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The internet is responsible for many positive human developments, such as cat memes, crying babies, and dogs on skateboards. You know, the important stuff. One other thing it has been responsible for is the rise of self-made entrepreneurs. The Donald Trumps without the bad toupées.
Before the internet, if you wanted to be an entrepreneur and earn a billion dollars, you had to open a brick-and-mortar business, spend a lot on advertising and inventory, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Now all you need is a well-designed website, a Paypal account, and a Twitter account (well, not literally only that, but you get the idea).
Here are 10 online businesses you can start, either for free or for very little cost. Just make sure my 10% online business consultant fee is in the mail, OK?
Let’s start with the consultant gig because let’s face it, it isn’t really that difficult. Anyone can call themselves a consultant of whatever subject they deem themselves an expert in. You could read the tabloid magazines and then call yourself a “society consultant.” You can get a nice photo of yourself in a suit and with a serious expression, smiling with your nice white shiny teeth and call yourself a “business consultant.” Really, this is the business where the saying “fake it ’til you make it” is very apt.
Two of the most popular consultant gigs are SEO (search engine optimization) and social media. However, there is a lot more to SEO than writing Google-friendly blog titles, and there is definitely a lot more to social media than updating your Twitter profile. These are subjects which should ideally be studied in-depth first. Otherwise, you’re just doing your customers a disservice.
It is now easier than ever to open and run your own online store. With WordPress plugins such as WooCommerce (which WordPress claims powers 37% of all worldwide online stores), and other platforms such as Shopify, you can be up and running before you know it. Shopify is not free, but if you have a compelling product that will sell well, the basic fee is not too much of a barrier.
Do you want to sell ebooks? There are WordPress plugins for that. Want to accept credit cards? As well as Paypal, you also have Stripe as an option. For security’s sake, you should purchase a secure HTTPS certificate from your web-hosting provider. If you use the Shopify platform, however, they include one with the package price. If your website runs through a CDN such as Cloudflare, they also provide one.
Then there are the third-party platforms such as eBay, Amazon, Etsy, and Craigslist, although the competition on these sites is fierce.
If you want to run your own site, and not have inventory lying around, consider working with a dropshipper; you’ll process the orders, and they’ll handle the merchandise. If you don’t mind inventory, but either don’t have the money to purchase it or you have no idea what to buy, then consider selling other people’s stuff on consignment; they’ll give you their stuff to sell, and you’ll take a percentage of the final sale.
There are two types of website out there in the world — well-designed ones, and shockingly badly designed ones. Thankfully, the well-designed ones seem to be in the majority, but when you have the misfortune to come across a bad one? Oh dear. Get the children indoors and cover their eyes.
There are so many programming languages out there but if you know any HTML, CSS, Ruby, or the new HTML5, then maybe you could offer your programming services to make a website or improve an existing one. Once again, WordPress comes to the rescue: it doesn’t only power blogs. It also powers actual static websites (it’s what I use for my own). It is also completely customizable with plugins and code.
Although there are many platforms powering the internet’s countless sites, WordPress powers half of them. That’s a lot of juice for one platform. Imagine if WordPress went down! It doesn’t bear thinking about.
In the pre-internet days, an entrepreneur’s assistant/secretary/coffee maker would be sitting in the front entranceway, ready to greet the high-powered businessmen walking through the door. Nowadays, those same assistants are doing the same job, except at home in their pajamas. It’s a brave new world.
With the rapid progress of video chatting, bosses can talk to their assistant as if they are in the same room as one another. Tasks can be emailed or sent as a chat message, and completed tasks are easily sent back. If the boss needs a flight or hotel room booked, that is easily done by going online.
The virtual assistant industry has exploded to enormous proportions, and the competition is fierce. So much so that you are likely to only be hired if you have previous experience.
Freelance Writer / Journalist
This is the category that I fit into, as I have been doing this gig on and off now for 27 years (12 of which have been online). I can tell you from experience that writing is very hard work, and finding assignments can be very tough. Content mills out there are churning out dreck, and are hiring people from poorer parts of the world to work for pennies on the dollar (or telling you that you are getting “exposure”).
But saying that, there are jobs to be found if you know where to look. First, MakeUseOf hires great writers intermittently, so keep an eye out for openings. Secondly, you can check places like ProBlogger, Craigslist, Funds for Writers, Writers Weekly, and Freelance Job Openings. You should also check out and subscribe to sites such as BloggingPro, CopyBlogger, and Make a Living Writing.
