How to make money online in 4 (easy?) steps

Archie, Emma, get with the times…your friends are all writing malware scripts, and they’re KILLING it.

Last January, when we still had “proper” jobs, we spent a week’s worth of pre-work mornings writing about children’s party planning in Australia.

And carpet cleaning in Ohio.

And the role of states’ rights and federalism in the United States of America.

And a nail salon in Utah.

And dehumidification solutions in Canada.

In return we got paid $20, and it was probably the single most important step towards the location independent lifestyle we live today.

What a Utah nail salon taught me about making money online

I ran a PR company at the time and Mish did lots of copywriting and editing in her job, so through we offered to write press releases for $5 – just as an experiment in making money online.

(I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the states’ rights “press release” was actually some kid’s homework, but hey, $5 is $5.)

Even back then we knew that people on Fiverr weren’t disciples of William Zinsser and wouldn’t be too fussy as long as their keyword was inserted keyword along with its variations keywording every keywords few keyword words.

But we couldn’t sacrifice our art at the altar of keyword density, so we ended up crafting away and earning an hourly rate that’d make a Sri Lankan schoolchild raise his eyebrows.

It didn’t matter. We could make an offer online, and people we’d never met would give us money to perform a service for them.

4 steps to change your mindset

When you’ve been indoctrinated into believing that having “a proper job” is the only way to make money, realising that you can locate and persuade buyers online is pretty powerful stuff.

So when people say they want to quit their job to be location independent – but don’t know how to earn money – this is what I advise:

  • Find a platform where people who’re looking for your skills can find them
  • Make an offer
  • Do a few jobs, priced at whatever the market rate on that platform is
  • Work out how to get off that platform ASAP, and build your own platform to find your ideal customers

The lemonade stand model

This doesn’t, I admit, scream “screw you and your paycheque, The Man – I’m off to build my own empire!”

But think of it like a lemonade stand.

Gary Vaynerchuk and Ray Croc didn’t build VaynerMedia and McDonald’s as their very first forays into business. They started with a lemonade stand. They were selling a product with a known demand, making a bit of money, and learning business skills that would enable their eventual success.

They probably had a “wow, strangers are giving me money in return for something I made” moment too.

Running a lemonade stand isn’t glamorous, and nor is doing freelance work. You’d rather be building a software startup, or an ecommerce store, or your own information product. And you can still do all those things.

It’s just that while you might have the skills to create that software, or ecommerce store, or information product, you don’t have the the right skills or mindset to quit your job and earn money on your own.

If you want to learn those skills, and get to a position where you’re making enough money to replace your employment income as quickly as possible, this is how to do it.

OK, enough (lemonade) stalling: let’s break this process down:

1. Pick a platform

If you’re a writer or a designer or a programmer, there are countless platforms where you can be found by people who want your skills: there’s Elance, there’s oDesk, there’s Rentacoder and there’s Sitepoint.

On most of these platforms, low-cost labour in other parts of the world will have driven down the market rate for your skills to a fraction of what you need to pay your bills / satisfy your ego. Don’t worry about that right now.

What if your skills are less clear cut? Many of us work in jobs that have allowed us to develop what we could charitably call “soft skills” – meaning we can kind of get through life without being good at anything you can pin a name on.

Or maybe your skills are specific but tied to the physical world, like being a carpenter or driving instructor.

In those cases, you can use a very broad platform like Fiverr or Craigslist, and make an offer that’s unrelated to anything you’ve been paid to do in the past. We’ll come to exactly what your offer is next…

2. Make an offer

All business starts with making a specific offer to a specific group of people.

The art is in making your offer communicate what makes you uniquely able to deliver the result that the buyer wants.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Highlight what makes you unique in a way that matters. If you’re unique because you’re albino, that’s not helpful. But if you’re unique because you’re bilingual and can translate your own work into Spanish, that could be hugely valuable.

