Skip to content

Archive

Tag: marketing

The mission is unchanged—let the world converse

2016 was a time of great exploration and learning and yet I have the same driving desire now at the year’s conclusion that I had when it started—make language learning faster, easier and cheaper. Most of my friends have been surprised that language learning still holds my interest. They fall into one of two camps. Either they’ve had great success and lost interest or they’ve basically given up. I fall between the two groups, having ended up doing pretty well but only after a lot of suffering.

English matters

another city, another Airbnb

This isn’t really about me though. In all honesty, I don’t need to have an easy time learning languages. Learning another will have at best a small effect on my future comfort and standard of living. But it’s not like that for people learning English. My good friend in college wasted his parents’ savings in an ultimately unsuccessful English learning attempt and went back to a diminished future in Japan. My neighbors in Vietnam at the beginning of 2016 could triple their incomes if they spoke English well. That still haunts me.

I know something about teaching English. I did it for years and even built and ran a school in Taiwan with a couple of partners several years ago. To this day, I’m still very proud of the educational outcomes. Students went from nothing to handling level 3 and 4 OUP Bookworms (graded readers at the B1-B2 level) in three years of study as part of a 4 or 6 hour a week class. I’ve visited a hundred English schools around Asia and never since seen any similar schools come close to that level of result.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. It was an all-consuming job keeping that school running. I was probably putting in close to 70 hours a week during the time I was there and I still failed to put quite enough effort into training the staff or much of any effort into marketing.

Another issues is that we were charging a premium to our competitors. Most families couldn’t afford it. In truth, about 1/4 to 1/3 of my students were affluent enough that they’d probably learn English well eventually, regardless of how much they picked up. The people who would really benefit the most would never by served by my school, other than perhaps indirectly by learning about the merits of extensive reading from their friends who attended.

Sadly, I’ve seen this problem in an even more extreme form in tech start-ups who serve language learners. With a few notable exceptions, such as Duolingo and HelloTalk, they focus on 1-on-1 teaching. That’s even further outside the price range of my Vietnamese neighbors from a year ago.

An online platform is the solution, but those who most need it can’t afford teachers.

How I spent the year

My 2016 had three seasons—the first of being a digital nomad, the second of working for a win-win collaboration with whoever I could, and the third of going my own way.

Being a digital nomad

Being out of the expensive and yet incredibly sketchy SF bay area was great. It gave me new perspective, a chance to be a beginner foreign language learner and a way to keep expenses down while investing in my own human capital.

Programming

Most of the programming I’ve done had been in JavaScript (or JS-based) and I’d done more front-end work than server-side work. So I decided to try again to learn Ruby on Rails. It didn’t go so well when I made the attempt as a non-programmer back in 2008, but this time (late 2015 / early 2016), I found it pretty easy. In fact it was so easy that I could build things more quickly than I had in Node.js (my previous server of choice)! It was definitely pretty gratifying given how supposedly uncool and out of date rails is.

I made a rails site to host the interviews I’d done with language learners. I made a basic app for estimating the size of a language learner’s vocabulary. I also got a webRTC video chat built, kind of like what Speaky has. It was pretty awesome. Rails wasn’t the ideal back-end for something with all the traffic that a free tool can bring, but it was enough of a start for me to validate the demand and start working on building something that could scale cheaply enough that it might be possible to give away for free.

Growth hacking

Early in the spring, strangely, both Google’s and Facebook’s recruiting teams reached out to me about engineering roles almost simultaneously. I was getting a bit low on savings and was seriously considering going for it. Though I wasn’t really looking for a job, both of those companies have fantastic engineering cultures and I have friends at both. As an added plus on Google’s side, maybe if I actually worked for them, I could get access back to my old YouTube account that got clobbered when they merged all the accounts into Plus 😛

But I really didn’t want to go back to the Bay Area and basically spend all of my time working to pay for a tiny $3500 apartment I don’t have time to live in. I asked both if they had anything available in Japan, Taiwan or Hong Kong and they said no.

So I started putting my skills at the intersection of engineering and marketing to work. I offered to help pretty much anyone I knew who was working on anything related to education. I ended up doing a mix of free work for free products I admired and paid work for a scaling US start-up that worked out well. During this time, I went into a burst of creative activity, journaling, writing ebooks, making LINE store stickers. It was fun, but in the back of the mind I could feel time slipping by. I also suffered a pretty bad injury.

