if you cut out the 3rd party service in the middle.

In order to sell someone else’s product, you need to have an audience to sell it to. This could be your personal blog. For example, if you click one of the links to 4-hour workweek in this post and buy it, Amazon will pay me a fraction of a dollar for helping them sell a copy (your price won’t be affected). Other common audiences are Twitter followers (very difficult), Facebook pages, or email lists (generally more effective). For obvious reasons, it helps you quite a bit if your audience knows, likes and trusts you at least on the topics you’re writing about. I wrote for nearly 10 years about language learning, language teaching and my personal experiences on this site and have a great deal of trust built up with my readers on these topics. It isn’t difficult at all to get people to try language learning products I recommend. Of course, the trust will only remain as long as I’m giving good suggestions!

My advice for the would-be affiliate marketer has two parts. First of all, find something you’re genuinely interested in, can write about and can give reasonably good advice about. Write about that on your blog and be absolutely as helpful as you possibly can to people. Collect email addresses. Review related products and don’t push them based on their affiliate commission structures. Try to be what Johnny calls an “Earnest Affiliate“, focusing on actually providing value to your readers. The more you do that, the more people will want to read your future pieces and the more they’ll share what you’ve already written with others.

The second piece of advice is to learn about how online marketing works. There are a ton of great resources. My personal favorite is Neil Patel. He writes at http://neilpatel.com/blog and has also written and compiled an impressive array of resources at Quicksprout. He offers very pricey personal coaching, but there’s more than enough free content on both those sites to become one of the top 10% of online marketers.

Web publishing

Web publishing is similar to affiliate marketing, but rather than spend a significant amount of time on marketing and selling-related activities, the primary focus is publishing content and building traffic. About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to make great earnings from Google Adsense. Believe it or not, it still happens. I saw it happen personally with a friend a couple of years ago, actually. He went from a few hundred dollars per month in Adsense, to a thousand to a few thousand, to twenty thousand and then to using higher-end advertising solutions such as Google’s DFP instead of Adsense. He went full-on digital nomad pretty quickly and as a result of all his travel I didn’t keep up with all the developments after that, but he definitely scaled up to five digits in monthly earnings without doing much with email, social media marketing or selling.

The secret? Get obscene amounts of traffic. Top out in Google search engine results for popular searches. Then do some optimizations around ad placement.

In order to be an effective ad publisher, you need to both pick one of the most popular niches on the internet—e.g. health, dating or career—and develop formidable SEO skills. This means, learning how to use google’s keyword tools to figure out what readers of your content are looking for, it means learning how to update your content to make it more useful and it means knowing what topics you have a reasonable shot at. Neil Patel (linked in the previous section) is also an excellent resource for this kind of information.

Writing ebooks

Writing ebooks is a surprisingly effective way to make good earnings. Ebooks can also be part of a larger marketing strategy, but here I’ll just cover the business of books themselves.

Amazon Kindle Store

If you have no audience and no distribution, then Amazon is a great way to get it. A 50 page book with the right title and cover in the right niche can bring in readers almost right away, especially if you can get a few positive reviews early on. Keeping your ranking is up to the quality of your work, of course.

It’s generally best to either write a bunch of books in the same general non-fiction category or to write a series or serial in a popular fiction category. Right now, the best selling categories are romance, suspense, survivalist prepper fiction, and sci-fi, swords & sorcery fantasy, vampire fiction and military fiction are also doing reasonably well.

If you price your book for $0.99 to $2.98 or more than $9.99, Amazon gives you a 30% commission. If you price between $2.99 and $9.99, then they pay 70%.

Selling ebooks through one’s own platform

If you do have an audience and you prefer not to have Amazon’s downward pricing pressure, then selling on your own is the way to go. You can do this with some kind of shopping cart system such as Member Mouse, by manually putting Paypal buttons on your site or by using a minimal system like Gumroad. I’ve used Paypal buttons before and I use Gumroad now (check out the guides link in my site navigation). I’m not really a fan of shopping carts. I find them clunky and annoying as a user.