Niche it down. Like, a lot. Say you’re a web developer on Elance. Yeah, you and 101,568 other people (I just checked). But say you only offer to build Shopify-based websites for people selling t-shirts. Suddenly, for anyone selling t-shirts who knows they want to use the Shopify platform, you’re the only choice.

Sell results, not qualifications. Sorry, your degree might have put you in debt for the rest of your working life, but no one cares. Buyers are buying a result, so talk about what results you can achieve for people like them.

If you’re not sure what your skills are, you’ll be going down the Fiverr or Craigslist route. On those platforms, don’t shy away from making weird offers that have nothing to do with anything you’ve been paid to do in the past.

Presenting a weird offer in a compelling enough way WILL find you buyers. Seriously: if you can keep a secret, wear a hat or you have boobs, someone on Fiverr wants what you’ve got.

Remember, this is just getting your mindset straight – you don’t have to do this silly stuff for long.

3. Do a few jobs at the platform’s market rate

I won’t go into how best to win jobs on your chosen platform – just Google “[platform name] getting hired tips” and you’ll find plenty of great advice.

So let’s say you’ve got your first couple of jobs, and you’re now slogging your evenings away earning a pittance. Enjoy: you’re building the foundations of your future success!

It might not feel like it when you’re trying to drag out an article about “Kindle Fire for seniors” to 800 words, but this is a hugely valuable experience (and not just in the way my dad used to insist that everything I hated doing was “character building”):

You’ll get used to the madness of clients. Because someone you’d love to sit next to at a dinner party will turn out to have some kind of infuriating quirk when they become your client. They’ll change their mind endlessly, or make ridiculous suggestions, or insist on going through text changes word-by-word over the phone. This will always happen, and cheapskate clients who use these platforms are worse than most. So learn how to handle it now, and you’ll have earned your “could-always-become-a-hostage-negotiator” and “patience-of-a-saint” badges for the rest of your career.

You’ll learn about real and perceived value. In an office job, showing up at the correct time and not doing anything stupid is normally enough to remain employed. Not so when you’re a freelancer. You need to over-deliver every time, and you need to offer perceived value as well as real value. In other words, what matters most to the client might seem utterly trivial to you, but you need to get used to selling people what they want to buy.

You’ll experience the joy of being paid. You’ve offered to do something, and a stranger has taken your offer seriously enough that they’re paying you to do it. Sure, they’re paying you $5 and you’re dressed as Harry Potter, but c’mon people – “a journey of a thousand miles” and all that.

4. Build your own platform

You’ve learnt about making an offer. You’ve experienced the madness of clients, the importance of perceived value and the joy of being paid. You’ve possibly delivered a Valentine’s Day message dressed as a clown.

Now you want to make some decent money, doing something that excites you rather than just whatever anyone’s willing to pay you for.

That means you’ve got to get yourself the heck away from everyone else and build your own platform – fast.

Because on other people’s platforms, you’re being held back by two things:

  1. Your services are being listed alongside everyone else’s. This makes it extremely difficult to break away from the platform’s pricing norms.
  2. Your relationship with the buyer starts at the moment they decide to buy. This makes it a hard to build the trust that makes for a great relationship. With your own platform, your buyers can get to know you way before they even know they want to buy from you.

So, build your own platform, and keep these things in mind:

Seriously, niche it down

You don’t want to be competing on price. It’s miserable. We say this all the time, and we’ll keep saying it until everyone listens: if you can convince a very particular type of buyer that you’re the only person in the world who can solve their very particular problem for them, that buyer has to pay whatever price you ask for.

Also, your #1 problem with your own platform will be getting people to find it. The more you niche down, the easier it becomes for the right people to find you.

Your platform doesn’t have to be a blog

This make-up artist has adopted YouTube videos as his platform, and his videos have been watched 68 million times.

This company specialising in marketing for lawyers gets their business from podcasts.

There are people using Pinterest, LinkedIn and good old-fashioned email as their platforms. A blog is a good choice, but not the only one.