Injury and doubts

Months of heavy computer usage, all on my Macbook Air took a fearsome toll on my wrist. Since laptops have connected keyboards and monitors, it means the monitor is always too low and the keyboard is always too high. The raised keyboard put stress on my wrist. The track pad was even worse. At first I just felt a bit sore after using the computer for several hours, but then my wrist started to hurt when I was just typing. A month later, it hurt to brush my teeth or unlock a door. I needed a stable home with a desk with a proper keyboard tray.

I also needed to work harder towards my mission. Why was it that after months, I’d made such a small contribution? A big part of it was a lack of financial security. Another was that I still hadn’t fully recovered from a painful personal betrayal suffered earlier in SF. Was I crazy to turn down offers from two A-list tech companies? Was I doomed to never succeed again after my epic transition from English cram school boss to being an engineer in respected silicon valley companies? Thoughts such as these were difficult to keep at bay for a few months.

Working with brick and mortar schools

One thing that I could definitely win at was building another English school in Taiwan. My last attempt had grown more quickly than any I’ve heard of any direct competitors doing in the area then or since. And back then I didn’t have a curriculum already written. I hadn’t made supplementary exercises for hundreds of readers. I didn’t have CDs full of recordings I’d made. Even more importantly, I didn’t have any real engineering or marketing skills back then. The incumbents in the market had barely changed in a decade wouldn’t have a chance against 2016 me!

But… building another school wouldn’t solve anything. I’d just be back where I was, serving only a lucky few people in my area who could afford it. For that matter, growing a school “really quickly for Taiwan” is still a snails pace compared to the growth of online schools or even language schools in China. I could easily spend years doing it and make only limited progress towards the larger goal. There had to be a better path.

Collaboration Attempt 1

I could offer my services to an existing school. I could help them both improve their curriculum and drastically improve the ROI of their marketing. I could provide such an unusual value to them as an experienced entrepreneur in their niche who also had a silicon valley tech and marketing background that there would be plenty of upside for both of us. I’d work with them, improve the outcome of their students and still earn enough to build an online platform for those who can’t afford English teachers.

It failed. I had little autonomy and no power at the school. They wanted me to teach and in theory wanted me to help with the curriculum, but it just wasn’t going to happen within a time frame that made any sense to me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that most language schools are a bit too old-school for me to have much of a chance. I can understand where they were coming from but it wasn’t a good fit.

Collaboration Attempt 2

I remembered two foreign-run schools in particular from when I was in Taiwan before been doing well when I’d left. Both had grown quite a bit, had branches in many cities and had reputations for pretty open management. I contacted them and tried a slightly different approach—I offered to be a business within their business.

Basically, in exchange for their administrative support, I’d offer some new classes with separate branding that would start from my previous curriculum and I’d incrementally build tech tools that both offered value to the classroom students and would be a path towards the online platform I’m building. I’d handle all of the sales and marketing. Any innovation that worked, they could use. I’d let them take a minority stake in the business and give them the right of first purchase so they could take it over when my online-only platform was self-sufficient.

Just as I was talking with these two schools, FB recruiting approached me again, and this time with an even better position on the growth engineering team. I was nearly broke after my recently failed collaboration and this team was working on very interesting things that I knew I’d love. I nearly abandoned the course and just moved back to California. But I didn’t. I just couldn’t.

One of the English schools got back to me and said no, they don’t do franchises or share equity in collaborations. The other school expressed interest, in principle, and was also interested in other tech and/or collaboration. I told Facebook no and went for it.

This collaboration also failed. I do believe there was some genuine interest in what I had to offer, but it was simply too far outside the scope of their normal operations and it probably wasn’t apparent just how large the potential upside was. Ultimately the business wanted to engage my services only as a teacher. While the rate was excellent for the Taiwanese EFL market, taking a job as a teacher in a school similar to the one I used to own and for a lower salary and less autonomy than I had even in 2005 would have been madness.