If blogs don’t float your boat, then how about writing a book and getting it published on Amazon Kindle? Some authors have reported big profits, due to the writer receiving a large percentage of each sale (as opposed to a traditional publisher who will take most of each sale for themselves).
Whatever niche you decide to pursue, you need a shiny website, social media accounts, published clips, and a talent for networking, because what counts more than anything in this business is contacts.
Remote Technical Support
When Grandpa downloads a massive virus-infected file, or Auntie Beryl can’t figure out where the on/off button is, is it you they always call upon to fix things? That might be because they don’t want to get an invoice for your time. You can stop that nonsense right now by setting yourself up as a Remote Technical Support Specialist, sending your relatives your business cards, and setting up a link to Teamviewer.
If you know anything about computers and fancy yourself as a bit of a fix-it guru, then give this a go. There are plenty of people, both old and young, that could use some help with their electronic devices. Your phone will soon be ringing off the hook.
Back in 2004, I actually did this job for a Dutch friend of mine. It involved having several Skype instances open at the same time, and when one of them rang, I would put on my professional tone of voice, check to see what company I was supposed to be representing, and then take messages (everyone was always “in a meeting”).
More and more companies are outsourcing their call centers, customer support, and switchboard operators to online independent contractors, so this is definitely a growth industry.
There’s no firm way for looking for this type of work. In the absence of contacts in the business, try making a list of possible companies using LinkedIn. Then email or phone each one, touting your services as their online switchboard operator. That would be my advice.
If you have a smartphone or even an updated version of Windows or Mac (in other words, not Windows XP), then you will know of the burgeoning app market. In fact, it has grown so large that it has been speculated that apps were responsible for the inglorious downfall of Yahoo.
If you have any knowledge of the programming codes that power apps — like Swift for MacOS and iOS, or Eclipse or Android Studio for Android — then you will be highly in demand. Every web service needs an app these days in order to stay relevant as more and more web users turn to mobile devices.
Or you could make your own apps (such as games) and sell them in the relevant App Store. But remember that Apple takes a hefty 30% of every sale, and sales are not guaranteed. You may have a good month followed by some dry ones. It might be best if you were to get a contract from a company to make one for them.
Online Courses & Tutoring
This is also something that I did back in 2005–2006 while I was still finding my way writing on the internet. Thanks to video platforms such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and Appear.In, it is easier than ever to sign up students from any part of the world and teach them in your specialist subject.
Being a Scotsman in Germany, my specialist subject was the English language, and there are plenty of desperate parents needing to get their kids through the English exam. Likewise, there are plenty of people whose job relies on them learning better English, and who better to teach them than a native speaker?
I had clients here in Germany, as well as France, Italy, Switzerland, and Russia. Payment is always upfront by Paypal, and cancellations were not possible 15 minutes or less before the start of the lesson. In other words, you need to run an efficient operation to avoid getting ripped off. If you need to send learning materials, you can send it through the chat platform, email, or cloud storage.
This can be a lot of fun, but be prepared for sulky kids who are being forced to participate by their “helicopter” parents hovering close by.
Like app sales, making any money from affiliate setups can be rather unpredictable. Making any serious money requires a lot of effort, patience, promotion and marketing, as well as choosing the right companies to hook your anchor to.
The most well known affiliate scheme of all is, of course, Amazon, and millions of people from all over the world have signed up for their affiliate program, making up to 10% on each sale. But make sure your website is finished and functioning before you apply, otherwise Amazon will turn you down. They want to see signs of activity, not a dormant site.
Equally well-known is Google Adsense, but quite often the quality of the adverts in Adsense is questionable. Adsense also approves each website application, and they can get quite picky at times. Another route to go is ClickBank, which is a large collection of affiliate schemes you can take part in. Some are good, while some are downright dodgy. Go carefully there, my young apprentice.
James has also previously written a guide on monetizing your WordPress site, but really it’s just a case of going to the websites of your favourite companies, and seeing if they run an affiliate scheme. For people to buy through your link, they need to be convinced it’s a great product, and your passion will only show if you genuinely love what you are touting.
So there you go: 10 online businesses you can get started in for free or for very little cost. Of course, there are many more to choose from, but that is why the comments are available — so you can educate us on your favorite get-rich-quick schemes!
Have you started an online business? How did you get started? What were the challenges you faced, and what advice would you provide on overcoming them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Image Credits: all attribution-free images, courtesy of PixaBay.