(Yes, building an entire platform on top of someone else’s platform isn’t the greatest idea, but that’s not the issue right now – and as James Schramko will tell you, you can have the best of both worlds.)

Your platform doesn’t have to directly relate to your service

Take our blog. Directly or indirectly, it’s been responsible for about 60% of our business during the last six months.

Even though it’s only tangentially related to what we do, it’s a way for people to find us, like us and trust us. We never set out for it to be that way, but it’s a nice side-effect.

Your offer can (and will) change over time

As you get a better idea of what your buyer wants – and indeed, who your buyer is – your offer will change.

Again, take us: we started by offering copywriting, then shifted into copywriting + web design, and now we’re shifting again into consultancy + copywriting + web design.

You won’t nail your perfect offer first time. As you make more offers, you’ll get better at identifying what people want – and articulating it in a way that overcomes their natural hesitation about buying.

You’ll spend more time working on your platform than on client work to start with – and that’s OK

Building a platform is hard. Creating great content is hard. Earning attention is hard.

Sometimes it’ll feel like you’re wasting your time – no one knows you exist, and you should be spending your precious hours taking whatever work you can get. I admit it – not that long ago I panicked and scurried back to Elance to take horrible $75 jobs because I lost faith that what we were doing could earn us decent money.

But it’s OK to take the time. Create something worthy of attention, and it will come.

You must do this

Companies were created to deliver solutions to problems – or, if you’re cynical, create perceived problems then solve them.

For many reasons, companies are becoming obsolete. There’s a shortage of jobs, but there’s no shortage of problems.

Your new job is to find a problem you can solve for a particular group of people. That problem might ultimately be solved through software, or a video course, or a physical product.

But to identify the problem, and build the skills you need to solve it, my process is the best way I’ve found to get started.

  • You’ll be earning money (albeit shitty money) from day one
  • You’ll learn about your industry, your customer, and yourself
  • You’ll have built a platform, so when you have your software/product/information solution, there’s an audience of people ready to buy it

OK, I’m throwing down the gauntlet now

Have you ever complained that you don’t know how to make money online?

Would you like to take your first step towards building an income to replace your job?

Are you just incapable of shying away from a challenge issued by some idiot on the internet?

OK, then here’s your challenge:

By 15 March 2013, I want you to earn $10 online – by any (legal) means necessary.

If you declare yourself “in” in the comments, you can ask questions about anything you get stuck on.

Sound good?

Now go!

  • Slaven Hrvatin

    I’m in. I’ll shoot for a hundred by March 15. :)

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      That’s fighting talk – I like it! What do you have planned to make the money?

  • Slaven Hrvatin

    I’ll use Elance to find clients and I’ll do WordPress blog setup, theme installation, and ebook layout – whatever sticks.

    I’ll stay away from SEO writing, even though I have experience producing heaps of meaningless articles (I think my daily record is 20). It’s soul-crushing.

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Yeah SEO writing isn’t much fun – I think the worst part is knowing that no one actually cares whether what you’re writing is any good. 500 words on “Kindle Fire for senior citizens” was a low point.

      Good luck with Elance – let us know how you get on!

  • Shanna Carson

    I love the straightforward way you explain how to make money online :)

    Yes, it’s definitely possible to make money online. The world is becoming a global village and you can now have customers from anywhere on this planet. I believe that we need time and hard work to generate a substantial online income. It does not come overnight. The harder we work, the earlier the possibility to make money. We should not jump into it thinking we’ll be a millionaire the next day. It’s not a ‘get rich quick’ scheme.

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Thanks for the comment Shanna!

      Yup, it’s weird that some people think they can start an “internet business” and become rich overnight, when they’d never dream of doing the same thing offline.

      It’s about learning a set of skills – and that takes time. The process in this post is a bit of a slog, but it can’t fail if you stick at it!