Selling directly on your own site is also a great way to offer tiered products for which an email book is only one part. For example, you could sell your new cookbook with Korean recipes for $39, or the book plus videos for $99. For a great example, see Edmond Lau’s book, The Effective Engineer, which has tiers going all the way up to $699. Most authors I’ve spoken with have told me they’ve made the vast majority of their sales at the cheapest tier and still made more money from the most expensive one. It’s a great way to reach a level of income that sustains you without excluding the majority of people who just want the book.

I bought a mid-level tier and found it a great value as a software engineer in San Francisco. If I had been a software engineer working in Bangalore, the price tag might have just been too high to make sense, but the book only option still would have been a great value. If the lower tier didn’t exist, people with less money simply couldn’t get the product. If the higher tier didn’t exist, the author would miss out on a lot of revenue. Multiple tiers are a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Video publishing

Video publishing breaks down into the same general categories of “high traffic + ads” and “moderate traffic + sales” that text-based publishing does. In order to make it from ads alone on youtube you need hundreds of thousands or more likely millions of subscribers. If you’re doing product placements for something such as cosmetics, clothes, etc, you can make it much, much sooner. A lot of vine users went this route. Obviously it helps video if you’re young, attractive and/or famous.

The other massive source of people supporting themselves off of video is Twitch.tv. For those not familiar with it, Twitch is a where you can live-stream yourself playing (or even analyzing) video games. If you’re a top-level commentator of League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or other popular game you probably already have a Twitch account and paying monthly subscribers and don’t need to read this. If you’re not, but you are deeply obsessed with a particular video game or enjoy reviewing games, it’s probably worth trying live-streaming regularly for a few months and see if you can build a following. I wish that option had existed when I myself was a Starcraft-obsessed teenager!

Creating courses

If you have something to teach (and most of us do), a course is one of the very fastest ways to start earning an income online. In Chiangmai, I met quite a few people who had created courses on Udemy.com teaching everything from yoga to social skills to JavaScript.

Udemy is great for getting traffic. Assuming you’re proficient with recording video or screencasts, you can get your first course built within a week or so and be earning something, perhaps $100 in your first month. This will get more difficult over time, but now it’s still pretty open. On the downside, Udemy isn’t a great way to earn a lot. They aggressively offer discounts on their courses and after a while their users, myself included, start to assume that for any given $500 course, there’s a discount coupon that will let me buy it for $10. And if not, then within a month or so, Udemy will probably have a site-wide promotion letting me get it that cheaply. That said, one of my acquaintances doing software courses who has already eclipsed six figure Udemy earnings this year.

Once you do have a following (built through Udemy or elsewhere), the way to charge market rate for your courses is to sell them yourself. Once again, shopping cart plugins are a way to do it, but I’d strongly recommend keeping it simple and using something like Gumroad. They’ve actually added some tools that make it possible to release portions of a course one week at a time with new emails to customers and they’ve been adding new features at a furious pace. I’m a happy user of Gumroad, but other than that have no financial incentive to keep singing their praises here. To the best of my knowledge they don’t even have their own affiliate program. (If I’m wrong please tell me in the comments!)

Creating applications to sell

Creating software applications is a lot of work. The rewards for successful applications are sometimes enormous, but due to the real possibility of putting months of effort into something that earns nothing, I don’t recommend it for a first product.

App platforms

Probably the most popular platform is Apple’s App Store. It’s still the most profitable store I know of, but competition is intense. Choose carefully and bring your A game if this is your plan.The same general advice would go for Android apps, with the one difference that you’re likely to have a harder time making sales of paid apps and that you can probably get better distribution of in app advertising.

Steam has become pretty indie-friendly, but a lot of people are making games and the competition is intense. Fortune favors the unique here. Kongregate.com and other flash game sites are amazingly still trucking along in 2015, but if you don’t already have flash development skills, 2015 is a bit late to be investing in them.

Probably the less risky option I see for people making apps on someone else’s platform would be to make a WordPress plugin for professional users. WordPress now powers 15% of all the sites on the web and an awful lot of those sites are serving some sort of business purpose.

Selling apps directly

You actually don’t need to sell an app through a platform. You can just write the code, put it behind some kind of paywall and then share a link to it. Like I did with Zhuyin King (a Mandarin phonics trainer) right now. I could have put the app on Apple’s Mac Store. But I didn’t have any idea how much interest there was for it. I didn’t want to pay $100 to join Apple’s developer program just for an experiment. Also, it’s a lot easier for me to send people updates this way. I just wrote a very very rough prototype of the software and threw it up on Gumroad for $1.25. A few people bought it and made suggestions. I improved the UI and raised the price to $1.75. New customers had to pay that much but people who already bought got the updates for free. Then I added more content and raised the price to $2.49 for new customers. This is great. It means I can sell software still under development, price it appropriately and then regularly improve it based on feedback. People who buy early on get a great deal, I have no obligation to continue development and yet if I choose to I can easily keep improving the product without having to wait for Apple, Google or someone else to say okay.

That said, from an economic perspective, most people who don’t already have huge followings are probably better off plugging into someone else’s platform.

Selling software as a service

Selling software as a service is the holy grail for many, regardless of whether they plan to write it themselves or hire others to write it for them. Once you have a product people are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use, your income becomes very predictable and your life choices expand greatly. It actually doesn’t even have to be software. It could also be something like a podcast or a blog that you sell a subscription to, but those choices generally come with the obligation to keep making new content.

The types of software that can be sold as a service are almost unlimited, but here are a few ideas: BufferApp (schedules your social media postings), Baremetrics (Stripe analytics for your business), Bingo Card Creator (makes bingo cards for teachers). It’s important to note that only the last of these businesses was run as a single developer for long. SaSS is brutally tough to go alone. If that’s what you’re doing, I suggest aiming for the simplest thing you possibly can.

Selling physical products

Amazon FBA is huge right now. It’s a pretty wide-open opportunity for people with enough savings to get by to ramp up their sales and cover some risk (~$300) of not being able to sell a product.

The way it works is you sell the product and Amazon ships it. A very common way to sell physical products is to buy in bulk from a Chinese factory (via Alibaba), have the product shipped to Amazon and then sell the product on Amazon. I’m far from an expert, but what my friend in SF did was basically this:

  1. Find a product on Amazon with a relatively high sales ranking where the top listing had a rating of less than 4 stars.
  2. Read all the three and four star reviews
  3. Repeat for other products high up in the listing
  4. Identify one or two ways to improve the product based on the reviews
  5. Go on Alibaba and find a manufacturer to make the improved product for you
  6. Test the samples yourself and revise and necessary
  7. Sell it on Amazon
  8. Market it as if Amazon wasn’t even helping sell it
  9. Do anything and everything within the rules to get good reviews
  10. Profit!

For an example of an insanely successful Amazon product launch see this video from Zen Active Yoga.

Risky is the new safe

It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to build a business online now than it used to be. Even when I was running a brick and mortar English teaching school with a couple of partners in Taiwan 7 years ago, I sometimes thought about how great it would be to be doing something that scaled more easily and something that didn’t tie me down to 60+ hours of work per week year in and year out.

When I went back to the US in 2012, I met some people with great jobs. But I also met people who were really struggling and who had basically done the “safe thing” all along, getting good grades, getting a degree from a renowned school and then joining “safer” career tracks. I still think that path is reasonably safe for those at the very top. But when there’s a big shift in the market and people have to retrain and compete with much younger people for a different role, the “dangerous path” taken by authors, freelance marketers and various small entrepreneurs starts to look pretty safe by comparison. What do you think?