Building it myself

The managers of both schools I worked with were great people and I have respect for both their business sensibilities and their people skills. Given that there wasn’t a viable collaboration with either, I reluctantly set aside my plans of leveraging my domain expertise in brick and mortar language schools to help launch online efforts. I still feel that there was an potential path there, but I think the only way to have truly been credible to local entrepreneurs would have been to actually build another language school so they could see the results.

The next plan was to work part time doing whatever paid reasonably well and self-fund. I soon found an opportunity as an engineer at an Israeli-run tech start-up focused on language learning that seemed pretty cool. It would have paid more than even great teaching jobs in Taiwan and the founder was okay with me working four days a week, remote. I ran the idea past a couple of good friends. I’d been just about to go for it but they convinced me not to. Having seen my torturous path over the past half year, the made a compelling case to just throw all my effort into building the thing I believe in. I’d never be happy working full-time for someone else’s language learning company because it’s just too close to my heart.

Recent progress

  • raised a small amount of investment
  • opened a bank account in America (wow was that hard!)
  • gotten Amazon to give me a bunch of free AWS credits
  • rebuilt Lingsprout on a 50x more efficient tech stack
  • added basic social features
  • had many chats with the target market
  • reverse-engineered Twilio’s helpers to use their video product on this stack
  • abandoned Twilio because they raised their rates more than 100x
  • started testing market interest for a paid product to ensure survival without further investment
  • built to an email list of about 500

Serious problems remaining

  • lack of content
  • lack of users
  • a language learning site without the above isn’t useful
  • no credit/debit card from the back account causes enormous hassles
  • long-term visa situation

I’ve been aware from the beginning that there would be a network problem and that many of the things I could offer via software would have no value until getting a certain number of users. Where I’ve unexpectedly fallen short of my goals has been getting content.

I know a ton of businesses and people who have invested gathering or creating language learning content. I had expected it would be a fairly easy process to work out a licensing deal a new startup could afford, such as a revenue sharing or affiliate model. It wasn’t. After spending way too much time pursuing content deals, the one language learning company that agreed to license content didn’t actually deliver any. So, as soon as I’ve either finished building the paid product mentioned above or raised enough investment to ensure continued operation, I’ll start making content for English learners myself.

It’s rough working alone and having to do all the admin, coding and marketing, and there are a zillion different directions the product could go. There are a lot of paths this could take, but it will happen. That’s because I haven’t given up and I won’t give up until it’s built.

Plans for the next few weeks

  • add text chatting to the site (nearly ready)
  • launch sales page for paid product
  • figure out where I’m going to live

I’ve been incredibly frugal the past few months and for that I’m glad. However, revenue can still simplify a number of issues, including powering the development of more free features. The chat features should both help from a standpoint of helping me ask users their needs in real time and with selling.

The harder problem will be figuring out living arrangements. I don’t yet qualify for a start-up visa in Taiwan. There are a number of countries to consider, but nowhere else standing out as a clear winner. In terms of visa hassles, Vietnam is probably the best bet. Korea might make sense, too.

Lessons learned

Over the past year, I put so much effort into seeking mutually beneficial collaborations with everyone I encountered in the language space… and it was a waste. I tried to work with solo “language guru” entrepreneurs, I tried to work with huge tech companies, I tried to work with physical schools and I tried everything in between. Many times, there was a great potential for a win-win, but each time it went nowhere. This is despite the fact that, being driven more by mission than profit, I regularly offered the lions share of the gains from cooperation to the other parties.

I’ve always had a bias towards cooperation and seeking the benefits it can provide and perhaps that’s what made it take so long for me to realize that people don’t generally want to collaborate in business. Almost tautologically, people don’t know the value of the things they don’t know. They also don’t know how trust-worthy a potential collaborator is. More importantly, people place more value on potential loss than on potential gain. Finally, there’s a bit of plain old conservatism and laziness. It’s always easier to stick with the status quo and change nothing.

So here’s what I’ve learned: Friends mean the world and networking has value too, but actively trying to collaborate with a business isn’t nearly as worthwhile as I had thought.


Want to help? Comment below and tell me what’s hard about language learning and what resources you wish you had.

Years ago, I saw a disturbing blight spread across the web. The place that had once been my liberating and exhilarating teenage escape had changed. It was no longer dominated by academics, anarchists and teenagers. It was full of people people who trying to make money.
continue reading…

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?