  • Pat

    Great. I have a site,, up and running but I’m not pushing it like I should. I’ve looked on elance and I see a $500 business plan project that I’m going to go for. I’ll try the fiverr thing for blog post and social media marketing.
    Thanks for the kick in the butt. Really appreciate it. You guys are awesome. I’ve only been following for a little while (referred by Adele at EscapeTheCity)- but I love what I’ve read so far.
    Shooting for $1,000 by March 15.

    Perhaps you could call this “Hamilton over Caesar” beware the Ides of March.
    $10 in 30 days.

    Thought you might like this post on fear, entrep, making the leap

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Wow Pat, you’ve raised the bar – we’ll be holding you to the $1,000!

      With, have you thought about turning it into an ebook and/or an online video course? Make some passive income, and upsell people to the in-person coaching at the same time.

      Start collecting emails in return for a free “The 5 not-so-obvious mistakes that mean an instant “no” from Ivy Leave schools” report, send an autoresponder every couple of days with really great free information, and slip in an invitation to buy the course or a coaching session every so often. Winner!

      By the way, loved your Taleb anecdote on your blog. I love his books, but the guy’s such a douche! Seem him speak a couple of times, but never had the guts to ask a question.

  • Paul Friar

    One good way of finding out how people sell themselves on sites like Elance is to read through previous job postings similar to the type of work you can do yourself and read through the profiles of those that were invited to apply for those job postings.

    If I ever have any skills worth posting on Elance or similar sites thats what I will do!

    Its a damn long time coming and plenty of hard work with it, but I truly believe anyone can eventually make money online if they have the right attitude and don’t keep on giving up every few months (like I always used to do!)

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Great point about Elance Paul! I also think that the magic is in the proposal…every time I post a job I get about 30 templated responses, so when someone takes the time to sound like a human and address my needs exactly, I take notice (and will pay more).

      And yup, anyone can make money online because it’s no different from making money offline – just gotta shake off the idea that there’s anything quick or easy about it!

  • ndayi

    Excellent post. It takes discipline, determination and focus.
    Just like money doesn’t grow on trees, one have to continually take action and try to stay ahead of the game.

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Exactly. Action beats inaction hands down!

  • Joe

    Great post! This makes a nice change to some of the other posts I’ve reading where you should never charge less than $XX per hour (for freelance writing).

    It’s good to hear a more realistic way of getting started.

    I’m at the ‘taking low paid jobs on odesk’ stage at the moment.

    I know I need to build my platform but need cash in hand now. This bit:

    “You’ll spend more time working on your platform than on client work to start with – and that’s OK”

    has spurred me on to get to work on my platforms.

    Just got to finish some more SEO articles first…

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Yeah it’s definitely possible to leapfrog all the low-paying stuff if you’re smart and you’ve got time to fail with a few different approaches first, but we started from the ground up and it worked for us!

      Doing crappy work while building a platform that everyone ignores to start with is tough, but it’s worth it when you get through it :)

      • Joe

        Christ, how time flies!

        Was just (re-)reading this and saw I’d already commented almost four months ago.

        Platform is a bit more developed now but still in the grind.

  • Alexander Joo

    Quickie exposition: I’m a graphic designer, writer and illustrator, reaaaalllly yearning and planning to permanently lead a digital nomad lifestyle in November (for the past 4 years, I’ve been traveling ~5 months per year — I just want to make it permanent, finally).

    On top of the small business ideas I keep launching (one will be a hit, damnit!), I plan to fund this lifestyle with my current design clients from North America, hence getting paid western rates while living in developing countries. Though I know there’s a big chance I’ll need to get more clients.

    This part of your post is what I fear the most:

    “On most of these platforms, low-cost labour in other parts of the world will have driven down the market rate for your skills to a fraction of what you need to pay your bills / satisfy your ego. Don’t worry about that right now.”

    So, fine, I won’t worry about that right now. But what happens when I need to worry about it later? What happened to you in this regard? Or did you just manage to stay out of the world?

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Hey Alexander! We dabbled in the soul-crushing Elance world, but got out of there as soon as possible – moving from point 3 to 4 above by building our platform on this blog.

      This post was aimed at those who’re working for other people and want to break out to do their own thing, so you’re in a bit of a different position: you know how to price yourself, deal with clients and convey your value.

      So I’d advise staying the heck away from Elance/99Designs etc. All you need to do is get more clients.

      Which is easy:

      1. Tell your current clients that you’re looking to take on more work, and explicitly ask for referrals. You’re probably not doing this anywhere near systematically or consistently enough. There’s no downside. Read “Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got” by Jay Abraham to get this drummed in.

      2. Do more awesome side projects to get noticed. Your fitness infographics site is brilliant, and I’d be surprised if you’ve not been offered work through it already. Jessica Hische ( is the queen of this model.

      Alternatively, forget getting more clients and just make more money from your existing ones: raise your prices. You’re not charging enough. I don’t know how much you charge, but it’s not enough. Relevant:

      That’s about all there is to it! From your portfolio it looks like you’re a brilliant designer, so don’t even think about doing shitty jobs for people who won’t value great design.

      Charging more money will get you higher quality clients, who’ll refer you to other quality clients, and if you have any downtime just focus on doing great work that exposes you to a new audience.

      Hope that helps – make sure you let us know how you’re getting on!

      • Alexander Joo

        Whoa — thanks for the tailored, relevant response!

        The weird thing is you’ll never, ever know how big the smile on my face got the more I read it. Christ, you even dug deep enough into my portfolio site to see what I’m doing with (and yes, it gets me more gigs — although the aim is to make more passive income).



        • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

          You’re very welcome – just come back and share your experiences as you go along :)

    • Tcat

      Yup. Don’t worry about it. Whatever you think you know, it’s probably:

      A. Wrong or
      1. Right (now) Wrong later.

      I have got some killer long term clients I met on Fiverr. Do good (as the kids here say). You will naturally draft up-stream to more complex tasks on a monthly retainer. — Really.

      I use my US citizenship (see the tax blog here), to be legal partner for one of my EU regular clients. Now all US booking can go through a US bank for him (no international transaction fees). The $100 annual minimum state corporate tax is a net gain over Paypal transaction fees alone.

      We use the completely free Wave Accounting on line for handling the LLC.

      The race to the bottom bloggers/coders become your cannon fodder for getting stuff out the door.

      There are many ways to approach this, Rob. You see the kids here has having built up to… I have almost always used the opposite approach!

      I don’t run ads. I don’t give out my phone #… I don’t give out my location (til after the fact – left).

      DO good work or really bad work and people talk about you.

      I 90% of my business comes from referrals. Has for the past 40+ years.

      • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

        Thanks for the comment! It sounds like your experiences over 40+ years validate the “just get started” approach: good client relationships can start anywhere (even Fiverr), and great work will lead you on to better things.

        I read recently that products that are being marketed are necessarily inferior to alternatives – because if they were any good, they wouldn’t need marketing. Doing great work then getting the majority of your business from referrals follows the same logic.

        • Tcat

          The # 1 rule is folks will brag about something really hot or bitch loudly about really bad.

          @ Fiverr I say: inquire first. Then I deliver in mail, and see what they think. IF they like it, place an order. IF not, we part ways as friends.

          My 2 thumbs down we’re from folks that we’re over the top (for whatever reason). I don’t ask them to be removed from Fiverr because I don’t want 100% rating. I am happy with a 99%. More realistic looking.

          A % of your Fiverr folks will find you on LinkedIn and rate you there as well… It just builds up if you really care and communicate!

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  • Lin

    Wow I like that article especially that you give a strategy what to do step by step. I guess most dificult steps are to find out which of your skills you can sell, to find a niche, just to find a subject you can make money with it online. Fiver already inspires. There are other ways to find out your niche? Maybe do you have a strategy to find your personal niche?

    • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

      Thanks Lin! This is the process we went through, so it’s not glamorous but we know that it works.

      You’re right – auditing what skills you have and how they intersect with what people will pay for is the hardest part of all.

      We dig into a process a little bit here: